Wow--another great day at the Festival. Today I saw four films and, in all four cases, got to participate in a post-film discussion with the filmmakers. All are worth watching for.
I started the day with "Neither Memory Nor Magic," a mediation on the life of the great Hungarian poet, Miklos Radnoti, who died in the Holocaust. It is the feature film debut of Hugo Perez, with narration by the wonderful actress Patricia Clarkson, and had its world premiere at the festival. Perez indicated that he is still making changes to the film, but the version I saw was lovely and moving. Radnoti's story is told through old photos, through the memories of people who knew him (including a beloved niece and two men whom he met during forced travels to a remote work camp in Serbia), through experts on his life and work, and, most movingly, through his poems, startling in their beauty and originality even in English translation. Radnoti had attained some prominence as a poet before anti-Jewish persecution forced him to abandon his teaching career and halted further publication of his poetry. During the last year of his life while in the work camp and on forced march, he kept writing poems in a small notebook, which he carefully guarded in the hope that his work would survive. Those miraculous words, which stunningly capture the experience of a man enduring great suffering with the unthinkable courage, hope, and will to speak truths that hardly seem capable of expression, were found in Radnoti's coat pocket when his body was exhumed from a mass grave eighteen months after he was shot. This lovely film tells his story with great patience and care. It's a wonderful debut.
"Bomb It," a fascinating examination of graffiti, opens in Seattle tomorrow and in Portland (at the Clinton Theater) on April 18. The director, Jon Reiss, spent hundreds of hours shooting graffiti writers in cities all over the world, from Philadelphia (where graffiti is said to have originated) to New York City to Sao Paulo to Barcelona to Tokyo to Cape Town to Berlin (among others). Some of these graffiti writers deserve to be called artists, and many are quite articulate about why they have chosen this form of expression and its social meaning. Nearly all go to great extremes and even serious personal risk to express themselves this way. Yet the film also grapples with the implications of this guerilla form of expression and the extremes of efforts to contain it, and provokes excellent questions about whether and how public spaces are and should be used as a forum for free expression. Though the scope of the topic seems a little unwieldy at times, the film succeeds in opening a fascinating window onto these in-your-face outsiders. I left with lots of new questions that will move me past the superficial reaction I might otherwise have had up to now when encountering graffiti on the street.
"Bigger, Stronger, Faster" (which carries the subtitle, "The Side Effects of Being American") scored a sweet distribution deal at Sundance this year and is scheduled to have a limited theatrical release in late May. It's the feature film debut of director Chris Bell, who cannily uses the national debate about performance-enhancing drugs and his own and his two brothers' long-standing obsession with body-building as a jumping-off point for an exploration of our national addiction to winning and domination. Casting oneself and one's family in a documentary is a risky thing to do, but Bell is so likeable and self-effacing and so willing to go where the story takes him that he avoids the pitfalls of Michael Moore-style manipulation. He is more in the mold of Morgan Spurlock, and though Variety called the film "'Super Size Me' on steroids," I actually would give Bell extra points for approaching his subject with more subtlety than was on display in Spurlock's expose' on the fast food industry. Bell's diverse interviews and well-chosen clips of congressional hearings on illegal doping, conflicting news reports on the purported dangers of steroid use, and public statements of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, and Sylvester Stallone (American heroes to the Bell brothers, who only later learned that all three used steroids to bulk up) convey the essential contradiction between Americans' obsession with being the best and ourinsistence on the illusion of a level playing field where everyone has the same chance to win on his own merits. I give this one points for being not only entertaining, but for provoking excellent questions without attempting to answer them completely.
My pick of the day was "At the Deathhouse Door," a painstaking examination of the death penalty through the transformative experiences of the chaplain who presided over 95 executions in 15 years at the Huntsville prison in Texas. To my great fortune, the subject of the film, Rev. Carroll Pickett, and his wife, Jane, attended the screening and took questions afterwards along with the directors of the film. Pickett is a taciturn man of conscience who, before his career there, spent 11 days at the prison intervening in a hostage situation that resulted in the brutal slaying of two members of his congregation. The incident left an impression and solidified his own longstanding support for the death penalty, but he soon found himself working at the prison and, when executions resumed there in the 70s, was assigned to the role of shepherding "dead men walking" through their final 15 hours. His appointed task was to prepare the condemned to submit quietly to their deaths, and yet, slowly, Pickett came to recognize the ministry of presence in which he is engaged and to see the essential cruelty of the legal injection process and the toll the executions take on the prison staff, including himself. Stolid and self-contained, even Pickett's own family members were not aware that after each execution, Pickett would record a cassette tape of his impressions. Years later, he still recalls each prisoner with clarity, and is particularly haunted by the memory of Carlos Deluna (born the same year as me and executed the year I graduated from law school), of whose innocence Pickett became convinced. While Pickett's story is the main focus, the filmmakers continually return to the story of Deluna, whose innocence now is beyond serious question but whose murder by the state continues to haunt his family, including a sister who tried to help him.
The film proceeds patiently, a pace befitting not only Pickett's own journey but also the difficult subject matter. From the beginning I sensed that I could trust the filmmakers to handle the subject with care--but the last third of the film won me over far more completely than I was expecting. Each moment of impact and emotional pay-off is painstakingly earned; there are no short-cuts here and no easy answers. Like Pickett, the film is convincing without polemics; it demonstrates the truth rather than telling you what to think. With the added bonus of meeting the Picketts afterwards, it was an experience I won't ever forget. Look for this remarkable film on the Independent Film Channel in late May; it's also scheduled to screen in select cities over the coming months. I'll see this one again.