Monday, May 25, 2009

Documentary Lovers Rejoice! AFA hosts 5-day NY Doc Film Fest - Festival dei Popoli

Anthology Film Archives is the place, the New York Documentary Film Festival - Festival dei Popoli is the event, and the dates are May 27-31. Mark your calendars now because this

five-day period is prime time for folk who care about the documentary form. The second annual event features everything from rarely seen works of Albert Maysles (whom the festival is celebrating in particular this year) to films by Agnes Varda, Alan Berliner and Volker Koepp, plus award-winning documentaries from Italy and some of the best examples of the past half-century from the archives of the Festival dei Popoli. (The complete 18-film program, with days and times, is here.)

The Festival dei Popoli, based in Florence, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and is devoted to promoting and studying social documentary cinema. In the last half-century, its collection has grown into, as the AFA calls it, "an unparalleled treasure of documentary films covering the history of non-fiction filmmaking. " If the seven examples I've been able to pre-screen are typical, there is some very fine work to be seen over these five days. Let's start with the short film that opens the program, and which the filmmaker himself will introduce: Albert Maysles (as seen several decades ago -- above left, front, with his late brother David -- and more currently, above right) and his rarely-seen, 28-minute delight, Meet Marlon Brando.

What a surprise and a pleasure it is to see Mr. Brando looking so trim and fit (not to mention alive) as he "meets the press" (the entertainment press, that is) doing his version of the PR hustle for his 1965 film Morituri (from which the still, at right, is taken). The guy is witty, gracious, graceful, charming and ultra-handsome as he glad-hands one person after another -- without ever demeaning himself or doing the fawning PR thing. In fact, he makes consistent fun of this sort of activity, and Maysles lets us see (without ever commenting on anything) how Brando's honesty so surprises and puts off a press used to playing the typical tit-for-tat routine. Marlon's having none of this, and when he tells a very cute young reporter (actually, he does this to two or three of them) how beautiful he finds her, it's clear he wants to get into her pants and is going about it quite honestly but without undue pressure.

Maysles lets us see this man in action (above), with all of his disarming humor, intelligence and charisma in full swing. His reputation for being a bad boy (well, bad man: he was already in his early 40s) seems terribly inflated now, when making fun of PR duties is second-nature to most of our "stars." Back then it was not. Studios were starting to lose their power, but irony was nowhere near the buzz-word it has become -- and rather cheaply so -- today. What the actor was telling the press shocked because it was the truth -- something foreign to them, then, as much as now. To watch Brando's behavior in Maysles' movie is to observe a lost time and to see a real star in fascinating full-bloom. They don't make 'em like that anymore and, in fact, didn't do it back then, either: Brando was one-of-a-kind. (Meet Marlon Brando screens once only, Wednesday night, May 27, at 7pm.)

Odessa (above), by Leonardo Di Costanzo and Bruno Oliviero (both of whom will be present for the screening), is a 67-minute co-production of Italy and France from 2006. It tells what seems to me an extraordinarily nasty chapter of Soviet history via a group of sailors literally abandoned by their country on the ship Odessa, which was evidently stuck in the port of Naples for years. The crew members have witnessed the deaths of their comrades and gone into debt from which they will probably never recover, but due to the kindness and solidarity of the harbor/port crew and government workers, they soldier on. I admit to not fully understanding all that transpired here (the sub-titles try; what's missing may be my historical/cultural perspective), but what I did get was riverting and profoundly sad. (Odessa screens Thursday, May 28, at 7pm -- along with The Seasons by Artavazd Pelechian.)

Napoli piazza Municipio (above, Italy/France, 2008, 55 minutes), also by Bruno Oliviero, who will appear in person, takes us on a leisurely trip around Municipal Plaza in Naples, where we see museum-goers, workers on the job, even the staff -- and the tourists they serve-- on a cruise ship (I'm not sure why the cruise ship, but whatever). This is a film of bits and pieces, some much more interesting than others: a gorgeous old Wurlitzer in a bar, a stomach ache, a Happy New Year celebration, immigration and more. There's a lot going on in the Naples areas -- from the Camorrah to trash scandals and illegal dumping -- but you'd never know it from this film. Unless, of course, it was offered too subtly for me to assess. Mostly we get just plain folk and the unexceptional moment, but these are enough to make a relatively interesting hour. (This film will screen Thursday, May 28, at 9 pm, along with Audrius Stonys' Uku Ukai.)

Is there anything more special than the face of a child? 10 Minutes Older, by Herz Frank (Latvia, from 1978, 10 minutes) explores children's faces on a street in Riga as they watch the performance of a puppet theater. Although the music will tend to enchant or distract you, the sumptuous black-and-white photography is phenomenal. The reactions of joy, surprise, fear, shock and all the rest are captured as I've rarely seen them, and the dead-on close-ups make the cheekbones, noses, lips and eyes look like pieces of fine sculpture. 10 Minutes Older screens Friday, May 29, at 7 pm -- with For One More Hour With You by Alina Marazzi (see just below).

