Years ago, I used to think the documentaries in competition at RiverRun International Film Festival were uneven. That’s old news.
For the last several years, the quality of the program has gotten better and better.
Of the nine docs competing for the award of best in their category (there was no screener available for me to preview Twenty Feet From Stardom), you can’t really make a misstep in terms of the overall quality of the individual films. Maybe you should try to see them all!
If time doesn’t allow you to take in all of them, make your festival viewing choices based on topics that interest you generally or new stories you find intriguing, and you’ll find my assessments below if you want a bit of guidance from someone who has seen all of the available films.
I’ll start with my two favorite films of the lot – I Am Breathing and Rising From Ashes –then will proceed in alphabetical order with my take on the remainder of the list.
I Am Breathing is a small, personal film about the most important of subjects, how to live when you know your death is imminent. A new father living in the UK finds ways to share important memories and life lessons with his young son after a rare disease claims his mobility and his life. This is a beautiful little film that brings more smiles than tears. There are moments in I Am Breathing that will remind you of the treasures in daily life we take for granted all too often. It is a life-affirming film.
Set in Cambodia, A River Changes Course seems like a small film from the beginning, but director Kalyanee Mam follows three Cambodians from their village as they seek better lives and, instead, find that dangerous environmental and economic realities cast a long shadow across the larger geopolitical landscape, a shadow that connects them wherever they travel and whenever they return home. This is a beautiful and thought-provoking film.
Art of Conflict is a captivating, new take on a familiar story, unrest in Northern Ireland. The idea behind the film is simple, to document the role that murals on the outsides of homes and other buildings in Belfast has played in memorializing the past and, finally, how art is bringing historic enemies together to construct a new future. The art is stark and sometimes shocking, its ties to history and political action are direct, and its power to change the future is promising. I think the film also uses period music well to help evoke a strong sense of time and place as the story unfolds.
The idea is clever: follow a an old school bus from its auction in the US to its new home in Guatemala where it will become a camioneta, a boldly decorated bus that transports people to and from work. La Camioneta is an interesting look inside this journey, but I have one quibble about how gang extortion (which is a very real problem) is manipulated into this particular narrative to introduce dramatic conflict in a way that is not organic to the story of this particular bus. Still the film has its moments and is worth watching.
Canícula will not be for everyone because of the approach and pacing of the documentary – this languid, ethnographic film examines a cultural tradition, a flying dance high up in the air performed by a group of men, of Mexico’s Totonac people from Veracruz. For patient viewers, however, the beauty of the ritual and daily routines of the people are mesmerizing.
The first two-thirds or so of Google And The World Brain examine Google’s plan to scan every book in the world, and this portion of the film along with some added historic context are engrossing. When the filmmakers turn to the legal actions designed to stop the project, the film falters a bit. One other note, text screens in films that do not use proper punctuation annoy me. This is true in Google And The World Brain both for text cards and some subtitling, which inhibits my reading of the material and makes the film feel unfinished to me.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself is sure to be a crowd pleaser. George Plimpton was a founder of the Paris Review, but he is probably better known to most people for his exploits in participatory journalism. The film does a good job recounting his exploits (archival material abounds), but it does not provide a very good sense of who George Plimpton was as a man. This would be a glaring defect if George Plimpton were knowable. Since his son, ex-wife, and longtime friend all mention in interviews that they aren’t sure how well they knew George and how each of them wanted more closeness from him, then the film explains what might otherwise be seen as an oversight.
Rising From Ashes is a fresh approach to the “against all odds” tale that contextualizes the unspeakable horrors of genocide in Rwanda against the ever-popular sports narrative. Jock Boyer may be a legend in cycling, but I had never heard of him. Never mind that because this is a story of redemption where a troubled coach finds new purpose in helping genocide survivors live their dreams by developing a national cycling team. The small moments as cyclists bond with their coach and with one another are what make this a special film, which means you don’t have to care about cycling or even about sports to appreciate this story.
It is tempting to compare Sophia’s Last Ambulance to a reality show about EMT workers, but this film is more stylized (in its implicity) and takes an artistic approach that is probably more admirable as an idea than as a practice. The filmmakers focus on one group of Bulgarian EMTs on the job, and I do mean focus. The story is told almost exclusively in shots of their faces while on the job. I appreciate the approach and the way it foregrounds these workers against all of the difficulties they encounter but wonder if most viewers will grow weary of the perspective.
RiverRun gives you a wonderful opportunity to see films you’ll be thinking about for months to come. One of last years films in the doc competition turned out to be one of my favorite movies of the year – Chasing Ice. I hate to think that I might have missed seeing it if not for RiverRun…