Once again, there is rich fare to be unearthed for the summer season, despite the glut of over-the-top and youth-oriented commercial product. Documentaries abound, some of which have intensely political or social implications, while others deal, in sleuth-like fashion, with searches that end in unexpected places or uncover unpleasant truths.
A few of the offerings are award winners, and one, in particular, marks the auspicious debut of a director who may well be an Oscar contender.
That director is Benh Zeitlin, whose devastating fiction film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” won this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Camera d’Or at Cannes, for best first film. The story is taken from the play “Juicy and Delicious,” by Lucy Alibar, who collaborated with Zeitlin on the screenplay, and is set in a remote marshland community of Louisiana referred to as “The Bathtub.” As the film begins, an impending storm, reminiscent of Katrina, threatens the island’s inhabitants.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old African-American girl who lives on the island with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), serves as narrator. At first, she doesn’t know that her daddy is dying, and she doesn’t understand that he is tough in his childrearing because he wants to prepare her to deal with the harsh circumstances of her life when she is alone.
The core of the film, according to Zeitlin, is an exploration of how we can survive the loss of those things that made us — our parents, our land, our culture.
The director, who is half-Jewish, on his father’s side, pondered the impact of that cultural heritage on his choice of themes.
“Judaism is always taking on the big questions, and that aspiration toward wisdom, I think, has a major influence on my work. Hushpuppy is definitely a little wise-man; she’s a mensch and a half.”
Don’t miss this one; it will break your heart.
The film will screen at the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) on June 15 and will open in theaters on June 27.
Ellen Page and Jesse Eisenberg in “To Rome With Love.” Photo by Philippe Antonello © Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
In stark contrast to the tragic tone of “Beasts” is the lighthearted approach of Woody Allen. After last year’s homage to Paris, Allen has moved to the Eternal City, creating a potpourri of diverse scenarios in “To Rome With Love.”
The stellar cast includes Alec Baldwin as a successful architect who revisits Rome and relives the failed romance of his past; Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni as a very dull man who suddenly garners fame and fortune, only to learn the price of celebrity; Penelope Cruz as a prostitute who finds herself impersonating a young man’s wife; and Allen himself as a retired opera director who unexpectedly finds a man with untapped singing ability and senses an opportunity to revive his own career by promoting his discovery.
In the production notes, Allen is quoted as saying, “I felt the city of Rome lent itself to a number of diverse tales. It was pregnant with possibilities. If you stop a hundred Romans, they’ll tell you: ‘I’m from the city, I know it well, and I could give you a million stories.’ ”
The film is the opening presentation at LAFF on June 14 and will open in theaters on June 22.
The documentary “The Invisible War” examines the explosive subject of rape in the military.
The movie’s writer-director, Kirby Dick, said he first became aware of the issue from an article in the Web magazine Salon and was shocked to learn that these assaults are usually committed by what he called “serial perpetrators.”
In addition, according to producer Amy Ziering, the response by the military constitutes a second victimization and causes such severe emotional damage to the victims that they can’t heal.
2nd Lt. Elle Helmer of the U.S. Marine Corps. at the Vietnam War Memorial in “The Invisible War.” Photo courtesy of Cinedigm/Docudrama Films
“What I mean by that is the fact that they weren’t believed; that they weren’t supported; that they were then themselves ostracized and victimized and exiled; that they had to serve right after the assault. Ninety-nine percent of them have to go back to work in the vicinity of their perpetrator, and even report to them, etc., etc.”
Ziering said that, as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she has particular empathy for victims of violence. “I think my father’s Holocaust background has always made me acutely interested in, and sensitive to, trauma and second-degree trauma, and working through trauma, and what all that means, so that has been an influence on my life and my preoccupations in work.”
The film received standing ovations at Sundance, where it garnered the Audience Award, and has made an impact in Washington, Ziering pointed out. After Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the documentary, he held a press conference to announce some changes in policy and procedure. For the filmmakers, that was an encouraging first step.
The film will screen at LAFF on June 16 and will open in theaters on June 22.
Eugene Jarecki in “The House I Live In.” Photo by Sam Cullman
Another pressing issue is examined in Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, “The House I Live In,” as the filmmaker details the 40-year history of our anti-drug efforts, which began with Richard Nixon’s declaration that “drug abuse is public enemy No. 1.” Jarecki comes to the conclusion that our country’s so-called “war on drugs” has been an abject failure and has resulted in more illicit drug use now than ever before.
Jarecki interviews an eclectic mix of people, including his family’s onetime housekeeper, police officers, prison officials, writers, doctors, judges, attorneys, journalists, dealers and addicts, as he examines issues involving race, class and our economic system.
He begins his documentary by explaining that his parents were both fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Europe when they came to America. His mother ran from the pogroms in Russia, while his father escaped Hitler and the Final Solution.
“As children,” Jarecki says, “my brothers and I were taught that we were the lucky ones who made it out, but with that luck came a responsibility. ‘Never again’ didn’t just mean that people like us shouldn’t suffer; it meant others shouldn’t suffer either.”
The film will screen at LAFF on June 22 and 24, and will open in theaters in October.
We change focus with “The Queen of Versailles,” a documentary by noted photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield that explores the materialism intrinsic to our culture through the saga of billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel, who were building the largest house in America, a 90,000-square-foot mansion, dubbed Versailles, modeled on the chateau in Il-de-France and the Paris Las Vegas Hotel.
