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Docurama Film Festival V

Docurama // Unrated // September 23, 2008
List Price: $279.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted October 6, 2008 | E-mail the Author
As the proliferation of warehouse clubs and super-sized value meals demonstrate, Americans will buy in bulk if they think they're getting a bargain. To capitalize on this American proclivity for bulk buying, Docurama Films, the largest DVD label devoted exclusively to documentaries, has released numerous bundles of their individually available DVDs at reduced prices. In addition to two "Awards Collections" and several one-offs including "P.O.V. 20th Anniversary Collection" and "Remembering the Holocaust," Docurama has released five bundles marketed as Docurama-select "Film Festivals."

The most recent DVD bundle, billed as "Docurama Film Festival V" includes twelve newly-available titles. The bundle retails for $279.95, a 15% savings over buying the titles individually. It includes the following:

Arctic Son
Stan Njootli, Jr., a troubled twenty-something, travels from his hometown of Seattle to the Alaskan Native village of Old Crow to reconnect with his estranged father after more than a decade apart. Accustomed to partying, Stan experiences a culture shock trying to acclimate to his father's subsistence hunting lifestyle. Freshman filmmaker Andrew Walton wisely refrains from narrating, leaving it to his taciturn subjects to convey meaning through their actions as much as their words. Though the lengthy Arctic backcountry footage plays like an extended outtake from Nimrod Nation, Arctic Son is ultimately a heartwarming tale with many fine moments and beautiful cinematography.

The letterboxed 1.78:1 image suffers from minor aliasing, but otherwise looks fine given the limits of the video source material. A lack of good primary audio recordings compelled filmmaker Andrew Walton to resort to forced subtitles for much of the dialogue, but the stereo score sounds dynamic. Mild profanity on the main audio track is bleeped on the "family-friendly" alternative audio track. Optional subtitles are not provided.

Extras include an interview with filmmaker Andrew Walton (10 min.), outtakes (13 min.), and stills of fourteen of Stan, Jr.'s paintings.

Cine Manifest
In 1972, seven idealistic young San Franciscans formed a filmmakers' collective to make Marxist consciousness-raising films for working-class audiences. Though it tore itself apart three years later, while it lasted Cine Manifest created several independent shorts and two feature-length films. Thirty years later, Cine Manifest alum Judy Irola visited her old comrades to reminisce about what the collective hoped to accomplish and the events that triggered the collective's dissolution. However, by not interviewing anyone outside the group, she fails to explore whether Cine Manifest made any impact on other filmmakers, radicals, or working-class audiences. Most disappointingly, she gives short shrift to what impact Cine Manifest had on the careers, politics, or personal lives of her old comrades or herself following the group's dissolution.

Shot on DV, the letterboxed image (which appears to be 1.66:1) looks very soft, with noticeable edge enhancement, and slightly washed-out colors. The 2.0 audio provides little or no differentiation between channels, but audio levels are steady and free from dropouts, and thus the audio is acceptable for this dialogue-driven documentary. No subtitles are available on this release.

Extras include 70-minutes of horrendous shorts made to celebrate birthdays within Cine Manifest that were likely never intended for a wider audience, and a filmmaker bio.

Cinematographer Style
With 110 cinematographers presented in 86 minutes, Jon Fauer's Cinematographer Style is more a virtuosic demonstration of the craft of film editing than it is an examination of cinematography. Aside from the masterfully-shot interviews themselves, there's no examples of cinematography presented whatsoever. With so many taking heads in so little time, the observations typically sound inconsequential, shallow, or artificially constructed through the editing process. Cinephiles particularly interested in the editing and lensing of talking head documentaries will enjoy the skill evidenced by Fauer, film editor Mathew Blute, and cinematographers Jeff Laszlo, Brian Heller and David Morgan, but those looking for examples of breathtaking cinematography like those found in Visions of Light or even merely a less staccato consideration of the craft will be disappointed.

Cinematographer Style looks nearly as good as its subject matter deserves. Shot on 35mm film, the 1.85:1 image is enhanced for widescreen. The image is richly colored and well detailed, and no doubt looked superb when it was theatrically project, but slight aliasing is evidenced in the digital transfer. The 2.0 DD audio is generally good with nice separation between the dialogue and score, though the lack of optional subtitles is disappointing because a few words here and there are difficult to decipher even when replayed.

