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SF Doc Fest talks subcultures

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“Astor Barber All-stars”

It’s where Bruce Willis once asked a stylist to tweeze his ears, the long-haired hippies of the 1960s almost drove business to a halt, and a sign on the front desk announces: “We speak Italian Russian Greek Spanish French Polish.”

Since 1939, Astor Place Hairstylists has been a fixture of Manhattan’s West Village. In its heyday, the barbershop boasted multiple floors and was so crowded that customers were herded over a microphone. Today, the family-owned business is still bustling along to the breakneck pace of a New York minute.

“Astor Barber All-stars” introduces us to Astor Place, where 30-plus barbers serve up haircuts starting at $16 and use straight razors to etch meticulous lineups, tapers and designs. An enduring New York landmark, Astor Place has thrived for nearly 75 years and remains one of the last barbershops of its kind, a mom-and-pop establishment where the occasional fist fight is unavoidable and payment is always cash-only. Jessica, a stylist, offers the following by way of explanation: “We’re not fancy, but our work is.”

Filmmaker Karen Gehres’ no-frills documentary isn’t fancy, either. Instead, her approach is a straightforward one. Gehre weaves archival footage and contemporary interviews with stylists and clients into a comprehensive profile of the iconic and much-beloved barbershop. With unassuming sincerity, Gehre captures the legacy of Astor Place as it always has been and continues to be: that of a cultural institution where the clients are loyal, the music is loud and old-fashioned artistry still reigns supreme.

-Sarah Adler


“Trash Dance”

“Trash Dance”  follows Orr as she sets out to stage a one-of-a-kind performance featuring municipal sanitation workers in Austin, Texas. Director Andrew Garrison chronicles Orr’s yearlong journey from preproduction to performance with lucidity, allowing us a glimpse into both Orr’s creative process and the work and lives of the municipal employees that inform it.

Orr’s process begins with research. For months, she shadows various sanitation crews and acquaints herself with the flow of their shifts, whether garbage collection or dead animal disposal. Each crew has a distinct rhythm and requires the tandem coordination of workers and machinery including garbage trucks, street sweepers, lifts and cranes. Out of this coordination, Orr sees a dance unfolding — one through which she hopes to celebrate labor that occurs under the cover of darkness, unappreciated and often entirely unnoticed.

Months of planning and rehearsal culminate on an empty airport runway in a single, sold-out performance. As an overcast, rainy evening plunges into darkness, man and machine dance together. In “Trash Dance,” flesh and steel move in sync with unexpected grace, reminding us, quite literally, that the line between trash and treasure is never absolute.

-Sarah Adler



Riding alongside luxury sports cars, fierce Harley-Davidsons and tricked out low-riders in the prideful world of customizable vehicles is the everyman’s family van. Since the 1970s, the Van National Truck-In has hosted a four-day festival where self-proclaimed “vanners” camp out with their vehicles, race, shop and, most importantly, bond. Nick Nummerdor and Andrew Morgan’s documentary “Vannin'” doesn’t follow the events of the Trunk-In or its history but the compassionate people that populate its subculture.

“Vannin'” is a humanistic exploration of social acceptance, composed of interviews from vanners explaining firsthand their connection with the movement.

One man in a wheelchair expressed that vanning became his perfect hobby because of his disability. A walrus-mustached older man who lost his first marriage over vanning describes himself as someone who was “never the cool guy.”

“We’re almost like a laughingstock, it’s like ‘aw geez, the damn vans,’ ” Howard of the National Truck-In Board says. “But to us it’s our life.”

The customized vans at the event are outlandishly state-of-the-art feats of dedication — featuring rock ‘n’ roll murals on the exterior, granite floors, refrigerators, Greek columns, TVs that fold out from the ceiling and rotating tanning beds.

These vanners not only find comfort and belonging in their communal, vehicular passions but also face judgement from mainstream culture for their offbeat, grossly mechanical movement. Nummerdor and Morgan’s cinematography invites the audience members to understand their need for this niche activity. Their interviews are personal little vignettes — interspersed with actual 1970s Van Nationals’ footage — that seek empathy and acceptance from nonvanners.

-Jennifer Wong


“Lunch Love Community”

Berkeley’s expansive and self-conscious food culture enters grade-school classrooms in “Lunch Love Community” by Helen DeMichiel and Sophie Constantinou. Twelve short films make up “Lunch” and are organized into three thought categories: “Heart,” “Body” and “Mind.” These short features explore topics such as food and relationships, nutritional values, food justice and food morals.

The shorts intersperse typographic interludes and overlays, faculty interviews and plenty of classroom footage of young children eating and learning about food health. There’s a serious, yet winsome, tone about the films that advocate more food awareness in grade schools, where children eat up to two meals a day in their cafeterias and consume packaged snacks from vending machines. “Lunch” stretches the importance of school beyond academics and shifts lunchtime from an obligation to a necessity. “Schools have a responsibility for the whole child,” says Berkeley Unified School District superintendent Michelle Lawrence.

“Lunch” cites several fronts for solution. In one short, parental pressure changes the system. In another, teacher influence improves student taste preferences from junk to health. Charlotte Biltekoff, author of “Eating Right In America” speaks extensively in the most telling short titled “Imperfection Salad.” She argues that “social and moral hierarchies win out in food discussion.” Though she sifts through various ideas — diet as a way to address larger social problems, what it means to be a “good eater” or “bad eater” — Biltekoff leaves the solution to better school meals open-ended. “Lunch” inspires viewers to help the younger generation and also to carry on the food discussion in the greater society. Where there are eaters, there are thinkers.

-Jennifer Wong

Contact Sarah Elizabeth Adler at 


JUNE 18, 2014

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