Thursday, 3 February 2011
DocPoint 2011 Report
It seems that the popularity of the 10th DocPoint festival surprised everyone - even the organizers. But probably because of the high quality of the documentaries made in Finland recently has been so high, audiences also know to demand to see more good documentaries. So here's to the success of the festival. I didn't get to see all the films I wanted to, but the ones I did manage to see were pretty good, too. Here's a look at them.
I'm Still Here (USA, 2010)
Director: Casey Affleck
I opened my festival with one of its most talked-about films. There's been much discussion whether I'm Still Here portrays real events from the life of actor Joaquin Phoenix or whether it's just a big joke on the celebrity media. Concerning this question I fall on somewhere in the middle - after all most documentaries ARE a mixture of truth and fiction, and show things in different light. It's obvious some scenes are staged here (I don't think famous faces like Ben Stiller, P. Diddy and Edward James Olmos would appear on such a film by a whim). Yet there's something genuine in Phoenix's crazy prancing around and hissy fits. I think he's just not that good an actor to pull off a completely artficial mad dope-head character from out of nowhere. Trying to pass that as his real image would be pretty hazardous to his career to boot so maybe he WAS trying to quit his acting in Hollywood. He's clearly had a change of mind since the making of this film, because he's already attached to new projects.
But in the end, like the film says, the pondering about the genuinity of this film is quite meaningless. It is a story, no matter how rooted it is in reality. And the story is a poignant portrayal of artistic pains. When you feel your old career has nothing to offer you but can'tcreate anything else artistic, when you're tired of the same routines and the old faces that follow you around, and when you try to be a credible artist that doesn't listen to what other people say, yet get mocked for your appearance and idea of following your dreams, then you'll understand how Phoenix must feel. I'm not convinced he really wanted to be a rapper with such shoddy skills, but this career change could've been almost anything else, really. Anything to maintain an illusion of freedom in a readymade world. Maybe I should become a Hollywood psychiatrist as I seem to have understanding on the problems of the priveledged.
The film is also pretty hilarious.
Exit Through The Gift Shop (USA, UK 2010)
I actually saw the street art film by guerilla artist Banksy a while ago in Berlin, but seeing as it was probably the most popular film in DocPoint this year, it makes sense to deal with it here. It's interesting as Exit is another film which is at least blurry in its realisticity. On surface it might be a documentation of a French madman Thierry Guetta who happened to be at the right place at the right time. By copying more talented and creative artists he was allowed to go all the way to the top of the LA art circles. But when Banksy is in question, there might also be the possibility that he is pulling our legs. Feeding the public an unimaginative artist and then making a fake documentary of his rise to power, which the public also adores unquestioningly, could be Banksy's biggest prank ever.
Nevertheless, this film should be also seen as a whole, not to be thought by the cloud that surrounds it. This one is a pretty funny film as well. The hijinks that Banksy and friends need to endure to produce some of the street art pieces we usually only see on expensive art books, appear funny. Murphy's law is constantly in use. As a main character, Guetta might antagonize the street artists he so admires by the end, but he is portrayed as somewhat symphatetic, if a bit crazy even by Banksy's standards. As a person who only lives through media (in this case recording everything he sees on film), Guetta isn't a really creative person, but tries as hard as he can to be. We can all get behind this as most of us are not artistic geniuses. To be fair, I even find some of Guetta's work pretty cool, but still it's pretty clear that he hasn't his own voice. He's a art-scen broiler, not developed artist.
The film criticises mostly the art world which is ready to adopt a poseur with a face, but not the inventive but mysterious and faceless Banksy. He portrays himself as almost a suffering artist who gets hit with bonkers accusations and demands he has to show his face. He also underplays his prankser image, but there may be a very good reason for that. I'm more surprised that a film by Banksy doesn't issue the dilemma of proclaiming a public space for art that much, but then again I guess his work speaks for itself and that's not the main issue on his story here. I hope this one takes home the Oscar, because I can't wait to see how Banksy would terrorize the entire Oscar audience.
Restrepo (USA, 2010)
Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
I'm starting to get sick of the War on Terror on film as much as I am in real life. It's getting a bit hard to appreciate a well-made film like Restrepo, because I've seen it so many times before, both in fiction and documentary form. Restrepo is like the American Armadillo, in that it follows the soldiers in Afghanistan at one dangerous outpost. The soldiers mostly talk crap and slack off, but occasionally they fire away on an unseen enemy. At some points they try to speak to civilians and to get their support but with uninspiring results. A good scene features the discussion to replace the Afghani farmers' dead cow, which the American soldiers shot by mistake in a gunfight. It's also interesting how the mountain-based outpost carved in rock reminds me of the places terrorists like bin Laden are said to be hiding in. Both sides aren't that different, but they are caught up in a stationary war, where both of them are as immobile as the mountains where they are based.
Where Restrepo excels as a documentary is following a particular group of soldiers who get to be pretty familiar during the course of the film. My favorite scene portrays a rare moment of joy as the soldiers have a Christams Party in the base and dance in very close quarters to bad EuroDisco music (Günther I think). Armadillo attempted to create the same familiarity with the soldiers but during the course of that film made them all pretty much the same. In Restrepo there are no strong war film characters, but the banter feels more familiar and the fact that the dead are mourned brings them closer. The outpost Restrepo itself is named after a dead medic, who is shown in the beginning of the film. At the end when the soldiers finally head home the viewer feels as relieved as they are to get out from the spot. It is pretty clear that the war is unwinnable, as the trench warfare has produced only two things, Jack and shit. And Jack just left the town.
The Temple (Temppeli, Finland 1991)
Director: Pekka Lehto
OK, This clip isn't from the film, but I wanted to have Ior Bock in here somehow and this was the best clip I could find in YouTube. Sorry this is only in Finnish.
