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June 4, 2009
It is worth noting that to describe the Second Annual New York Documentary Film Festival - Festival Dei Popoli at the Anthology Film Archives as a "Festival" seems to be a bit of an overstatement. Although I was unable to attend Wednesday's opening ceremonies (during which I like to believe that Albert Maysles got completely blotto'd and spilled some juicy tidbits about any number of the high-profile subjects captured in his filmic catalogue (hopefully without any juicy tidbits ending up on the floor)), the portions of the event in which I was able to participate were lacking the throngs of attendees that the F-word usually implies. That being said, the films on display were positively teeming with emotional breadth and visual wonder, and each contained a thematic intimacy that was significantly enhanced by the opportunity to hang one's legs over an adjacent seat.

Over the course of four days, Festival Dei Popoli presented eighteen films comprising three categories: "Tribute to Albert Maysles", "Italian Chronicles", and "50th! (50 Years of Documentary)," which covered topics from Armenian Sheep herding (The Seasons - Artavazd Pelechian) all the way to Truman Capote's summertime digs (With Love From Truman by Albert Maysles). Each night was attended be one or more of the filmmakers involved in the making of that night's showings, many of whom graciously stuck around for as many Q's and A's as allowed by the congenially flexible schedule. Following the conclusion of his film Napoli Piazza Municipio, Italian filmmaker Bruno Oliviero answered a question from an audience member regarding his motivation for making said film. Translator at his side, Oliviero responded with the weighty, "to give dignity to the simplest forms of existence."

Oliviero's sentiment struck me as a particularly poetic description of historical documentation as an art form, and might serve as a valuable guide with which one can approach a film that lacks any semblance of traditional narrative structure. These films provide glimpses of human beings with difficult, tragic, beautiful, occasionally hilarious lives as the filmmakers attempt to "film the thoughts of men through time" (another quote by Oliviero who, with his calm demeanor, slick dark windbreaker, and casual smoking only served to enhance my suspicion that middle-aged Italian men are the Coolest Individuals on Earth) over days, months, or years on end.

A scene from Leonardo Di Costanzo and Bruno Oliviero's Odessa.


Bruno Oliviero was involved in the making of two of Festival Dei Popoli's highlights: Napoli Piazza Municipio and The Seven Soldiers of the Odessa with associate (and fellow member of the CIE) Leonardo Di Costanza. Odessa tells a heartbreaking story of seven Soviet sailors who are ostensibly left to die aboard "Odessa," a magnificently "ladylike" ship that lay abandoned in the Naples harbor upon its adoption into the Ukranian navy. The men and women of Odessa are filmed going about their daily routines, working without pay, and negotiating for the sale of the boat and back pay for its inhabitants. These individuals endured five years of this situation during which time two members of their crew died from apparent medical neglect (from existing conditions (but still)). Napoli is a much more uplifting (albeit straightforward) piece that explores the activities surrounding a small square in Naples through the contrast between the culture's fecundity of tradition and its need to maintain its history throughout an obligatory urban modernization process. Also included in this film: a touching scene involving a little girl and her fleeting fascination with the camera's spotlight, and a totally righteous soundtrack involving sound effects from the square enmeshed with a traditional compositional score. Visually these films could not be more different, but each explores the passage of time and its effects on the human condition in a uniquely fascinating way.

Alina Marazzi's For One More Hour With You proved to be quite an emotional viewing experience indeed. Cobbled together through archival family films, photographs, and remarkably candid letters, FOMHWY exists as a photo album in motion that provides a fascinating glimpse into the mysteriously troubled life of the filmmaker's mother, whose existence was kept secret until well into Alina's adult life (some twenty years after her mother's suicide). The narration of the film is taken entirely from letters sent to friends by her mother during her tenure at a psychiatric ward and by the end the film begins to take on an almost corporeal quality as a representation of who this person may have been. It was stated in Alina's post-film Q&A that the film's production began as an attempt to suss out the person or persons responsible for her mother's affliction. As more information began to surface, however, the project quickly evolved into an endlessly more interesting portrait of a young woman with all the things she thought she wanted but without the wherewithal to understand why she wanted them.

It should be mentioned here that I left the theater after For One More Hour With You feeling bleary and bummed out. So much so, I had to take Saturday off, for fear of A) exhausting my enthusiasm for the festival before the Maysles tribute on Sunday, and B) any subsequent bumming out offered by the ensuing films. This proved to be an effective strategy, as I entered Sunday's festivities rejuvenated and was greeted with the absolute delight of Holunderblüte/ by Volker Koepp. By far the most visually arresting film of the weekend, Holunderblüte tells the stories of 10 children in Kalinigrad, a Russian territory located between Poland and Lithuania. The bulk of the film is taken up by interviews with the children and footage of their interactions with one another as they climb trees, play war, cuddle kittens, roll around in fields and just revel in the freedom of their youth. This whole thing would be downright saccharine if it weren't so stunningly beautiful to watch, or if the kids were any less forthcoming about themselves and their experiences. Mysteriously (intentionally?) absent in the film was any kind of significant adult presence. It is explained through some brief expository narration that the average male life expectancy in Kaliningrad is 55 years old, and that the majority of the adults in the villages succumb to alcoholism in their early adulthood, frequently leaving children orphaned and left to fend for themselves. Yet the desperation of this situation is not apparent in the remarks of any of the children. Each one of the boys and girls is so full of hope for their future that it seems almost pathetically misguided. How much hope can there really be in this lost village of dirt roads, wandering livestock, and wild foliage that is at once point described as "looking as if the Earth were reclaiming the land for itself"? But in the end the children are ebullient enough to be convincing, and there are enough tender moments captured by Koepp's lens that one can't help but hope along with them. I was completely enraptured by this film and would love to investigate Koepp's filmography further.*

Children of Kalinigrad, from Volker Koepp's Holunderblüte.


Closing out the festival was With Love From Truman, by the legendary Albert Maysles, an entertaining insight into the life of Truman Capote circa the publication of In Cold Blood. Capote invites an interviewer to his home in Long Island (which he describes as "looking more like Kansas than Kansas itself"), where he proceeds to answer questions about his writing process and the interactions he had with the various members of the murder case that serves as the central focus of the book.

Through works such as With Love From Truman, the Maysles - Albert along with his deceased brother, David - carved an artform out of their "fly-on-the-wall" cinema verité approach to documentary filmmaking, and this film is a perfect example of their talents at work. I suppose it would be difficult to make an arid film starring someone of such effusive character as Truman Capote, but it takes a unique talent to present a glimpse of such a person that says something about where that emotional character comes from rather than merely exploiting its traits. This is the difference between pointing a camera at something and really filming it.

With the dilution of the very meaning of a Documentary Film by the advent of Michael Moore, Super Size Me, and infotainment in general, it is humbling to know that people are still trying to make these types of films, and thrilling that they are talented and ambitious enough to be successful at it. Let's hope next year's festival at least has a red carpet.
---

* Assistance with this quest would be greatly appreciated by anyone reading this. Netflix has failed me.

SEE ALSO: www.nydff.org
SEE ALSO: www.festivaldeipopoli.org/en/
SEE ALSO: www.anthologyfilmarchives.org

--
Mike Shea
A staff artist for LAS magazine, Mike Shea is bringing comics all up in the ish from his home in Brooklyn, New York. You can visit his blog at www.mikeshearules.com.

See other articles by Mike Shea.

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