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.”
Film Fest Highlights
Here are some favorites of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival’s directors. All films will show between March 22 and 25. For more details, see sebdocs.org.
“Almost Heaven”: An observational film that follows a 17-year-old Chinese girl training to become a mortician in one of China’s largest funeral homes, 72 minutes. 11:45 a.m. March 24 at the Rialto.
“Among Wolves”: An intimate portrait of a biker club in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 87 minutes. 2:15 p.m. March 25 at the Rialto.
“Bee Nation”: Follows the challenges and triumphs of six students competing in Canada’s inaugural First Nations spelling bee, 81 minutes. 7 p.m. March 23 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
“The Cinema Travelers”: Honored at Cannes, traces India’s traveling films as they reach distant villages in what may be their last days due to today’s ubiquity of technology, 96 minutes. 5 p.m. March 24 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
“City of Joy”: Traces a group of girls who suffered unspeakable abuse as they reclaim their lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 74 minutes. 7:30 p.m. March 23 at the Rialto.
“Donkeyote”: Follows a rural Spanish man who comes to the U.S to walk the historic Trail of Tears — with his pet donkey. “It’s charming and sweet,” said festival director Desiree Andrews, “a really good example of a film you’ll see at this festival and nowhere else,” 86 minutes. 7:15 p.m. March 23 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
“Knife Skills”: Witnesses the launch of an upscale restaurant in Cleveland, staffed by ex-cons. Nominated for an Academy Award for documentary short subject, 40 minutes. 12:15 p.m. March 24 and 1:15 p.m. March 25 both at the Rialto.
“Letters from Baghdad”: Tells the story of Gertrude Bell who some say was as influential as Lawrence of Arabia and shaped Iraq’s destiny after World War I, 95 minutes. 7:30 p.m. March 24 at the Rialto.
“Negative Space”: Oscar-nominated short about a son and his frequent-flier father who teaches the boy how to pack light and tight. At his father’s funeral the protagonist sees his father “laid out in this big carton” and thinks: “Look at all that wasted space.” 6 minutes, 6:15 p.m. March 23, 6:30 p.m. March 24 and 1:15 p.m.March 25, all at the Rialto.
“Rebels on Pointe”: The closing film, is a cinéma vérité documentary featuring Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male ballet company with a cult following, 90 minutes. 4 p.m. March 25 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.