Reality, as Robin Williams observed through the haze of 1970s smoke and fame, is a heckuva concept. On its bad days, reality bites (to cite another pop-culture reference), and on its good days it’s stranger than fiction. It’s the inspiration for reality TV, though that relationship has devolved into a barely nodding acquaintance.
Documentary filmmakers likewise start with real life, then massage and manipulate it into a story for our edification and entertainment. (It frequently comes with a chaser of social activism.) One of the strongest aspects of Truly CA, KQED’s long-running series of nonfiction works by and about Golden State characters, is that it presents an array of cinematic approaches and strategies that gently forces viewers to recognize the pervasiveness of subjective truth -- the product of each filmmaker’s multitude of choices -- in what is still perceived by some as an objective medium.
Now you may be attracted to documentaries for their content rather than their form, for the story rather than the storytelling, but experienced viewers recognize that one informs the other. Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s extraordinary Last Day of Freedom, which began the Truly CA season on Oct. 25, uses spare animation and Fred Frith’s solo guitar to convey Bill Babbitt’s haunted memories of his brother Manny, a Vietnam vet tormented by PTSD. “They never got around to patching up that wound in his head,” Babbitt recalls in the course of a deeply personal and altogether riveting 27 minutes.
The short documentary is generally underappreciated, although it operates from the irresistible premise that everybody possesses sufficient uniqueness and substance to sustain a five-minute film (at the very least). You’ll have your favorites among the five shorts airing Nov. 1 under the inviting rubric “State of Discovery,” though the hands-down creepiest is Yael Bridge and Helen Hood Scheer’s Reborning, an open-ended introduction to a woman who handcrafts incredibly lifelike dolls for collectors.
Scheer’s equally non-judgmental Full-time Ministry sketches a former ministry student (now a Fresno high school teacher) who infuses his ice sculptures with the gospel.
A great deal of skill and craft is brought to bear in SLOMO, a 16-minute profile of a wealthy North Carolina doctor who chucked the rat race and took up rollerblading in Southern California nearly two decades ago. But filmmaker Josh Izenberg’s hubris -- a heavy-handed shot of a hamster on a wheel is one of several offenses -- overwhelms his subject’s humility.
Nick Brandestini’s hour-long Darwin (Nov. 8), unseen by your otherwise-diligent correspondent, camps out with the tiny populace of an isolated Death Valley town (if that’s not too grandiose a word for this dwindling outpost of civilization).
Closer to home, Dawn Lodgson, Eric Slade and Stephen Silha’s Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (Nov. 15) revives the spirit and philosophy of the late, great Bay Area experimental filmmaker, poet and inspiration. A hit at the 2013 Frameline festival, the film is an exuberantly offbeat portrait of a free spirit who brushed off the prejudices of the day against homosexuality and bisexuality.
Bouncing a poet’s sensibility against the crashing reality of present-day Oakland, N’Jeri Eaton and Mario Furloni’s First Friday closes the season on Nov. 22 with a rush. Shot on the streets, and shot through with optimism, this vibrant, pulsing film uses First Friday -- a social event intended to build community and promote the local arts scene -- as a hub for the many residents working toward a better future for Oakland. What a concept, eh?
Season 11 of Truly CA runs Oct. 25 – Nov. 22 on KQED.