This year, most of the documentaries I saw revolved around four themes: educators, artists, protesters, and Cambodia. Educator movies made me cheer for teachers; artist movies inspired me to write the truth, particularly when inconvenient; activist films reminded me how tough it is to be one; and Cambodian films filled in details for me of what Cambodia was before the Khmer Rouge, and what it is after.
Romeo is Bleeding (Jason Zeldes, 93 mins, USA 2015)
See my review here.
Paper Tigers (James Redford, 102 mins, USA 2015) — World Premiere
One of three films listed here that deal with educators. This one covers Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, WA, which is where “problem kids” are sent. Principal Jim Sporleder learns about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and changes the way they handle student issues at the school, for the one thing that can positively reverse ACEs is the presence of a single caring adult. The focus, therefore, becomes one of improving the welfare of the student versus punishment. What makes this documentary special are its subjects, which include six students going to the school the first year this policy is in effect. The results are so astounding that it should be required viewing for all school administrators in the U.S.
Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson,, 87 mins, USA 2014)
See my review here.
The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (Arthur Dong, 87 mins, USA 2015)
Under the activist and Cambodia banner comes this excellent documentary about the man who won an Oscar portraying Dith Pran in The Killing Fields and who, in real life, escaped from them himself, only to be murdered in 1996 in what was officially a mugging, but some believe was retaliation for his activism against the Khmer Rouge. Animation accompanies his nephew’s readings from Dr. Ngor’s memoir. This film also includes clips from TV interviews, the movie The Killing Fields, and scenes in which his niece (with whom he escaped from Cambodia) goes through his items and explains their significance to the director. Powerful stuff, and a reminder that the truth of what happened in Cambodia was much harsher than what was fictionally portrayed onscreen.
Most Likely to Succeed (Greg Whiteley, 86 mins, USA 2015)
If Paper Tigers shows what’s wrong with schools’ punishment-based model of discipline, this film shows what’s wrong with its educational structure. Greg Whiteley starts with a parent/teacher conference in which his daughter looks uninspired to learn, despite being a smart student. The reason for this, as the movie explains, is that the model for modern schools is over 100 years old — and was designed to create moderately skilled factory workers. With the Information Age upon us, High Tech High offers a different approach. There are no grades. No standardized tests. Just an exhibition at the end of the year that’s open to the public, in which students showcase projects they’ve been working on the entire school year — projects that incorporate the arts, sciences, and history. The teachers are allowed to teach whatever course they want, with the goal of being mostly hands-off, forcing the students to explore, make mistakes, and learn from experience. The film also addresses the concerns of parents who are worried that, while the schools might prepare their kids for life, it won’t get them into college. While Whiteley concedes that the school is too new to know whether its model works or not, 98% of its graduates are accepted into college.
Cartoonists — Foot Soldiers of Democracy (Stéphanie Valloatto, 106 mins, France 2014)
This film would’ve been better had it found a tighter focus, and perhaps fewer cartoonists. What results is a sometimes sprawling work that attaches itself at certain points to its key idea: that cartoonists aid and abet democratic thought, even in countries where they must be wary of running afoul of the censors. The standout personality here is Plantu, a cartoonists from France, though the other cartoonists have their moments, particularly one who grew up in Israel but lives in Palestine, and one who grew up in Palestine and lives in Israel.
It’s So Easy and Other Lies (Christopher Duddy, 88 mins, USA 2015) — World Premiere
Enjoyable documentary based on Duff McKagan’s autobiography, who played in multiple bands throughout his career, including Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. Much of it includes a dramatic reading McKagan did at the Moore Theatre, with musicians playing behind him. All the Guns N’ Roses songs are conspicuously missing lyrics, which may be explained by the absence of Axl Rose from the doc (though Slash is interviewed). McKagan’s book is not well-written nor deep, and neither is the movie, but the music is great (McKagan has a great singing voice) and the film mixes animation with the main performance with interviews to keep the story moving.
Angkor’s Children (Lauren Shaw, 66 mins, Cambodia/France/USA 2015)
While the other two Cambodian films I saw are about its past, this film is about its future. Lauren Shaw became interested in Cambodia after a trip to Hanoi led to Angkor Wat, and then to the rest of Cambodia. The film focuses on young women who are using traditional arts to help heal the nation (and in some cases, themselves). Phunam works as an acrobat, Sreypov practices smot (a form of Buddhist chanting at funerals), and the group Messenger Band sings political songs about the downtrodden. The film also includes interviews with Cambodia Living Arts founder Arn Chorn-Pond, whose own life story is astonishing (and is told in Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick), and with politician Mu Sochua, who Shaw calls the Aung San Suu Kyi of Cambodia.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (John Pirozzi, 106 mins, USA/Cambodia 2015)
While it seems too long in introducing all of the famous singers in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge came to power, I wonder if the impact of the film would’ve been lessened if any of them had been excluded, since the closing shots show how many performers vanished in the killing fields. Along the way, we are treated to the different musical influences and styles that found their way into Cambodian music, against the political backdrop and series of events that allowed the Khmer Rouge to gain power. The most historically informative of the three films. You might need tissues for this movie, but you’ll definitely need a hug. The last scenes are the most powerful of any film I saw during the festival, excepting perhaps the Apu Trilogy.
The Muses of Bashevis Singer (Asaf Galay, Shaul Betser, 72 mins, Israel 2014)
A charming, wonderfully alive film about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s translators — all of whom were female, none of whom spoke Yiddish. Singer himself preferred the English translations to the Yiddish originals, even though they are filled with inaccuracies. One senses that, as much as Singer was in love with his translators, they are still in love with him.