One thing I began to notice last year is that many documentaries are a bit too long. I think some of this has to do with the desire to be sold as a “true” feature length film, although in this day when VOD, online streams and TV formatting overshadow theatrical for nonfiction distribution and viewership, I don’t know why going 90 minutes and above seems favorable to filmmakers when the content just isn’t there. One of the best docs of last year, according to many doc critics and fans (including myself) is Jarred Alterman’s Convento, which comes in at a mere 50 minutes. We need more of this.
And a place you’ll find more of this immedately is the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival, the increasingly necessary event that coincides with and provides alternatives to Sundance, and which has debuted a number of great docs in recent years, such as Dear Zachary: A Letter to A Son About His Father, Mad Hot Ballroom, American Hardcore, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and last year’s Superheroes. Most of these are in the 90-minute range, but the one that is arguably the most popular and probably the most seen, King of Kong, is only 79 minutes.
This year I’ve seen most of the titles in the Slamdance Documentary Competition and so far my favorite is the shortest of all, although I don’t favor it because of its running time. James Stenson’s Kelly is under an hour and still sufficiently exposes us to the life and world of a transgender teen prostitute. It is almost completely dependent on the fact that the eponymous subject is astonishingly compelling and candid. Kelly is the sort of documentary character that becomes a star through little more than straight interview material. And Stenson knows precisely how to capture, present and sell her physical beauty and blunt personality (and meth use) to an audience.
Also in the brief but entirely adequate department is Caskey Ebeling’s doc Getting Up: The TEMPT ONE Story (which I’ve already reviewed in full), a multifaceted look at a well-known L.A. street artist who is completely paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Through the help of community and collaboration he learns to “speak” and create once again with an amazing invention, a story taking place over many years movingly told in a mere 53 minutes. And there’s Todd Kellstein’s surprisingly more sweet than shocking film about child boxing in Thailand, Buffalo Girls, which isn’t that different from most adorable kid-based competition docs. It’s just that in this one the kids are beating the crap out of each other for money so that their families may rise above total poverty.
Rebirths and new beginnings are a bit of a trend this year, as is evidenced in another personal favorite called The First Season. This verite doc (which I highlighted in my Sundance preview) follows a year with a family who has quit everything to become dairy farmers in upstate New York. It’s a story of starting fresh and yet it also deals a lot with tradition, generation and restoration. Alexandra Berger’s Danland is kind of similar, save for all the family values stuff. As the festival’s other sex-profession documentary, it looks at the excessive and X-rated life of a porn producer/star who attempts to settle down, so long as the life change doesn’t hurt his business.
Finally, of those I’ve seen, there’s I Want My Name Back, a doc about seminal rap group The Sugarhill Gang and its original members’ fight to reclaim their identities as true godfathers of the art form. The incredible story told in this film is one that can’t be ignored, as it involves legal battles, impostors and a significant piece of music history — not to mention the obviously great soundtrack. It’s also interesting amongst films about fresh starts since it does concern a kind of rebirth that’s also a return to the past (I guess The First Season does this somewhat as well). Meanwhile I’m curious to see if it relates well with one of this year’s Sundance premieres, the Ice-T-helmed doc Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap.
Hopefully I’ll soon be able to round out the whole Slamdance documentary program in spite of my absence from Park City this year due to personal circumstances. I’ve seen all but two, including the promising underdog sports film No Ashes, No Phoenix, which is about a German basketball team that gets a little help from an American player named…Michael Jordan? The one that might have the greatest chance at breaking out, though, is Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. This doc looks at the controversial, anarchic Internet pranks-and-protest group Anonymous, and I presume it might bear some timely relevance to both the Occupy protests and the SOPA debate. I’m eagerly anticipating it regardless.
If you’re in Park City this week, be sure to check out these Slamdance docs. Most won’t take up too much of your time (excluding any thoughts and discussions you may have afterward). And if you’re not, let’s hope some, if not all, make their way in some form in front of the eyes of doc fans everywhere.
The 2012 Slamdance Film Festival runs January 20 through 26.
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