Dose of Reality

Scanning This Year’s Documentaries

Sometimes we peek into people’s bedrooms or their cultures. Sometimes the subject is funny, other times it is brutal. But documentaries also express the passion and prejudices of the filmmaker, which means that they can also be self-indulgent, too long, and even wildly disturbing. Good documentaries — like all good films — require good storytelling to work. They should challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions, but mostly they should get us thinking about important issues. Based on watching some of the documentaries (not made by Santa Barbarans) that will be shown at this year’s Film Fest, there are certainly films that fit all of these notions, good and bad.

The David Lynchian doc Plagues and Pleasure on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters, features a mad Hungarian revolutionary, a Christian nudist, martini-drinking land sharks, desolate towns, tons of dead fish, a dying café with a great waitress, and an offbeat artist who built — and lost — an art mountain. This wonderfully weird production ultimately frightens when the lens focuses on the doomed and polluted desert outpost and its once-alluring lake, the Salton Sea.

Fine documentary-maker Anne Makepeace — and former Santa Barbara resident (whom I know) — has written, produced, and directed another compelling, beautiful tale. Rain in a Dry Land follows the lives of two families from the Bantu tribe of Somalia as they assimilate to U.S. culture after leaving refugee camps in Kenya. It’s also about new generations, cultures being preserved — and lost — and a remembrance that America is a country built on immigrants.

Everyone of a certain age knows the ending to Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars, the sad story of the teacher who went to space, but never made it home. Hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the spaceship Challenger exploded after lift-off with seven dedicated astronauts aboard. This loving portrait of Christa McAuliffe is motivational, moving, and inspiring. This film should be in all libraries, schools, and shown on TV.

Actors and theater buffs will enjoy Special Thanks to Roy London, a love letter to actor/acting coach Roy London. Sharon Stone’s deathbed tale at the end almost makes it worth sitting through all the talking heads, from actors Brad Pitt, Geena Davis, Forest Whitaker, and Hank Azaria to playwright Lanford Wilson (London’s lover of three years) and actor/lover Tim Healey, of Santa Barbara. Why not more movie scenes?

Little Man could also be called “Save the Baby.” There’s no love like a mother’s love — and this is a mother’s worst nightmare. This is the very long story of little Nicolas, who was born 100 days early, from a surrogate mom, with a heart the size of a cashew and weighing in at less than one pound. Nicolas has two mommies (one of whom is the filmmaker), all the nurses and docs at Cedars Sinai tending to his health, and less than a .00004 percent chance of survival. You can root to let him go, or you can root for him to live. You may think you know your leanings — until you meet the cast. Not for the squeamish or pregnant.

Although the title of Three Women and a Chateau, the story of “Carolands” (built by the heiress to the Pullman train fortune in the early part of the 20th century in tony Hillsborough) is better suited as a souvenir one buys after a house tour. It’ll be of interest to history and grand house buffs or those intrigued by how some people with too much money spend it and flaunt it. Additionally, there are sports docs (see To The Maxxx sidebar page 35); wine/drug flicks (From Ground to Glass — see page 57 — about winemaking; and Meth, about crystal methamphetamine use within the gay population); music docs (Who Is Harry Nilsson [And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him]? and Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out); one about the poker trail; animals (including Guatan, a 14-minute short about training polo ponies in Argentina); the Nazi death camp story Belzec; Bozo Texino (shot during 10 years to document the secret life and language of transients); even a few more that I invariably missed, including several I’m most anxious to see, including King Leopold’s Ghost (about colonial Africa) and Willie Francis Must Die Again (about capital punishment in Louisiana). It’s gonna be a busy 10 days, just on docs alone.

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