Friends: Documentaries are hot. Ten per cent of the films in the market are documentaries, including two that recently played at Chicago's Landmark, "Plant B-Boys" and "Young at Heart," both looking for more distribution. It seems like anybody with a camera these days is making one, except Werner Herzog, who has gone back to feature film-making. Hell, even Madonna had a doc here on orphans in Malawi. She said she would like to have adopted all of them, but settled on just one. Jury President Sean Penn requested a screening of a documentary on volunteers for the tsunami of a few years ago.
Established, veteran feature film-makers are giving the genre a try, as well as nobodies. I saw one of each today, upping my total to 15 of the 68 films I've seen these first ten days of the festival. Abel Ferrera is the latest big name director to go documentary, choosing the Chelsea Hotel in New York as his subject with "Chelsea on the Rocks." This legendary Bohemian hotel is on the rocks because it was recently sold by its long-time owner to a corporate concern.
After his revved-up introduction to the film, I doubted Ferrera could keep his strong, unrestrained personality out of the film. He tries for a while, limiting his presence to only his laughter and some gasped expletives in the background, but then he is on prominent display interviewing and walking around the hotel with Milos Foreman and the former owner of the hotel. Foremen lived there for two years without paying rent as a young director, long before he directed "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," because the owner had faith in him, and liked to support artists. Countless artists stayed there on a short- and long-term basis over the years.
Ferrera interviews many of the current long-term residents while recounting the lore of the hotel, even re-enacting the saga of Sid and Nancy with a couple of actors. That was about the most effort he put into the project. This was more proof that making an above-average documentary takes more than just having an interesting subject.
"Marina of the Zabbaleen" was an even stronger example of a failed attempt. The fascinating subject of garbage pickers in Cairo couldn't even save this documentary. There is very little of the garbage picking, as it concentrates on a family that lives in the Village of Recyclers of 30,000 residents alongside the Cairo dump. There is footage of the hard work of various residents sorting the garbage--metal and paper and food for pigs--but mostly it dwells upon the not so interesting everyday activities of a family the American film-makers befriended-- taking their young daughter to the dentist, going to church and so forth.
"Il Divo" by Paolo Sorrentino was far from a documentary, though it recounts the life of long-time Italian premier Giulo Andreotti who was tried for being involved with the mafia. This was the second film in Competition portraying the stranglehold the mafia has on Italy. This highly stylized and dramatized portrayal of the now 89-year old Andreotti didn't please him at all. It does not try to be conclusive as to whether or not he was involved with the mafia during his 40 years as a prominent politician up until a few years ago, but implies that, as that court decided, he was not.
I succeeded in gaining entry to both the Director's Fortnight and the Critic's Week theaters for the first time this year. After failing to get into the Palais for Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" at 8:30 this morning, I zipped up to Director's Fortnight for "Monsieur Morimoto," a whimsical tale about a homeless elderly Japanese artist in Paris. The film begins with Morimoto being evicted from his apartment. He doesn't seem concerned. He hardly speaks any French, just a few phrases ("me wanderer", "no money", "slight perspiring") . He manages every day to befriend some other wayward soul who gives him a place to sleep, though he never stays at one place more than one night. This plays again tomorrow night at 10:30 when there is nothing else playing in the drastically slimmed down schedule. I might actually sit through it again.
I wasn't so lucky with what I saw at the Critic's Week. I went to see the 10:30 p.m. screening of its award winner. I'd only seen two of the seven films in this sidebar, so had my fingers crossed that the odds were with me that the winner would be something I hadn't seen. Unfortunately it was the Bosnian film "Snow." I had seen it, though with just French subtitles. With nothing else available to see, I sat through it a second time, the English subtitles giving a little extra illumination into the very slight story. It was one of quite a few films I've seen whose locations were more interesting than the story.
My big winner for the day was "Adoration." I am delighted to report that Atom Egoyan has rediscovered his unique, slightly perverse voice that he had abandoned in his last few films, buckling to commercial interests. Like his early films that brought him acclaim, though not much money, "Adoration" has an intricate, mysterious plot sprinkled with dazzling Egoyanesque surprises along the way. A high school kid who lives with his tow-truck-driving father writes a story at the urging of his Arabic French teacher, played by Egoyan's wife, about a Palestinian husband who planted a bomb on his pregnant Canadian wife before she was to fly to Israel from Toronto. The incident took place about 18 years before. The student said that he was the child in her womb. The story causes quite a stir among his classmates and beyond when it shows up on the Internet. His teacher had way more motivation that we can imagine for urging this boy, who is way too smart for his own good, to write the story. I don't know if it will win any awards, but I won't object if it does.
Two days to go with the selections greatly reduced. The last day will only be the repeat of the 22 Competition entries along with the closing night film, "What Just Happened," by Barry Levinson with Sean Penn and Robert DiNero. It played at Sundance and wasn't that well received.