Although the mainstream movie industry has widely opened its doors to documentaries in the past decade, film festivals are still the best place to see these realest of reel stories. SBIFF always presents a vast and varied collection of docs, and 2008 is no different. There are more than three dozen of them, and while 13 are highlighted as part of the doc competition and 10 others are labeled “Real-Markable Stories,” many more are hidden in the festival’s various sidebars. The projector’s light, it seems, won’t be setting on docs for the next 10 days.
Candace Schermerhorn, who programmed the documentaries this year, calls the collection “pretty outstanding.” A documentary filmmaker herself, Schermerhorn explained, “Docs are getting a lot more attention, and the storytelling is stronger. They’ve become very dramatic, dynamic, and informative.”
As for the breakdown of which docs are where, she said, “The films in the competition, they stood out as stories, and they stood out in their approach. We felt they were either important or just fascinating.” The new Real-Markable category contains films that have already, in Schermerhorn’s words, “made it,” including some being shortlisted for the Oscars. All of these are indeed remarkable, but make sure to catch Autism: The Musical, an endearing piece on autistic kids and their enduring parents; Body of War, Phil Donahue’s expose of the painful toll of the Iraq War on veterans; My Enemy’s Enemy, about how the West helped one of the worst Nazis; and, for some levity, D Tour: Tenacious D(ocumentary), which follows Jack Black and Kyle Gass through the highs and lows of their shtick-y rock band. Of the many docs hidden in other corners of the fest, Schermerhorn is directing special attention toward the Latino Cinemedia package, which includes Soy Andina, The Man of Two Havanas, and the amazing Stranded, the true story of the Uruguayan plane crash in the Andes that prompted the hit film Alive.
As for the films in competition, here’s a complete rundown:
Dreams of Flight: Years ago, Sven Johansson left the city to live in the icy Lapland wilderness, becoming an expert on reindeers and melting ice caps. When civilization began creeping in on his outpost, he returned to Victoria, British Columbia, and invented, without any prior experience, aerial choreography. His bizarre, shape-shifting life gets the full treatment here.
Garbage Warrior: Why would government bureaucracy try to hold back a man hell-bent on building homes sustainably? That’s the central question at the heart of this eye-opening, inspiring doc about architect Michael Reynolds, who’s been building energy-independent “Earthships” near Taos, New Mexico, for decades. He’s trying to save the world, but New Mexican politicians would rather chastise than support. This follows Reynolds’s ongoing battle to build better.
In the Company of Actors: If you’re an aspiring actor or director, this is the doc for you. Never before has the making of a play been revealed for all to see, and in this case, we get to see the behind-the-curtain workings of great actors Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving and acclaimed perfectionist director Robyn Nevin putting Hedda Gabler onstage. Certainly not for those who don’t like theater, however.
Circus Rosaire: File this one, about a family circus on the ropes, under modern-day tragedy. As the big tent goes the way of vaudeville, it seems the kids don’t want to see lions and tigers and bears anymore. The Rosaires are trying to keep their circus afloat-and keep food in the mouths of their chimps and horses and assorted beasties-but might just have to start an animal sanctuary instead.
One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story: On the verge of his 50th birthday, a drunk, womanizing, and sex-addicted Albert Wagner finds God-and painting. This doc traces that path to the present day, with Wagner an octogenarian and his family members bluntly honest about the reverend. His art-covered house/church, located in a crack-dealing ‘hood of Cleveland, is a wonder all its own.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Untitled Documentary: Centered around the filming of the music videos “Dani California,” “Tell Me Baby,” and “Hump De Bump,” this musical doc gets inside the heads of Flea and his Pepper cohorts as they hang out in Hollywood. All these years together, and they’re still having a blast.
The Sky Below: Not enough Americans know anything about partition in India, when the subcontinent was divided into India, Pakistan, and what would eventually become Bangladesh in the 1940s. This is a thorough lesson, told in an eclectic way, which also uncovers the human toll of that mass movement of people.
A Snowmobile for George: Corruption in the Bush White House is almost cliche by now, but Todd Darling presents a comedic yet complete indictment here, towing his two-stroke snowmobile into America’s most poignant eco-battles on his quest to find out why the government is making so many pro-business, anti-human decisions. Preferring hokey pluck over political preachy-ness, Darling’s method should connect with both lefties and conservatives.
Sputnik Mania: After the U.S.S.R. launched its secretly developed satellite Sputnik in 1957, the space race was on in earnest. But so was the hysteria in America, from the White House to the schoolhouse, as everyone wondered when the Russians were going to attack and how the supposedly superior United States had faltered. The chaos is on full display here in this historical remembrance, which is exhaustive in its use of archival footage.
Up the Yangtze: Perhaps the most controversial and massive engineering feat in recent decades, China’s Three Gorges Dam affected millions. This film follows one family’s reaction, which includes sending off a daughter to work on the luxury cruise liners that now rule the Yangtze.
When Clouds Clear (Despues de la Neblina): Exploitation of the natives seems like status quo for mining companies who work in the Developing World, and this doc uncovers just what happens when copper miners try to take over the mountains around Jun-n, Ecuador. The threat isn’t just environmental, it’s personal, and this gets inside the community to show the viewer why.