Tchoupitoulas, dir. Bill Ross and Turner Ross
An homage to the power of place and a paean to the wonders of childhood, Tchoupitoulas is an impressive documentary that moves with the emotional subtleties of a narrative. In Tchoupitoulas, directing duo Bill and Turner Ross, who released 45365 in 2009—an expose on life in Sidney, Ohio, showcase their continued interest in geography. More specifically, the Rosses explore the way in which a particular place can be a lasting influence on human development.
Filming from sunup to sundown on a single night in the French Quarter, Bill and Turner Ross construct a poignant portrait of three brothers who embark on a forbidden adventure under the mystique and magic of a New Orleans night. Told predominantly through the perspective of William, the youngest of the boys, the film is refreshingly nonlinear. Not in the sense that there is no coherent plot, but in the sense that any story present in the film is made consciously secondary to its rich imagery. We watch quietly as the boys wander the dark streets; we grin to ourselves as they stumble upon cabarets; we tag along as they poke their way through the bowels of a decrepit river boat.
As the brothers attempt to make sense of this mysterious, adult world, William—an amateur philosopher and full-time dreamer—illuminates the voyage with stream-of-consciousness narration that is nothing short of profound.
Using stunning cinema verite, Bill and Turner Ross have constructed a powerful documentary that helps us recall our own memories of childhood. Through the eyes of William and his brothers, we are allowed to relive our adolescence, while gaining remarkable insights into the lives of people in a place that we may never have the privilege of visiting. [A+]
Francine, dir. Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
Realism is a wonderful thing. In Francine, Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky—a married, filmmaking partnership, use their documentary background to construct a marvelous narrative that communicates to its audience in crisp, nonfiction-like frames and rich, aural projections.
Starring Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter, Frozen River), Francine is the story of a downtrodden, middle-aged woman who has just been released from prison. Using what little money she has been given by the state, Francine finds a place to live, looks for a job, and slowly re-immerses herself into a world of stimuli; she actively pursues sensory opportunities she has been deprived of as a prisoner.
In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Francine, wandering the streets of a blue-collar town in upstate New York, comes upon an amateur metal band playing a free show in an empty field. As the headbangers around her do their thing, she sways to the music in a trance-like state. Eventually, we notice tears flowing from closed eyes, down her cheeks.
Cassidy and Shatzky, who were present during the Q&A, disclosed their intention of creating a film about a woman who is motivated primarily by stimuli, and the way in which these stimuli affect her emotions. In Francine, we have such a character. Between her obsession with animals, her reckless search for love in all the wrong places, and her impulsive approach to a life of freedom, Francine’s fragile mental state becomes apparent. We conclude that prison has taken its toll on her; that the corrections system has claimed another victim.
Francine is often hard to watch. We cringe with her reactionary choices and we cry with her in her darkest hours. But Cassidy and Shatzky have, nonetheless, created a beautiful film. One that speaks to the literal and metaphorical consequences of prolonged confinement. [A]
Trash Dance, dir. Andrew Garrison
Andrew Garrison’s brilliant, heartfelt film, Trash Dance, documents modern dance choreographer, Allison Orr, as she rides out with and tries to persuade employees of Austin Department of Solid Waste Services to collaborate in a public dance performance. Not only was it the most enjoyable film I saw at SXSW this year, it is the only film I have ever seen receive a standing ovation.
Garrison’s film displays Orr’s creative processes and the way in which these processes relate humanistically to the people she works with. Orr’s vision, which was to utilize the natural tasks of the “trash crew” to create a magnificent work of art, is altogether profound and beautiful. We watch as the film explores the usual frustrations that are associated with any major production, the grueling time table under which production was to be completed, the unique atmosphere of collaboration used to move the work forward, and most importantly, the rich personalities of the workers that make the show—and the film—all that it is.
Facing budget shortfalls and critics, Orr and the “trash crew” prevail. The final product is breathtaking. Incorporating 16 trucks, 24 people, and drawing a crowd of over 2,000, the show is a complex collection of poignant movements, featuring a crane solo that will make you cry. ”Trash Dance” is an opportunity for people of underprivileged communities to directly experience, and participate in, art—many for the first time.
More than anything else, Trash Dance is a welcomed validation of a class of people that is often stigmatized and marginalized. A group that goes virtually unrecognized on a daily basis. The film humanizes “garbage men” and provides meaningful evidence for the absolute necessity of those who perform the essential labor in our society. [A+]
Waiting for Lightning, dir. Jacob Rosenburg
The name Danny Way may not mean much to you. At least, it didn’t mean much to me prior to seeing Jacob Roseburg’s skateboard documentary, Waiting for Lightning. An ex-skater himself and childhood friend of Way, Rosenburg crafts this glowing portrait of the professional skateboarder, with an eye keen to the complexities of his rather turbulent life. For this reason, Waiting for Lightning is more than a cliche “skate video.” It is a poignant, informative biopic about an incredibly interesting individual.
