Of the eight films I saw in the past two days, six were excellent. That's some pretty good odds! And you can still catch a couple of them at the festival.
The best of the weekend was "How to Die in Oregon" (10), which recently won the award for best documentary at Sundance. The director, Oregonian Peter Richardson, is particularly skilled at handling difficult and polarizing subjects; his first film, "Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon," waded into a live controversy in Oregon's timber country and managed to present both sides' views in a way that exposed each's merits and weaknesses. This time, however, rather than seeking to portray the polarized views of those for and against Oregon's ground-breaking death-with-dignity law, Richardson set out to do something more delicate: he explores the stories of people who are making the choice to use the law. When I asked him about that choice after the screening today, he noted that the controversy has been well-aired, but these stories have not been fully explored; he knew he had the capacity to do so and felt a sense of calling to try. After watching Richardson's sensitive film, I was not surprised to hear him refer to a sense of calling. With the great empathy and care that such stories demand, Richardson follows the journeys of several people who contemplated taking advantage of the legal permission to take a lethal dose of barbiturate (not all of them ended up doing so), and thereby greatly deepens public conversation about death and dying. Much of the film focuses on ten months in the life of Cody Curtis, a lovely Portland woman in her early-50s, walking through the painful process of confronting limited options left to her by a recurrence of liver cancer. Richardson's months of being on-call to ride the waves of terminal illness with Curtis and others are, in the end, a gift to the world, a filmmaker's ministry of presence yielding a film that, while agonizing at times to watch, is also quite moving and life-affirming, in the way of all such clear-eyed work. His film equips those who are willing to be similarly present, and similarly clear-eyed. (Plays once more on Monday night; advance tickets are sold out but if you're determined, you may still be able to catch same-day tickets. The film also may have a limited theatrical release and will eventually air on HBO.)
This was the weekend for documentaries; I saw three more that I also recommend. My next favorite was "Louder Than a Bomb" (8), an inspiring look at a Chicago slam poetry competition by the same name that draws students from scores of high schools all over the city. In the tradition of "Spellbound" and "Mad Hot Ballroom," the film follows four schools' preparations for the big competition, the largest youth poetry slam in the world and one that uniquely requires the participants to participate in teams rather than as individuals. The experience is a life-changer for many students, so many of whom are society's cast-offs. More than the competition, the film inspires as an example of the power of words and creativity to lift people up; the poetry here demands to be heard and is a testament to the strength of these students' spirits, and to the teachers who invest in helping them find their voices. Totally irresistible. (Playing once more on Monday.)
"The Arbor" (8) makes use of a particularly bold artistic choice to bring to life the story of a complicated working class community. In 1980, Andrea Dunbar, a teenage single mother from a poor Yorkshire housing project called the Arbor, remarkably drew on her own life to write two plays (and later a screenplay--"Rita, Sue and Bob Too") that shone the light of truth on a hardscrabble part of British culture. A decade of hard living and neglectful parenting later, Dunbar was dead at age 29, leaving behind three children and a legacy of suffering. This hybrid documentary is built around two years of interviews with members of Dunbar's family who shed often contradictory light on her life in its larger context--but the filmmaker then had actors lip-sync the recordings, allowing them to be more artfully staged. It's an interesting choice, a sort of two-pronged attack that aims to bring the truth to more vivid life. I thought it wholly succeeded; family truth is hard to come by, and the stagings also reverberate with Dunbar's own method for bringing her culture to life. In fact, portions of her plays are also restaged in the film at the setting of the Arbor. It's particularly interesting to see the difference in memory and perspective of her two daughters, and to think about what explains those differences and whether both can be true.
