Anyone taking in the new “Docfest” as a 16-course meal will be struck first by the it’s-a-small-world heterogeneity, and then, conversely, by the homogeneity of the filmmaking. While the series offers a mesmerizingly freaky assortment of Mormons, gay cannibal anthropologists, lost immigrants, well-meaning bureaucrats, Russian princes, and pipe-welding robots, it also seems that today’s documentarians have learned more about their syntactical options from PBS than from Maysles, Wiseman, Herzog, or Morris. (Indeed, several of the films are destined for public TV later this year.) Nowhere are our ideas about documentary-viewing refreshed; the kind of subject-to-camera-to-viewer discomfiture explored by veteran doc-makers is all but absent. Today, there’s nowhere a camera crew isn’t welcome, and no one who isn’t ready for their close-up.
Luckily, the raw lifestuff at the heart of many of the films makes them irresistible, as in Well-Founded Fear, Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson’s glossy tour of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Faced with weeding through the human fallout from every domestic combat zone in the world, INS agents interview asylum-seekers and necessarily make stay-or-go judgments based on testimonial discrepancies, suspicion, and sometimes whim—an ethical tarpit they themselves readily acknowledge and grill each other about. Carefully shy of psychology or personal messiness, the movie’s nevertheless an informational eye-opener. Likewise, the work of designing, engineering, and building an industrial robot to stalk and repair Manhattan’s steam tunnel system is the hypnotic core of Michel Negroponte’s W.I.S.O.R.; too bad the filmmaker didn’t trust the physical process completely and instead cluttered his film with jokes and effluvia.
Perhaps the most rending entry is Deann Borshay’s First Person Plural, an orthodox personal-therapy film in which the thirtysomething Borshay, who was adopted at eight from a Korean orphanage and brought to middle-class America, discovers that she was not in fact the orphan she thought she was, but a surrendered child with a different name whose Korean family still lives. Off Deann and her generous parents go to Korea (with a photo album of Deann’s childhood snapshots), where the silent, tear-soaked psychodramas never seem to let up. Struggling with three official identities, Borshay is prone to a camcorder-age narcissism, but her torment is palpable. Pola Rapaport’s similarly heartfelt Family Secret chronicles the filmmaker’s search for family ties and a Romanian brother she never knew she had, and Nina Davenport’s minimally engaging video-diary Always a Bridesmaid trains the camera Ross McElwee-ishly on her own life as a perennially single wedding photographer. Though a pleasing Everygirl, Davenport is a lifeless narrator, and her situation is more pungently expressed in the comic strip Cathy.
Nothing less than essential viewing for students and PBS-jonesers, Barak Goodman’s Scottsboro: An American Tragedy does a boilerplate Ken Burns on the infamous Depression-era trial, rediscovering the opportunistic energy of the American Communist Party in its glory days and painting a broad picture of post-Civil War race relations. Peter Wintonick’s freshman-survey history Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment is just as useful for educating the masses, if more than a little facile in its road-tripping between interviews with Robert Drew, Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, etc.
Portraits of incidental oddballs are popular (a forgotten, dying Atlanta punker in Benjamin Smoke, gone-native ex-cannibal Tobias Schneebaum in Keep the River on Your Right), but none is odder than the family in One Man, Six Wives and Twenty-Nine Children, a British TV film that focuses on a pudgy Mormon who has created around himself a trailer-home hellhole in the Utah desert crawling with spaced-out wives (most of whom he married when they were 14 or 15) and aimless kids. Probably the most terrifying film seen on American screens this year (two of the wives are mother and daughter who had simultaneous babies), this gasper plays like a postapocalyptic, irradiated vision of American family-ism, except it is all, as they say, true.