19th San Francisco DocFest Reviews

by on September 8, 2020

Raymond Chandler once famously wrote about how the Santa Ana winds could push people to murder.  For viewers who’ve never had the pleasure of living with the Santa Ana winds, seeing the halny at full strength may give you an idea of what to expect.  That periodic windstorm happens to be a major presence in Michal Bielawski’s film “The Wind: A Documentary Thriller.”  When the halny blows, big trees get knocked over and houses get trashed.  For the humans in the wind storm’s path, there are greater risks of heart attacks and increases in suicidal ideations.

One of “The Wind”’s few onscreen titles explains that the halny hits Poland’s Tatra Mountains area several times a year.  As the film shows, the mountains are also filled with people who have no intention of being pushed out by the halny.  Yet they also don’t possess the ability or the resources to tame the periodic wind storm.

Bielawski’s film primarily follows four people who’ve found individual ways of living with the halny.  A meteorologist who keeps tabs on local wind conditions alternates between monitoring things and worrying about halny-inflicted devastation befalling him.  A young paramedic goes out into the halny to deal with medical emergencies brought on by the windstorm.   But a significant other concern-trolling her to find another line of work may be a bigger headache.  A grandfatherly patriarch farmer proves oddly endearing thanks to his frequently saying “f**kety-f**k.”  The later discovery of his heart problems will cause viewer concern over his possibly falling victim to the halny.  Finally, poet Teresa Bachleda-Kominek puts up with life with the halny because living near the forest inspires her work.  Of “The Wind”’s four subjects, the poet’s the only one identified on camera, albeit indirectly.

Seeing these subjects deal with such daily challenges as setting up a small windmill or dealing with balky horses aren’t intended to persuade viewers about the virtues of living in the Tatra Mountains.  But Bielawski’s glimpses into their lives shows that living in such environmentally hostile conditions is equal parts stubbornness and pragmatism.

***

Nezar Andary’s documentary “Unlocking The Windows Of Cinema” may essentially be a filmmaker biography.  Its subject, Syrian film auteur Muhammad Malas, has been both a film director and public intellectual for the past five decades.

The film’s moments of subtle wit make this work much more than just a recitation of titles and anecdotes.  An early image in the film shows Malas treating a keyhole as a viewfinder and an attached latch as a camera crank.  Later, excerpts from Malas’ films get projected on the walls and other blank spaces of his home.  Those projections smartly symbolize the perception of Malas’ films as arising out of the stories of the lands and lives of the people of the Middle East.  Much later, Malas recalls how he asked legendary Syrian singer Sabri Moudalla to recite the Muslim call to prayer in his pajamas and how the results demonstrated Moudalla’s incredible talent.

The more important reason to check out Andary’s film is to be introduced to a film director whose work deserves to be better known to Western audiences.  Malas’ excerpted films and his descriptions of them speak of a body of work which opposes despotism in its many forms but not in a way that would comfort the typical Israel hawk.  “The Dream (1987),” for example, asks its Palestinian subjects what they dream of when they envision a liberated Palestine.  The semi-autobiographical “Dreams Of The City (1984)” took viewers back to 1950s Syria to show how dreams of democracy and the politics of everyday life played out in the street.  “Passion (Bab al Magam) (2005)” may be based on the true story of a woman killed by her family for her love of singing.  But the film’s focus was not on honor killing but on how Syrian social conservatism symbolically stifled the country’s secular aspects.

If “Unlocking The Doors Of Cinema” opens up the possibility of the Pacific Film Archive or some other local museum introducing Malas’ work to Bay Area audiences, then Andary’s film will already have succeeded.

***

The Adam James Smith documentary “Americaville” might be described as American life seen through a funhouse mirror.  American viewers may well find their jaws frequently dropping open in disbelief.  More serious minded viewers may even wonder if this is how other cultures feel about Americans misappropriating elements of their culture.

The titular town is a gated suburban community known as Jackson Hole.  In its wood and stone American West-styled single family homes, its residents have the opportunity to finally live their dreams and celebrate what it’s like to be Americans.  For this Jackson Hole is located not in the state of Wyoming, but in China.  Specifically, the community’s situated in a mountainous region about an hour and half’s drive from Beijing.

It could be argued cultural globalization already prepared the Chinese for what the Jackson Hole community represents.  A staff get together takes place at a coffee shop named Central Perk, a place imitating the famed gathering spot from the TV show “Friends.”  Meals are purchased at Mc Donald’s.  A brisk business is done at the Beijing branch of WalMart.  So seeing Jackson Hole residents hang up American flags and celebrate the Fourth of July isn’t that huge a stretch.  But a cowboy flashdance performance and a “typical American dish” of tuna and jello will cause Americans to blink in disbelief.

The film’s guide to life in Jackson Hole is an unnamed middle-class office worker in her 30s.  While she works in a Beijing office during the week, she lives for her weekend trips up to Jackson Hole.  Here, she can learn to sharpen her cooking chops, breathe air far less polluted than what’s in Beijing’s skies, and even openly worship the Christian God.

The advertised point of Jackson Hole is to provide dream realization fuel for its residents.  However, in the case of the office worker, that fuel is of lower grade than she realizes.  At one point, the office worker is shown torn between pursuing her dreams of finishing her education and being a good wife to her frequently absent husband.  The Jackson Hole priest encourages her to be a good wife, a far cry from American individualism.  At another point, not bearing a child (because her husband doesn’t want one) makes the office worker feel like a failure in life.  Yet Jackson Hole lacks anything that could help the office worker come up with a new and equally satisfying life goal.

