We reviewed just about every feature playing at this year's Indy Film Fest, which runs July 19-29, picking out our favorite from each slate to review at length and devoting about a hundred words to every other film. Head to indyfilmfest.org for complete schedule info, including shorts packages, workshops and other miscellany.
Detropia (dir. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, US, 91 min)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ It's early on in Detropia — a stylish but unpretentious documentary that takes the temperature of Detroit and pronounces it rather ill — that an expert reels off facts about the city's decline: Detroit has lost 50 percent of its population over the past 50 years, and the number of available jobs is decreasing at a swifter rate than the population. In many areas of the city, there are only one or two occupied homes on a given block, making for a total of 40 square miles of vacant land in a city that's 120 square miles.
Mayor Dave Bing's answer to the problem of predominantly vacant neighborhoods? To relocate people from less to more populous neighborhoods in order to better provide city services. A city hall meeting with Bing regarding the proposal is described at “straight mayhem and chaos” by a blogger, Crystal Starr, who appears periodically throughout Detropia; “downsizing is just another form of segregation,” says one attendee, although a porch-sitter in one of those less populous neighborhoods opines that he'd “consolidate the city in a hot second.”
And so it goes in Detropia, which tells of that 50 percent that has stuck around, and what they're trying to do — sometimes desperately, sometimes without much of a struggle — to improve their lot, along with their city's. Not everyone is bereft, by any means: Two young artists say they've moved to the city because it's a cheap place to do installation work and performing art (which, of course, makes use of Detroit's decayed infrastructure); they can keep both a loft and studio with expenses so low.
But even if filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady opt not to focus on crime or the downtrodden, they end up telling stories where even the most resourceful end up running out of options. We see the last factory employees in a UAW local reject an insulting offer from American Axle, which promptly moves to Mexico. The leadership of Detroit's opera company, which depends largely on (who else?) Ford for corporate funding, finds itself without resources to mount another season.
Girl Model (dir. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, Russia/Japan, 77 min)
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 Nadya, a skeletal 13-year-old from Siberia, gets hired by a modeling agency and shipped off to Japan, where she's obligated to drum up work by going to endless casting calls. If her dimensions change by as much as a centimeter, she can be sent home in debt to the agency. Her tale plays out as you might expect in some ways; you want to reach out to hug the girl as she suffers, terribly homesick, in a Japanese hotel room. And the filmmakers do occasionally intercede on her behalf (as when she's left lost and bereft upon touching down in a Tokyo airport, unable to speak an extemporaneous word of Japanese or English).
But it's the adults in the film who are the most surprising. The owner of the agency explains that he's named his company Noah Models because he's on an almost religious mission to give these girls a new chance at life; so committed to their cause is he that he takes girls on the brink to the morgue to show them the consequences of drug abuse. But he can't answer a direct question as to why he hires models without track records when he doesn't make money from “new faces.” Perhaps it's because they often end up in debt to the company because they gain weight or can't get work?
Most conflicted is the unhappy, anxious, sickly talent scout; once a model herself, she admits to feeling no enthusiasm for her work, but doesn't abandon it, even as she confronts depression and exploitation dead on, as on a visit to the Japanese hotel room where the disoriented Nadya and a “colleague” are essentially imprisoned. Her life is consumed by the pursuit of a standard of beauty she says she doesn't share — skinny youthfulness, valued by Japanese clients. Is she master or slave, the film seems to ask, and while it's easy to side with Nadya, the directors necessarily complicate the case by letting these “exploiters” have their say. The ethical quandaries brought can't be so easily resolved, being as they're tied in issues of capitalism and cathexis. Still, one might conclude that 13-year-olds really shouldn't be left to fend for themselves in a strange land just so salarymen can get their rocks off (there's always manga for that).
Side by Side (dir. Christopher Kenneally, US, 99 min)
★ ★ ★ ★ Keanu Reeves haters take note: Although his laconic-ness plays the role of on-camera reporter in this impressively comprehensive survey of the impact of digital technology on the making, distribution and viewing of movies, he never gets in the way, and occasionally his contributions are entirely apt, as when, say, he and David Lynch talk about the difference between acting before a film and digital camera. Some conventional narratives — Dogme 95 kicking off the era of the feature film shot on digital; James Cameron bringing back 3-D — are revisited here, with all the big names along for a quote (including a rare interview with Reeves's Matrix buds Lana and Andy Wachowski). But while it's kind of fun, then tiresome, to hear filmmakers answer the big questions — giving Christopher Nolan a chance to crap all over digital, as if everyone has the option of filming in supersized IMAX — I learned the most from discussions of the impact of digital on the nitty gritty of the film industry, like color timing and projection.
