Maryland Film Festival 2015, Day 3: The Documentary Panel and “God Bless the Child”

Yesterday was the third day of the 2015 Maryland Film Festival. It was another working day for me, so I couldn’t make it down there until the 4pm documentary panel I was set to moderate in the Festival Tent Village (on North Avenue next to the MICA Lazarus Center). That panel was comprised of four directors and one subject: local filmmaker Ramona Diaz (ImeldaThe LearningDon’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey) – who has no film at this year’s festival, but whose other films you should see – as well as Sandra Bagaria (subject of A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile), Luke Meyer (director of Breaking a Monster), Michael Beach Nichols (co-director of Welcome to Leith) and Douglas Tirola (director of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon). We spent the hour discussing the best ways to secure access to one’s subject and the ethics of telling one’s story while treating the people in the film with respect.

After the panel, I went home to have dinner with my visiting parents, and then went back to the festival for one more film, God Bless the Child. Here are my brief thoughts on the four documentary films represented on my panel that are playing at this year’s festival, as well as on that later narrative I watched.

Breaking a Monster

Breaking a Monster (Luke Meyer, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

Breaking a Monster follows Brooklyn-based Unlocking the Truth—Alec Atkins (bass), Malcolm Brickhouse (vocals and guitar), and Jarad Dawkins (drums)—over the surreal period immediately following their burst into the public consciousness. As the band hooks up with 70-year-old manager Alan Sacks, whose notable credits include co-creating Welcome Back, Kotter and work with the Jonas Brothers, they get a crash-course in the bizarre current state of the record industry. Adult pressures of contracts, tours, and branding land on the trio’s shoulders—frequently leading them to reach for their smart-phones and skateboards and wonder why it’s taking so long to get into the studio and cut a record.” (by Eric Allen Hatch)

Before watching this movie, you should check out the short film that began Luke Meyer’s relationship with these kids, entitled Unlocking the Truth (after the band’s name). This will give you some idea of the charm and drive of Malcolm and Jarad (Alec joined their group later). The feature reveals what happened to the band after this and other videos of them went viral, attracting the attention of powerful forces in the music industry. It is fascinating (and, at times, a little sad), to see these guys lose some of their poise as they get caught in the whirlwind. Then again, they’re only in middle school, and many of the adults applying pressure to them should be ashamed of themselves. Still, it’s quite a journey, and Meyer has done a wonderful job documenting the whole process. This is a rock-band road movie like none you have ever seen before.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (Douglas Tirola, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

The National Lampoon had a profound impact on our culture. Its power in the 1970s was real, even impacting political discussion, but the ongoing cultural influence is stunning. Starting from a sort of Harvard College magazine/club, two inspired entrepreneurs, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, who happened to be comic geniuses, thought they could build something important.

As the magazine grew, the Lampoon evolved into several media forms—publishing, movies, radio, theater—and at each juncture Kenney and Beard attracted remarkable talent and then pushed it beyond assumed boundaries. One of their most notorious magazine covers declared: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” Saturday Night Live, standup comedy, The Onion, and movies of all sizes are all now infused with this spirit.  Even web-based comedy that was unimaginable in the ‘70s, like the Funny or Die channel and shows like Broad City, share Lampoon DNA.” (by Jed Dietz)

I grew up in a world where The National Lampoon existed (it doesn’t, now), and just took it for granted. Now, thanks to this supremely entertaining, fast-paced documentary from Douglas Tirola (producer of the terrific Actress, which played at last year’s Maryland Film Festival), I can fully understand the vital role that this wildly irreverent (and often crude) magazine played in the development of much of the comedy we still enjoy to this day. This is a flashy piece, with editing glitz galore to complement the star power of the celebrity interviewees, that quickly moves us through the rise-and-fall history of this once-popular publication. I particularly loved how Tirola and his team animated old Lampoon cartoons and photographs within the film. Fun and at times as crazy as the people it profiles, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a terrific profile of an era gone, but not forgotten.

