The equation goes like this: The more unsettling a film, the more truthful a documentary, the more a work takes to task corporate America, the less likely it will be seen in moviehouses. (The number of independent film houses is shrinking, and not everybody has Michael Moore’s clout.) American and foreign film festivals, the Sundance Channel and the Internet may be the only venues for these innovative, fearless films shut out of the mainstream game.
After watching 27 documentaries and narrative films for my Woodstock Film Festival preview, one would think my senses had been irrevocably dulled by the sheer sensory overload. Au contraire; marathon movie-watching actually sharpens the critical skills and makes it easier to distinguish the crowd-pleasers from the challenging pieces, and separating the efforts of a poseur from a true work of art.
While less than a quarter of the WFF 2009 films were made available to me by press time, I cite these films as the best in the categories of documentary and narrative works. If I seem overly effusive in my assessments, that is no mistake; these films easily stand apart from the pack. Make both of them a priority when you buy your festival tickets.
Jay's Pick: Best Narrative Film
Lower-class poverty is comforting; we can cluck our tongues and explain away the circumstances that land a struggling blue-collar worker in the gutter or a homeless shelter. Blame is passed around and token efforts made to address the matter. But in our current recession, the issue of middle-class poverty and homelessness is a growing matter. If you aren’t vulnerable to insulin shock, you can view the issue of middle-class poverty in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness. But for a more honest, more compelling take on the matter, see Children of Invention. Tze Chun not only delivers a harrowing and honest take on this growing problem, but he does so through the eyes of a Chinese immigrant. Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung), a divorced woman from Hong Kong, has moved to the Boston suburb of Quincy with her two kids Raymond (Michael Chen, interviewed in our March issue) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). When her husband stops child support, even Elaine’s efforts as a real estate agent can’t stop them from losing their house. Eager for work, Elaine gets caught up in a marketing scheme that sets into motion a series of heartbreaking dilemmas. Director Tze Chun is a marvel at capturing the humanistic facets of the situation, while also touching on devastating truths about prejudice, modern business, American assimilation, family allegiances and the resourcefulness of children. Even cameo characters exude a backstory that suggests we have stumbled onto fully-lived lives. Every actor, from lead to ensemble character, infuses his role with an honesty that is rare and refreshing. Unlike Happyness’s Jaden Smith, Chen and Chiu have not been directed for maximum cuteness; their performances are subtle, nuanced and unsettling in their depth for children so young. They serve as a perfect complement to Cheung, who delivers a powerful, naturalistic portrait. Heartbreaking but life-affirming, and suggesting a documentary more than fiction, Children of Invention is the best of the WFF narrative films I have screened.
Jay's Pick Best Documentary Film:
The family we meet in this heartfelt, heartrending documentary usually visit our lives through television: exploitative talk shows, the reality show Cops or one of the endless series of “true” courtroom afternoon programs. In those settings, the people are presented as crude, clueless Americans, lacking a moral compass and forever mired in unemployment, financial crises, teenage motherhood. The Mosher family of Herkimer, New York, certainly bear all of those problems and more. But to a person, they are incredibly clear-eyed about their problems, employing a merciless self-awareness and a rough-hewn eloquence that will tear through your soul. Matriarch Dottie watches helplessly as her daughter and grandchildren repeat the same life patterns involving lack of judgment, aggravated by social circumstances in this Mohawk Valley town. Donal Mosher, who first documented his family in a book of essays and photographs, coaxes his relatives to a level of candor that will haunt the viewer for days to come. Unilke the TV shows that use these people as fodder, not a whiff of condescension taints these cinematic portraits. The directors spent a year following the family as they struggle through a variety of social ills that are part and parcel of life in this area: domestic abuse, unmoored relationships, job challenges, teenage marriage, child abuse, petty crime and limited life options. But the Mosher family also withstands easy categorizing and dismissal. Grandfather Don appears to be a typical taciturn man of his generation, gruff and stand-offish. But as the film proceeds, his walls fall and we meet a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm who has had the humanity crushed from his mind and body. When Don regards the disintegration of his troubled family, his understated observations are both merciless and spot-on. Among them: “We wouldn’t know normal if it fell on us.” The most astounding aspect of this portrait is not that the Moshers exist, but rather how many millions of Americans today claim similar struggles. Lacerating in its honesty but also sadly poetic, October Country is America unvarnished and the best of the WFF documentary films I have screened.