San Francisco Documentary Film Festival 2011

Yian Shang/Staff

“Scenes of a Crime”

Scenes of a Crime” is a portrait of the grotesque underbelly of the American justice system.  Wait.  That is inaccurate. The film takes the stance that it is hardly a “just” system if innocent citizens are sent to jail on the basis of false confessions, extracted through psychological manipulation. So please excuse the bad word choice.

In 2009, Adrian Thomas was arrested under the suspicion that he killed his son.  He underwent 10 hours of interrogation by police, after which he confessed to having committed the crime despite his innocence. Directed by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, the film is a well-crafted assemblage of poignant interviews, jarring photographs, and footage of the interrogation itself.

It is exhausting to watch, but in an ingenious way.  It subjects the viewer to the endless questioning that Thomas undergoes by repeatedly displaying the small, suffocating interrogation room in which he is bombarded with leading questions. The film creates that inescapable feeling of being trapped. But it also conveys the simple pleasures of seeing an American institution completely dismantled.

—Kanwalroop Singh

 “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters”

In “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters,” a Tetris player claims, “You have to be always almost dead,” in order to play Tetris. Unfortunately, the same goes for anyone seeing this film.  It is a recipe for near-death boredom, which turns the incredibly stimulating game of Tetris into a dull marathon of futility.

The film centers around Robin Mihara, a man planning a tournament amongst the best Tetris players in the world. Laden with lackluster interviews, excessive amounts of Tetris video, and a dramatic build-up to an anticlimactic tournament, the film drags along slowly.

Director Adam Cornelius wants to assemble a jumble of quirky characters for his audience and then wring some philosophical quips out of them, but this desire never comes to fruition. Large snakes, random poker games and awkward familial relationships are disappointing tangents more than material for entertainment.

The ending is, however, a redeeming moment, an awesome display of dedication to the practice of gaming. But slogging through the film just for those few, final minutes simply isn’t worth it, and in a few months that scene will probably be on YouTube anyways.

—Kanwalroop Singh

“Taliya.Date.Com”

Set in Tel Aviv, “Taliya.Date.Com” traces the path of one woman’s quest to find love in the seedy realm of online dating. That woman, Taliya Finkel is a young Israeli who likes to write bad poetry and sketch unflinching self-portraits. Her ideal man looks like the American rock star, Sting, but she’ll settle for less.

Written, produced and acted by Finkel herself, this tragic-comic film has a fluid documentary style, with scenes ranging from reenactments of dates to screenshots of Taliya’s computer, giving the project a patchy, home video effect.

Taliya’s quirky, evolving persona unfolds not so much during the dates, but during the requisite debriefings afterwards with her best friend Oded Goldfarb, who really embodies that sort of sassy, gay creature who only exists in cinema, one who seems to have no problem devoting his full attention to your straight girl issues.

Does Taliya find the one? That doesn’t seem so much the point by the end. Rather, through the backdrop of awkward meet-ups and fizzled-out potential, we see one former wallflower’s transformation into someone who is comfortable in her own skin. That’s the hard part; the rest will come.

Michelle Ma

“Peep Culture”

What is “peep?” According to writer and social commentator Hal Niedzviecki, it’s “a never-ending spectacle of bodies and souls willing to bare all in the name of entertainment, self-betterment and instantaneous recognition.” In the film, Niedzviecki embarks on a mission to understand this peep culture by setting up seven cameras in his house, cameras that stream his every move on the Internet for strangers to enjoy, 24/7. And yes, there’s a toilet feed.

Initially, Niedzviecki keeps the dialogue balanced, through candid interviews with peepers, from the well-intentioned bloggers to the self-obsessed exhibitionists. But when Niedzviecki takes a dip into the world of reality television, we are really left to wonder at the fate of humanity. This realm of pop culture, populated by modern-day gladiators, perhaps has less grounds for justification for its existence than other forms of peep, it seems.

Ultimately, Niedzviecki gives us an evenhanded look into the world of peep culture, but the debate is still on. Is this age that we’re living in defined by self-destructive voyeurism or an opportunity to connect in new ways?  Only time will tell.

Michelle Ma

“Circus Dreams”

When you think of a circus, the imagery can go one of two ways. Either you envision the demonic terror of clowns, hot summers and forced merriment or you relish in the magical splendor of aerial acrobatics and the face-painted performers. In director Signe Taylor’s “Circus Dreams,” those two perspectives are both present, minus the demonic clowns. The pain, the pleasure, the frustration and the fun are all on full display as Taylor traces the 10-week tour of the United States’ only traveling teen circus — Circus Smirkus.

