Edited April 13, 2010
I was pleased and more than a little surprised at the quality of work presented at this year's student Documentary Show presented by the U of U Department of Film and Media Arts.---
Actually, I wasn't sure what to expect ... I figured I'd be adrift in a sea of films by 22-year-olds documenting mysterious pop-culture phenomena in a secret code Alan Turing couldn't decipher.
Now I realize I suffer from that awful 40-something chauvinism against 20-somethings which used to infuriate me when I was a 20-something: They live shallow lives that look like iPhone commercials, and all they care about is Lady Gaga and that loud music they're always playing, and I wish they'd stay off my lawn, and I'd have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids.
As it turns out, though, the kids are alright -- as are the older students in what turned out to be a nicely age-diverse class. And, as it also turns out, student filmmakers of any age are capable of turning out some very robust documentaries.
One of the most delightful aspects of short-film programs is the sheer randomness of their subject matter -- a measured yet impassioned profile piece exposing a flawed criminal justice system (Calvin Glover's Innocence Doesn't Matter) can be immediately followed by a sparkling account of a 21-year-old's voyage of discovery into the vagaries of Utah alcohol policy (Faustine Escandor's 3.2 Percent).
Glover's journalistic style allows him to report on a judicial travesty (the imprisonment of an innocent man and the inability of the courts to exonerate him) in a factual, balanced way while actively maintaining a role of ethical advocacy. And Escandor (what can I say?) is just so damned charming and intelligent, with such a strong screen presence, that I think she should appear in all her own movies.
So, yes: random. Still, the program's ordering followed a certain logical arc, and early on it became apparent that today's students -- far from living in a soulless iPhone oblivion -- are just as consumed by the Big Questions as students ever were. Spiritual, religious and philosophical topics were gratifyingly prominent.
The nonlinear structure of Conor Provenzano's The Flame of Attention pushes the limits of documentary film; it attempts nothing less than to paint a portrait of Samadhi, the personal experience of divine union that is a goal of practices such as Kundalini yoga. Provenzano has a fine musical sensibility making his knockout visualizations subtle enough to contribute to the underlying narrative rather than being intrusive or distracting. (After the screening, Provenzano told me he only wished the sound had been louder -- now I want to watch The Flame wearing headphones with the Miles Davis / John Coltrane / Duke Ellington soundtrack cranked.)
Chhouk Phoung's Episode 2: She Travels Through the Matrix profiles a Utah psychic investigating a 6-year-old California hit-and-run death. Of course, audiences can be counted on to regard such subject matter with skepticism, but Phuong maintains a neutral P.O.V. throughout. Her concise explanation and brief history of a technique known as "remote viewing" is fascinating -- the math geek in me was struck by the clarity of diagrams illustrating in only three dimensions what essentially should be a four-dimensional process (and then, of course, the whole thing is projected onto the two-dimensional plane of the screen).
Perhaps documentarists face their greatest challenge when they turn the camera on themselves. A trio of autobiographical accounts was included in the program:
The first of these, Alex Mack's March with the Beat, explores the experiences of non- and ex-Mormons living in Utah. It's a perennial issue and always merits a fresh perspective. Mack presents interviews with family members and associates who have "left the Church" as people say, revealing familiar hurts and resentments against a monolithic conformist culture that can seem heartless in its rejection of others' differences.
The second, Chris Averett's If You're Not Now, You Never Were, likewise deals with issues of group identification and the human need for community, but from a highly original perspective: Averett chronicles his past in the Straight Edge movement with interviews of current and former members, interspersed with riveting footage from hardcore music shows. (I had never before realized how different hardcore dancing is from standard mosh-pit slamming -- at one point, the precision of the dancers' movements seem to verge on that of martial-arts stances.)
If You're Not Now is eye-opening for anybody whose opinion of Straight Edge is based on sensationalist media stories from the '90s. Many of the interviewees described sXe in warmly familial terms, as a place of belonging, where lifelong friendships were forged.
(Still, not everybody got the point: During the post-screening Q&A session, one audience member -- who probably didn't intend to seem as hostile as he sounded --
told Averett something like, "I gotta say, you scare the hell outta me!" -- upon which the evening's quick-witted master of ceremonies, Professor Brian Patrick, ominously pointed out that a sizable group of Averett's friends were seated in the front row. The rest of us tittered nervously.) [Edit: I've since been informed the audience member in question was really Averett's father, who said, "You worried the hell out of me." Which makes a lot more sense. Apologies to Averett's dad.]
The last of these three autobiographical pieces, Janelle Vigil's The Long Journey Home, is a gut-punchingly powerful documentary about her family's ongoing recovery from an unimaginable child-sex-abuse tragedy. The story is so deeply personal, with interviews of both the victim and the abuser, and Vigil's account is so frank and straightforward, that 24 hours later I still can't think of words to write about it. But she's a remarkable woman, that Vigil, and I admire the courage it must have taken to pour so much honesty into a creative project.
The final film on the program, Chan Yok's The Ring of Healing, is also the best of the bunch [see disclosure*]. The Ring investigates American Indian Pow Wow culture and its significance in the lives of native participants. Yok's gift for setting his subjects at ease allows him to capture extraordinarily natural and expansive interview footage. (One elder's vivid description of the federally-funded Christian brainwashing boarding-school program, and his own defiantly brief encounter with it, is wonderful.)
Technically, The Ring is superbly executed. Evidently, Yok is something of a perfectionist when it comes to editing: Cuts and transitions are so well-timed and unobtrusive, I got too caught up in the narrative to remember many specific examples. But early on, there's one long, slow dissolve that matches the narration so perfectly it still stands out in my mind.
A phenomenal amount of work and dedication went into each of these student projects. (That last week before deadline must be a nightmare.) It is impressive, though, how many of them earned credits in each other's films. Obviously, they're all helping each other out in that class.
Even more than music, filmmaking is a collaborative art, and during the Q&A session as the students stood all together in front of their audience, the friendship and camaraderie among them was palpable. It touched my bitter, 40-something heart, and I loved it.
* In the interest of full disclosure, Yok is a longtime friend, so of course I'd think his entry is the best. But still, it really is.