SF Docfest

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Eccentric subjects are on the menu in the ninth SF DocFest, a two-week-long documentary film festival that plays at the Roxie Theater. DocFest offers a range of films that, despite their oddness, feel surprisingly relevant. There are the sungazers in "Eat the Sun," who stare at the sun to search for deeper meaning and a connection with nature. There's "Dreamland," which examines Iceland's economic turmoil, as well as its beauty, set to a multitude of Bjork tunes.

But the Festival also sports a more serious tone. In "Miss Landmine," the Cambodian government tries to stop a beauty pageant that draws attention to women who have lost their limbs to landmines. One film, "The Spirit Molecule," even visits the topic of hardcore drugs, via latter-day DMT takers.

Fortunately, there's a hopeful tone that runs throughout DocFest. Take Chris Sand, aka Sandman the Rappin' Cowboy, who, even though he isn't particularly good, nevertheless goes on tour and gives us a glimpse of rural Americana. People like Sand and the sungazers prove that there's a bit of eccentricity in each of us. At DocFest, what seems ordinary is really quite extraordinary.

-Max Siegel

THE SPIRIT MOLECULE, DIR. Mitch Schultz

After a violent public reaction to trip-inducing drugs in the late 1960s, studies on drugs' effects on the brain dried up due to lack of funding and "legitimate" interest. After decades of inaction, Rick Strassman, Ph.D. conducted tests on human subjects with dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is found in many plants and in trace amounts in humans. Oh, and it happens to be a powerful makes-shrooms-look-like-child's-play hallucinogen. "The Spirit Molecule," based on Strassman's resulting book, begins in exposition. Once the CG-animated drug-trip models fly at you full force, and the breathless accounts of the test subjects add to the film's pace, you can't help but be swept up in what functions well as a DMT advert.

The film allows a range of voices to speak to the drug's significance, including Rabbi Joel Bakst, who claims the drug facilitates the entering and exiting of the soul into and from the body. For either connoisseurs or those who trip vicariously, the film boasts a fascinating peek into the world that Gaspar Noe attempts to convey in "Enter the Void."

-Hayley Hosman

MISS LANDMINE, DIR. Stan Feingold

Directed by Stan Feingold, "Miss Landmine" crafts a poetic vision of the persistent repercussions of warfare and more specifically of the ongoing pain that travels through life with victims of landmines. It is not just about the misfortune of stepping on the wrong land at the wrong moment. Rather, it is about facing the aftermath of a tragic instant and confronting everlasting discrimination.

The documentary explores the development of the Miss Landmine Project, a beauty pageant for women who were amputated after landmine explosions. Some people may find such a project to be yet another disdainful, objectifying scheme against women. The Cambodian government sure seems to agree, barring the project from further advances. Yet, the essence of this expedition is quite the opposite and strives to push people to redefine their perception of beauty. Morten Traavik, the creator of the project, simply summarizes the dominant beauty standards that the Miss Landmine Project tries to dispel by paraphrasing George Orwell: "Two legs, good. One leg, bad."

"Miss Landmine" is a voyage in the lives of women who saw their existences and hopes shattered in an instant. More importantly, it is an ode to peace and to the profound beauty that resides in each and every one of us. It is an optimistic cry to the world, which transcends the boundaries of conventional beauty and denounces the barbarity of humankind. Feingold's reportage combines humor and compassion to uncover a controversial yet laudable mission and to usher collective action in the hope that, one day, as one of the pageant's participants says, we will collaborate with one another to "make peace grow like a flower."

-Charlene Petitjean

AMERICAN MYSTIC, DIR. Alex Mar

Journalist and video artist Alex Mar finds poetry in pastoral America with "American Mystic," a chronicle of three people in search of alternative religion. With languid cinematography and an ethereal score, the film follows the lives of Morpheus, Kublai and Chuck.

Morpheus is a pagan priestess in California who identifies as a witch, and Kublai is a Spiritualist medium who channels spirits in the skulls of geriatric women. Meanwhile, Chuck is a Lakota Sioux pursuing tradition at the reservation while living a double life in town to support his family.

Despite their seemingly outlandish faiths, these people are not as fanatical as you'd expect. Morpheus, Kublai and Chuck are ordinary people seeking meaning outside the black-and-white belief systems imbued in the American consciousness.