Brothers on the Line (dir. Sasha Reuther, US, 81 min)
★ ★ ★ 1/2 A conventional, talking-head doc about the Reuther brothers, who helped to unionize the auto industry and then led the UAW through the late '60s, tells of Detroit's glory years, when profits were high, the middle class was well-fed, unions had a social conscience and Ford, GM and lesser lights could be successfully challenged through a combination of direct and legislative action (though not without loss of life and limb). It's a necessary adjunct to a film like Detropia, offering a sense of what's been lost in Detroit — as well as a hint at why it might have been lost (say, powerful union leadership unwilling to make the kind of concessions that compromised benefits and safety for workers in almost all other industries before the auto industry).
311: In the Moment (dir. Kyoko Gasha, Japan, 73 min)
★ ★ ★ 1/2 It goes without saying that most networks don't stay around after the disaster. That's why 311 — which chronicles recovery efforts following the 2011 Japan earthquake — is a such a fascinating, informative watch. The wide-ranging documentary, which travels down the Japanese coast through affected cities (some washed away, others intact but radioactive), is largely concerned with resilient, strong women, from the nursing home worker who leads a daily exercise class/therapy session at her temporary shelter to the college president dedicated to making it easier for those orphaned by the quake to study.
Ecstasy of Order (dir. Adam Cornelius, US, 93 min)
★ ★ ★ 1/2 Not your average nerd-umentary. By the end of the first genuine Tetris tournament — ever! — one is fairly convinced by the film's implicit case that Tetris, mastery of which depends on skill, quick reflexes and performance under pressure, is no less genuine a sport than, say, darts or pool. One competitor profile is particularly complex and poignant: that of a former “world champion” seemingly exploited by Nintendo (for promotional value) and his family (as sole bread-winner while a teenager).
Andrew Bird: Fever Year (dir. Xan Aranda, US, 81 min)
★ ★ ★ Like Bird himself, this doc — which features full-song concert excerpts alongside interviews about the singer-songwriter's process — is a bit slow to open up, almost too mellow to engage, sometimes as opaque as its subject. But some loopy quotes, delivered by the master of the loop pedal, stick in one's craw, notably, “Have I simply been ill this year, or am I just turning into a different type of animal with a different type of metabolism.”
The Show Must Go On (dir. Paula Froehle, US, 60 min)
★ ★ ★ It's an exercise in tension to watch the aerial family act The Flying Wallendas step out en masse on the high wire, particularly when attempting the seven person pyramid, an acrobat's fever dream involving bikes and headstands that has killed or injured a few wobbly Wallendas. This brisk profile catches the Wallendas near the end of the road as the death knell sounds for traditional circus life. Most troublesome and difficult to watch is a tour of mid-sized arenas during which the Wallendas do the pyramid 30-plus times, despite the family's patriarch having very little trust in a new member, drawn from outside of the family, who develops a life-threatening case of the yips.
American Man (dir. Jon Frankel, US, 75 min)
★ ★ 1/2 It's by no means certain that former NFL fullback Frank Turner developed ALS as a result of brain trauma sustained during his playing days; only an autopsy can make that determination. Regardless, he's one of many NFL players to come forward with debilitating illness connected to brain trauma in recent years. A little more context on Turner's condition would've been helpful, but one unforgettable moment, when Turner calls out the cameraman on his — how to say it? — detached voyeurism, is worth the price of admission alone.
Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (dir. Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, US, 65 min)
★ ★ 1/2 Ay de mi! Things were going OK with this bit-too-cursory doc about superheroines in pop culture — with particular emphasis on their intersection with the feminist movement and impact on the lives of “ordinary” women — until the last few minutes, when a B&W slideshow of women through American history that The Office's Michael Scott might've put together for a meeting made me question the soundness of the whole enterprise (even if Gloria Steinem and once-“riot grrl” Kathleen Hanna were along for the ride). There are a lot of problems here, like, say, praising Charlie's Angels and Bikini Kill within a ten-minute span, but I still learned a few things.