Way grew up in Vista, California, with the skate craze roaring around him. Seemingly from infancy, Way would roll around on a skateboard, trying to keep up with his older brother, Damon. By the age of 11, Danny had won his first contest. By 14, he was skating semi-professionally. Besides his raw and almost unbelievable talent, Way has always garnered superhuman bravery and extraordinary toughness—almost as if he does not have the instinct for fear that the rest of the human race has.
This personality trait is perhaps what has allowed him to become the first skateboarder to attempt a 900, the first (and only) person to drop in from a helicopter, the inventor of a giant, wooden behemoth aptly titled the “mega ramp,” and, despite having a broken foot on the day of the event, the only person ever to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard—the stunt that Waiting for Lightning is structured upon.
Before Way found fame, he suffered a life of loss, abuse, and marginalization. As Rosenburg’s film opines, skating was, and continues to be, a kind of extreme catharsis for him. Way skates to forget, every day more dangerous than the one before, pushing himself so that every stunt is bigger and wilder than the last. In true documentary tradition, Rosenburg has produced a compelling, human story that gives his audience a unique glimpse into a little-known world. [A]
Brooklyn Castle, dir. Katie Dellamaggiore
Brooklyn Castle is an intimate look at the challenges and triumphs of junior high school chess players at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, New York. An inspirational story in its own right, director Katie Dellamaggiore has woven her film into an intricate thematic tapestry with application to a whole host of other life situations beyond chess.
In Brooklyn Castle, we are introduced to I.S. 318’s national champion chess team and many of the players that make the team what it is. We learn of their struggles, their strengths, their sparkling personalities, their life goals, and their talent; we become familiar with the teachers who coach them and the parents who support them. Facing economic crisis and unprecedented budget shortfalls, the team struggles to remain afloat. Thanks to dedicated parents and school administrators who realize the importance of chess to academic health, I.S. 318 chess team largely manages to plug along, winning remarkable contests, improving their individual rankings, and proving themselves on the national stage.
Besides the usual triumphant emotions associated with watching young people succeed, Brooklyn Castle helps us understand how passionate, dedicated, and impressive these kids really are. They work hard and, more often than not, their hard work pays off. Even in defeat they are characterized by marked sportsmanship and grace. There is much we can learn from their examples.
Brooklyn Castle falters only is in its repetitiousness. Towards the middle of the film, we begin to feel like we have heard all the information before; we start to get bogged down with the tediousness of the editing, the one-note nature of the narrative structure. To her credit, Dellamaggiore is only trying to be thorough. For that, she should be recognized. Despite this minor criticism, Brooklyn Caste is a rich portrait of the next generation. Refreshingly, these kids give me hope for our future. [A-]
Bay of All Saints, dir. Annie Eastman
The most political of all the films I saw at SXSW this year, Bay of All Saints, is a somber look at the injustice of poverty, the failure of traditional economic institutions, and the resilience of the human spirit.
In Bahia, Brazil, generations of impoverished families have resorted to living in “palafitas,” a network of makeshift shacks built on stilts in a rising tide of garbage over the ocean of All Saint’s Bay. Though nearly all of the people here work, their meager wages do not amount to enough to afford rent, much less property, on land. Because the ocean is a public good, these families have become squatters over the water.
Years ago, the International Monetary Fund, in the name of decency, justice, and public health, allocated funds for the state of Bahia to build public housing for the people over the water. This measure would have allowed for them to be humanely moved and provided with sanitary places to live. Unfortunately, the state has yet to build the promised housing. Some allege bureaucratic inefficiency; others point to corruption. The truth is that it is likely a combination of both. When the state, in 2009, issued a decree that they would be evicting this community and destroying the palafitas, the people rose up and, to this day, they continue to fight for the protection of their homes and the welfare of their families.
Filmed over six years, Eastman’s film is a lyrical portrait of three single-mothers as seen through the eyes of Norato, their mutual refrigerator repairman who was born and raised in the palafitas. We follow Norato as he makes his usual rounds, checking in and catching up with his friends. We find Norato to be a kind and loving man, who offers help without being intrusive; he is charitable without expecting anything in return.
We also find that the community in the palafitas is remarkably organized, democratic, and to a large degree, matriarchal. When the state threatens their removal, it is because of the female leadership that the community acts. Eastman’s film captures the resulting tension and struggle in the sharp cinema verite of a distinguished filmmaker. That Eastman is not a filmmaker by trade speaks volumes about her accomplishment.
Out of all the Q&As I had the privilege of attending, the one following Bay of All Saints was the most rewarding. After three or four questions, Eastman was attacked by a rather combative man in the back, who proceeded to accuse her of exploiting the palafitas dwellers for her own gain. After she promptly dismissed his claims by informing the audience that she is “still in the red” and that she has not, to this point, “made a dime” on the film, another man stood up.
This time the praise was warm and complimentary. The man was from Bahia and his mother had grown up in the palafitas. He praised Eastman for making the world aware of the injustice that was taking place in his home country. The second take on Bay of All Saints is the one which rings true. [A]