The hybridization of fiction and nonfiction in film is a tricky proposition and one in which I have intense interest. I know it's been around for a while, but there are always films that push the envelope in this regard, and not always comfortably, for a spectator that ponders these things as I do. I want to start with the Q&A of American Teen and work back from there.
Shown in another cavernous, unwieldy venue with horrible sound and a postage-stamp-sized screen, I never fully ensconced myself into what was going on up there but, instead, seemed to be more in tune with the reactions of other audience members. And while most seemed appreciative of the artful way the film was put together, and laughed in all the right places, I also sensed a bit of dubiousness and confusion. The audience's questions were good ones, challenging and probing ones for the filmmaker. Most of them were along the lines of, "Um, what exactly did we just see?" Director Nanette Burstein's answers, to my mind, were so facile, so glib, she really didn't answer anyone in any substantive way. And while her subjects were obviously in cahoots with her in terms of telling their own stories (they were "cast") and trusted her enough to capture certain things with "no judgment," there were a few points in the film where I really questioned her ethical calls.
I felt like I was watching a totally fabricated piece--not really much that was authentic about it and since it's being presented as a documentary (that's what Full Frame shows exclusively), I'm not meaning this in a complimentary way. It's a whitewash (literally) of the American teenager and has way too many similarities to the schlock that's shown on reality TV. I expect nonfiction cinema to rise above that a bit. This film panders to the worst sort of Hollywood mentality in filmmaking and maybe Burstein needs to move into fiction filmmaking because that's what this is--a fictionalized version of an "intimate look at the lives, hopes and dreams of four high school seniors living in a small Indiana town." (And, by the way, I loved The Kid Stays in the Picture and On the Ropes.)
Was I emotionally moved a few times? Did I laugh? Did I tear up at certain moments? Yes. But I walked away not having any understanding of these people, nor do I care about what happens to them. They all, to a person, played for and to the camera and it just got tiresome after a while. I don't watch reality TV to begin with. Why would I pay money to sit in a theater and watch the equivalent of an episode of MTV's Real World? I'm far from a purist, but this film did not, ultimately, win me over. It might do staggeringly well at the box office or it might bomb. In the meantime, the marketing campaign says it all. And, of course, the kids are going to be carted out to L.A. for the theatrical opening, all being offered internships of some sort as they participate in the launch and wide release of the film. And this will serve what purpose exactly?
I saw some other films throughout the course of Saturday and Sunday, but in the interest of moving on to other things, the only one I really want to talk about is a multiple-award winning film from 2005 that Nancy Buirski curated for her special strand at this year's fest.
The 3 Rooms of Melancholia by Pirjo Honkasalo is a cinematic and emotional masterpiece. I was urged to go see this by a few people whose taste I admire and respect, so Sunday morning, before the awards ceremony and barbeque that closes the festival, I went to go see it. This was after another sleepless night (number three if anyone's counting), another hangover and an intense, but exciting meeting with some visiting Iranian filmmakers. We chatted through an interpreter for a while as they handed over stacks of DVDs of their work for me to watch and we talked about the possibility of meeting in Dubai this summer at a brand new symposium called Documentary Voices: Pulling Focus for which I'm programming. (And don't bother looking for any presence on the web yet, because there isn't one.) To garner an atmosphere of trust and understanding, it's important for artists to get in a room, see one another's works and share ideas and thoughts on the craft of filmmaking. Seeing the world through a stranger's eyes is always enlightening, but actually dialoguing with those strangers makes them strangers no longer. This is the peacemaking of the future and I believe strongly in that. More on this in a bit.
In the world of 3 Rooms, we visit Chechnya, a place so war-torn, one wonders if this culture can ever possibly sustain itself into any kind of civilized world again. The land has been raped, as have the majority of the population including the children, both figuratively and literally. It is a place so devastated and barren, and yet Honkasalo seeks renewal and re-birth in the place that makes most sense to find it--in the children of Russia and Chechnya. There are so many images from this film that continue to resonate and haunt. With the powerful combination of exquisite imagery (the extreme close-ups of the children's faces are devastating in their intense beauty), the lush score seemingly sung by angels and the subjects themselves, one is left, again, with a simultaneity of grief and joy.
I want to re-print here, in its entirety, Honkasalo's director's statement which illustrates the sensibility so gorgeously reflected in her films:
The personal point of departure:
Having completed my 'Trilogy of the Sacred and Satanic”(the full-length documentary films Mysterion, Tanjuska and the 7 Devils, and Atman), I felt I had purged myself of what I had sought from the documentary film: its purifying and implacable concreteness. I had given whatever I had to give; to that concretion, an intimation of human silence.
I felt an attraction and attachment to the logic of the dream, to which the fictional film provides the most natural path. The world of the dream is half in the past, half in the future. Its gods swing back and forth between life and death. There is no sense of longing in dreams. Time in dreams is not time in time. I directed the feature film “Fire-Eater”.
I have always been stimulated not only by the Sacred and Satanic, but also by the Poetic and Political. It was this that drew me back to the documentary.
I don't care for truths, for I see all thought as roiling foam that adheres to nothing nor holds fast; but in the time when I am not asleep or dreaming, I wish to know how the human tribe leads its life, shapes its history and expresses its will, which always seeks to improve the human condition and yet wallows, bewildered, in its blood like some elk gone astray in the city and impaled on the spikes of a cemetery fence. It should not happen this way.
Europe is filled with people who need grace of some kind to cope with their righteous rage. The righteous rage turns, a reflection, against them. And life is no court of justice; justice does not prevail, life does. It rises out of chaos in an ascending spiral, briefly appears to have structure, and descends in the curve of a downward spiral toward fresh chaos.
Stripping away icons of the enemy calls for the acceptance of grace along with righteousness. Grace is illogical and irrational - in other words, a profoundly gratuitous liberation from the compulsion to hate.
My last experience at Full Frame was this: riding with filmmaker Eric Metzgar and the subjects of his film, Life. Support. Music. Jason Crigler is healing from a freak neurological incident that occurred while he was performing his music on stage in 2004. Metzgar's film portrays a family that moves quickly from devastation and crisis to fierce action to help him become the man he once was. Well, he's not; he's definitely different, but he's still here and he's mobile and living and loving and moving through the rest of his life with as much grace (a different kind of grace) as he had before--despite the grief of losing a part of that life, something that can never be retrieved. And as Honkasalo so eloquently puts it, ". . . life is no court of justice; justice does not prevail, life does."