As the screening of the cult documentary Yksinteoin was cancelled due to legal problems, the sole documentary I saw from the prolific documentary director Pekka Lehto was this one. And it didn't fail. Like Yksinteoin (which focuses on the theatre legend Jussi Parviainen), The Temple has a cult figure at its centre. In this case it is the mystic, shaman (read: hippie) and tour guide Ior Bock. The late Bock was known most of all for two things: one was his incredible skill to make up onomapoetic and mythical backgrounds for any common-day words. His way of telling his crazy theories sounds as he's saying historical facts and sounds really believable. The other was his unrelenting search for a temple of an ancient finnish god Lemminkäinen. Both of those things are well documented in Lehto's film.
The Temple was supposed to be found inside a mountain in Gumbostrand, Sipoo. Bock and his friends started to dig there in 1987. The project got widely popular a couple of years later when the finnish construction industry company Lemminkäinen agreed to fund the dig and loan Bobcats. This is also where Lehto's film begins. He succeeds in maintaining the mysticism and excitement surrounding the search, even if we modern viewers know that it is to be unfruitful. Lehto also mixes just the right amount of the eccentric explanations of Bock in between, contrasted with the down-to-earth construction workers who get ever more excited about the search, too.
It is a shame Bock was murdered last year. As the document shows, he brought a little bit of magic into the lives of us living in a more mundane world. But I'm even more grateful that such a great documentation of this unique personality has been saved for future generations.
Public Speaking (USA, 2010)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Ahh, Scorsese returns to depict the character of his native New York after a while. Besides the city, Public Speaking's other main character is the constantly blabbering writer Fran Lebowitz. The film resembles an episode of Seinfeld: it has neurotic but smart New York jews in the spotlight, there are stand-up scenes, a lot of scenes in a coffee shop, and a lot of witty and funny banter about things that are not focused on anything particular. It is about as fun to follow as Seinfeld as well. Lebowitz constantly makes Scorsese laugh off camera and this joy easily catches on to the viewer as well.
Lebowitz is an interesting documentary subject. As smart and witty as she is, she has a number of bad qualities in her as well. Like the fact that she declares herself to be vengeful and encourages everyone to be too. Her sharp tongue can cause also other undesired effects. Yet she is intensly likeable and one can easily listen to an intellectual speaking for one-and-a-half hour is she (or he) can be as funny and poignant as Lebowitz at her peak. Scorsese also shines light on the history of (New York-based) intellectuals giving witty statements in public from James Baldwin through Truman Capote to Conan O'Brien.
Yes, at core it's only about the modern life in New York, but it's refreshing to get one of those after a long while, eh?
Hoop Dreams (USA, 1994)
Director: Steve James
Hoop Dreams has a huge reputation of being one of the best documentaries ever made. And it is an interesting look at the urban American life in the early 90's and the search for the American dream. At that time basketball really did seem like the biggest thing in theuniverse and formed a lot of other kids as well. It is also impressive that the director Steve James managed to follow the main characters for five years through their shools and formative years. However, I wasn't quite sure how it got such a lofty reputation, for at almost three hours it's tragically overlong and repetitive.
The film follows Arthur Agee and William Gates, two poor African-American youngsters in Chicago who hope to make it big in the basketball fields and to make it in the NBA. They do get a basketball scholarship to go to college, but they have trouble adjusting to the studying. Their minds are in basketball and other things young men usually dream about. We get to know this via an almost endless stream of scenes in the student councelor's office. It does have a point that the youngster's are confused and clueless about their future, especially as poor performance and injuries on the basketball field can make their dreams seem distant. There is also turmoil within their own families, which undergo changes at the same time. Still, I'd be more generous for the film if it had been an hour shorter.
Lemmy (USA, 2010)
Directors: Greg Olliver, Wes Orshoski
I must admit that I have a soft spot on rockumentaries that are part silly and part awesome. It doesn't matter how many famous rock stars they bring out to sing praises to the documentary subject, the key to a good film lies in the core personality and soul of the rock star being depicted. And they hardly could find a better one than Lemmy Kilmister, the hard-rockin' bass player and band leader of Motörhead. For one, he's old enough to remember the time before rock 'n roll, so he's a Rocker of Ages himself.
Over the years Lemmy has been a sort of mystical figure to me. There has never been that much talk about his background or private life. Lemmy the film manages to shed some light into these questions, but still maintains the mysticity of its subject. Lemmy seems to be the kind of guy that lives in a tiny apartement filled with Nazi memorabilia, has a tank in his carage and spends most of his days sitting in a bar playing slot machines and drinking endless streams of Jack Daniels. In shot, he is as awesome as any human being can physically be. No wonder he's so respected. Thet and the unique bass-playing style and skill, not to mention his rocking personality and wit.
As I mentioned, the film features far too much testimonials from famous rockers. It is not a big flaw, but could've used some trimming for the qualities of the testmonials are varying. It's no surprise the pussies from Metallica mostly just kiss Lemmy's ass. Some more talented and experienced rockers like the Damned, Ozzy Osbourne and Nikki Sixx offer much more amusing anecdotes from their history with Lemmy. And Dave Grohl seems to be a real buddy, emphasizing his friend's best qualities so far as to get genuinely moved in front of the camera, and tells a story about defending Lemmy to the Darkness's face. Ace. I wouldve also liked to see some more live footage of Lemmy on tour.
All in all, this is a profile of a true rock 'n roll star. In that it feels honest, clear and open. Lemmy truly seems like a man who truly doesn't care what other people think, he does it just the way he wants. How else can you explain that in the summer heat he likes to wear never nude -shorts?