Monday, May 28, 2012

HRAFF Review

Mohamed Nasheed Q&A at festival finale.
Well that was my first Human Rights Arts and Film Festival and I've learned something. I love documentaries. I know, you're meant to love them the way you're meant to love going out and seeing live music when it can be one of the most humdrum nights out imaginable. But I've just seen four documentaries that have to varying degrees delighted me because they were good at being documentaries, not just films about things that interest me.

What do I mean by that?

Well, here's a contrast to start with. There were two doccos at the 2005 MIFF on the same subject street that left me hot and cold respectively: Punk: Attitude and Kill Yr Idols. The first was a powerhouse of jammed archive footage and great talking heads. The second was a wishy washy germ of an idea that festered rather than grew. I disagreed with a major premise of the first (the annoying crap of punk starting in America and getting exported to the UK: don't care about the timeline, find me the influence of Marquee Moon on Never Mind the Bollocks) but it was made to a perfect fit for its audiences and formed a good welcome to anyone on the outer. Kill Yr Idols, on the other hand, began as a celebration of New York's No wave scene of the late 70s and early 80s and provided a lot of information I only vaguely knew before. Then it went on to ridicule the current crop of New York bands as pale imitations. One the one hand it was very pleasant for me to see these new rockists take a hit: the new breed are happy to accept the mantle of the No Wave tradition but their "new" music sounds like old Top 40. On the other hand I was frustrated that it went from fawning on the old guard to a kind of daddy-pleasing ridicule of the new. I, too, laughed at Karen O. coming across as having approximately 2.5 brain cells but the better angles of my grinder bade me take that with a pinch of the sharp stuff. Kill Yr Idols can't make its case because it's too busy working out how to declare its great fat hammy fist. Punk: Attitude annoys me with its too many stretches and special pleas for me to regard it as a history but as a celebration it's tops. It's also a better documentary, however much I might bicker with its premises.

I only saw four of the eighteen full length documentaries on show at HRAFF but I picked four good 'uns. You can read my reviews below but the upshot is that I got something out of every one and was touched by some expert filmmaking that went from the glassy video-looking low means to the full force of major budgeted beef. The irrelevance of conventional production values stretches, for me, to fiction cinema and there my sole criterion for good vs bad cinema applies as it does with doccos: is there truth in it?

By truth I don't mean things that I hold absolute but moments on screen where all the other stuff, the earnestness, the comedy, the drama and the noise wash away and the central nerves of a film are visible. This happens a lot and most comfortably with fiction as we are happily surprised to find an individual's conviction laid bare. We probably rejoice in it less in a docco because the idea that documentaries should just report is so ingrained in us. But a documentary is just as potentially wonderful when it's an essay, an argument, rather than a slide show of events, people and places.

Planet of Snail delighted with its approach=equals subject poetics. An African Election satisfied with its meaty no nonsense hard journalism. Beer is Cheaper than Therapy and The Island President wore their hearts on their sleeves but didn't forget the facts 'n' figures. I saw all of this in one week and it felt nourishing. Which leads me to my main thought on the festival overall.

Not all the films presented were documentaries but the festival, angenda-ed by nature, has the opportunity to be this city's unofficial festival of the documentary. Unofficially, of course: if they were to try and sell it as a week of doccos they'd have an even tougher fight for attention in this festival-oversupplied city. But as the time of year when the doccos come out, from the beautiful to the challengingly ugly, the politicising and the soberly informative, that's what would drag me back. I don't suggest they lose the title that defines them but maybe just a little push towards donning a curatorial mantle, the convergence of purposes could be clarified to a bright and shining ticket sales chart. I'd bloody go.

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