Monday, June 25, 2012

The Top Documentaries of LA Film Fest 2012

Cross-posted on

This past Sunday marked the end of the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival, which boasted the world premieres of big ticket films like “To Rome With Love”, “Magic Mike,” “Brave” and “Seeking a Friend For the End of the World.” But the heart of the fest is in its lesser-known titles, the indie flicks without distributors or making festival rounds and the docs that may be destined for Oscar nominations.

Here we take a look at the latter of these categories with my top five documentary features of L.A. Film Fest 2012.

The Person — “Beauty is Embarrassing”
“Beauty is Embarrassing,” a profile on artist Wayne White, was perhaps the most personal doc of L.A. Film Fest. While others follow stories, movements or profile many people at once, “Beauty” follows the story of one man and his success and struggle as an artist. White himself is our narrator of sorts, providing the thrust of the narrative; doubly so as the film is framed by snippets of his one-man show. Any artist can relate to the circumstances that got White started and guided his life, and the film secretly acts as inspiration for anyone out there aspiring to make a living from their artistry.
Director Neil Berkeley’s adventurous directing — which includes a couple of animated sequences-as-flashbacks that I adored — reflects White’s style in many ways and links the story and filmmaking in a way documentaries rarely do. When especially considering the current state of pop art, which has birthed the wildly lucrative pop culture art of Mondo, Gallery 1988 and more, this doc pays proper due to the man who was in many ways the founder of the movement, the man who made comedy, irreverence and entertainment acceptable in the art world. It it also worth noting that White looks and sounds like both Zach Galifianakis and LAFF entry “Red Flag” actor Onur Tukel, and the three of them should start a band/ comedy troupe/ experimental theatre company as soon as possible.

The Movement — “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives”
You know you’re in for something special when right before a movie starts the director asks, “Who here hasn’t seen a birth before?” As my arm shot up, I began to realize I was about to witness something intense. “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives” does more to solidify the relationship between mother and daughter than any part of this weekend’s top release, “Brave,” did. The film tracks the history of Ina May Gaskin and the group of midwives that live on The Farm in Tennessee, a community originally born by a giant group of San Francisco-based hippies in the ’70s. After directors Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore got through their births naturally with the help of Gaskin’s “Spiritual Midwifery,” a book read by any birth specialist who knows what’s what, they knew they had to tell her story and show off the beauty of the natural birthing she fights for in the process. Luckily for them, a chockful of archival photos and videos were uncovered, including footage of some of the more complicated births like Breach or Shoulder dystocia. In a hospital, situations like this would have led to an immediate knife, but these midwives argue steadfastly that women’s bodies were meant to bear children and the caesarean rate is out of control, a fact exemplified by the statistic that the U.S.’s childbirth mortality rate for mothers has drastically increased as the caesarean rate has.
“Birth Story” is unique because it both acts as an educational tool, teaching us about the history of the Farm and midwifery as a profession and skill, and as an emotional journey into assisting and experiencing motherhood. I found myself moved to tears by every birth in the film and when the Breach birth is a success, the whole audience burst into applause, overcome with an empathetic wave of relief and joy. Do you know how crazy it is to watch a tiny human come out of a big human?
But far from crazy, the act is a beautiful experience, and this film details the importance of understanding that, of not being afraid, of laughing, smiling, trusting and knowing that *you* are in control, not a surgery-happy doctor. Especially after seeing the HBO doc about aging models, “About Face,” I found myself filled with emotion hearing these older women note that though midwifery is sadly a dying profession (even illegal in Alabama), it is also one of the only ones where grey hair in a woman is respected, a sign that she is better at her job than most anyone else. “Birth Story” is a must-see for any woman — and, frankly, any human — and will make you appreciate that the female body is capable of so much more. Beautiful, entertaining, and inspiring, it’s no surprise “Birth Story” won L.A. Film Fest’s Documentary Audience Award.
The rest after the jump!

The Mystery — “Searching For Sugar Man”
Every so often you hear a story that is just too outrageous, too unfathomable to actually be real: A Detroit-based musician who hardly anyone has ever heard of in the U.S. turns out to be held at the level of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix across the world in a country he had never even been to, and no one here had any idea until 20 years later?
In the age before the Internet, folk singer/songwriter of the early ’70s, Rodriguez, created some of the best music of his era that no one ever heard of. The head of his record label at the time chuckles in the film that he sold “six albums.” But meanwhile, in South Africa, his music was the soundtrack of a revolution. There, they had no reason to believe he wasn’t as big as Dylan, and here, we had no reason to know he was a legend thousands of miles away. “Seeking For Sugar Man” documents the unbelievable story of how a couple of South African fans, including journalist Craig Bartholemew, set out to uncover the mystery of Rodriguez, including how he died as everyone had heard a different story (He shot himself on stage! He set himself on fire! He ODed! He’s actually in a mental institution!), taking us through every step of the way until an unexpected discovery brings the legend back to life.
“Searching for Sugar Man” is the most cinematic documentary I saw at the fest, as its crisp high definition, rocking soundtrack, animated sequences and clever sound design are paired with a pacing and structure most akin to a mystery — witnessing pre-Internet age detective work is fascinating, making you long for days when stories like this were even possible. Ultimately, this surprisingly touching film is about the artistic spirit and how it moves you and moves other people, no matter what else gets in the way, and I suspect it will go far this awards season.

