Reviews From The 16th S.F. Documentary Film Festival

by on June 1, 2017

Despite discussing eating insects, director Johanna B. Kelly seeks far more than pushing Western viewers’ squeamishness buttons.  Kelly’s “The Gateway Bug” addresses such weighty subjects as the wastefulness of the world’s current food production system, attempted factory town renewal, and the long term ecological consequences of current agricultural methods.  Seeing an outspoken entomologist eat a bug may well be what many Westerners will do regularly if current ecological problems are not addressed.

Kelly wisely doesn’t immediately push the concept of eating insects down the viewer’s throat.  Instead, she alternates between showing the practical need for looking to insects as a protein source and acclimating the viewer to the concept of eating crickets.  Her presentation of the long-term shortcomings of the West’s current ways of producing edible food, such as the growing gap between food production and increasing population, do make a reasonable and persuasive case for change.

The film falls short, though, in completely persuading the Western viewer that eating insects can be a viable alternative now.  “The Gateway Bug” does start out well by normalizing the concept of insect consumption.  Having bug protein in flour, protein bars, and even chips doesn’t feel squirm-inducing.  When the viewer finally sees an entomologist eating a wild bug onscreen, references to picking and eating wild mushrooms does somewhat decrease the “ick” factor.

The real problem faced by such folks as Big Cricket Farms’ CEO Kevin Rachhuber is developing the economies of scale that makes insect protein competitive with beef, fish, and chicken.  Far less space and water may be needed to commercially raise food crickets.  But shrinking the cost of producing a pound of insect protein still seems insurmountable.  Showing US government regulators that commercially produced insect protein will cause neither illness nor death also seems like a tall order.

The North American focus of Kelly’s film comes from its subjects being based here.  But by not looking at countries and cultures where insect consumption is practiced, the film doesn’t answer some relevant questions.  In countries where insect consumption is still practiced, should efforts be made to convince such countries to stay with eating bugs?  Are there ideas from insect consuming countries that can be brought to the U.S. to make a commercial food insect market more practical?

“The Gateway Bug” ultimately feels like a frustrating exercise in tantalization.  Its focus may be the rise and fall of efforts by Big Cricket Farms, Slightly Nutty, and other outfits to develop an American food insect industry.  Yet when it comes to charting future options for American efforts, the film’s unclear about next steps.  Should insect protein efforts be limited to animal feed?  Will American insect consumption be more than a hipster craze?  Should a different insect protein source be developed?  Given the stakes involved for humanity, “The Gateway Bug” leaves interested viewers hungry for way more.

 

***

The “Shorts 3: Bay Area Voices” program at this year’s San Francisco Documentary Film Festival offers viewers a second chance to catch Dan Goldes’ short “Arrested (Again).”   Previously screened at the San Francisco Green Film Festival, this nicely punchy and somewhat light-hearted film is a brief portrait of San Francisco ecological activist Karen Topakian.  Over the course of nearly 35 years, Topakian has been arrested 35 times for civil disobedience actions in “five states on both coasts.”

Topakian’s candor in talking about her history of civil disobedience makes those unfortunates who regularly sneer at social justice activism look doubly pathetic.  Attention-grabbing plays no part in Topakian’s willingness to endanger her body, mind, and spirit to fight injustice.  She’s well aware of her vulnerability in risking the possibility of being subjected to abuse by the police and others.  But Topakian’s bravery comes precisely from her willingness to step out of her emotional safety zone to advance a greater social good.  By comparison, anonymous commenters content to hide behind their walls of 0’s and 1’s risk nothing and advance nothing to better society.

Goldes’ short was made before Topakian’s arrest count went up a notch to 36.  The newest arrest came after she joined fellow Greenpeace protesters to unfurl a “Resist” banner off a construction crane close to the Trump White House this past January.

***

Can a person still love their birthplace even if it’s a “stink town?”  That descriptor refers to Bogalusa, the small Louisiana town that’s the setting for Steve Richardson’s film “Bogalusa Charm.”  The local paper mill’s operations explain why Bogalusa earned that appellation.  While it may be the town’s major source of employment, the mill regularly generates such distinct far-reaching smells that the day of the week can be determined by a particular smell.

Aside from the paper mill’s sulfur stink, there are other strikes against loving the town.  Decent employment options outside of the paper mill are very scarce.  Bogalusa is a sinkhole for both commercial and private real estate.  1950s and 1960s news footage shows the town’s white residents didn’t greet Civil Rights workers with open arms.  Organized religion, in the form of five different churches, maintains a cultural death grip on the town.

“Bogalusa Charm” may not inspire viewers to admire this Louisiana town.  But it does inspire respect for the different people who call the place home.

Representing traditional Bogalusa is central subject Miss Dixie Galaspy.  For 27 years, her Smoky Creek Charm School has taught interested girls everything from formal table manners to traditional Christian values.  Footage from over a dozen years ago suggests the school’s lessons haven’t really changed.