Certainly, it’s an obscure topic with a strange name — and the audience for circuses is minimal in this modern day — but much less so for documentaries following amateur performers. However, “Circus Dreams” emerges as an oddly fascinating backstage look into the demanding, but absorbing world of a small-time circus. The teen performers, who mostly feel marginalized by their peers (like so many adolescents), burst out of their shells and are far from amateur in their ability to contort, swing and dazzle at dizzying heights. Despite its potentially hokey topic matter, “Circus Dreams” restores a passionate joy to a swiftly diminishing art form.

Jessica Pena

“Berlin in November”

“Berlin in November” is a documentary film about, well, the city of Berlin in the month of November. If your first thought is, “How risky can a film about a certain city in a certain time of year be?” The answer is: not very risky. While Berlin is a mesmerizing and bustling metropolis, with endless facets one might consider film-worthy, there is nothing special about it during the month of November. Or if there is, this documentary misses it.

In fact, the only topics addressed in the film that relate to this month are the weather, as well as a few questions about what things Berliners associate with November, most of which are also related to the weather. Fascinating stuff. If you want to know that Berlin is wet, gray and depressing in November, skip this film. A weather forecast will do. Oh, and the Berlin Wall happened to be taken down in November. But, alas, this is not a documentary about the Berlin Wall. Dropping the “in November” part of its title, Victor Schefe’s film is still a less-than-interesting sketch of the German capital. And since he happened to be shooting it in November, we got an extra dreary documentary.

Eytan Schindelhaim

“Unlikely Treasures”

“Oh, it’s the melding of the clothespin and the hanger collections!” says Dorothy as she decides to buy an antique hanger adorned with clothespins. Only one of the compulsive collectors interviewed in “Unlikely Treasures,” Dorothy also collects staplers, old photographs, thumbtacks, animal figurines and a vast array of other objects that fill her home.

With the 50-minute documentary, writer and director Tally Abecassis delves into the lives and stuff of compulsive collectors — but not too deeply. Eccentric interviews interwoven with charmingly creative split-screen shots of antique objects present an amusing peek at the obsessional habit. Caught up with exploiting the awe factor, however, the film does little to address the psychological, social and financial issues associated with devout collecting. While each collector offers a snippet of potentially profound insight, the lack of a common thread offers the viewer little to collect themselves.

Despite their superficial portrayal, the collectors in “Unlikely Treasures” are still enjoyable to watch. The unanswered questions the film presents, however, makes one wish for a more comprehensive look at an actually intriguing subject. It would be nearly as fulfilling to stay home and watch A&E’s pessimistic take on the same subject, “Hoarders.”

Sarah Burke

 “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians” 

Is “every hand (of blackjack) determined by God?” Well, for some members of the blackjack team comprised of nearly all Christians — yes, Christians — known as “The Church Team,” the answer to this question is a resounding yes. The documentary film “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians,” directed by Bryan Storkel, follows “The Church Team” for three years as they go through the highs and lows their respective “business” affords them.

Led by Ben Crawford and Colin Jones, “The Church Team” essentially forms as a way for Christians to come together and, well, make some money, both for their congregations, and for themselves. Naturally, there are those of the faith who oppose to the “sin” that these men, and a few women, are committing in “the eyes of God.”

The film deals with this as it does with all of the other non-religious implications of what these Christians are doing, giving the viewer a look at what this crew does, how they do it, why they do it and how key members come to terms with what their doing, both on a religious and personal level. Is this film full of contradictions? Yes. But what religion isn’t?

James Bell

“With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story”

BANG! POW! BOOM! The name Stan Lee is synonymous with Spiderman, Iron Man and every iconic comic book hero Lee has created over the years. In the documentary “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story,” directed by Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes and Will Hess, viewers are given insight into the life of the man behind these characters, in addition to how that life has shaped the Marvel Universe, all the way from Lee’s childhood in depression-era Bronx, New York to today, with seemingly every Marvel property being optioned for the big screen.

The film also traces Lee’s life in conjunction with the history of comic books as an artistic medium, providing enough historical information without being overly didactic. Though, at its core, the film is about the deep and profound relationships Lee has maintained throughout his life, with his wife of sixty years (together they are as hilarious as they are heart-warming), with his unfortunately deceased long-time friend/collaborator, artist Jack Kirby, or anyone else who has had the pleasure to work with him. The man “with great power” happens to be one of the most amiable and kind-hearted geniuses to put a pen to paper in any Universe.

— James Bell