The Documentary Edge Festival
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 22nd April 2012
The first rule of the annual documentary film festival is you have to get to a cinema. Most of these films won’t be back, and many won’t even make it to DVD. The Doc Edge team have scoured the four corners of our globe for the very best non-fiction stories. I warn you: blink and you’ll miss them.
The second rule is: try anything. I have yet to preview a documentary in any of the last three years’ festivals that hasn’t been fascinating. Some are confronting and disturbing; others are purely delightful. Here is a taste of some must-sees.
Shakespeare High will ease you in gently. The 90th annual Shakespeare Festival presents an opportunity for talented kids from several Californian high schools to get into the Bard. Distilling a 3 hour play into an 8 minute scene, the teams must capture the judges’ attention and admiration. But this isn’t just white, middle class kids – in a tale of hope and inspiration, many come from difficult backgrounds. Chris would get “popped” by his homies if they knew he was acting, but his aim is to get to college. Following in the footsteps of featured alumni Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham, it’s a heart-warming and exciting ride.
There is an excellent line-up of crime-related stories, and China’s Dead Man Talking is compelling viewing. An audience of 40 million watches the weekly TV show where convicted killers, sentenced to death, are interviewed about their crimes by the Barbara Walters of Chinese TV. Journalist Ding Yu cares enough to want to know “Why?” and insists on speaking to the condemned as human beings, not criminals. As the families wail “Go peacefully!”, it’s hard not to be touched by the fate of these very ordinary people. In a similar vein, The Interrupters tackles street crime in Chicago society, with its extraordinary tale of a brave and committed group of “Violence Interrupters” – idealists from the gangs who have turned their lives around, and now work to guide others away from retribution. Ameena exhibits more chutzpah than any scripted character from The Wire, with bursts of real-life “dialogue” that are impassioned and surprisingly effective, no doubt due to her own history. In Crime after Crime we look at the justice system from inside, as Debbie Peagler fights for freedom during 26 years in prison, jailed for her role in the murder of her abusive boyfriend. It’s a tale of battered women overcoming prejudice and two devoted strangers who see the injustice in her case, and take up the mantle.
Utterly fascinating is the remarkable Hitler’s Children. A slight misnomer, the film actually talks to descendants of those Nazis who did have families, and who battle with either their name or their guilt about the sins of their fathers. It is subtly played and shocking, as we hear about children who grew up next door to Auschwitz under a veil of ignorance, playing on toys built by prisoners, and with the memory that the ash on the strawberries had to be washed off. For some, catharsis and acceptance; for others, lifelong pain.
For some light relief, head to Big in Bollywood. So unbelievable you couldn’t make it up, this documentary was shot with remarkable foresight by the friends of Indian American actor Omi Vaidya, native ofPalm Springs and struggling inHollywood to get a break. Cue a random casting in a Bollywood movie, and his mates decide to film him attending the premiere in Mumbai. What follows is an extraordinary Star is Born story, which will have you grinning throughout.
And to round off: Vanity Fair writer and columnist/public speaker Fran Leibowitz makes a living out of being a smart-arse, and isn’t she fabulous? In Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese films the writer’s witty take on life, interspersed with clips from the 70s and 80s. Leibowitz’s tongue-in-cheek opinion of her invaluable contributions is entirely justified, as you can’t help but smile and nod along with her.