The professional, omniscient narrator is both a staple and the bane of documentary filmmaking. (Surely I wasn't the only viewer who tired of Peter Coyote's voice after a few minutes of Ken Burns's latest illustrated monologue, Prohibition.) You assuredly won't be lulled to sleep by the hyper-excited voice-over in Severine von Tscharner Fleming's peripatetic The Greenhorns, a spirit-raising, cross-country survey of 20-somethings who've chosen the life of a farmer. The filmmaker (a farmer herself) handles the chores, dispensing with any pretense of neutrality or distance with a bubbly, rapid-fire delivery that is mostly endearing.
The Greenhorns is representative of the impassioned homemade doc that, to my mind, gives the SF Documentary Festival its identity. Almost everyone now has access to a camcorder and a computer with editing software, opening the door to insider views of every imaginable subculture, minority, way of life or bizarre personality trait. DocFest, as the 10-year-old hoedown is familiarly known, has historically demonstrated an almost perverse affection for the more obsessive examples of autoexposure.
Early on in Taliya.date.com, Israeli filmmaker Taliya Finkel makes a transparent stab at immunizing herself from the accusations of self-indulgence levied against every first-person doc maker. "You have a narcissistic disorder," says her gay ex-roommate, and we're supposed to be disarmed by the inclusion of this bracingly candid yet affectionate evaluation. And we are, for a little while, as the zaftig, black-clad Taliya subjects herself to a procession of awkward dates (arranged via the Internet). Once home, she commemorates each evening with a poem.
Don't be distracted by the will-she-or-won't-she-find-a-relationship throughline, or the gulf between computer proficiency and interpersonal ability that's the film's ostensible subtext. The most "interesting" thing about Taliya.date.com, which was funded and aired by Israeli television, is the film's structure, and the illusion being peddled. Although Finkel gives the standard impression at the outset that events are unfolding before us, it gradually becomes clear (from clues like a 2002 date on the screen) that everything has taken place in the past. Even more audacious (or deceitful), the entire movie is comprised of reenactments and recreations. If you somehow didn't figure this out along the way, there's a line buried in the end credits to the effect that the film was adapted from the book of poems Finkel published in 2009.
So what, exactly, is being documented? If you guessed Finkel's narcissistic disorder, pirouette to the head of the class.
The expertly assembled dance doc, First Position introduces us to a half-dozen youngsters -- including a Philly-raised adoptee from Sierra Leone, a preternaturally self-possessed son of a Navy doctor, the gifted Palo Alto daughter of a high-strung Japanese mother and English entrepreneur, an electrifying Colombian teen in Queens, and a long-limbed, pretty-in-pink, self-described "princess" -- with dreams of becoming professional ballet dancers. Bess Kargman's crowd-pleasing film does a marvelous job of introducing and limning its characters, their goals and their home lives, and galvanizing our rooting interest.
For my money, it would be enough to watch talented, committed adolescents progress through a year of training and development. But audiences demand a stronger narrative and higher stakes. So First Position gives us a culminating goal-slash-shark in the water: the annual Youth America Grand Prix, an international competition that's essentially a nail-biting talent show for top-drawer schools with scholarships and ballet companies with open positions.
The film's final reels are fraught with tension and frankly irresistible, yet I couldn't help feeling manipulated. I didn't need the specter of winners and losers to be invested in the subjects' lives and spooked by the specter of injury or failure that could end a burgeoning career and demolish a child's carefully constructed identity, sending him or her into a tailspin. I expect I'm in the minority (once again), though, and First Position will receive across-the-board raves.
I could have, and perhaps should have, talked about Patagonia Rising, the last of the four films in the extensive SF DocFest lineup that I previewed, after The Greenhorns. Both works are concerned with the workers of the land, and the allure and necessity of a way of life. The threat in Patagonia Rising consists of five massive dams the government is considering constructing as a way of turning the water resources of rural southern Chile into electricity for the populous north.
Brian Lilla's beautifully photographed doc makes a persuasive case that the dams would cause irreversible damage to ecosystems and even the Pacific Ocean (which the enormous Baker River flows into). We get articulate talking heads, effective maps and even a spot of animation. Best of all, Lilla introduces us to numerous Patagonians with fascinating faces who would suffer from displacement or, conversely, benefit from selling their land.
Unfortunately, unlike the Baker, Patagonia Rising doesn't get deeper as it goes. Thirty minutes would do the job as well as its 89. And while there's no question the doc has the ability to change hearts and minds, its earnestness is conveyed in a monotone that ultimately becomes numbing. Bring your own emotion, and you'll be fine.
The 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival runs October 14-27, 2011 at the Roxie in San Francisco and October 14-20 at the Shattuck in Berkeley. For more information visit sfindie.com