Perhaps it’s the eight years of the Bush administration, maybe it’s the floundering American economy, or it could be the inspiration of new president Barack Obama. But whatever the reason, this year’s slate of documentaries is more globally aware and socially concerned than ever.
“It’s really diverse. The docs cover a wide range,” said programmer Candace Schermerhorn. “There are quite a few social justice issues, but it seems that these days, a lot of the films coming in are issue-driven.”
There are 40 documentaries in the festival this year, 12 of which are in competition. Here’s a cheat sheet:
Yes Madam, Sir: Soon to be the first documentary ever to get a theatrical release in India, this portrays Kiran Bedi, India’s first and highest-ranking female police officer who’s fought corruption since 1972 and is widely known as the modern-day Gandhi. Narrated by Helen Mirren, Megan Doneman’s exhaustive, sometimes comical doc follows Bedi for six whole years.
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: This music-soaked doc tells the story of Johnny Cash and his involvement in the lives of prisoners, all revolving around his groundbreaking 1968 concert at the maximum-security prison. It centers on Glen Sherley, a prisoner inspired and encouraged by Cash, but whose failure gives insight into Cash’s legacy.
War Against the Weak: Eugenics, the “science” of making more fit humans, has given us the IQ test, SATs, and the Holocaust. This doc tells its frightening history in vivid detail, and features some innovative storytelling techniques. (WORLD PREMIERE)
The Music Lesson: An examination of learning, this doc follows 10 students from the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra who travel to Africa to exchange musical training with young Kenyans, who’ve learned how to play music from their elders like generations before them. (WORLD PREMIERE)
The Oasis: Telling the story of the Oasis Youth Support Network, this is a profile of homeless teenagers in Australia, where 22,000 kids go without shelter every night. The film’s protagonist, Captain Paul Moulds, is a savior for many of them. (AMERICAN PREMIERE)
Automorphosis: The “art car”-any vehicle enhanced with creative elements-is a booming trend right now, and this doc goes deep into that wacky world. Produced by an art car junky, we meet the many faces behind wheel, and it’s a whimsical ride indeed. (WORLD PREMIERE)
Art & Copy: From George Lois’s “I Want My MTV” to Wieden+Kennedy’s “Just Do It,” this doc tells the history of American advertising, an industry that will top $500 billion by 2010. Featuring backstories to famous campaigns (including “Got Milk?”) and interviews with everyone from billboard installers to the biggest names in the biz, this presents a thought-provoking look at the estimated 5,000 advertising messages city dwellers consumer on any given day.
Inventing L.A.: Few realize how integral the Los Angeles Times-and the Chandler family, who owned it for decades-was to the development of Southern California. That will no longer be the case thanks to this fascinating and thorough film, which follows the Times and its influence throughout the 20th century. Many current and former Times staffers will be on hand for the January 24 screening. (WORLD PREMIERE)
Rescuing Emmanuel: The filmmakers were planning to make a doc about street kids all over the world, but were enraptured by Emmanuel on the streets of Nairobi, who accosted them while huffing glue. With Emmanuel as a guide, the filmmakers end up with a more engrossing examination of street kids than they could have ever hoped for.
Pirate for the Sea: Few environmentalists are as notorious as Paul Watson, a founder of Greenpeace and current captain of the militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which attacks whalers and illegal fishermen across the globe. This is an intimate biographic look at the modern day eco-hero.
Milking the Rhino: This investigative look at the intersection of wildlife conservation, indigenous people, and white tourism in Kenya and beyond brings up important questions and interesting answers as to what are the best management practices for the African landscape.
Megamall: In the works for more than a decade and tapping more than 60 hours of footage, this film follows the construction of a massive mall on top of a toxic dump in West Nyack, New York, and shows the power of corporations over an active and angry citizenry. (WORLD PREMIERE)
Although the rest of the documentaries aren’t entered in the competition, they’re certainly worthy of your consideration. Some are already critically praised, some have Santa Barbara connection (but aren’t in the official S.B. Filmmaker sidebar), and some will be screened with special guests.
Three documentaries being shown at SBIFF 2009 are short-listed for an Academy Award: Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the story of the thousands of Liberian women who fought the country’s warlords with T-shirts and silence and ended their civil war; They Killed Sister Dorothy, about a nun from Ohio named Dorothy Stang, who was working to save the Brazilian rainforest when she was mysteriously killed in the Amazon; and Blessed Is the Match, which recounts the life and death of Hannah Senesh, who led the only military rescue mission to save Jews during World War II.
The docs with Santa Barbara ties include: After the Last Round, by former UCSB student Ryan Pettey, an emotionally stirring look at the damage that happens to boxers and what they must deal with after the final bell is rung; The Brothers Warner, by Cass Warner Sperling, who grew up in Santa Barbara, is about her grandfather Harry Warner and his brothers, who were the first independent filmmakers; The Invocation, by Santa Barbara resident Emmanuel Itier, explores notions of God and pushes for world peace; and Speed & Angels, an inside look at the Navy’s famous Top Gun jet fighter program by Peyton Wilson, whose father lives in Montecito.
As for special guests, how about Beach Boy Brian Wilson? He’ll participate in a Q&A after the January 30 world premiere of the film Going Home, which is about his return to Capitol Records to make his new album That Lucky Old Sun.