Mar wants us to see that her three subjects are very much like us. They certainly don't want to leave America but rather, they want their beliefs to coexist with the myriad popular religions in the United States without leaving the country. "American Mystic" is surprisingly patriotic but not in the traditional sense of the word.

-Ryan Lattanzio

DREAMLAND, Dir. T. Gudnason/A. magnason

Ah. Sweet, shivering cold Iceland. Motherland of weird stuff and aluminum? With plenty of operatic landscape shots set to the tunes of Bjork - because, aside from "geyser," Bjork is the only Icelandic word we know in the west - "Dreamland" is the "Planet Earth" of movies about Iceland. The film examines people and place with a sociologist's glance, sometimes lingering on a pasture or a fjord. Some of these images suspiciously resemble Bjork's "Joga" video.

Iceland is known as a friendly, pretty place where you can admire the pink-footed goose in peace, but "Dreamland" complicates that notion. Despite its use of geothermal energy, Iceland overproduces like mad. Since the late 20th century, the country has increasingly exploited its resources for aluminum production. One interview subject calls the island nation "a mountain of excessive butter, meat and electricity."

While directors Thorfinnur Gudnason and Andri Snaer Magnason look disapprovingly toward their government with arms akimbo and eyes askance, they never sacrifice the objective beauty of their country in an otherwise subjective profile.

-Ryan Lattanzio

FAMILY AFFAIR, Dir. Chico David Colvard

Chico David Colvard's "Family Affair" stakes its claims in the title: It's a private matter into which Colvard opens a window, allowing us to look inside but only to be shut out 80 minutes late, our fingers still on the windowsill. Above all else, it's about a man finally getting to know his family after the fact. After the very horrifying fact.

It's best to enter this "Affair" tabula rasa. Virtually a stranger to his own family, Colvard traces a trespass of bloodlines dating back decades, even centuries. Though he works with the stock material of amateur documentaries about familial reconstruction (interviews, home video footage) the film moves like a thriller.

"Family Affair" shares interests with Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" (2003), but Colvard hits deeper, gutsier notes simply because he grew up with these people. He is always level with his audience: Like us, he tries to understand how after everything, his three sisters can still love the father who molested them. "It's like you're just coming in at the end of the movie," one of Colvard's sisters tells him, as if he may be too late to make sense of it all. Simply put? An unforgettable film.

-Ryan Lattanzio

THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS, DIR. ALEXANDRE O. PHILIPPE

George Lucas is a sellout. A studio hack. A racist. All of these criticisms that have cropped up since "The Phantom Menace" may be valid, but they're not all that new. Still, "The People vs. George Lucas" is an amusing take on the way diehard "Star Wars" fans quickly turn on the man they adored for so long. Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe plays dozens of fan-made videos that reflect the collective creative passion that goes into one cause. This is a contradiction that's fleshed out near the film's end: These creations and merchandise in themselves help to sustain the "Star Wars" franchise, even while the fans cry foul about the "remastered" DVDs that make Greedo shoot first. As a child, I even had a set of X-Wing and Millennium Falcon bed sheets.

Dozens of talking heads a few too many wonder where Lucas went wrong. It boils down to "Star Wars" bringing Lucas to the Dark Side, as a businessman rather than a filmmaker. With the recent news that Lucas is going to re-release each of the "Star Wars" movies in 3-D, fans now have even more reason to revolt en masse.

-Max Siegel

EAT THE SUN, DIR. Peter Sorcher

Every day, as the sun begins to dip below the San Francisco horizon, Mason Dwinell ascends a bucolic little peak, takes off his shoes, plants his bare feet in the soil and stares straight into the sun. He's an avid adherent to a movement called sungazing. Eschewing all of mothers' stern warnings, sungazers claim that this ritual provides spiritual grounding. And some, including Dwinell, even say it gives them all the physical nourishment they need to sustain themselves.

"Eat the Sun" documents Dwinell's attempt to forgo eating altogether. It also examines his strained relationships. The eyesight damage wreaked by sungazing, Dwinell's encounters with fellow sungazers, expert interviews, twist endings, historical background and other branching topics all briefly figure into the story. Which gets at the main problem with Peter Sorcher's film - it crams way too much into 79 minutes. Without enough time for viewers to sit with what's being hammered into them, nothing really resonates.

