SF DOCFEST: The Plasticity of Reality

by Michael Fox

The popularity peak presently enjoyed by documentaries and reflected in the ongoing success of SF DocFest (opening June 5 and continuing through June 19 in San Francisco and Oakland) owes a great deal to a pair of galactic mainstream-media shifts over the last two decades: Hollywood lost interest in depicting the reality-based world and TV networks abdicated the work of investigative journalism.  We could toss in other factors like the generational shift from print-based to image-based information, the schlocky ubiquity of reality TV and the top-to-bottom improvement in documentary production values (thanks to cheap access to the tools of production, i.e., digital video cameras).  It all adds up to success as a double-edged sword for American doc filmmakers, who must navigate and integrate the divergent responsibilities of social utility and entertainment.

docfest key art

The most common way through this dilemma, self evidently, is narrative and drama.  (Consequently, you have to look to Europe if your taste in nonfiction runs to character studies, poetry, ambiguity and mystery.)  It’s fair to say that over the years the various DocFest programmers—who have to sell tickets, after all—have selected a goodly number of quirky, diverting and unabashedly entertaining films.  At the same time, the festival has embraced the ongoing evolution of documentary and the attendant debates, notably with respect to the blurring of fiction and fact.

Docfest actress_poster

The catalyst for this year’s discussion of the nature and representation of truth, and the future subject of a thousand grad school papers, is Robert Greene, the recipient of Docfest’s Non-Fiction Vanguard Award.  The New York filmmaker receives a three-film salute, launching in grand style with the West Coast premiere of his latest, Actress  (2014) , on opening night, that doubles as a tribute and an introduction to a body of lovely, invitingly provocative work that challenges the way we watch and respond to doc and fiction films alike.

Actress  takes us into the home and world of Brandy Burre, a stage performer who enjoyed a mid-2000s turn playing Theresa D’Agostino in The Wire before leaving the biz to start a family.  As the film begins, she’s growing increasingly weary of the stay-at-home-mom routine (exacerbated by her partner spending all day every day running his restaurant) and sets about re-igniting her career.

We sense the director’s presence early on through camera placement as well as the succinct, punchy rhythm of the opening scenes.  But it’s Greene’s use of music, especially a trio of montages set to mood-laden songs, that pushes the wonderfully crafted and relentlessly fascinating Actress  out of the catch-as-catch-can realm of observational documentary and toward the intriguing realm of shaped narrative.  I hasten to acknowledge, at this point, that every documentary is shaped, and we deceive ourselves if we think otherwise.  (Surveillance video and webcams are the last domains of fly-on-the-wall cinema, but even there someone chose the wall and where to point the camera.)

The typical questions we ask while watching a doc—Are the subjects living, or performing for the camera?  How much of what we see is the result of “direction” or collaboration between subject and filmmaker?  To what effect and for what goal is the reality being manipulated?—are complicated here by the fact that Burre is, uh, an actress.  She not only understands what the camera catches and communicates, but how to present herself (and how to present herself “candidly”).  Layers upon layers upon layers, presented for our contemplation, self-reflection, pleasure and, yes, entertainment.

Docfest fake it so real_poster

Greene’s study of a high school senior on the cusp, Kati With an I  (2010) , and his aptly titled portrait of North Carolina pro wrestlers, Fake It So Real  (2012), play Saturday, June 7, and likewise provide wonderful opportunities to consider the subjectivity of truth, the aesthetic choices available to nonfiction filmmakers and, perhaps, the uncomfortable fact that once in the editing room, the director’s overriding responsibility is to the narrative.

Docfest internets own boy_poster

There’s a vast number and wide array of films beyond Robert Greene’s work to seek out at DocFest, of course, all of which offer fertile ground for debating the nature and ethics of nonfiction filmmaking.  Let me just note, as a way of further stimulating your ears, that even a straightforward talking-heads piece like The Internet’s Own Boy  (presented three times during the festival before beginning its theatrical run July 4 at the Roxie), Brian Knappenberger’s diligent record of the accomplishments, idealism and government persecution of Internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz, comes outfitted with a wall-to-wall, energy-and tension-supplying score.  Every day and in every way, the techniques and grammar of documentaries and fiction become more and more interchangeable.

Michael Fox is a longtime film critic, journalist and teacher. He also curates and hosts the Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics Institute in downtown San Francisco.

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Editor’s Note: With over 40 films in the official selection, the 13th Annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (SF DocFest) will likewise include “Doc Talk” panels, a few to be moderated by EatDrinkFilms contributor Michael Fox.

As referenced above, Robert Greene will be presented with the SF DocFest Vanguard award at the Roxie Theater on Saturday, June 7th at 4:00PM, inbetween the screenings of Kati With An I  and Fake It So Real.

Doc Talk “Fact Fiction or ?” will be held at the Roxie Theater on Sunday, June 8th at 12:30PM.  Filmmakers, academics, and critics will discuss what it means to be a documentary filmmaker today when the boundaries of what defines non-fiction are being pushed and pulled from all angles.  Moderated by Fox, panel participants will include Jamie Meltzer (Director, Cinematographer, Producer), Amanda Micheli (Director, Cinematographer, and Founder of Runaway Films), Daniel T. Skaggs (Director and Cinematographer) and David Martinez (Writer, Filmmaker, and Political Activist).  Admittance to this Doc Talk is free and bagels and coffee will be provided.

Fox will likewise moderate the work-in-progress screening of First Friday  (2014) at the OSA Black Box Theater on Saturday, June 14th at 12:30PM.  Participants will include N’Jeri Eaton (Producer and Co-Director) and Mario Furloni (Co-Director).  The same Doc Talk will be held the following day Saturday, June 15th at 2:30PM at the Roxie Theater, moderated by Nicole Opper.  Admittance to both presentations and the work-in-progress screening will be $12.

Doc Talk “Who Programs These Films Anyway?” will be held at the Roxie Theater on Thursday, June 12th at 5:00PM.  Come and meet festival programmers from the vast, varied and vital film festivals of the Bay Area and—if you ask the right question—many film festival secrets with be revealed.  Moderated by KQED’s Lisa Landi, panel participants will include Jeff Ross (SF Indie/DocFest/Another Hole in the Head), Greta Shoenberg (SF Dance FF), Carlton Evans (Disposable FF), Joshua Moore (Jewish FF), Masashi Niwano (CAAM), and Joshua Grannell aka Peaches Christ (SF Underground Shorts FF).  Admittance is free and nibbles and drinks will be provided.

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