Friday, April 24, 2009

Ebertfest 2009: Day 2

(Morning panel discussion at the Illini Union Pine Lounge)

While nearly all of the 1600 seats in the Virginia Theatre are usually filled for each screening, a smaller group turns out for the morning panel discussions held on campus at the University of Illinois. Most of the seats are taken, but the numbers simply don't compare.

The lone Thursday panel was titled Movie Making & Distribution in Times of Turmoil. The panelists, pictured above, were Warner Home Video vice-president Ronnee Sass, Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh, Begging Naked director Karen Gehres, Trouble the Water co-directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, Sita Sings the Blues director Nina Paley, My Winnipeg director Guy Maddin, and moderator and festival director Nate Kohn. The discussion produced interesting comments from time to time, but since most of the panelists were either first-time feature directors or, in Wadleigh's case, no longer working in the system, perspective on the topic seemed fairly limited.

Having a distributor certainly helps in getting a movie seen, but a better topic might have probed the problem of finding viewers even when a film has distribution. Arthouse theaters have fallen victim to the same kind of model that bigger films have where an opening weekend splash is essential. In the case of these smallers films it's even more important because those first couple days determine if they'll stick in the theaters for another week. With limited promotion, it's an uphill battle for these kinds of movies to stay long enough to reach moviegoers through word of mouth.

(Time Out Chicago film critic Hank Sartin, Guy Maddin, and Ramin Bahrani)

Over at the Virginia Theatre the day began with Maddin's My Winnipeg. I'd seen the film before, although I had found myself in a bit of a fog during that screening. Watching this remembrance of his Canadian hometown I again found myself being lulled into a dream-like state. Maybe there's something in the movie to inspire such haziness. The film itself plays out like an uninhibited lucid dream that gets stuck in loops like the Winnipeg trains that never allow escape from town, and the repetition of words in Maddin's narration seems like a willful attempt to hypnotize.

Maddin's surreal pastiche doesn't resemble what is conventionally thought of as a documentary, yet it would seem that My Winnipeg is factual in spirit and has more basis in truth than I expected. For instance, If Day, in which a fake Nazi invasion of Manitoba was staged to drum up support for the Allies and sell war bonds really happened and wasn't some comedic conceit Maddin dreamed up.

The thin line between documentary and fiction filmmaking continued with Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop. The neorealist filmmaker--or neo-neorealist, as has been suggested since neorealism is most often associated with post-World War II Italian filmmaking--uses nonprofessional actors and captures something akin to documentary stories even though he's meticulous in crafting scripted narratives.

The story focuses on an orphaned brother and sister living at and working in and around a junkyard's auto body shop in Willet's Point, Queens. Particularly in Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, Bahrani demonstrates his strength for dropping the audience into locations both real and foreign, even if in both instances he's exploring worlds that exist in the United States.

The great economic disparity that exists in the country underlies much of the film, and the looming presence of Shea Stadium visible from the garage provides quiet reminders of the multi-millionaire's playground nearby where kids scrape to survive a daily existence. To say that the kids in the film have been discarded like the piles of parts around them is an obvious metaphor, although it's not presented as blatantly or heavyhandedly in the film.

While I may be making Chop Shop sound like run-of-the-mill independent film miserabilism, Bahrani doesn't dwell on the tough conditions or strive to inspire liberal guilt in viewers. He's interested in seeing what these characters' lives are like and uncovering how they may through day after day. In the end the film's siblings have no choice but to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and do what's necessary. In it's own way, that's a kind of hope amid the rust and filth.

(Scott Roberts, Kimberly Rivers Roberts with her daughter, Richard Roeper, Tia Lessin, and Carl Deal)

While the day's two previous films dabble in documentary truth and realism, it was fitting for the day to conclude with traditional doc Trouble the Water. Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her family were stuck in their home when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She used a Hi-8 camera to document the storm and flooding after the levees broke. Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal incorporate this frequently stunning footage into a story about the Roberts and their struggle to recover from the hurricane's devastation. It's the toll of Hurricane Katrina and the government's response (or lack of one) in miniature.

I'd seen Trouble the Water before the festival and mistakenly believed that I had rated it "mixed"/C+. (I actually was lowercase pro/B-.) Maybe it looks a little better to me after seeing a lot of mediocre documentaries in the last month, but Trouble the Water isn't happy to settle for having landed incredible video and spinning into righteous outrage. It tells the story of these people with care and concern. I appreciate the lack of cheap shots that the film takes and the aspirational and inspirational tack the directors find. For as massively frustrating and frightening as the experience must have been, the Roberts and others depicted in the film don't come off as angry people, which they have every right to be.

Ebertfest possesses the feel of a family reunion, and with Trouble the Water the festival was able to welcome co-director Deal, a hometown boy, back to the area. The fest has also featured its share of post-film musical performances over the years, and this film provided the opportunity for another. Kimberly Rivers Roberts is pursuing a career as a hip hop artist. She capped the evening with a two-song performance that had a predominantly gray-haired audience bouncing along. It was kind of a strange scene, but it was a nice, upbeat note on which to wrap the festival's second day.

(Grades: My Winnipeg and Chop Shop: B; Trouble the Water: B-)

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