American Documentary Film Festival 2015/ 6

Peter Bogdanovich joked about himself, ”I master the namedrop”, he said, referring to his enormous knowledge of films and film stars, actors and directors. What I am about to do now is precisely the same, namedropping, films and directors, which I have seen during the 5 day festival here in Palm Springs. Some films will in the coming days get their own longer review.

Taking them in the order that I watched them: ”On Beauty” (31 mins., Joanna Rudnick) was a fresh tv-portrait of fashion photographer Rick Guidotti, who left the celebrities and top models

to take photos of handicapped people, re-interpreting what is beauty. There are some stunning photos of young girls with albinism. I had expected much more from ”Kismet” (66 mins., Nina Marie Paschalidou) which I knew from pitch sessions in Europe but was disappointed with the catalogue-like structure of this film on Turkish soap operas and their popularity. ”Big Voice” (83 mins., Varda Bar-Kar) is a good film about a high school choir director Huls and his way of teaching and ineracting with the students. He is charismatic, he talks well (but gosh American docs and interviews!), it is a joyful film, full of music, unfortunately a film that is edited according to the interviews/the words and not according to what could become a visual flow. I did not understand everything said in the poetic commentary that followed the ”One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct”, an artist project commenting the dramatic situation the city is in when it comes to water, but the film brought the most beautiful images thinkable to the screen, John Ford would have loved them, and for that the jury (Veton Nurkollari from Dokufest, Kosovo and I) gave the film an Honourable Mention in the American documentary category.

Many American documentaries were statements that had no cinematic qualities. Important stories, bad visual treatment. Interviews, interviews, interviews. Music from wall to wall. I have nothing against talking faces, but it depends on who is talking and what they talk about and how it is filmed. Jody David Armour (photo) is a university professor, a writer and activist, a charismatic man, who talks so well and precise in ”Nigga Theory” (21 mins., Khinmay Lwin van der Mee) about the good black man and the bad black man judged very often by their looks. When I looked like Obama everyone accepted me, now with my Afro-American look, I sense suspicion around me, he says.

Another characteristic of many American documentaries is well illustrated in ”Help us Find Sunil Tripathi” (75 mins., Neal Broffmann), a very strong story about a young man, who disappears, the family can not find him, someone sees photos from the Boston Marathon bombing and thinks one of the two suspects look like Sunil – and suddenly he is suspect number 2. From a facebook comment his story goes the whole way to the big broadcasting companies that intrudes into the family life of Sunil’s parents and siblings. The characteristic… the film seems to never end, every little detail is repeated again and again leaving no space for the viewer to have his/her own assessment. Or feelings, the film dictates through music and editing what you are supposed to feel. I felt like standing up in the cinema shouting stop, don’t treat me like an imbecile!

Mexican ”Conversations of a Marriage” (25 mins, Gil Gonzalez) gave us a good laugh, you never say you love me, the woman says. I do, the man replies, a man who does not talk a lot, she is the one who talks. Whereas ”Garnet’s Gold” (76 mins., Edward Perkins), a film from famous BBC’s Storyville strand, had great moments in its story about a man, 58 year’s old, searching for gold (and a meaning of life) in Scottish mountains, the problem however is that he is not that interesting, at least not as his mother, old and frail, who is loved by the camera. As is the protagonist of ”Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” (40 mins., Chris Lavelle), an HBO documentary, professionally made, touching to watch, goes right to the last breath – raises an ethical question, I think.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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