Other unfortunate decisions blunt the film's potential. The animated segments seem like something straight out of public-access television and the cutesy indie soundtrack severely cheapens sungazing's weirdness. However, these questionable features can be forgiven in light of the film's fascinating subject.

The best moments in "Eat the Sun" are the meditative shots of sungazers engaging in their beloved ceremony. They stare hypnotically at orangey sunsets, faces glazed over like zombies, pupils contracted to pinpoints, tears trickling down the wrinkles of their upper cheeks. If the camera were somehow turned to us, the viewers, we'd probably look just as transfixed, mesmerized by the oddness of what we as humans are willing to do in our desperate search for meaning.

-David Wagner

ROLL OUT COWBOY, DIR. Elizabeth Lawrence

Dunn Center, North Dakota can be a pretty dull place unless you run into Chris Sand, aka Sandman the Rappin' Cowboy. Sand is a little out of place in his small town of approximately 122 residents. He isn't a particularly good musician, but he makes up for it with a huge heart and an eagerness to bridge divides. "Roll Out Cowboy" could have been one of those documentaries that's more interesting in concept than in execution. Thanks to Sand, the film matures into an overarching view of rural America.

During the 2008 election, Sand goes on tour with the electronic/hip-hop duo Moustaches, playing for tiny crowds in tiny bars in Iowa, Montana and Washington. "This is the end-of-America tour," Sand says, noting the deterioration of small towns. We learn about some of the country's divisions after a crowd turns hostile when he says the word "gay" in a song and then learn that Sand's aunt came out to him. The biggest challenge for Sand is performing in Dunn Center's abandoned auditorium. Sand succeeds, but his friend looks at him incredulously when he says, hopefully, that the auditorium "could be the music capital of North Dakota."

-Max Siegel

SEX MAGIC, MANIFESTING MAYA, Dir. E. Liebman/J. Schell

Most of us didn't need to study tantra to discover the magic of sex, but then, most of us didn't try to merge our inner feminine and masculine while simultaneously realizing our dreams and desires at climax. "Sex Magic, Manifesting Maya" chronicles Baba Dez, aka Desert, in both his profession of sacred sexual shaman and his pursuit of Maya, a fellow practitioner. While Dez seeks to heal women with sexual baggage through the act itself - Dez spoons with Lynn, who attributes her obesity to having been molested as a child - many in the sexual healing profession see Dez's work as manipulative because: He uses his cock.

The personal gain that Dez gets while working with clients is problematic for his peers, and also for his girlfriend Maya, who leaves Dez because she can't deal with the "between 1000 and 2000" women he's supposedly slept with. Surprisingly for a film about sex, "Sex Magic" fails to end with a climax. While the personalities of the people on screen remain engaging, the film seems pulled between the man and the sex world, ultimately unresolved due to the illegibility of Dez, even behind his professional rhetoric.

-Hayley Hosman

OC 87, DIR. Bud Clayman

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that in any given year about 23 percent of people can be diagnosed with a mental disorder. Even more harrowing, a recent study conducted by psychologists at Duke University calculates that by age 32, about 60 percent will have at some point or another met the criteria for depression, an anxiety disorder or alcohol or marijuana dependence. If having a mental disorder is actually the norm, what does it mean to have a disorder in the first place? Are psychologists over-diagnosing us? Or are we just more comfortable with talking about problems that used to stay bottled up?

"OC87" is a documentary about and directed by Bud Clayman, a goofy, paunchy, nebbishy, disconsolate, sympathetic and painfully honest man who suffers from the potent psychological cocktail of obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, bipolar disorder and Asperger's syndrome. We watch as he rides the bus, listening to a voice-over that nakedly reveals his paranoid, violent and self-reproaching thoughts in a way that's both funny and gut-wrenching. We watch Clayman in therapy (one particularly intense session requires him to nervously press a knife to his therapist's wrist). And we watch as he makes the film, screening rough cuts for his aloof father, arguing with co-directors Glenn Holsten and Scott Johnston and most strangely, recreating a scene from "Lost in Space" that's figured prominently in his dreams.

At "OC87"'s conclusion it's pretty clear that Clayman will battle these disorders for the rest of his life. But the film avoids being a downer. It gives equal consideration to his ups and downs, his progressions and shortcomings, crafting a touching portrait of a man trying to live as full a life as possible, given the circumstances.

-David Wagner

Tags: SF DOCFEST, ROXIE THEATER, SF INDIE






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