Sunday, June 16, 2013

Doc/Fest 2013 Coverage: Day Five

As the fifth and final day of Doc/Fest 2013 dawns, I am still waiting for that one documentary that strikes me as truly exceptional. Several of the films have come close to greatness - The Act of Killing, in particular, is almost certainly a masterpiece in the two hour cut that I didn't see, at least based on what I've read and heard elsewhere - but there always seems to be something that holds them back. I've certainly not seen any terrible films, but also nothing on a par with a Bombay Beach, Marwencol or Searching For Sugar Man, all of which were great films that played at Doc/Fest in the past. Today is the last chance for something to reach out and really do something amazing. Even if nothing does, though, I think the overwhelming quality of the events and sessions, not to mention the parties and general atmosphere, will make this qualify as a successful Doc/Fest, even though I might not end up putting any of the films I've seen here on my Top 10 at the end of the year.

Emptying the Skies

Based on an article written for The New Yorker magazine by novelist Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), Emptying the Skies is an earnest film about the decline of migratory bird populations due to poaching in Europe, as well as the efforts to fight that poaching, which has its heart firmly in the right place, but also feels a little slight.

This is a particular issue for the film considering that the problem is not a small one: millions of birds are being slaughtered illegally every year, and by focusing on the actions of CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter), a group who go around destroying traps and freeing birds, it feels like a very small piece of a larger problem. Franzen occasionally appears in the film to talk about the relationship between birds and humanity, the poetic nature of birdsong and other more philosophical matters, but it's mainly about the activists' individual efforts.

While you do feel that they are doing something great, and there are moments - such as a sequence in which they are threatened by gangsters in Cyprus who make money off the illegal trade - that get across how dangerous their efforts are, there just isn't much weight to the film. It's an interesting look at the issue, and it does a good job of getting across the pure intentions of the people involved, but one which feels like it could have benefited from being given a far grander treatment.

My Best Fiend (dir. Werner Herzog)

I rounded the festival off with a screening of one of my favourite documentaries: Werner Herzog's by turns hilarious and melancholy examination of his relationship with the volatile, brilliant actor Klaus Kinski. I've written about the film before, so I won't go into too much detail on it, but what struck me this time, watching it in a packed screening, was just how consistently funny it is. I'd obviously found the humour in Herzog's wry, deadpan description of the fractious working relationship between the director and the actor (Herzog, on meeting Kinski at a film festival several years after making Fitzcarraldo together: "I was glad to see him, even though I had only recently given up my plan to murder him.") but it's only with a large group that you realise just how funny some of the stories are. It's ultimately a quite bittersweet film, particularly when Herzog talks about how much he misses Kinski and how he chooses to remember him at his best, rather than the moments when they were trying to kill each other, but it's surprisingly uproarious.

So, that's Doc/Fest 2013 over and done with. If I was to choose a film of the festival, it would have to be Valentine Road, which I found to be hugely moving, tentatively tied with The Act of Killing, which I like more and more as time goes on, but which I still feel I can't offer a true opinion of until I watch the theatrical version. Even if the films weren't up to the calibre of previous years, I thought the festival itself was an absolute triumph, and I can't wait to come back again next year.