The Issue — “Call Me Kuchu”
The first and still the most powerful doc I caught at the fest was “Call Me Kuchu,” a film that chronicles two years of the gay rights movement in Uganda. The atmosphere for homosexuals is extremely volatile in the missionary-frequented religious country as local papers label them terrorists and out those who are closeted for their own safety without so much as batting an eye. The despicable editor of one such paper, The Rolling Stone, goes so far as to say that  homosexuality isn’t a civil rights issue — and we don’t fight for the rights of murderers, so why do we fight for the rights of sodomites? It’s a terrifying situation over there for people who just want to be themselves, but for many of them, the issue is too important to fight for to leave — although in the wake of the anti-gay bill (death penalty for “serial offenders” and prison time for anyone who knows someone is gay and doesn’t out them) about to come back into Parliament, one of the main subjects of the film has since sought asylum in Europe.
While directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malike Zouhali-Worral were in Uganda covering the movement, an incident occurs that changes everything. In the Q&A, they noted how difficult it was to continue the movie afterwards as not only did they have to find a new narrative, but they were in deep despair and mourning along with the rest of their subjects, confused about how to keep fighting when your limbs have just been chopped off. The film is very relevant and very present as you feel like you are with this group of people every step of the way — because you are, to a frightening degree. While many of the docs that screened at the fest recall events that have already taken place, “Call Me Kuchu” is in the action, to the point where we as an audience become so involved that when Act Three hits, I could hardly feel my face any more, I was crying so hard.
Wright and Zouali-Worral noted during the Q&A after one of their screenings this week that access wasn’t as difficult as we might suspect because everyone on all sides believes so much in their stance that they *want* to spread the word, not caring for a moment that those on the far right of the issue might look like heartless pricks to all of Western civilization. The result is an unparalleled look at an issue like this, in a time when we need to be as educated as possible in order to help.

The Story — “The Queen of Versailles”
“The Queen of Versailles,” like “Call Me Kuchu,” started off about one thing, but when life took an unexpected turn halfway through, a very different film emerged. In this case, we get a microcosm of what happened to families across the country when the financial crisis of 2008 hit through the tribulations of the Seigel Family. I couldn’t help but think the film would make a great double feature with “Margin Call,” seeing the dramatized account of what happened and then watch how the events of that day affected this real personification of the American dream.
Director Lauren Greenfield crafts a wonderfully paced and executed tale about these people from humble beginnings who become the epitome of crazy rich people, and then in the wake of financial meltdown have to deal with things like cutting their staff from 19 to four. Though that might seem incredibly silly to us, it changes the entire dynamic in their household. My audience even applauded when a little girl carries plates to the table in one scene later in the film. Pets die, dog poop becomes encased in the floor and kids have to learn about things like public school and commercial airlines.
But what will really make you feel the impact is seeing the difference between company Westgate before the crash — and then after, when 7,000 people were laid off. You start to see these conservative capitalist schmucks in an extremely sympathetic light. Sure, in the beginning of the film, we laugh and chortle and roll our eyes at how ridiculous this family is, but when we start to realize how many people they employed, how important working hard was to Richard Siegel, who built this empire, how supportive his ostensible trophy wife is to her very bones, you start to appreciate the fact that, in theory, anyone can reach those levels of success, and it sucks just as much for them to lose $560 million as it does for us to spend ten bucks on parking. It’s all relative, something I never thought I would think when it comes to filthy rich people building the largest home in the world.
This documentary is very now, very immediate and both difficult and entertaining to watch on multiple levels. While it’s certainly not Greenfield’s directorial eye that caused the financial crisis, it was her eye that recognized the value in Jackie Siegel as being both a little batty and totally sweet and accessible, like a real-life Cher Horowitz. You end up totally on Jackie’s side, through and through, and feel her pain as her husband seems to age ten years over the span of one as his life goes from enjoying the fruits of his labor to planting seeds on his hands and feet, an old man who thought those days were behind him.
During the film, your emotions run the gamut — from hating these people to loving these people, to crying when a kindness of Jackie’s is revealed to guffawing out of awkwardness during a major family fight. This access, pretended to be achieved on oh so many reality shows, is in fact almost unprecedented. These are very real people who live under very outrageous circumstances who still manage to show us a story that can be related to by anyone.


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