Everything I know I learned from documentaries. You think I'm kidding, don't you? Watching movies is less time-consuming than reading, entails less initiative than doing research and requires fewer social skills than talking to experts. But those productive hours are becoming a thing of the past. The amount of actual, factual information in the typical documentary, like the amount of nutrition in the average acre of bio-engineered crops, is steadily decreasing. The goal of most doc makers is no longer to provide data or context, but to capture and convey a thick slice of experience. Using tiny portable camcorders that put the viewer smack in the middle of the action, they deliver a vicarious thrill -- a rush of danger, of voyeurism -- that's stimulating but ultimately safe. It's irresistible, I have to admit, and nobody understands that better than the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, or DocFest.
Now in its sixth year and stretching 13 rock Â‘em, sock Â‘em days, Docfest offers a zippy blend of politics, music, social issues and youth-oriented subcultures. The good news is that DocFest promotes documentaries as a vibrant, irreverent form of entertainment to a younger demographic, blasting the notion of educational films to smithereens. There's no room for anything approximating -- watch it, I'm about to blaspheme -- the obsessively measured and utterly somnambulant musings of Ken Burns. The downside, though, is often a lack of craft and an indifference to aestheticism, as if rawness and spontaneity were the only measures of authenticity.
As you can tell, I have plenty of gripes and concerns about the current state of documentary. At the same time, I'm ecstatic that so many people are now willing to pay to see a doc in a theater, and that DocFest is a bona fide success story. So let's get a taste of the flicks on display -- or the experiences on offer -- in this year's program.
Golden Days follows an up-and-coming rock band, the Damnwells, into the studio to make their major-label debut. An astute, well-managed foursome, they nonetheless have little choice but to cede control of a chunk of their lives to the corporate masters, with unfortunate results. Front man Alex Dezen is a talented, articulate fellow with sufficient charisma to sustain a one-hour film; director Chris Suchorsky falls in love with his subject, alas, and holds us captive for 95 minutes.
Eat at Bill's: Life in the Monterey Market. Lisa Brenneis' winning portrait of the beloved Berkeley produce bazaar encompasses its regular customers (including chefs such as Michael Wild and author Michael Pollan, a tall, lanky, long-fingered character who'd make a fine inspiration for stop-motion animator Henry Selick) as well as several of the small, premium growers that it supports. But the pulse of the film is smiling Bill Fujimoto, who has run the market for some 25 years with a tireless, benevolent zeal.
American Scary -- John Hudgens has diligently compiled a loving tribute to the gloriously undignified fraternity (including a handful of women) of TV horror hosts. This is mostly a talking heads doc, augmented with just enough clips of the no-budget, anything goes improvisation that's the hallmark of the "profession." For all its campy fun, American Scary is a kind of eulogy for a vanishing age of local color and homegrown talent. One comes to realize that a key component of the malling of America is cable television's saturation.
Radiant City -- The gifted Calgary narrative filmmaker Gary Burns (waydowntown) examines the phenomenon of suburban sprawl through a panoply of arch academics and one typically overstretched family. Burns brings a droll Canadian wit to his sobering study, slightly alleviating my acute case of the heebie-jeebies. As a lifelong city kid, I got the creeps thinking of all the hours some people spend in their cars.
If you missed Audience of One when it played the S.F. International Film Festival, here's another chance. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll thank God for the gift of knowing one's limitations as Michael Jacobs follows Pentecostal minister Richard Gazowsky's loony crusade to make an expensive, religious-themed feature film.
Dancing With the Stars:
Manufacturing Dissent -- I confess I've not seen Debra Melnyk and Rick Caine's unpredictable doc about The Human Lightning Rod, Michael Moore. I do know the filmmakers told interviewers they did not set out to do a hit piece, but followed the trail where it took them. In Moore's case, that was bound to lead to contradictions and the "creative interpretation of reality" (to cite the definition of documentary favored by the great British filmmaker John Grierson).
San Franciscans have a fascination with Cuba, where invention and creativity thrive despite (or because of) despotism at the top. I can't report on The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil or Luchando, a portrait of four gay hustlers, other than to observe that one film appears to salute the "good" Castro and one spotlights the difficulties of living with "bad" Castro. I expect I'll check out both docs, because there are some things you just can't glean from books or magazines.
SF DocFest runs Sept. 28-Oct. 10, 2007 at the Roxie Film Center at New College. For tickets and information visit sfindie.com.