We've lived through the rise of and consciousness-raising from feminism here in the USA, but imagine, if you can, what it must have been like for Italian women during this same period? In just 81 minutes, Alina Marazzi (who will appear in person) shows us these women of the 1960s and 70s, as they try to come to terms with some very new ideas. We Want Roses, Too (above, from Italy, 2007, 85’) begins with a young woman wandering into a shop called Curiosity, where she encounters her future in a crystal ball: nudity and sex like she's never seen nor experienced them. She's appalled, we're involved, and the film is off and running. Via animation, pop-ups, interviews, statistics, news footage and imagination, we enter the world of the Italian woman -- her hopes, fears and desires regarding sex, love and her own body. (One woman talks of her dream of caressing a man's back: that was all she'd ever seen a woman do in the movies!) Ms. Marazzi is full of irony, and why not? She's in Italy -- where, until nearly the 70s, divorce did not exist, and only men could -- legally -- commit adultery without consequences. No wonder one woman describes her emotional life as that of a "rock." I find it funny, now, that back in the 60s, sophisticated Americans looked to Italian films for a more grown-up approach to sex. Sure: if you were a man. Much of the latter part of the movie involves abortion and its consequences, and of course The Church. Marazzi even manages to cull a delightful groups of idiotic quotes about women from the likes of Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and -- Abbie Hoffman. This one's a must-see; it's as good -- funny, pointed, smart -- as anything I've seen from America about women. We Want Roses, Too plays at 9 pm on Friday, May 29.

The high-point of what I viewed at this festival arrived with the film that plays Saturday, May 30, at 8:30 (along with A Scuola another documentary from Leonardo Di Costanzo). Titled A Necessary Music (shown above) by Beatrice Gibson, it's pure poetry, visual and verbal: a kind of ghost story set in a beautiful and quiet tomb called Roosevelt Island. This half-hour piece offers New Yorkers the Island as I wager they'll not have seen it. Nor will they easily forget this particular vision of it. The film begins in silence as the camera moves over a Manhattan cityscape and the East River to the island. Once we arrive, we're in for not just beautiful photography (it is!) but a vision that is pointed, strange, sad and alluring -- often at the same time. History, art, imagination and speculation combine in the narration (from some of Roosevelt's residents) and visuals that give an idea of the island very different from anything we've seen. The place is like "a time close to our time, but somehow considered no longer part of our time," one person tells us. Another calls it "nowhere." But it's somewhere, all right. And this is one piece of rich, quiet, dazzling and thoughtful filmmaking.

The final piece I was able to view is yet another by Leonardo Di Costanzo, who, along with Mr. Maysles, may be the darling of the festival. His nearly hour-long documentary from 1998 screens Sunday, May 31, at 4.30 pm and Mr. Di Costanzo will appear in person to introduce his film. Prove di Stato is a co-production of France and Italy from 1998 that deals with the time period after the 1996 election of Luisa Bossa (above) as Mayor of Ercolano, a small town near Naples. Although Luisa's first action is to hang an Italian flag on her office wall to remind herself (and, I suspect, others) that "Everyone is Equal Under the Law," the lady has one hell of time trying to demonstrate this. How do you make things work -- not just legally and humanely, but at all -- in Italy? The movie seems to ask this question over and over but an answer is not forthcoming. Bossa struggles with problems of housing and jobs, primarily, but she is also dealing with the Camorra (under the surface, of course) and the recent past, still somewhat in place via nepotism inherited from the center-right Democrazia Cristiana party. The films ends in media res, so if any of my more intrepid readers should attend the screening, please ask Signore Di Costanzo what happened to Mayor Bossa -- and report back to me with your findings!

Above, from A Necessary Music

What I was able to view constitutes but one-third of what's available in this festival, which was organized and produced by Fitzgerald Foundation of Florence and the Festival dei Popoli - International Documentary Film Festival, Florence -- in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute, Mediateca Regionale Toscana Film Commission, Regione Toscana, Toscana Promozione and Anthology Film Archives. In addition, it is being presented with the help of the Tribeca Film Institute-Reframe Collection and New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT).

Above, from A Necessary Music

Special thanks are due Stefania Ippoliti, Mediateca Regionale Toscana Film Commission, Tanja Meding, Terry Lawler and Paula Heredia for NYWIFT, Laura Coxson (Maysles Films), Kristen Fitzpatrick (Women Make Movies), Kelly DeVine (Tribeca Film Institute-Reframe Content and Partnerships), Renato Miracco and Simonetta Magnani (Italian Cultural Institute), John Mhiripiri and Stephanie Gray (Anthology Film Archives), Raffaella Conti (Mediateca Regionale Toscana Film Commission), Federico Siniscalco (Festival dei Popoli), Simona Errico, Eva Mosconi, Gaia Somasca, and Stefano Romagnoli (Toscana Promozione).

Tickets for New York Documentary Film Festival - Festival dei Popoli 2009 are available at the Anthology Film Archives box office only: $9; $6 for AFA members and for NYWIFT members.
Location: 32 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003
Subway directions: F or V to 2 Avenue-Lower East Side; B or D to Broadway–Lafayette; 6 to Bleecker Street.

Photo of the Maysles brothers, top, courtesy of Wikipedia.
The photo of Albert Maysles and that from Meet Marlon Brando,
courtesy of
Maysles Films, Inc.
Remaining photos (except that from
Morituri) courtesy of NYDFF-Festival dei Popoli.

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