Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival searches for truth
What’s true? What matters? And how do we preserve our memories?
These are among the provocative questions asked by films and filmmakers at the 11th annual Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, March 22-25.
This year’s festival kicks off Thursday with the riveting “Bird of Prey” about the highly endangered Philippine eagle, the largest and rarest eagle in the world.
Fewer than 800 Philippine eagles remain and the bird’s fate hinges on whether conservationists can save the last patches of old-growth forest there.
“It’s glorious,” said festival programmer Jean McGlothlin.
The film, with stunning footage of these rarely seen eagles, will be followed by the opening night festivities at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
Another highlight is “All the Wild Horses,” showing March 25, about horseback riders competing in the intensely grueling 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby in Mongolia.
Yet what distinguishes this year’s lineup of films is its emphasis on observational techniques and the use of archival footage.
“Archives are repositories of truth,” said festival director Desiree Andrews. “In an era when truth is in question, it’s essential to know who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going.”
“Now that every fact is cast in doubt and denial accompanies what’s right before our eyes, it’s important to validate truth,” McGlothlin added.
There are two workshops at the festival, one on how archival footage can be creatively employed, another on observational techniques.
One of the festival’s shortest films is the 10-minute “Three Red Sweaters” by Martha Gregory, who grew up in San Francisco and often visited her grandparents’ home at Stinson Beach.
The film, which has archival footage of Marin’s beaches and headlands, uses home movies shot by Gregory’s grandfather to consider how we preserved memories a half century ago and how we store them now.
“I wanted to explore the idea of how our memories are changing now that we can document every moment of our lives with ubiquitous forms of technology,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Ohio.
Gregory, 29, said her grandfather created photos and video footage “with the purest of intentions” to preserve memories that could be savored many years later.
She and her friends, however, seem to constantly take photos and videos “for the moment,” she said. “Instagram” has the world ‘insta’ in it,” she noted.
Gregory wonders whether documenting seemingly every life event has caused our memories to atrophy.
“We feel comfort in the idea that if we just take photos of everything we don’t have to pay attention as closely,” she said.
By having film or video of everything, her film asks, are we less likely to remember events, or perhaps remember them in a different way?
“When you do decide to take a photograph of a moment you are, by the nature of the interaction, not in the moment itself,” she said.
In other words, we’re taking photos and videos so that in the future we can recall the past, but by doing so we can lose our involvement in the present.
“That’s the worry that I have, and I can feel myself falling into that trap sometimes,” Gregory said.
“On the other hand, all this technology has given us the possibility of curating and creating really beautiful images that will never be lost.”
Another film that provides an insightful look at the past is Rachel Shuman’s “One October.”
Shot less than a decade ago, the film is a time capsule of New York in October 2008, in the days just after the financial collapse and just before Barack Obama was elected president.
“It’s this message in a bottle from the past, even though it’s the near past,” she said.
“It’s funny how it does feel like so long ago, partially because times changed so much since then,” Shuman said in a phone interview.
The city and country seemed to be in a rapid state of change at that time, she said, and part of her intention was to “make a record of that particular moment just knowing that things were fleeting.”
Shuman, who studied in Oakland at the California College of the Arts, said she wanted the film to come out at the end of Obama’s tenure because it’s a “good marker for where we were in the moment before (Obama) and where we are in the moment right after.”
She hopes the 68-minute film inspires viewers to get involved in the 2018 midterm elections.
“We have to remember that we did elect Obama, and that there is still hope, and we can make a difference,” she said.
The film is also a “love letter” to New York and an elegy for what’s being lost there.
It has a slow observational style to “really let you sit in a moment,” she said. “I think that’s an important takeaway for us right now in our fast-paced culture.”
Similar to San Francisco, Shuman believes New York is becoming less diverse and more corporate, with mom-and-pop shops disappearing.
As family businesses give way to “Starbucks and Chipotle,” New York is “losing its sense of individuality,” she said.
“It was my favorite thing to just walk block by block and never know what I was going to see, who I was going to meet, and what culture or language or food I might be exposed to,” she said. “I miss that.”
But Shuman still loves New York.
“There’s a line in the film saying, ‘These are the good old days,’ and I do believe that,” she said. “I believe in the regeneration of the city.”
Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt uses archival footage in his haunting 11-minute documentary, “The Kodachrome Elegies.”
Rosenblatt, program director of San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival, works almost exclusively with archival footage to make what he calls “collage films.”
“Elegies” is composed of solely Kodachrome footage, including 8-millimeter home movies taken by Rosenblatt’s parents and 16-millimeter industrial and educational films.
He noted that today there are apps to add fake scratches and dirt to digital videos.
“But the real scratches and the real dirt show even the celluloid, the plastic itself, has memory and has scars,” he said in a phone interview from San Francisco.
“Home movies are my memories,” Rosenblatt said. “I don’t know if I really remember anything from my childhood, but I remember the home movies.”
Michael Shapiro produced and co-directed “Junkyard Alchemist,” a film about Sebastopol’s Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent, who turn junk into art: junkyardalchemist.com.
21st annual Sonoma International Film Festival runs March 21-25. ?Page D10