In a way, documentary cinema was already as adventuresome as it was ever going to get almost a century ago, when Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera crammed just about “all of life” into 60-odd minutes.
Still, the 1929 feature was not received at the time as the world classic it’s now considered. The relatively few foreign reviewers who saw it were mostly bewildered by its kaleidoscopic attempt at “creating a truly new international language” of moving images sans explanatory intertitles or dialogue. Within a few years Vertov himself would be reduced to impersonal editing work, his highly individual style relegated to the derogatory category of “formalism,” as Stalin-era cultural watchdogs then referred to the brilliant Soviet avant-gardism of the 1920s. Henceforth the only screen work sanctioned would be simpler, their inspirational propaganda plain to all.
But there was nothing simple about Man With a Movie Camera, which plays the New Parkway this Wed/10 at 7 pm (more info here), accompanied live by Texas ensemble Montopolis playing Justin Sherbern’s original score. Its “experiment in cinematic communication of real events without the help of intertitles, without the help of a story” (as opening text informs us) is a sheer adrenaline rush of witnessed experience even beyond the scope of the era’s celluloid “city symphonies.”
Vertov’s day-in-the-life-of-everybody kaleidoscope encompasses humanity from from flapper bob to babushka, maternity ward to funeral procession, urban industry to agriculture. It also encompassed a dizzying array of every then-extent technical trickery: Stop motion, athletes in super slo-mo (long before Leni Riefenstahl), freeze frames, split screen, reverse motion, strobe-cutting, superimposition, et al. There’s room for humor and criticism in its sweep, but the overriding sense is a boundlessly optimistic joy and faith in progress, at a moment when the future still looked bright.
It took a long time for the documentary to hazard such expansiveness of form and risk again. But today there’s a lot of flexibility within the genre once again, as demonstrated by two major annual local festivals returning this week, CAAM and DocLands.
CAAMFest (formerly known as San Francisco Asian American Film Festival) is not, of course, strictly a nonfiction showcase. Indeed it commences this Thurs/11 at the Castro Theatre with probably the event’s most mainstream entertainment ever: Adele Lim’s Joy Ride, a raunchy Hangover-style comedy about four young US women whose work-play trip to China does not go according to anyone’s plan. Subtle it’s not, but this colorfully energetic road trip tale (which opens commercially mid-summer) is sure to leave the opening-night audience in a party mood. (And yes, there is an opening night party afterward, at the Asian Art Museum.)
Other US narrative highlights during CAAM’s ensuing ten days of programming include Sing J. Lee’s acclaimed Sundance premiere drama The Accidental Getaway Driver; returning frequent guest Quentin Lee’s new Last Summer of Nathan Lee, about a terminally ill teen’s busy bucket-list conquest; Justin Chon’s Jamojaya, in which an Indonesian rapper’s fast-rising career leaves his clinging manager-father behind; Kelvin Shum’s Hong Kong family drama Deliverance; and more.
And there is, as ever, a wealth of diverse documentary content on tap, shorts and features both. Among the latter, one of the most boundary-stretching selections is Law Chen’s Starring Jerry As Himself, in which his own divorced elderly father reenacts some tumultuous recent events with the help of both real-life family members and actors. They reconstruct the retired, Orlando-dwelling Taiwanese emigre’s being drafted by Chinese police to spy on and expose international money launderers… or is he in fact being bilked by scam artists himself? The clever blurring of storytelling lines makes this an unusually entertaining kind of cautionary tale.
Also of non-fiction note are So Yun Um’s Liquor Store Dreams, examining the complex relationship between Korean shop owners and Black communities in Los Angeles; Ursula Liang’s Jeannette Lee vs., about the famous female “Black Widow” pool-playing champion; Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story, whose subject visually documented the range of NYC Asian-American life for decades; and so forth. There will be a retrospective sidebar honoring Chicago-born veteran documentary Rea Tajiri, including a screening of her latest, Wisdom Gone Wild. It deals with issues around mental illness, as do Richard Lui’s Unconditional and Set Hernandez’s Unseen.
No less than eleven shorts programs further widen CAAM’s international breadth. There’s also a range of panels, food-focused events, and musical happenings capped by a Sat/20, 1pm show in Yerba Buena Gardens from Fanny, the trailblazing all-female Filipina-American rock band. It will be preceded the day before by a screening of Fanny: The Right to Rock, Bobbi Jo Hart’s excellent recent documentary about their high-profile (if not exactly chart-topping) career as a dynamic major-label recording and concert act in the early 1970s.
For full program, schedule and ticket info on CAAMFest 2023, running May 11-21 at various venues in SF and Oakland, go to CAAMFest.com.
DocLands, which runs this Wed/10 through Sun/14 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, places an even greater emphasis on music. That’s evidenced this year not only by opening night selection It’s Only Life After All, about folk-pop duo Indigo Girls, but Okay! (The ASD Band Film), Immediate Family (a sequel to prior session-musician history The Wrecking Crew), and aspiring Afghan pop star chronicle And Still, I Sing.
Other topics covered onscreen include ones pertaining to the environment (Deep Rising, King Coal, Into the Ice), journalistic freedom (the excellent Bad Press), sexual assault injustice (Victim/Suspect), the prison-industrial complex (Lovely Jackson), a former First Lady (The Lady Bird Diaries), Native Americans (Aitamaako’Tamisskapi Natosi: Before the Sun, Lakota Nation vs. United States), food (Coldwater Kitchen), fashion (Invisible Beauty, Fashion Reimagined), sport (No Legs, All Heart), poetics (Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Projectz), critters (Brother Horse, Patrick and the Whale), Ugandan politics (Bob Wine: The People’s President), and even more.
Mixing racial divisions, political opportunism, climate change, and gentrification all in one package is Katie Esson’s Razing Liberty Square. It glimpses a likely future for us all in a present wherein less-privileged citizens (here Miami’s longtime Black community) are summarily evicted so people with money can move to higher ground before sea levels get any higher.
Many directors and other relevant personnel will be in person for post-screening Q&A’s, as is also the case at CAAMFest. For full info on DocLands’ 2023 program and schedule, go here.