For the last installment of my Hot Docs wrap-up (I will definitely stay for more of the fest next year), I'll talk about one more film I saw there; about Thom Powers' wonderful talk with Ricky Leacock; and lastly, the presentation screenings of the finalists of the International Documentary Challenge.
Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber's Full Battle Rattle played in the International Spectrum strand which included twenty-eight outstanding nonfiction pieces from around the world. I will be interviewing Gerber and Moss very soon for Shooting People, but wanted to write a bit about the film here.
The film had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Panorama this past winter, and followed that up with a special jury prize win at SXSW. The doc opens theatrically this summer at New York's Film Forum, and something tells me the piece will do well with its theatrical exhibition. I think it will do well, not only because it's damned good filmmaking, but because it showcases to wonderful affect such an absurd situation in a way that lets a spectator draw his or her own conclusions. I love what the London Times' James Christopher has to say about the film: "The deadly serious manner in which the American soldiers deal with all this nonsense gives rise to some of the greatest and most surreal comedy I've seen. I now know that the occupation of Iraq is utterly doomed." No shit.
In the tradition of films like Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War (which I just blogged about a couple of days ago) and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Full Battle Rattle's storytellers step back fully on any political or philosophical stance they might take (the story says it all) and step in fully with their cameras to make us part of the game.
The game, of course, is war. In the middle of the Mojave desert in California, the US Army has built a "virtual Iraq." To build this simulated occupied urban town, the military has spent about a billion dollars. Hundreds of role-players have been hired to play its Iraqi citizens. The filmmakers divided and conquered, Gerber posting himself with the army brigade in training, Moss living in the fictional village of Medina Wasl. This tactic allowed them to document both sides of the fake war. The camera work is stellar in the best "you-are-there" fashion. Well-paced and edited superbly by Alex Hall and Pax Wassermann, I literally did not know when I was supposed to laugh or cry--I felt emotionally whipsawed, in other words, and I really have come to love that sensation when watching a film.
Without giving too much away, one of the most powerful elements for me was the character of the Deputy Police Chief, played by Nagi Moshi. This man's personal story provided an extremely strong emotional backbone to this absurdist tale--an illegal immigrant from Iraq, he applied for political asylum in the US, but was facing deportation. This is a man who is helping our war effort (albeit, within the context of this costume drama) and, desperately, does not want to be returned to his native country, for obvious reasons.
I loved the way they ended the film, as well, with those very real soldiers that have been playing these games in the California desert leaving for the very real war in Iraq. As they are deployed, the tone takes on one of intense loss and sadness, particularly on the part of the soldiers' families. Despite the privilege of "practicing" to fight and die for their country in a safe place, they were all, at the end of the day, mere fodder for the war machine. Heartbreaking.
In talking about their style, Moss and Gerber state that ". . . in Full Battle Rattle [we] found the ultimate subject in which we could walk a line between the real and imagined--a subject in which the distinction between the two is beside the point." I can't wait to talk to these guys more about their experience making this film. Good stuff.
Answering a question about "fly-on-the-wall" filmmaking, the legendary Richard (Ricky) Leacock, in his characteristically acerbic way had this to say: "Flies aren't very intelligent. You have to know what you're looking for. That's when I start observing, and start getting the things that I love." Leacock was this year's recipient of the festival's Outstanding Achievement Award. Late Saturday afternoon, right before a screening of Leacock's Jazz Dance (1953), part of a programmed retrospective of his films, the intrepid cinematographer sat with Thom Powers to talk about "The Feeling of Being There."
A couple of years ago, Leacock suffered a minor stroke which erased a lot of his memory. Fortunately, he got his autobiography written before that incident and was also able to call upon parts of his life contained in the letters he wrote his wife and partner, filmmaker Valerie Lalonde, who kept every single one of them. What's resulted is an interactive memoir containing 17 hours of film on DVD--as he talks about the making of a certain film, one can watch portions of it as he goes through his creative process.
His oeuvre is vast, spanning most of the 20th century, and his contributions to the craft of nonfiction cinema and the development of all the inherent philosophies about how "documentary" has come to be defined, cannot be overstated. His cinematic eye has granted us the privilege of the kind of immersive experience we've come to expect from well-crafted verite. As is the way with a timeless artist or craftsman, Leacock has sought new ways in which he can capture those "things that he loves," developing advancements in sound technology and wholeheartedly embracing the digital revolution. At Power's behest, he showed us his bag of tricks pulled from a small camera pouch by his feet. Inventing ways to keep as mobile as possible, he has indulged his insatiable curiosity about the world for decades, and we have been the lucky benefactors. His directive to keep finding reasonably-priced, more manageable filmmaking equipment has been in service to his support for experimentation and freedom of expression. His legacy was palpable in the selections I saw at the screening later that evening that presented the finalists of the 3rd Annual International Documentary Challenge.
After a superb dinner of Indian food at a local spot, I took a friend to go see the Doc Challenge program. This is one of many timed filmmaking competitions where teams from around the world had five days, March 6 - 10, to make a nonfiction film. They were given the theme--"Change"--and a genre (character study, first person, music, political, etc.) on the morning of the 6th, and off they went.
The Best Film award with a $1,000 cash prize went to Reel Grrls from Seattle for their film Click Whoosh (the genre was "historical"). They were quite grateful since that money would help them towards purchasing another camera since they damaged theirs while making their film. The American Documentary/P.O.V. Short Film award with a prize of $1,000 in cash went to Team Juicebox (also from Seattle--lots of gung-ho filmmakers up there!) for Ars Magna (the genre was "biography/character study"), a wonderful laugh-out-loud piece that was a delight to watch. And Eric Daniel Metzgar, director of The Chances of the World Changing and Life. Support. Music. also entered the competition and won the Original Vision award for his piece called Beholder (genre, "first person"), a meditative personal essay on his growing disenchantment with New York City. You can check out the entire list of award winners here.
Finally, if you'd like to take a gander at the photo gallery of the awards presentation and closing reception from Friday night, you can click here. It was a lovely ceremony, well-produced, and hosted wonderfully well by CBC radio personality, Jian Ghomeshi.
Not as much fun as Cinema Eye, though. ;)