The Big Tease


“Going to the market is like panning for gold,” says indie-film consultant Bob Hawk, famous—or infamous—for discovering Clerks at the annual IFP Market (formerly known as the Independent Feature Film Market) back in 1993. Despite more fool’s gold than precious metal recently, the 24th edition of the Independent Feature Project’s annual bazaar for works in progress (which ended October 4) was decidedly more mature, pared down (40 percent fewer projects than last year), and ready for business.

But the hope of chancing upon the next indie star is a remnant of glory days (John Sayles, Todd Haynes, and Todd Solondz have all showcased projects). Though organizers made an effort this year to revive the narrative program, making it smaller and more selective, documentaries once again stole the show.

Market veteran Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March screened in 1985) returned with a rough cut of his latest film, Bright Leaves, in which he slyly investigates “the agricultural pathological trust fund” left by his tobacco baron forebears: a North Carolina citizenry plagued by lung cancer and emphysema. His circuitous exploration of his own family history finds symbolic representation in a hilarious moment with “rabid” film theorist Vlada Petric, who takes McElwee for a spin in a wheelchair and lectures him on the nature of “kinesthesia.”

In The Same River Twice (“a peyote-to-Prozac story”), McElwee’s Harvard colleague Robb Moss juxtaposes footage from his 1978 film Riverdogs—in which he and his rafting friends frolic naked along the Colorado River—with sobering interviews of his pals as adults. Similarly, in the work-in-progress Commune, a young woman experiences mixed emotions while revisiting the utopian living experiment in rural Tennessee she has grown up to despise.

A 10-minute teaser for The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela by director Thomas Allen Harris (the poet-filmmaker of the “mytho-biographical” That’s My Face) received enthusiastic praise. According to Harris, Twelve Disciples interweaves two stories: his stepfather’s journey with the 11 other men of the African National Congress Youth League to keep the anti-apartheid movement alive while in exile, and Harris’s own efforts to embrace his father and South African heritage.

In the feature-length doc Girl Hood, Liz Garbus (co-director of the Oscar-nominated The Farm) focuses on two charismatic subjects: Shanae, a girl who stabbed and killed a friend when she was 12, and Megan, a survivor of 11 foster homes. Garbus zeros in on both girls’ relationships with their mothers, and builds both stories to a heartrending climax.

But no family compares in dysfunction to Susan Tom’s in My Flesh and Blood, in which TV journalist Jonathan Karsh tracks four seasons in the life of this mother of 11 adopted children with various disabilities. Two of her daughters are without legs (they’re seen bouncing on trampolines), one is a disfigured burn victim, and a son suffers from a terminal skin disease. Add to the mix a 15-year-old bully with cystic fibrosis, who abuses the other kids, and you have a family portrait that is as engrossing as it is difficult to watch.

Just as dire but less lurid, Barbara Hammer’s new film Resisting Paradise looks at the French town of Cassis both as an impressionists’ playground and WWII refugee safe haven, and Tony Silver (Style Wars) explores artist and illustrator Marshall Arisman’s penchant for monkeys, violence, and spirituality in Arisman: Facing the Audience. Speaking of artists, two works-in-progress, William Kirkley’s Excavating Taylor Mead and The Danny Williams Story (directed by Esther Robinson, a niece who never knew him), revealed renewed interest in Warhol’s Factory, while a host of NYC performers from Deborah Harry to Joey Arias to Hedwig appear in the celebratory glam-scene doc SqueezeBox, the Movie.

From exploitation of women and workers in Thailand and Indonesia, to political troubles in East Timor and the Balkans, to the rising anti-immigration movement at home, the Angelika screening halls offered a catalog of injustice and conflict. As one filmmaker said at an afternoon mixer, “This isn’t a place for comedies.” Maybe that’s just the market finally taking itself a little more seriously.