2011: A Last Look at Some Great Documentaries

by Jessica Mosby

2011 was another great year for movies. For me, it started in January at the annual Sundance Film Festival with a full slate of must-see films, and kept that momentum for the next eleven months. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to write about all my favorite films or film festivals as they were happening; so as we move forward into 2012, I want to take a look back at five of my favorite documentaries that screened at the San Francisco Bay Area’s top three Fall film festivals: Mill Valley Film Festival, San Francisco’s DocFest, and San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival.

One of my favorite things about film festivals is the post-screening Q&As. I love hearing what a filmmaker has to say about their film. I also love that film festivals give me the opportunity to see films that never make it to the theater. This is particularly true for non-fiction films, as many people have the misconception that documentaries are “boring.” I strongly disagree! I often leave documentaries feeling that the events of real life are much more exciting and genuinely surprising than the fictional events depicted in most mainstream films.

Reviewing powerful documentary films and interviewing many of the filmmakers for The WIP has made the last four years truly exceptional for me. When I started writing for The WIP in August 2007, I could not have anticipated the way that The WIP and films I have reviewed have influenced my life.

Since 2007, the world has changed dramatically. I am particularly interested in the way that documentaries reflect these changes. At film festivals I often hear the current moment referred to as the “Golden Age of Documentaries.” Technological advances make it possible for almost anyone to inexpensively film, edit, and stream a film. While the worldwide recession continues and the arts are first on the chopping block, documentaries are still able to celebrate the culture that exists even in the darkest of moments.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Being Elmo is my favorite documentary of the year. I had heard constant praise about the film, but did not have a chance to see it until Mill Valley. During the 85-minute film, I laughed, I cried, and I fell back in love with Elmo. Filmmaker Constance Marks tracks puppeteer Kevin Clash (best known for his character Elmo) from his Baltimore youth where he dreamed big about being a puppeteer to his current success on Sesame Street. What is most inspiring about the film is how Clash was mentored and encouraged by fellow puppeteers, including the legendary Jim Henson, and unconditionally supported by his family. Clash was the first African-American puppeteer on Sesame Street, and has used his fame to connect with audiences and mentor young aspiring puppeteers. The film takes a more serious tone when looking at the impact that Elmo has had on the lives of viewers. It is hard to hold back the tears when ill children appear on Sesame Street to meet their beloved idol Elmo in person. Elmo’s fame has come at a cost for Clash, whose personal life has suffered under the weight of professional obligations. Being Elmo is a surprisingly in-depth and loving portrait of the internationally famous furry red puppet and the man behind him.

Big in Bollywood
The South Asian Film Festival is a great opportunity for Bollywood enthusiasts to see films on the big screen. The best documentary at this year’s festival is about what it is like to become a Bollywood star, or rather, be Big in Bollywood. Being seen by over one billion people in your first big role is a rather dramatic way to kick start your acting career, but that is exactly what happened to the Indian-American actor Omi Vaidya. After struggling to be cast in bit parts in the United States – often as the stereotypical “Indian” guy – Los Angeles native Vaidya gets his big break when he is cast as the fourth idiot in the Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots. When Vaidya and his filmmaker friends, Bill Bowles and Kenny Meehan, travel to India for the film’s premiere, little do they know that within weeks Vaidya will be crowned Bollywood’s newest comic star. Being a Bollywood celebrity, especially when almost everyone in the world’s second most populated country has just seen your film, is not all fun and swag. Vaidya must contend with being recognized everywhere and the crushing crowds vying for his autograph. What makes Big in Bollywood so much fun for all of its 70 minutes is that the filmmakers are Vaidya’s friends – even in the most stressful moments of notoriety, everyone is having a good time.

First Position
DocFest’s First Position follows six premier ballerinas aged nine to nineteen as they compete at the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix competition. Being a ballerina is hard, and filmmaker Bess Kargman artfully builds the tension and suspense as she follows her subjects from their relentless practice schedules to the nerve-wracking stage at the many rounds of the Grand Prix competition. At stake are the life-changing scholarships and employment opportunities awarded to the top dancers at the competition. While ballet is very competitive and outright stressful, the commitment of the young ballerinas and their families is inspiring. Kargman captures the down side of ballet – that to be good it must be your entire life. Sacrifices, especially financial, are required if a dancer is to make it to the top tier of the profession. And not everyone is good enough, so heartbreak is inevitable. To be so devoted to your art, especially when you are obviously gifted at a young age, makes First Position an enthralling documentary – even for viewers who have little interest in dance.

How to Start a Revolution
Politics remains a popular documentary topic. In the midst of the Occupy movement I saw How to Start a Revolution at DocFest and could not believe how timely what I was seeing on screen was to what was going on outside the theater. How to Start a Revolution is a must see for anyone inclined toward activism and social change. Filmmaker Ruaridh Arrow documents the Nobel Peace Prize nominee and non-violent manifesto writer Gene Sharp, whose book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, describes 198 nonviolent strategies to start and win a revolution. Sharp’s barebones operation, run out of his Boston townhouse, has influenced revolutionaries around the world. His devotion to nonviolent sociopolitical change is truly awe-inspiring. But, as Sharp’s age advances and his health declines, the future of his work is in jeopardy. The influence of Sharp’s writing is evident in Arrow’s interviews with revolutionaries around the world who have been inspired by From Dictatorship to Democracy. Every Occupy protester should put How to Start a Revolution in their queue.

The Woodmans
I had wanted to see The Woodmans ever since I missed it at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Finally this year’s DocFest made that happen. After a year and half wait, the documentary did not disappoint! Filmmaker C. Scott Willis documents the short but prolific life of photographer Francesca Woodman who committed suicide in 1981 at age 22. While her talent did not translate into much success in her lifetime, posthumously she has become revered and her photographs sought-after. The Woodmans, a riveting 82 minutes, shows Francesca Woodman’s parents and brother, also artists, competing for the same spotlight where her start burns especially bright. Her mother, Betty Woodman, is a noted and successful ceramicist. But her father, George Woodman, has never achieved the level of artistic fame he believes he deserves. The parents, particularly George, are devoted to promoting Francesca’s career and contending with that very fame in their continuing their careers. Simultaneously, both parents are still grieving for their daughter. Family drama aside, Willis puts Francesca Woodman’s talent on full display; thirty years later, her photographs still seem very of the moment.
San Francisco’s MOMA currently has an exhibition of Francesca Woodman’s photography on display until February 20. - Ed.

About the Author:
Jessica Mosby
is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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