Documentary Edge Festival 2010

The Documentary Edge Festival runs until March 14th at the Rialto Cinemas in Newmarket. Student tickets are $13 Mon-Thu, $14 Fri-Sun; get screening times and more information at documentaryedge.org.nz

Art & Copy
USA | 2009 | 89 mins.

Filmmaker Doug Pray (Scratch, Surfwise) has constructed a vibrant and informative look at the American advertising industry that, among other things, divulges the disturbing origins of Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ catchphrase. The title refers to the paradigm shift that occurred in the mid-fifties when agencies put copywriters and what are now called ‘creatives’ in the same room; previously they had been separated, resulting in bland, uninspired campaigns. The film profiles important figures in the industry and looks at a number of major campaigns, including Apple’s famous 1984 Superbowl spot introducing Macintosh and ‘Think Different,’ their 1998 attempt at rejuvenating the brand; the “Got Milk?” campaign, and memorable ads for Budweiser and Wendy’s.

The Australasian première of the film is Wednesday night at 7pm; it screens again Sunday at 6.45pm and closes the festival on the 14th at 8.45pm.

You Are Here
New Zealand/Canada | 2009 | 62 mins.

Massey University Assoc. Prof. John DiStefano’s essay film is a study of memory, time and cultural displacement constructed through the lens of other films and texts. It opens by explicitly borrowing from Chris Marker’s La Jetée, and tries to stitch together, using family photographs and home film reels, aspects of the filmmaker’s life: his Québécois upbringing as the son of Italian immigrants, his sexuality, his rootless place in the world. Attempts at Markeresque profundity—remarks about airports and planes, the psychological effects of space, geography and architecture—come off as unnecessary in light of the director’s inability to make a cohesive whole from the disparate narrative strands.

Screens tonight at 8.45pm, with a director Q&A; Fri at 5.40pm and on the 13th at 5.50pm.

Diary of a Times Square Thief
Netherlands/USA | 2008 | 60mins.

Peter Jackson and Costa Botes’ 1995 film Forgotten Silver is a well-constructed, richly-detailed document of New Zealand’s first filmmaker, Colin McKenzie. It is also a near-perfect hoax: the day after the film first aired on tv one, the New Zealand Herald gave front-page coverage to debunking its many falsehoods, which were swallowed whole by the many hundreds of thousands of people who tuned in. Of course such a feat probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy to achieve these days: in order to work, Forgotten Silver relied on an Internet-less, unquestioning public unfamiliar with the ‘mockumentary’ conventions so frequently displayed in TV shows like The Office and the films of Christopher Guest. As an example of pulling the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting public, Forgotten Silver is up there with Clifford Irving’s biography of Howard Hughes. Diary of a Times Square Thief is an example of how not to go about making a faux documentary.

Director Klaas Bense finds the ‘mysterious’ titular diary-cum-scrapbook on eBay and buys it in the hopes of tracking down its author. It was written, supposedly, in the mid-’80s by an aspiring writer and front desk employee of the Times Square Hotel, then a brothel home to drug-dealers and various other nefarious night-owls. En route to the author, the filmmaker interviews various colourful, oddball personalities mentioned in the diary. But the film’s undoing is an offhand remark from the diary’s author: he sold the filmmaker the diary on eBay, thus revealing that the two were in contact the whole time, undermining everything we’ve just been shown and revealing the film as a sham, and the ‘personalities’ as constructed and (probably) played by actors. The filmmaker has attempted to allay these concerns by saying that he was never in direct contact with the author and that the eBay transaction was completed through a middleman, but that’s like trying to stuff the cat back into the bag, oblivious to the fact that you’d let it out.

Screens tonight at 5.35pm, and Wednesday and on the 10th at 5.30pm.

When the World Breaks
USA | 2009 | 85 mins.

A brief look at the Great Depression through the eyes of people who lived though it: comedians like Jerry Stiller; actors like Fyvush Finkel and Mickey Rooney; writers like SF author Ray Bradbury; TV game show hosts like Art Linklater, and, very briefly—seemingly for no reason other than the fact that he’s famous and was available—Buzz Aldrin. Director Hans Fjellestad, whose 2004 documentary about synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog repeated itself and glossed over important details, here makes the same mistakes again: in trying to examine both the cultural effects that came out of the era and the economics behind the crash and subsequent depression, When the World Breaks feels irritatingly lightweight.

Massive technological changes were taking place in the ’30s: vaudeville and stage shows were moving to broadcast mediums, silent film was given voice, and sheet music, when recorded to disc, became portable, repeatable and accessible in ways never before imagined. The confluence of technology and art during the Depression gave rise to one of the largest cultural booms America has ever experienced—and barely any of it is mentioned in this documentary.

While John Steinbeck is name-checked in passing, no mention is made of the public works that emerged from the Works Progress Administration and other of Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies; the photography of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans; the novels of Nathanael West or Ernest Hemingway (despite the film deriving its title from a line in A Farewell to Arms); the music of Aaron Copland or Cole Porter; the wonderful art deco architecture and industrial design of the period; the daring and innovative pre-code films and screwball comedies that came out of Hollywood in their hundreds, or Busby Berkley’s extravagantly-choreographed musicals—in short, much of the culture that came to define the era.

The film ignores the artistic output that was formed by the conditions of the depression in favour of silly, often sentimental and meaningless anecdotes from its interviewees about “what it was like”—and, in its final twenty minutes, makes a bull-headed attempt an economics lecture, looking at the recent Japanese depression and the Asian financial crisis. It’s not that the economic situation surrounding the depression isn’t worthy of evaluation and exploration—it’s just that tacking it onto the end of a film like this doesn’t work, and deprecates everything that came before it. Morris Dickstein’s recent, wonderful book-length study Dancing in the Dark catalogues wonderfully and insightfully “the work of culture in Depression America,”—a tome to which this documentary had the potential to be a cinematic companion; instead, it feels like a meagre afterschool special, albeit an extremely professional-looking, slickly-made one.

Screens Sunday at 6.45pm and on Sunday the 14th at 1pm.

Farewell
The Netherlands | 2009 | 90 mins.

History comes wonderfully, vividly alive in this document of the first round-the-world flight of the Graf Zeppelin in September, 1929—a lofty, ambitious and expensive undertaking mere weeks before the stock market collapse that would usher in the Great Depression. The film, which consists exclusively of archival footage, recounts the diaries of Lady Grace Drummond Hay, the only woman passenger of the twenty-some journalists aboard the vessel. Although the airship was constructed in Germany, the flight was bankrolled by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, for whom Lady Hay and her former lover Karl von Wiegand were press correspondents. The film tells two stories: that of the zeppelin’s then-unprecedented circumnavigation, and that of the rekindled romance between Lady Hay and von Wiegand. The entire journey is fascinating: from the vast, uninhabited terrain of Siberia to the bustling metropolises of Berlin and London, to the East, for a stopover in Japan, where mesmerising colorized film is incorporated.

Screens tomorrow at 1pm, Sunday at 8.30pm and Saturday the 13th at 5pm.

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