Extras include hour-long interviews with Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) and Gordon Willis (The Godfather) which further enhance the utility of this disc as a demonstration of editing by showing two of the 110 interviews in nearly raw form to contrast with the final product; and a filmmaker bio.

Critical Condition
Although the United States spends considerably more on health care than any other country ($2.1 trillion annually), it ranks 15th in preventable death, 24th in life expectancy, and 27th in infant mortality. Though those numbers are startling, the situation seems to grow only more dire every year. To put a human face on the crisis, filmmaker Roger Weisberg followed four seriously-ill Americans as they tried to get needed medical care without health insurance. Weisberg remains unseen and unheard, thus Critical Condition avoids the gimmickry of Michael Moore's Sicko. Limiting himself to only occasional objective on-screen factoids, Weisberg allows the heartrending experiences of the participants to speak for themselves.

The above-average content of Critical Condition is undercut by a seriously-flawed video transfer. Though clearly shot for 1.78:1 widescreen, the image is squeezed to 1.33:1. I suspect that this is a coding error whereby the main feature is encoded on the disc in anamorphic widescreen, but the flag to identify it as such for playback is missing. The two short films included in the extras are appropriately tagged and do play in anamorphic widescreen, however. If not for the squeezed image, Critical Condition would look fairly good. Colors are accurate and consistent, and sharpness is good for video-sourced footage.

The 2.0 DD generally sounds fine with nice separation on the score. Some dialogue is less than ideally recorded, but this is common on cinéma vérité docs and is not overly distracting here. Unfortunately, no subtitles are offered on this release.

Extras include two short films, Uncovered (18 min.) about a family that's denied insurance coverage based on an undisclosed prior condition, and Your Money or Your Life (21 min.) about a family struggling without health insurance, an interview with filmmaker Roger Weisberg about the making of Critical Condition (23 min.) and a filmmaker bio.

Family Name
Fans of the autobiographical documentaries of Ross McElwee (Sherman's March and Bright Leaves) will find much to like in Family Name, the 1997 debut documentary by Macky Alston. Family Name is a genealogical investigation in which Alston sleuths links between the white and black Altsons of North Carolina. Though the most readily available answer for why they share the same name is that emancipated slaves took the last name of their former owners, Alston is particularly keen on unearthing evidence of pre-Emancipation blood ties. Macky Alston's drive to unearth secrets that many blacks and whites that he interviews would prefer to remain unexamined is motivated in part by his own semi-closeted homosexuality. Alston's sleuthing turns up several revelations and leads him to many interesting characters, but whether you like Family Name will turn more on how you feel about the subgenre of autobiographical documentary than the subject matter.

Presented in a 1.33:1, Family Name was shot on 8 and 16mm film. The image frequently has a washed-out appearance and minor print damage that makes it look older than its eleven years, but these imperfections add more to the aesthetic of the film than they take away. There's no differentiation between the tracks on the 2.0 DD, but dialogue is clear and easy to understand. No subtitles are available on this release.

Extras include a curious collection of excerpts (27 min.) that are also included in the feature film, an interview with filmmaker Macky Alston (27 min.) and filmmaker bio.

A Lion in the House
In the Emmy award winning A Lion in the House, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichart intimately document five kids fighting cancer. Together with the extraordinarily dedicated staff at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, these families struggle with difficult questions about what treatments to try, how far to push to preserve life even without hope of improvement, and when to let go. The documentary is deeply moving and mostly justifies its lengthy 225-minute runtime.

The filmmakers put in the long hours needed to capture important moments and they seem to maintain a good rapport with the families and medical staff, but they lack the technical mastery and distance evidenced by Allan King, Peter Walker and Jason Milligan in the superiorly-crafted direct-cinema documentary Dying at Grace. At times A Lion in the House borders uncomfortably on the brink of reality television especially in the camera confessional setups and prodding by the filmmakers which even when edited out can still be detected. Yet overall, A Lion in the House is still recommended for its frequent displays of courage, humanity, compassion, and grace.

