More Reflections from Matt on Silverdocs: Art as Escape


Docs In Progress is pleased to offer more reflections on films at Silverdocs from guest reviewer Matthew Radcliff.




In a previous summary I wrote about the films that had a core theme of €œfamily. A second thread running through the festival focused on characters who used art as a means of liberation or escape. Many of these subjects felt compelled to practice their art. Beyond the level of a hobby or even a job, the physical and mental actions kept them healthy, happy, and in at least one instance, sane.



The most unexpected artists in the festival were the workers at the recycling facility depicted in Tessa Joosse€™s delightful short Plastic and Glass. The camera follows the path of the garbage through the facility along the maze of conveyor belts from which the workers must sort out the different materials. Paper products in back, plastic containers here, and glass bottles there. After a few minutes, the sounds of the machinery settle into a rhythm and the workers begin moving in time. The faint sound of humming can be heard, just barely rising above the clank of the factory. As the bales of crushed plastic are moved via forklift, the driver begins to sing, €œPlastic and glass, paper, rocks, and scissors. Director (and composer) Tessa Joosse described the film as a blend of Alan Lomax€™s field recordings of folk music and Jacques Tati€™s playful films of daily life. The song functions similar to a work chant, to coordinate movements, but also to alleviate the boredom of sorting recyclables. One month after the festival, I still find myself singing the song.



Another short, They Are Giants, conflates work and art, chronicling the creation of a miniature book by retired publisher Guus Thurkow. Director Koert Davidse captures the passion and pride that Thurkow invests in creating his miniature books and in collecting other specimens. The film opens with establishing shots of Thurkow€™s very classic-looking library, the Bibliotheca Thurkowiana Minor, with hardwood floors and shelves lined with leather-bound books. A hand reaches in to adjust a row of books throws your perceptions for a loop: the finger is bigger than each book. As the camera pulls back, you realize that it is a dollhouse-sized library, full of more than 2,000 miniature books in a space eight feet long and four feet high. Over the course of the film, Thurkow puts together a miniature book that is one chapter of Don Quixote, the fight against windmills mistaken for giants. Thurkow informs us that Don Quixote is the patron €œsaint of libraries, because in the novel, the burning of his library, supposedly for his own good, instigated Quixote€™s quest. Thurkow€™s miniature books are full of tiny details, and require a high level of competence and patience. Due to the small size, any mistake is comparatively large, although it is not noticeable to the film€™s audience. Therefore, it is an extreme shock at the end of the film when Thurkow chops his book in half because it did not meet his level of perfection.



One of the best films at the festival, and the winner of the Cinematic Vision Award, was Jeff Malmberg€™s Marwencol. This well-told story also featured a protagonist whose art used miniature objects, although instead of classic literature, Mark Hogenkamp takes superb photographs of Barbie and Ken dolls. It is difficult to write too much about Marwencol without giving away too much information. The power of the film comes in part from how it is constructed, and how Malmberg carefully parcels out the details of Hogenkamp€™s story. Each scene continually hooks the audience again, keeping everyone in their seats anxious to hear the rest of the story. What can be told is this: several years ago, Hogenkamp was the victim of a serious beating which left him physically and mentally traumatized. He suffered serious amnesia and numerous physical injuries. His minimal insurance did not provide enough therapy, and so Hogenkamp works with his dolls to develop patience, dexterity, and his imagination. Before the attack, he was a talented artist, often sketching fantastic scenes from his imagination. He was also a severe alcoholic. After the attack he no longer felt any desire to drink, but neither was he able to express his imaginative side as well.  So he began to practice a kind of homemade therapy, creating elaborate storylines set in a fictional World War II era European town. The Barbie dolls are the town€™s denizens, named for Mark€™s friends and neighbors, and he photographs them. In essence, he is creating a sort of graphic novel based upon these photographs; although mostly once the photos were developed he just stored them in a shoebox. The need to create and continue the story was the main goal, not finishing and displaying the art. As the story unfolds, Mark€™s photos are noticed by a gallery owner in New York City who sets up an exhibition. The preparation and visit to the exhibition is when a lot of the back-story gets revealed to the audience. The film should be in theaters this fall; don€™t miss it.



