It’s easy to get your head lost in the clouds during a festival packed with so many stars, so many creative internationally produced feature films to watch, and so much to learn from panels stacked with esteemed professionals. But there’s also no annual event in Santa Barbara better suited for those who want to remain grounded in the realities of the modern age, as SBIFF’s slate of documentaries always brings the pleasures and perils of the planet to our doorstep. Whether you’re a fan of jazz music, an activist focused on Asia, or just someone who enjoys a colorful peek into the lives of animals, there’s a little something for everyone to love at SBIFF 2010.
What follows is a rundown of the documentaries I managed to watch over the past week, organized by interest. It is by no means a comprehensive list nor necessarily a definitive take on this year’s best. But it shares a little about what I witnessed on my small screen so that you can decide the best way to spend your time looking at these films on the big screen. Happy fest-ing.
Animals and Nature
A Murder of Crows: Just how smart are these omnipresent black birds? Frighteningly so reveals this enlightening, research-based look at the genus Corvus. The 52-minute film, which is a perfect for PBS’ Nova series, follows the latest research — some of it funded by the Department of Defense — to show how crows can recognize human faces for up to two years and pass that information onto their young. The birds memorize truck routes in Canada, bend clothes hangers into nests in Japan, use tools in New Caledonia, and, across the globe, speak in different dialects for large groups and nuclear families. They even mourn the dead. Though this doc paints the crows in an endearing light, it’s also not hard to find them creepier than ever.
The Elephant in the Living Room: Exotic animals are all the rage, but this film uncovers the sad story of what happens to big cats, scary snakes, and manic monkeys when their owners can’t handle them. Centered around the saga of exotic animal catcher Tim Harrison and African lion owner Terry Brumfield — whose lion pair is full of surprises — the film takes us inside the places where these animals are for sale, and interviews both those who love their dangerous beasts and those who fear for everyone else’s safety. It also takes a hard look at the lack of legislation for such creatures, and shows the environmental impacts of escaped and intentionally released species.
Honeybee Blues: Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re probably aware that the world’s honeybee populations are dwindling. That’s bad news for us humans, since the bees pollinate pretty much most of the fruits and nuts we eat. Though much is made of the mysteriously named colony collapse disorder, Australian researcher Dennis Anderson believes the European bees downfall is almost entirely tied to a blood-sucking mite he named Voroa destructor. This doc follows Anderson from his home in Australia and into Papua New Guinea — the world’s last two places where Voroa has yet to attack — as well taking us to California’s Central Valley, where almond orchards have been rather hard hit by the vanishing bee. Of course, it’s pretty much the humans fault that we got this way, but Anderson is working on ways to help dig us out of yet another environmental hole.
Charlie Haden Rambling Boy: Jazz bass will never be the same thanks to Charlie Haden, who backed up such luminaries as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. This is the definitive take on Haden’s life and legacy, and an intimate look at how one man’s passion for playing infected all those around him. And Haden’s still got the bug, so he’ll be attending the premiere of the film at the February 6 screening.
The Legend of Stuart Mossman: Right around the time that guitars started to become as mass produced as Big Macs, one man stood up against the assembly line and used his own hands to craft the world’s best bluegrass guitars. That man was luthier Stuart Mossman, and this doc tells his story through the words of his Kansas-based family and biggest fans, from late actor David Carradine to fiddle legend Byron Berline. Mossman was a funky fellow—“who drycleans their blue jeans?” asks a familymember—and this is a fittingly emotional tribute.
The Monk and the Mermaid: Charles Lloyd’s Song: Santa Barbara’s greatest living jazz legend is Charles Lloyd, but it’s a French filmmaker who takes an overly artistic look at his impact on jazz and the world at large. Amidst plenty of concert footage and interviews with bandmates, we also get plenty of Lloyd’s monkishly ponderous thoughts. But it doesn’t just involved Lloyd, instead bringing in the artwork of his wife, the mermaid, as well.
Art and Architecture
Learning from Light: The Visions of Im Pei: Vast and ambitious are both too weak of words to describe Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who is profiled here in a sweepingly serious study of a man’s life of work. By hearing how the 91-year-old Pei took eight long years to design the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, we get a glimpse at his considerable process and meticulous intellect. And a soundtrack by Yo Yo Ma never hurts.
Desert of Forbidden Art: This story of how Igor Savistsky stashed more than 44,000 censored Soviet Union paintings into the Nukus Museum is a hidden corner of Uzbekistan — technically Karakalpakstan — is a portrait of defiant vision blended with tremendous contemporary art. In viewing the collection, it’s no overstatement to say — as did New York Times reporter who stumbled upon the museum after the fall of the USSR — that an entire chapter of art history should be rewritten due to these works. They are cultural treasures from a land that did its best to do away with individualism, and this film does Savistky, who died in 1984 due to years of using toxic cleaners on silver artworks, true justice.
How to Live Forever:This quirky and caring examination of old age, how to fight against it, and — perhaps most of all — how to accept it with grace is directed by and starring Mark Wexler, the son of cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Spurred into considering his own mortality by the decline and death of his mother, Wexler dives into the longevity movement, from cryogenics to basic exercise, and even attends an undertaker’s convention. It’s an eye-opening, hilarious, and fun take on the most serious of subjects. Required viewing for all who plan to grow old one day.
Last Train Home: Each Chinese New Year, the world’s biggest migration occurs as Chinese laborers take trains from the big cities, where they work in manufacturing, back to their home villages in the countryside. This doc is a methodical, ponderous, and deeply personal look at how this modern Chinese reality affects one such family, examining the temptations of the big city against a backdrop of the rural peace and tranquility. It’s also a critique on how hard it is to get a train in China these days.
Fighting for Rights
In the Land of the Free…: An exhaustive, archive-spanning investigation of three wrongfully convicted black prisoners in Louisiana’s notoriously brutal Angola prison and their fight for freedom. When one of the men gets out, he turns it into his life goal to free the other two, who were thought to have killed a prison guard 37 years ago. They’ve been in solitary confinement since, and this doc, which is narrated by Samuel Jackson, uses telephone interviews with them as well as insight from former wardens, current attorneys, and the prisoners’ family members to tell the whole story.
8: A Mormon Proposition: An emotionally and informationally charged investigation of how the Mormon Church secretly funded California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Starting with the joyous day in which thousands of gay couples joined hands in marriage, this doc — narrated by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black — reveals just how diabolically the Mormon Church acted to eliminate this right for same-sex couples. If you thought that Mormons were kinda scary before, this shows how much they’ve inserted themselves into national conservative politics.
Two Spirits: The Navajo have always held a special place for gay people, but that respect is dwindling in today’s homophobic world. That shift is examined here via the murder of a teenage boy-girl, who was brutally killed by a young man high on drugs boasting to his friends that he squashed a fag. This touching tear-jerker looks at other Native American cultures where gays are traditionally accepted into a certain societal role, and how those people are also affected by a modern anti-gay agenda.
When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun: A thoroughly updated explanation of the Tibet versus China situation as seen through the eyes of exiled Tibetan students. It’s stunningly shot in Tibet and beyond, enhanced with jaw-dropping archival footage, and sonically enhanced by the songs of Damien Rice, who will perform at the February 7 screening. A perfect starting point for those who’ve never heard of freeing Tibet, but also a great update on the current situation for those who’ve long followed the cause.