’Tis the season, it seems, for major documentary film festivals, with Toronto’s Hot Docs just over, Human Rights Watch starting in NYC next week, and Durham NC’s Full Frame in early June. Closer to home, SF Docfest will commence its 20th edition on June 3. Meanwhile, there’s the already-in-progress DocLands, whose fifth annual program continues this year through this Sun/16, offering both streaming programs and select limited-capacity screenings on-site at the re-opened Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
The California Film Institute-presented festival, which also includes “DocPitch” (in which five jury-selected filmmaking teams audition their projects to viewers for substantial funding awards) and “DocTalk: Women of Impact” (a panel discussion with four women directors), runs a wide gamut of nonfiction cinema.
Recipients of this year’s DocLands Honors Award are duo Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, whose films about working people and workers’ rights include last year’s 9to5: The Story of a Movement, about how the intersection of feminist and labor activism put the kibosh on various long-standing office employee abuses in the 1970s.
Other US features shed light on issues artistic (Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, Summer of Soul), environmental-activist (End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, The Magnitude of All Things), involving civil liberties (the surveillance-focused All Light Everywhere), and more.
There are also films from or about Syria (9 Days in Raqqa), Norwegians in Japan (Code Name: Nagasaki), a Portuguese surfer (Big vs Small), posthumously “outed” transgender jazz legend Billy Tipton (No Ordinary Man), the Iranian Revolution (Radiograph of a Family), bitey aquatic life (Playing With Sharks), themed shorts programs, et al. In-theater Rafael shows aside, most of DocLands’ program is available for streaming throughout the festival’s timeframe. For full info, click here.
There are also several notable new documentaries freshly arrived in local theaters and/or virtual cinemas:
Tell Them We Were Here
Griff and Keelan Williams’ feature pays tribute to San Francisco as a longtime “refuge for weirdos and artists” whose makers continue to expand notions of what and where art can be, as well as who can make it. They focus largely on veteran talents who’ve continued to flourish without much support from (or interest in) the museum and commercial gallery mainstream.
Those spotlit here multimedia pioneer Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose work has frequently surfed the cutting edge of technology to comment upon it; photographer Jim Goldberg of the seminal street-kids documentation Raised by Wolves; unclassifiable Amy Francheschini’s revival of the “victory garden” for a new era of selective food scarcity; Nigel Poor’s storytelling collaborations with San Quentin inmates; and, among younger artists, Sadie Barnette’s artistic use of FBI files gained via the Freedom of Information Act on her father’s activism as a Black Panther.
We also hear from curators and others involved in such local institutions as The Lab, Berkeley Art Museum, SFMOMA and Oakland Museum. One notes “Artists in the Bay Area are more interested in a life in the arts than a career in the arts.” I wish Tell Them had expended more (or any) attention on how these often altruistic, community-minded artists manage to stay in a region that once attracted their like because it was affordable—and is now anything but. Still, the documentary does provides some balming reminder that the spirit of the Beats, hippies, and other inventive SF epochs endures in at least a few industrious, imaginative residents still. Tell Them We Were Here is streaming on BAMPFA’s “On View” virtual cinema, click here for info and access.
The Human Factor
Attempts to improve the world in an entirely different way are chronicled in this US-Israeli coproduction from Dror Moreh, whose Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers in 2012 provided an unsettling platform for observations from six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. Offering a different perspective on the seemingly ever-more-elusive goal of peace in the Middle East here are several top American diplomats. They all attempted to mediate between Israeli and Palestinian leaders during a period when that goal actually seemed within possible reach.
As the sole remaining real global superpower after end of Cold War, the US decided such brokering was worth a try, particularly while Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s Prime Minister. A process begun under President Bush continued under President Clinton, with progress made despite an escalation in suicide bombers (from hard-liners on both sides opposed to any deal) until Rabin’s assassination. His successor seemed much less amenable, yet again things were able to move forward towards the end of the Clinton era.
The Gatekeepers was also an oral history told by talking heads. But it had a little more emotional involvement, as the former Shin Bet chiefs showed some surprising, frank doubts in retrospect about individual decisions and missed opportunities. In contrast, the career diplomats here remain smooth as glass, still viewing their involvement as a series of pragmatic, problem-solving exercises that are sometimes lent a bit of color by anecdotes related to specific personalities. (As the title implies, one can never omit the idiosyncracies of individual character from negotiation of issues.) It’s all too rare any of them says something that breaches the decorous tenor, as when one admits the Americans too often acted like “Israel’s lawyers” rather than neutral mediators.
The Human Factor will fascinate those deeply invested in the subject. Yet given that subject’s extremely divisive nature, it’s somewhat frustratingly detached—a collective lecture by pros resistant to emotional involvement or display. It may also disappoint those expecting a broader view, as the film promises “the story of that thirty-year [negotiating] effort from the view of the negotiators,” but actually only scrutinizes 1991-2000. It’s a worthy watch, even if you can’t help but feel that a more vividly involved human factor is precisely what it lacks. The film is currently playing SF’s Embarcadero Center Cinema, the Elmwood in Berkeley, and AMC Saratoga 14 in San Jose.
Opening Fri/14 at the Embarcadero, Berkeley’s Shattuck and other theaters is this feature from Kim A. Snyder, who trained her camera on parental grief in 2016’s Newtown. This followup-of-sorts likewise deals with the aftermath of a (different) school shootin. But this time she focuses on the students who became high-profile gun control activists after seventeen of their number were killed and another seventeen wounded by a lone gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day three years ago.
Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg turned into instant media celebrities, as well as the targets for gun lobby shills and all-around paranoids like Alex Jones, who claimed they were phonies “coached” by liberal adult 2nd Amendment foes. Surely mere kids couldn’t be so articulate, unflappable and well-informed? Well, they could be, and Us Kids impresses anew with how remarkably poised, resourceful, passionate, and even-tempered these teenagers were in the pressure cooker of national attention. For starters, they answered criticisms that their activist voices were too middle-class-and-white by immediately recruiting more diverse representatives.
One might wish Snyder paid a tad more attention to the less attention-magnetizing personalities who were just as dedicated as the chosen “stars,” and the film has a few too many music-video-style inspirational montages. Still, it’s an inevitably moving portrait of unexpected people stepping up to the plate and demanding society change itself for the better. Us Kids premiered at Sundance nearly a year and a half ago, but its delayed release is welcome: With Biden in the White House, there is cause to hope once again that America’s catastrophic gun addiction might meaningfully be addressed by our government.