Bill Cunningham, the star of Bill Cunningham New York, is a photographer for the New York Times. He has two columns in the Styles section of the Sunday paper, €œEvening Hours and €œOn The Streets. The former is photos of the attendees at the many charity events around town. The latter is a chronicle of the fashions seen on the city€™s streets. Each week, Bill€™s photos expose the similarities in how we dress: one week everyone seems to be wearing blue, the next it is stripes. One of my favorite columns shows more than a dozen examples of using black trash bags to stay dry. At 80 years old, Bill is still active. It is clear that his work (or play, as he refers to it) keeps him young at heart. He is constantly working, using his bicycle to get around town and photographing seemingly everything. However, he will tell you that he doesn€™t photograph everything and is very selective. During one scene in particular he chooses not to photograph a famous actress, in contrast to the dozens of other photographers around him, because €œshe was not wearing anything interesting. In many respects, Bill Cunningham New York, is a typical profile of a character with an interesting job. The film is produced by the New York Times Company, but does not give the impression that it is a commercial for them. Bill celebrates fashion as a bit of beauty that anyone can indulge in with any budget. He is just so delightfully cheerful and nice that the film is an uplifting and joyous experience.



Two short films also featured main characters who maintain their youth through art. The two dancers in Keep Dancing, Marge Champion and Tony Saddler, are both ninety years old and still dance three times a week. After a lifetime of dancing in Hollywood musicals and Broadway shows, they refuse to stop. Partners since 2001, their weekly rehearsals of new choreography keep them active and alert. Most of all, it keeps them happy. The short film includes numerous clips from earlier eras, particularly Marge, who was in the movie musical Show Boat and had been the real-life model for several Disney characters, including Snow White.



Corner Plot profiles Charlie Koiner, a Silver Spring native who is, perhaps, an artist of the soil. He farms a one-acre plot inside the Beltway around Washington, DC, the last urban farmer €“ or the first, depending how you look at it. The short film, by local filmmakers (and Docs In Progress alums) Ian Cook and Andre Dahlman, shows Charlie harvesting his crops, chatting with his neighbors, and tending the stall he has at the weekly farmer€™s market. Assisted by his daughter, farming is his retirement career. At one point in the film, he mentions that buying the extra land for the garden may not have been financially worthwhile, but was extremely in keeping him active. This raises the excellent point that staying active in old age is actually a financial savings. If Charlie calculated how much money he is not spending on health care due to his active lifestyle, then I€™m sure that buying the extra land would clearly be seen as a great financial decision. Like Marge, Donald, and Bill, Charlie is an exceptionally likeable character and clearly enjoys his own €œartistic outlet.



The British filmmaker and main protagonist in Men Who SwimDylan Williams, finds himself turning 40 in Sweden, where he lives with his Swedish wife and their children. Unable to find work, he joins a men€™s synchronized swimming team for the chance to meet people and get a little exercise. The camaraderie of the team has its ups and downs, as any group of people will, but the friendships that develop are strong. The team members commit to improving their routine once they learn about the All Male World Championship being held in Milan. Because the synchronized swim team is a hobby for all of them, they struggle with finding the resources to travel to Italy and to hire a professional coach, whose help they desperately need. Dylan, who films the progression of the team, is not the only member who finds a way to resurrect artistic talents. Another member of the team, Lars, had formerly been a rock musician, and finds a renewed sense of purpose composing the score for their routine. He also falls in love with Jane, their original, volunteer coach. With the personal satisfaction that their journey has engendered, it almost doesn€™t matter whether they win or lose at the World Championship, so I won€™t reveal how that turns out!



The most literal example of using art as a means of escape is in This Chair Is Not Me, by Andy Taylor Smith. The film is an impressionistic telling of a personal story by Alan Martin, a dance- and movement-instructor who suffers from cerebral palsy and must use a computerized €œvocalizer to speak for him (similar to the machine that Stephen Hawking uses). Alan tells the story of when he got his first vocalizer, appropriately dubbed, €œThe Liberator. As a young man, homebound and confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak, he felt incredibly stifled. When his father, in punishment for some infraction, took away Alan€™s CB radio, Alan felt that his only link with the outside world had snapped. So he left, rolling himself out the door and down the street. This new world, so alive and new, energized Alan; however, he was unable to order an ice cream cone or a basket of french fries. The next day, when he returned home, the situation was realized to be unlivable, and a collection was begun to buy Alan a vocalizer. Since then, he has gone on to choreograph and perform dances, and even has been an actor on BBC sitcoms. The short film beautifully captures both Alan€™s sense of confinement and his joy at being set free, through the power of words.



