The embrace of documentaries by popular culture is one of the most welcome trends of the past 25 years, even if Michael Moore isn't the guy you would have picked to lead the parade. Nobody uses the grammar school slur "educational films" anymore or regards nonfiction as the medicine of movies unpleasant but good for you. This has everything to do with the fundamental shift fueled by ubiquitous, cheap, small camcorders from documentaries as dry depositories of facts and context to dripping chunks of subjective experience. It's daunting, frankly, to contemplate just how many thousands of slivers of life are shaped into movies every year. The annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, or DocFest, sifts through the global haystack on our behalf, assembling a kaleidoscopic collection of unexpected viewpoints and odd angles from near and far. This year's program, its sixth, is a typically addictive mix of political turmoil, music prodigies, war stories, and faith expeditions. Our eye is drawn to Ghosts and Numbers, Alan Klima's evocative portrait of the lottery frenzy that has overtaken boom-and-bust Thailand. Alex Gibney, the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, turns his scorn on the bright boys and girls in the Bush Administration with Taxi to the Dark Side, an investigation into the death of an Afghan cabbie at the hands of American soldiers. Somebody tip off the Chris McCandless Fan Club (already in line for Sean Penn's Into the Wild) that filmmaker Ron Lamothe makes an even more personal connection with the ultimate Lost Boy in The Call of the Wild. But the creepiest film in the entire festival comes to us from Canada, of all places, where Gary Burns (waydowntown) explores the soulless lunacy of suburban sprawl outside his native Calgary in Radiant City. As for the love-him-or-hate-him poster boy of American political documentary, Michael Moore, he's the subject, the object, and occasionally the target of Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine's Manufacturing Dissent. You might say that Moore gets a taste of his own medicine.
DocFest opens today at 5 with Radiant City.
Sept. 28-Oct. 10, 2007