“The problem with film and television is that the work isn’t good enough,” veteran documentarian Albert Maysles recently told an audience at the IFP Market, the Independent Feature Project’s long-running showcase for American-made works in progress. “And the work that is good enough is too good to be shown.” The 70-year-old co-director of Salesman and Gimme Shelter seemed a bit out of place at the market’s Angelika screenings, but even he acknowledged the challenges for exhibiting his latest project, In Transit, a series of intimate train stories culled from footage he has shot over 30 years.
Maysles highlights a quandary for docmakers, who make up the substance of the IFP Market: While they’re making inroads into the entertainment marketplace, they’re facing a marketplace that wants entertainment. Enjoyable and easily pitchable works in progress like Mad Hot Ballroom (Spellbound meets Strictly Ballroom), 32 Hours 7 Minutes (the real-life Cannonball Run), Cat Dancers (a love quadrangle involving three dancers and their homicidal Bengal tiger), and Toots Shor: Bigger Than Life (the rise and fall of the famous Gotham saloon keeper) were the buzz projects. But where does that leave serious, investigative pieces like Libby, Montana, a detailed look at a small mining town exposed to lethal toxins, or La Sierra, which gets personal with teenage paramilitaries outside Medellín, Colombia? PBS, perhaps?
Somewhere between pop-nonfiction and p.o.v., a pair of docu-auteurs supplied two of the most accomplished works on display: Silverlake Life director Peter Friedman’s intriguingly deadpan Mana—Beyond Belief observes humankind’s sacred objects, from the Shroud of Turin to the low-rider Cadillac, while Sundance regular Stanley Nelson’s A Song for Everyone stirringly captures the emotional power and political message of African American female singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
In a change of pace from your local art house, political docs were rare, replaced with stories of the 1960s (from Jonathan Berman’s backward glance at the Northern California Black Bear Commune to Ralph Arlyck’s return to Haight-Ashbury in Following Sean) and unsettling portraits of debilitating medical conditions (A Life Without Pain, about a little girl whose nerves don’t work; Learning to Swallow, which follows an artist who destroys her esophagus in a suicide attempt; and The Heywood Boys, an account of a man withering away from ALS and his family’s struggle to stave off the inevitable).
But the most memorable clip featured the pain and suffering of painter Chuck Connelly. In Jeff Stimmel’s The Chuck Show, the uncontrollable drunk (basis for Nick Nolte’s character in New York Stories) lashes out at the art world and everyone around him. “It’s all crap,” Connelly snarls. As for the bulk of the IFP’s projects, let’s just say that’s an exaggeration.