[SIFF 2012 Week One Documentaries]

Holy pajamas, y’all. How are we into week two of SIFF already? So far I’ve seen 32 films, so it’s way past time I tell you about some of them.

First up, let’s tackle the documentaries:

* Dreams of a Life was a heartbreaking meditation on the life & death of Joyce Vincent, whose remains were found in her London bedsit three years after her death. It combines friend & coworker interviews with recreations of scenes from her life, both remembered & imagined. It’s the sort of story that makes everyone ask “how could that happen?”, but I think a lot of us are really asking “could that happen to me?”

The audience I saw it with seemed frustrated by the lack of hard answers, but it’s not as if director Carol Morley hadn’t tried to find them. There’s a great line in one of the official responses, denying the request for information because essentially “what interests the public is not always in the public’s interest”. So we don’t know why it took three years for someone to break down the door repossessing the flat. We don’t know why the utilities were never shut off for lack of payment, resulting in the tv still being switched on. We don’t know why she spent time in a DV shelter, let alone if that was the only time.

We do know, though, that to cut oneself off from the world that completely is at some point a willful act. You can be removed from friends. You can be removed from coworkers. It’s easier than a lot of people think to be removed from your family. But to arrive at a place in your life with zero lasting connections, for whatever reason, is not a thing that just happens.

* Free Throw was a straightforward piece on the 2011 Compton Free Throw scholarship competition, in which seniors who had achieved a 3.0 GPA or higher had their names drawn for one of eight chances to compete for a $40,000 scholarship. The runners-up got $1000, a disparity that I had a hard time with initially, but at the risk of spoilers, it all turns out better than that. (This year, anyway.) In between getting to know the students, there are also interviews with many of their teachers, all of whom speak to what it is to live and work in an area with such a reputation. The kids are all great. Bring tissues, if you are the type. You know who you are.

* The Standbys was a thin but enjoyable documentary on three actors who are standbys for (largely celebrity) leads in Broadway musicals. We learn about the challenges of being standby vs understudy vs swing. I can’t even imagine the tension of being so close to the dream of being on Broadway, the exhaustion of having to be prepared to, at moment’s notice, kick ass in a role, but then possibly never having the chance to go on.

* Finally, Under African Skies is the documentary I can’t stop talking about. I only saw a DVD screener, and I hope it makes Best of SIFF so I can see it with an audience. It’s a revisiting of the creation of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, and it does an impressive job of telling the story of the controversy clearly, and especially of respecting all of the stakeholders. I came out of it pleasantly surprised by Simon. It is not an easy thing to examine one’s own power & privilege and acknowledge where you have been wrong, and I can only suppose that is a harder task when you’re in the public eye.


Free Throw plays Friday 6/1, 7pm & Saturday 6/2, 2:30pm, both screenings at SIFF at the Uptown.
The Standbys plays Saturday 6/2, 5:30pm at SIFF at the Uptown and Monday 6/4, 4pm at the Harvard Exit.
Look for Under African Skies on A&E.