The dancers and performers in The Faux Real are escaping from convention and expectations of gender. Sort of €“ they are faux drag queens, women pretending to be men pretending to be women. It is an exaggerated performance of €œwomanhood and €œfemininity, often purposefully designed to be transgressive of gender expectations. At least some of the women in the film maintain the identity of a drag queen offstage, however. For them, it relates to the way they think about their bodies and their manners, and definitely serves to circumvent the roles and styles that society prescribes for women.



We Don€™t Care About Music Anyway . . ., about Japanese €œnoise rock, showcased artists who seek to escape from conventions. Their music (I will call continue to call it that, even if they might object) uses traditional and modern instruments alongside electronic devices and well, anything that can make a sound. One performer tapes tiny microphones to various parts of his body, and turns himself into an instrument. For instance, he amplifies his heartbeat, and even uses it to control the lighting for one dramatic show. Every beat of his heart was a pulse of light in the room, which was amazing to see. At the same time, he had a microphone attached to his nose, so that his breathing became another part of the rhythmic track. On top of these two microphones, and others, he spoke-sang through the piece. The film features almost a dozen musicians, and in between performance pieces, we see snippets of a roundtable discussion amongst them. They discuss each other€™s work, in a very self-deprecating and humorous way, and also get very philosophical about their intentions. While not necessarily a €œpleasant listening experience, it is a fascinating documentary about a vibrant sub-culture in Japan, and growing in the US, too.



Silverdocs this year included a number of films with photography as a central element. I have already mentioned Bill Cunningham and Marwencol in this post, and Arsy-Versy in my previous post. Additionally, The Woodmans and Camera, Camera, neither of which I got to see, focused on photography. The former film explores the titular family, all artists, whose youngest child, Francesca, tragically killed herself at the age of 22. She was a photographer and her work is still shown in exhibitions. Her mother, father, and brother all provide perspective on the artistic life. The latter film explores the snapshot: photography, not as an art, but as travel memento. Does looking at a foreign culture through the viewfinder of a camera change what we see? I look forward to another opportunity to see this film, which looks like it raises more questions than it answers.



Space Tourists, while primarily about the €œspace-industrial complex to paraphrase President Eisenhower, does feature a documentary photographer who spent time roaming the former Soviet Union taking pictures of the crumbling infrastructure remaining from their once large space program. Now, reduced to ferrying tourists to the International Space Station to cover the costs of launching rockets, many of the buildings in the town surrounding their €œcosmonaut city lie abandoned. I have already written about this film previously, for the Silverdocs blog.



I cannot end this summary of films about art at Silverdocs without mentioning Lucy Walker€™s Waste Land, which I did not get to see. (Too many films, not enough days€¦) In this film, a Brooklyn artist travels to Brazil to create large artworks out of trash from what may be the world€™s largest garbage dump.



And lastly, a film that I did get to see and thoroughly enjoyed was the David Byrne concert film by David Hillman Curtiss Ride Rise Roar. The music, naturally, was fabulous and sounded great in the big theater at the AFI Silver. What made this film unique was its focus on the dancers on the tour with Byrne and his band. Instead of primarily showing the band members playing their instruments, Curtis crafted the film around the three dancers, including the audition process, which was cool to see. For each song, we see a short intro of the band and dancers learning the choreography, and then we see the final product performed on stage. In all the songs, David Byrne also has a role in the choreography, which is not surprising since he is front and center on the stage. What are interesting are the songs where the back-up singers and the band members must also perform and dance. The result was a thoroughly enjoyable film that sheds an interesting light on the process of creating modern dance.



With over 100 films, the 2010 AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival was loaded with great documentaries. There was too much to see, making it impossible for one person to see everything. But what I did get to see, I enjoyed very much. It has been a great opportunity to review and relive the experience as I write these summaries.


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