A Gay Girl in Damascus - The Amina Profile

A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile (Sophie Deraspe, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

A Gay Girl in Damascus focuses on the mystery surrounding a popular gay Syrian-American blogger (whose blog provides the name of the film) who took the Internet by storm in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Encouraged by her online girlfriend Sandra Bagaria, who lives halfway across the world in Montreal, Amina launches her blog amidst Syria’s growing unrest. Before long she is an Internet sensation, garnering coverage from major media outlets the world over. The international attention has Sandra fearing for her blogger-girlfriend’s safety. It isn’t long before Sandra’s worst fears seem to be confirmed. She hears reports that Amina has been kidnapped by Syrian forces. Unable to travel to Syria to track down her love, Sandra helps launch an Internet search party. As countless concerned parties try to determine the missing Amina’s whereabouts, a number of puzzling pieces of information surface.” (by J. Scott Braid)

Of the films that I previewed before the panel, this was by far the most artistically innovative. Since much of the story took place before the involvement of the director, she was forced to create much of the non-interview footage to support the narrative. Adopting a dreamy, surreal approach to the reenactments, Deraspe takes us through a tale that grows more disturbing as the film progresses. Despite the film’s title, Bagaria is the main subject, and outside of the reenactments, our focus is squarely on her as she desperately tries to locate, and save, Amina. I loved this movie, and was surprised by the final outcome. I highly recommend.

Welcome to Leith

Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols/Christopher K. Walker, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“This edge-of-your-seat documentary follows the arrival of a man named Craig Cobb to a small town in North Dakota. With a population of approximately twenty residents, newcomers are a rarity usually welcomed with open arms in Leith; most residents are farmers, and the nearest economic engine to speak of are oil fields 70 miles north. But the people of Leith quickly learn that Cobb isn’t interested in fuel or potatoes—as some readers may already know, Cobb is a notorious and utterly unrepentant white supremacist.

When he promptly buys up land for like-minded collaborators, disrupts town council meetings with vitriol, and openly carries guns—lobbing harsh words at anyone who stands in his way—it becomes clear that Cobb plans a neo-Nazi takeover of this sleepy town. And as his behavior escalates further into the outrageous and threatens to get violent, a once-placid community must decide how to react.” (by Eric Allen Hatch)

Welcome to Leith offers us a powerful front-row seat to watch prejudice and hate in action. What makes it especially chilling is that the leader of the white supremacists, Craig Cobb, is actually a man of some poise and charisma, and very articulate when he’s not spouting epithets. How did he get here? If the film has one weakness (out of a long list of strengths), it’s that we are left wanting to know more about this man’s history. Otherwise, this is gripping stuff. Walker and Nichols – who is also the editor – have somehow gained access to iPhone footage shot by Cobb’s followers, and have assembled a fascinating shot/reverse shot cut of the action, jumping from the perspective of the town residents to that of their tormentors. We are right there in the thick of it. Go see this film.

God Bless the Child

God Bless the Child (Robert Machoian/Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, 2015)

Here’s the synopsis from the festival’s program guide:

“The film centers on a group of five siblings whose depressed and unreliable mother has left them unattended. She drives off in the opening scene with no concrete plans for return. Harper, the eldest sibling and only girl, is immediately thrust into the role of parent, and it’s likely not the first time. She does her best, but she is still a child herself, and no substitute for a proper parent. The tragedy of this circumstance provides a framework for the minimalist narrative, but the film never panders to melodrama, instead smartly eschewing cheap tugs at the heartstrings for an at times documentary-like examination of the siblings’ world. The camera follows them as they navigate the world on their own. Directors Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck have a flair for capturing how children really interact with one another. Keeping their cameras at a comfortable distance, they allow the children the space and comfort they need to act naturally. They are allowed to be children and interact as they might normally, even though they are playing characters.” (by J. Scott Braid)

Sadly, I did not love this film as much as did the festival programmers, but I have to admit that it grew on me over its 94 minutes. Featuring five real-life siblings, God Bless the Child is told in the kind of raw, lo-fi fashion that is the hallmark of much of independent cinema, which, here, is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, since this feels as much documentary as fiction, we are deeply involved in the lives of the characters, and feel, sharply, every moment of neglect and danger. On the other hand, beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot on the screen, and it often feels as if we are watching someone else’s home movie, in which they are in love with every behavioral tic of their children, while we, after a few minutes, want out (we’ve all been there, right? or am I just a horrible person . . .). At the heart of the film, however, is a profoundly moving tale of resilience and love, and that transcends whatever aesthetic ennui I experienced at various moments of the screening. For me, a mixed bag, but I suspect that select members of the festival audience will dig it.

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