Is it possible the office worker’s personal failings also prevent her from realizing her dreams?  Exploitation alarm bells do not ring loudly for her regarding her willingness to pay what appears to be much more than a tithe to her church.  The mostly absent husband, when he finally appears, comes across as a cold distant jerk who criticizes the office worker without fear of retaliation.

It eventually becomes clear personal freedom and independence are not among the dreams offered by Jackson Hole.  The complex’s security staff may wear cowboy hats.  But their disciplined marching and their constant CCTV monitoring feels reminiscent of Chinese government security operations.  Also, all residents of Jackson Hole may be equal.  But only members of the lifestyle company are allowed access to all of Jackson Hole’s amenities.

“Americaville” entertainingly reverses the cultural imperialism dynamic by putting American mass culture in the exotic curiosity seat.  Faux News watchers may be unamused, but DocFest goers will like this truly quirky film.

***

Centerpiece film “Truth Or Consequences” may be based in and around Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico.  But Hannah Jayanti’s film uses the town and its history as a launchpad for a cinematic consideration of humanity’s weakness for self-delusion.

Despite the description above, Jayanti’s film is indeed a documentary.  However, its focus on five people who live in the titular town does not attempt to shoehorn itself into an imposed narrative structure.  “Truth Or Consequences”’ casual and laid back vibe rewards those who sit back and observe as events unfold as they will.

Casual daylight shots suggest Truth Or Consequences is a working class residential town.  The only major industry seen in the town appears to be the spaceport.  Yet the future of spaceflight tourism it represents hasn’t actually arrived yet.  Even if it did, the price tag for a trip would be too high for the typical Truth Or Consequences resident to afford.

The subjects Jayanti focuses on could be said to suffer from self-delusions of various sorts.  They include: George, who roots through old garbage heaps to recover everything from a broken toilet handle part to assorted marbles; Olin, a paganist art museum curator who can also do a credible spoken word poetry performance; Yvonne, an elderly woman with a fondness for caring for animals; and Katie, a 30-year-old woman who’s drifted back to her hometown.  The other film subjects mentioned happen to be elderly.

Jayanti’s digging at the intersection of past and present depends in part on turning the town and its people into chronal palimpsests.  Different types of film stock from black and white to digitally enhanced color show various levels of perception of the past and present.  The black and white footage captures the days when the former Hot Springs, N.M. served as a mining town and Native Americans were a frequent sight on the town’s streets.  Digitally enhanced color turns otherworldly what appear to be night vision shots of sights such as George’s “museum.” Mysterious dots in these images suggest an earthbound version of distant stars in the night sky.

But is getting actual glimpses into Truth Or Consequences’ past simply a matter of uttering the right magic words?  Jayanti plays with this idea in a sequence involving a school trip to the town museum.  During that trip, a couple of kids try without success to get two seated figures to speak.  Only when the viewer sees the seated figures from the kids’ viewpoint does it become clear these are seated wooden dummies.  Or is accessing the past merely a matter of historical awareness?  Katie emerges from a cave where she’s been doing some rock collecting, unaware that she’s following in the footsteps of miners emerging from a tunnel arch marked “Man Way.”

Truth Or Consequences, N.M.’s penetration into the public consciousness feels more a matter of chance than the product of a deliberate act.  The renaming of the town from Hot Springs to Truth Or Consequences was the chance esult of a game show contest.  The spaceport was built in Truth Or Consequences thanks to a combination of good weather, altitude, and the neighboring missile base banning all private and commercial aviation from the surrounding airspace.

Even if the town’s history is dominated by the humblest of human activities, Jayanti repeatedly demonstrates a gift for making mundane visual moments feel transcendent.  The film’s opening shot travels along the center dividing strip of a highway.  It creates, contrary to the offscreen voiceover, a sense of a continually unreachable horizon.   Or take the image of what looks like a mysterious rippling grass windstorm heading towards the spaceport.  The mysterious cause of that phenomenon turns out to be a water ripple, as the image actually comes from a watery reflection.  And, as mentioned above, there are the night vision-like shots that turn mundane trailer parks and building exteriors into what seem like the stuff of stars.

Bill Frisell’s improvised score brings to Jayanti’s film wonderful touches of mystery even in its more spare moments.  There are times when Frisell’s music evokes bleakness, majesty, and even an appreciation of life’s small pleasures.

The film’s biggest and most unforgettable contrast turns out to be that between Katie and Yvonne.  The younger woman starts the film appearing optimistic and ready for what surprises life may bring.  Much later in the film, her optimism has given way to a sense of confinement thanks to low pay and lack of opportunities.  Yvonne, by contrast, is content to live in the Now.  She’s aware that her colorful past includes getting mauled by one of the big cats she was training and being the object of what sounds like parental and sibling sexual abuse.  But rather than stew in resentment over the wrongs done to her in the past, her awareness of the preciousness of time makes her cherish her ability to enjoy the Now.

“Truth Or Consequences” is admittedly not a film for everyone.  But for those willing to surrender themselves to its spell, it will reveal itself to be a beautiful enigma.

(All the films reviewed here are available for screening for the duration of SF DocFest (September 3-20, 2020).  Go to https://sfdocfest2020.eventive.org/films to order tickets and to get further information on the films.)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

Translate »