Miss Dixie’s ideological opposite would probably be the coarse Sandy.  She’s the owner, cook, and bartender for Birdie’s Roadhouse.  When Sandy isn’t trying to introduce her customers to the concepts of dark beer and soup du jour, she decries the hold organized religion has on Bogalusa.  Unsurprisingly, peace symbols are proudly displayed in the Roadhouse’s windows.

Yet Richardson’s film isn’t built around a conflict between Miss Dixie and Sandy.  It’s more interested in showing that what Bogalusa lacks in economic dynamism is compensated by its air of low-key coexistence.  Newcomers Yahia and Zanab have opened Middle Eastern restaurant La Shish in Bogalusa because they like the town’s traditionalism.  A city councilman doesn’t act as if it’s beneath him to pick up litter off the highway.  An extended montage of insect close=ups suggests that even these bugs are part of Bogalusa’s social character.

Don’t call “Bogalusa Charm” romanticized Americana.  The film acknowledges this town’s racist past without demonization.  Call Richardson’s film instead an entertaining window into one part of small town America.

***

People who think vinyl records are innocuous or passé need to check out Keith Jones’ documentary “Vinyl Generation.”   For certain youths in 1980s Czechoslovakia, records by Lou Reed and Sonic Youth among others inspired the creation of an alternative artistic culture that would eventually lead to actual political revolution.

The Communist officials controlling 1980s Czechoslovakia considered Western art and music as decadent.  But footage from the Spartahaidn ’80 sports rally suggests any cultural work that didn’t peddle a “conformity is good” message would be branded decadent.  Perhaps that cultural dullness explains why one interviewee thought imprisonment would be a more interesting experience than Czech life at the time.

It is precisely because alternative art and music challenges the viewer/listener to envision new ways of thinking that the state police sought to arrest participants in the Czech alternative scene.  People such as Jones’ interviewees responded with various dodges to find and enjoy their music.  Old suitcases could be carried to covert record exchanges in the park.  A wedding celebration provided cover to rent a venue for a covert alt-rock concert.

Late film musings by several interviewees about the shortcomings of post-revolution reforms generally save “Vinyl Generation” from falling into “liberating power of art” clichés.  But in small ways, such as government retribution no longer going beyond the protestor to negatively affect the protestor’s relatives as well, post-revolution Czech Republic life has improved.

***

Viewers cannot say they’ve witnessed road rage until they’ve seen footage of an angry driver walking towards them while brandishing a sledge hammer.  That moment is just one of the hair-raising sights to be found in Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s must-see film “The Road Movie.”  Composed solely of dash-cam footage uploaded to YouTube over the years by Russian drivers, Kalashnikov’s film is guaranteed aversion therapy for drivers…or at least foreign drivers in Russia.

Seeing these clips raises strong suspicions that functional insanity or casual recklessness seems key to driving the Russian roads.  Continually moaning about a husband’s excessive speed is comparatively nothing.  Try seeing someone unconcernedly driving through a forest fire for what seems like thrills.

Not every driver seen in Kalashnikov’s film emerges unscathed.  Trucks make unwelcome wheelies or jack-knives.  Autos get caught in multi-car collisions.  Animals, particularly a low-flying duck, manage to get badly tagged by a car.  Even a montage of collisions does nothing to quell a viewer’s impulse to jump at a later scene of a crash.

Lack of substantive knowledge about the people shooting the dash cam footage will lead engrossed viewers to ask questions about the Russian character.  Is open criminality so banal that witnessing a strong-arm robbery from a gridlocked van only spurs vague curiosity about the victim’s health?  Is aiding a woman frightened by a mentally disturbed man capering on her car hood something beyond the pale?  If a group of angry burly men decide to block your path because you dared to pass their vans, does it matter whether these men are cops, soldiers, or mafiya?

Kalashnikov’s film doesn’t completely revel in the worst of humanity.  Occasional moments of beauty and joy do crop up.  They range from sighting an enigmatic streak across the sky to an unexpected meet cute with an attractive young woman.  But what sticks in the memory from “The Road Movie” will be a sense of the bizarre being a commonplace part of venturing forth on Russia’s highways.  Catch Kalashnikov’s entertaining film at this festival before Oscilloscope Laboratories commercially releases it.

(The initial screening of “The Gateway Bug” takes place at 9:15 PM on June 10, 2017 at the Vogue Theater (3290 Sacramento Street, SF).  The Roxie Theatre (3117 – 16th Street, SF) hosts an additional screening of the film at 9:30 PM on June 13, 2017.  Other screenings at the Roxie are: “Arrested (Again)” as part of the “Shorts 3: Bay Area Voices” program at 12:30 PM on June 10, 2017 and 7:15 PM on June 12, 2017; “Bogalusa Charm” at 5:00 PM on June 11, 2017 and 9:30 PM on June 15, 2017;  “Vinyl Generation” at 7:15 PM on June 9, 2017; and “The Road Movie” at 7:15 PM on June 3, 2017 and 9:30 PM on June 7, 2017.  For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com .)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment