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So, what do we watch at DocAviv?

By Shmulik Duvdevani
March 30, 2006

Farmer John Peterson from Illinois doesn’t really give a damn what his neighbors think. A man who does not hide his eccentricities, to say the least, John likes to tour his organic farmland in colorful costumes and shoot weird video clips with his significant others dressed as bees. His neighbors, redneck hicks, find it hard to accept his eccentric behavior, considered a threat to the local community, and they spread rumors that John’s farm hosts wild orgies and satanic ceremonies.

The limelight on this unusual fellow, whose personality is a mix of fun creativity and love of the land, and is one of most highly recommended films at theDocAviv Festival,which opens Thursday night at the Cinemateque in Tel Aviv.

Director Taggart Siegel has been documenting John and his farm for over 20 years – from the moment his traditional family farm collapsed, until its miracle rebirth as a successful communal farm specializing in organic produce. He puts on screen a film about a fascinating man who represents good old American values, but with a twist, in a changing world. At the same time, it includes a discussion on the role of the individualistic vision throughout history.

Sharp statement  

A much more poignant and sharp statement on American society and politics is to be found in “Street Fight,” which was up for an Oscar this year for best documentary. The film focuses on the violent means through which American democracy is implemented – not an irrelevant topic in light of the establishment of “democracy” under American sponsorship in an Arab country under occupation, not too far from here - during a runoff election for the mayoralty of Newark, New Jersey.

The two candidates are black and members of the Democratic Party but this is where all similarity between the two ends.

The first candidate, Sharpe James, the ghetto-born, popular mayor of Newark for the past 16 years (the movie documents the 2002 campaign), is described as a corrupt dictator who doesn’t mind spreading racially-based lies. He faces Cory Booker, a young, idealistic, intelligent and athletic lawyer. Booker is a Yale graduate and is determined to improve the lives of Newark’s poor residents.

Booker goes door-to-door in an attempt to rally voter support, followed by director Marshall Curry's digital camera, obviously takings sides in the runoff. In some of the film’s strongest scenes, Curry, a one-man documentary crew, is regularly attacked by James’ thugs and by local police, which seems to be cooperating with the current mayor in the movie. The end result is an excellent political documentary that in its own ironic way handles the dark sides of American ideals.

European contributions

French documentary filmmaker, Nicolas Philibert is well-known in Israel for his beautiful film “Verbs for Beginners." His 1996 movie, “Every little thing”, which documents a psychiatric center set in a pastoral landscape, whose patients work to put on stage an operetta by Gomverovitch, will be shown as a DocAviv tribute to the “Les Films d’Ici (Films from here) production company.

The result is a charming humane film that portrays patients and caretakers as one loving and supporting community (the complete opposite of Fredrick Wiseman's dreadful description in the 1967 film “Titicut Follies”). Trough the movie’s warm and tender perspective in a surrealist setting, the connection between abnormality and fantasy comes to life.  

Another highlight of the DocAviv program this year is the Spanish film, “My Grandmother’s House,” directed by Adan Aliaga. It follows the relationship between a bitter old lady who lives in a rundown house that is set to be demolished, and her playful, six-year-old granddaughter, who spends her summer vacation with her.

Almost nothing happens throughout the movie, which embellishes daily activities – Grandma falls asleep in front of the television or gossips with friends – with comic and surreal touches. For instance, the old woman’s snaps at her granddaughter for sipping a drink loudly in church, and there is a charming scene in the graveyard where the child fools around to her grandmother’s dismay.

The meager plot there is in the film focuses on the expected demolition of the grandmother’s house (in an “eviction – construction” operation), forcing her to move in with her son and daughter-in-law, and the result is a gentle and intimate portrait – which often blurs the difference between a documentary and a discussion – of two wonderful characters that represent both tradition and the rebellion against it.

Twist of faith

Also recommended is Kirby Dick’s 2004 film, “Twist of Faith,” the best and most important of the four movies by this American documentary filmmaker shown in a special festival screening. It tells the amazing story of an Ohio fireman who unknowingly moves in with his family near the house where the greatest nightmare of his life resides: a former priest who abused him sexually.

Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein’s unique films are also worth noting, focusing on composers and their chef-d’oeuvres. Among them, “September Song”, an exciting, extravagant and unconventional 1995 documentary, which includes contemporary musicians – Lou Reed, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey, Elvis Costello and others – in an abandoned hanger, whose décor revives Kurt Weill’s art, for an updated interpretation of some of the Jewish-German cabaret artist’s both known and lesser known songs. It is truly a magical film.

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