Finally, in "Russian Lessons" (7), a Russian couple, Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya, explore the truth beyond the 2008 war between Russian and Georgia. The two already had been researching Russian-Georgian relations when the war broke out, and already had reason to distrust what was reported in the Russian press,. Determined to find the truth while it was happening, the two entered Georgia from opposite sides and reported what they saw--which was that Russia was the aggressor, ruthlessly wiping out whole Georgian towns and then manipulating images of Georgian victims to spread the story that Russian troops merely responded to Georgian aggression. The Putin government's appalling efforts to manipulate world public opinion is helped by disinterested Western media. The story is complicated and demands some work from the viewer, but the valiant efforts of this couple to bring the truth to light demand respect for their subject. (In Georgian and English; plays again Monday afternoon.)
I also saw two very worthy fictional films. The director and writer of "The Light Thief" (7.5) , Aktan Arym Kubat, also stars as Svet-ake, or "Mr. Light," a local hero in his small impoverished village in Kyrgyzstan for finding ingenious ways to connect the villagers to electricity that they can't otherwise afford. Of course, this lands him in trouble with the local police--and one senses from the reaction of his wife that this is not uncommon for Svet-ake. Their relationship and family life are especially sweet--they clearly love each other and their four daughters (though he longs for a son), but the combination of Svet-ake's renegade ways and his essentially trusting nature regularly imperil the family and worry his wife. The story perceptively conveys how those with money often acquire it by exploiting people--and they often target the poorest communities. Though not a saint, Svet-ake consistently acts out of a sort of pure-heartedness that can get a person killed. He is affable and determined and visionary; though people scoff, he has some ideas for how to harvest enough wind power to light the whole community. The problem is, benefit to a community isn't enough to power a good idea; the scheme with momentum behind it is promoted by a greedy developer who eerily uses visionary-sounding rhetoric about past exploitation of the community to persuade people to allow him to exploit them yet again. Featuring beautiful cinematography and haunting Kyrgyz music, the film offers not only an arresting view of Kyrgyz culture but also some real insights into the mechanics of oppression, couched in a powerful metaphor. Who exactly is the light thief here?
"My Tehran For Sale" (7) is yet another worthy tale of oppression. Shot in secret in Tehran, it tells the story of Marzieh, a young actress whose livelihood and, indeed, her entire personality are likewise driven underground. The risks of filming in secret are apparent in the jailing of other Iranian directors (including the director of "The White Meadows," which remains my favorite film of the festival so far)--and it's pretty clear that the Iranian government would not take kindly to this story. The benefits, though, of filming in Tehran are clear--the filmmaker immerses us in a culture that we in the U.S. have little occasion to observe up close. The truth that emerges here is complex--Marzieh's entire way of being is antithetical to Iranian society, and she must live in the shadows, shunned by her family and at risk of serious punishment for so much as attending a party. We later see her struggling to make a case for asylum in the West; Westerner don't even know what questions to ask to determine that someone is in genuine peril. A penetrating window into a world of people forced to live a double lives in their own country.
The first of the two films I don't recommend is "Last Report on Anna" (3), which takes as its subject a former Hungarian government minister, Anna Kéthly, who was forced into exile after the failure of the 1956 revolution. The film is set mostly in the 1970s, when the young nephew of her former lover (working for the Hungarian government) attempts to persuade her to return to Hungary in order to neutralize her influence abroad. The problem is that the story is told in a completely ham-fisted way; flashbacks to Anna's political speeches seem overglamorized and the government plot as depicted here seems way too obvious to succeed, yet this supposedly brilliant woman falls for it for romantic reasons. Whatever the story is here, this film doesn't tell it in a believable way. (In Hungarian, English, and French.)
"7 Days in Slow Motion" (3) is harmless enough but is clumsy in just about every way. It centers on a movie-obsessed boy growing up in upper middle-class India who sets out to make his own film when a video camera literally falls off a passing truck. The kids in the film are cute, but they can't really act--nor can the adults, for that matter. And the story starts out silly and unravels from there, setting up several faux problems and then solving them all in the period of seven movie days. Though it's intermittently entertaining and elicited lots of laughs from the audience I was in, I'd class it with poor Disney films like "Cheaper By the Dozen." (Mostly in subtitled English.)