Recorded on Betacam (1.33:1), A Lion in the House has lifelike colors, but suffers from mild aliasing, blur, and a lack of image detail. These mild issues together with mediocre camera work and a boom mic that frequently drops into the frame are mildly distracting but not to the point of overwhelming the families' stories. The 2.0 DD audio generally sounds fine with nice separation on the score. Some dialogue is less than ideally recorded, but again is not overly distracting here. Unfortunately, no subtitles are offered on this release.

This two-disc release is generously laden with extras including outtakes (12 min.), an interview with filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (16 min.), a making-of featurette (29 min.), Lions on the Road a 15-minute featurette about the reception of the film and filmmakers bios.

On the Downlow
Popularized as urban slang for any discreet activity or relationship, "on the downlow" has increasingly been appropriated to refer to men that have homosexual sex but who do not publicly identify themselves as gay. Five working-class African-American men living the DL lifestyle in inner-city Cleveland, Ohio allow filmmaker Abigail Child to document their experiences in On the Downlow (54 min., 2007). Although there are a handful of good moments here including a moving scene of a son coming out to his father, On the Downlow appears to be constructed from too few hours of footage.

Shot on standard definition video (1.33:1), On the Downlow at its best suffers from aliasing and image compression, however far more troubling is the horrendous cinematography by Arthur Jafa (Crooklyn) which mixes purposeful and accidental blurring and speed manipulation to create an impressionistic image which favors style over substance.

The 2.0 DD audio generally captures most of the dialogue though the audio tends to be overly harsh and there is no noticeable separation. No subtitles are offered on this release.

Extras include a casting tape (15 min.), theatrical trailer (1 min.) and a filmmaker bio.

Passing Poston
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Although there was no credible evidence of disloyalty among them, and though 60% of them were American citizens, they were forcibly relocated to ten internment camps throughout the interior western United States. 17,800 of them were sent to the Poston Internment Camp located on a tribal reservation in the Arizona desert where they resided from the spring of 1942 until the end of 1945. In 1988, President Reagan signed legislation formally apologizing for an internment policy predicated on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership".

Journalists Joe Fox and James Nubile direct Passing Poston, an hour-long documentary recounting the story of the interment through the recollections of four former Poston internees and excerpts from wartime propaganda. The sense of injustice the aggrieved former internees feel is still palpable. The direction is conventional but competent. There's nothing revelatory here, but this title will be of interest to those interested in the subject matter and to educators.

Presented in a 1.78:1 letterbox, Passing Poston appears to have been shot on standard definition video. The image has good coloration, but suffers from mild aliasing. The 2.0 DD audio adequately captures the dialogue though there is no noticeable separation. No subtitles are offered on this release. Audio levels are not consistent between the main feature and the extras.

Extras include the making of Passing Poston (3 min.), 44 minutes of wartime propaganda about the internments and filmmaker bios.

Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place
Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place is a staid hour-long biography. Best remembered as the author and illustrator of seven children's books published between 1937 and 1962, Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968) was also an accomplished block printer.

With exaggerated colors, camera work that alternates between fixed shots of talking heads and gliding pans across book illustrations, editing that fades from shot to shot, a loud piano score, and interviewees mostly limited to New Englanders under eight years-of-age or over sixty, Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place has the feel of one of those tepidly-innocuous videos that play on a loop in the gift shops of quaint small-town museums. Unremarkably, the two positive blurbs put on the DVD cover come from a principal adviser to the film and from the director of a quaint small-town museum, respectively.

Shot on standard video (1.33:1), the colors are exaggerated and the image lacks detail. Fortunately, dialogue is clear even when competing with the strident piano score. No subtitles are offered on this release.

Extras include a half-hour of additional scenes, the trailer, and a filmmaker bio.


The other three titles included in this bundle are K. Ryan Jones' Fall from Grace, Jonathan Sack and James Brabazon's Liberia: An Uncivil War, and Macky Alston's Questioning Faith. These titles (along with Cine Manifest) are reviewed separately in greater depth.

Final Thoughts:
Although most documentary film fans will discover at least a few titles worth seeing here, it's doubtful that anybody will like all twelve. Accordingly, given the steep price of the bundle at $279.95 and the slim savings over buying these titles individually (just 15%), buying or renting individual titles is probably your best option.

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