David and Jackie Siegel in “The Queen of Versailles.” Photo by Lauren Greenfield, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Jackie invited Greenfield to visit the family at its 26,000-square-foot “starter mansion” in Florida, and the filmmaker learned that both David and Jackie came from humble beginnings.
“She had a down-to-earth quality despite her fantasy life (jets, palaces, huge domestic staff). She could go seamlessly from caviar to McDonald’s, Versace to Walmart, priceless antiques to kitsch with comfort and without snobbery.”
It was that quality that helped Jackie cope with the 2007 financial meltdown, as the time-share business that had made David a billionaire imploded, and the couple was forced to downsize their lifestyle and put Versailles on the market.
“The film asks questions about consumerism,” Greenfield concluded, “our addiction to it, and the consequences. David Siegel sums it up for me in the end when he says, ‘This is a vicious cycle. No one is without guilt.’ ”
The film will screen at LAFF on June 15 and 16, and will open in theaters on July 20.
Two upcoming documentaries deal, in detective-story fashion, with far-reaching quests, albeit with differing objectives.
“Searching for Sugar Man,” by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, tells the unlikely story of a Mexican-American singer/songwriter known as Rodriguez, who was attracting a following in the small bars and clubs of Detroit during the 1960s and early ’70s with his songs about the seamy side of life, the dark side of love, drugs, the corrupt social system and the underclass. His first album, “Cold Fact,” was released in 1970 and earned good reviews but bombed commercially, as did his second album.
In the meantime, a bootleg copy of “Cold Fact” turned up in South Africa and was an instant smash among the white anti-apartheid population because of its anti-establishment lyrics. Rodriguez became an icon in that country, and his album went platinum, unbeknownst to him or anyone else in America.
Stephen Segerman was completing his year of compulsory military service in the South African air force when he first heard a cassette of the album in the early 1970s.
“His lyrics offered a drug-fueled escape from the harsh realities of life and a raw look at the sexual politics of the time,” Segerman said, “all wonderfully evocative and inspirational to young whites living under apartheid’s strict rules and censorship, who were searching for some kind of message or inspiration from the counter-culture happening in Europe and the U.S.A. in the ’60s and early ’70s.”
The songs were particularly inspirational to Segerman, who is from an Orthodox, observant Jewish family and was strongly opposed to apartheid.
“As one of the Jewish baby boomers, born soon after the second world war and the Shoah, I feel we had even more reason, and responsibility, to be aware and sensitive to prejudice of any kind, and that is why there were many South African Jews to be found among the ranks of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and across the world,” he said.
It wasn’t until 1995 that Segerman learned that the “Cold Fact” CD was nowhere to be found in the United States. “That surprised me, as I thought everyone knew him, and it prompted me to go and find out what happened to Rodriguez.”
The odyssey of his search, which was joined by South African journalist Craig Bartholomew, together with its unexpected conclusion, comprises the basis of this film. The “Sugar Man” of the movie’s title refers to one of the “Cold Fact” tracks about a Detroit dope dealer.
The film will screen at LAFF June 19 and 20, and will open in theaters on July 27.
The other “detective” saga is “Portrait of Wally,” directed by Andrew Shea, which documents a 13-year legal battle over a noted 1912 painting by Austrian-Jewish artist Egon Schiele of his mistress/model Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil. The painting is one of innumerable works of art stolen from Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
The film attempts to unravel the painting’s murky chain of custody after 1939, when it was owned privately by Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi and then confiscated by a Nazi art collector when Bondi fled Austria.
After the war, the painting apparently was acquired under questionable circumstances by Rudolf Leopold, who had a museum in Austria, but the work’s whereabouts was not known to Bondi’s family. When it appeared at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1997, on loan from the Austrian Museum, Bondi’s heirs requested that the painting be kept in New York so that its rightful ownership could be established, but MOMA and the Leopold contingent objected. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau subpoenaed the painting and began a criminal probe that eventually landed in federal court.
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the family found itself opposed by all the museums in New York, including the Jewish Museum. Ultimately, money changed hands, and the case was settled in 2010.
The film will open in theaters on July 20.
Finally, the most deeply personal of the upcoming releases is “Tzipora’s Nest,” artist Malka Nedivi’s documentary about caring for her “difficult” mother, Tzipora.
As the film opens, Nedivi gets a phone call from her mother, who lives in Israel and who says that she has been reduced to eating moldy bread. In response, Nedivi leaves her husband and son and moves with her two daughters to Israel, where she was born, to help her aging parent. She decides to document her caretaking experience on film, and, in her narration, recalls her childhood and the various methods she would use to run from her mother’s unbalanced behavior. It seems Tzipora would approach Nedivi with kisses on some occasions and hurl curses in her direction at other times.
When Nedivi arrives at her mother’s home, she realizes that Tzipora is a hopeless hoarder and is deteriorating. Over the next four years, she films her struggles to stabilize her mother’s life, to deal with Tzipora’s descent into dementia and to achieve some sort of reconciliation in their relationship.
In the end, after Tzipora dies in a nursing home, Nedivi has come to feel that she has finally made peace with her mother.
The film will open in theaters on Aug. 20.
For more information on the Los Angeles Film Festival, visit lafilmfest.com.