Festival Files: DVF31 DocuFest, Dispatch #2

It’s uncanny how certain ideas or motifs suddenly, almost unwittingly, arise throughout numerous films in a given year. Last year’s use of poisonous mushrooms in pivotal scenes throughout several films, including P.T. Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, can almost be seen as some sort of inside Hollywood joke we’re not privy to.

This year, the use of miniatures has been quite the focal point for some high profile films. It’s the work of mother Toni Collette in the summer’s breakout horror hit Hereditary and looks to play a key role in the upcoming Steve Carell vehicle Welcome To Marwen.

In Ruth Zylberman’s 209 rue Saint-Maur (also known as “Les enfants du 209, rue Saint-Maur, Paris Xe”), the shrunken recreations of things like a sewing machine or chair serve as tiny, handheld reminders as various people speak about their childhood and memories of an apartment building they lived in before, during and after the German Occupation of France. Essentially a microcosm of the atrocities visited upon Jewish families during World War II, Zylberman’s film is a staggering achievement of investigative cinema as the filmmaker uses one single apartment building to trace a web of survivors and the people who helped them during the war.

Sometimes the interviews are tough to watch as people recollect the wholesale deportations of their family. Sometimes they’re a bit whimsical as they talk about the brighter times at 209 rue Saint-Maur, skipping rope or dallying among the building’s cramped staircase interiors. Even others are taught about their past just as we learn about them, as is the case of one survivor whose family history was never fully explained and filmmaker Zylberman interviews him in the States. The way he initially resists knowing anything — and then casually stalks the edges of the frame, overhearing and then becoming drawn into the explanations to his daughter — fill the film with an organic sense of honesty that’s hard to manufacture.

As a piece of anthropological essay, Zylberman’s documentary, which I feel was the absolute best of the festival, is immensely moving, breathtakingly humane and tirelessly essential.

While other filmmakers have tackled the same subject at various lengths, Zylberman’s 100-minute documentary captures the power of memory and shared experience of a very dark time in history quite unlike any other. Its faces will linger in your mind long afterwards. The stories they tell will harden into your soul.

And although their history is full of despair, Zylberman chooses to end on a family reunion of sorts, and the image of ten and eleven year children walking at the edges of the survivors only strengthens the idea that, no matter how determined we are as a race to wipe each other out, the future is unstoppable.

Another type of historical excavation takes place in Elan and Joseph Bogarin’s 306 Hollywood. When their ninety-some grandmother dies, the brother and sister filmmaking duo not only share a series of taped interviews they performed with her starting in the late 00’s, but decide to film the clean-out process of her house and possessions.

As someone who recently lost a loved one and is helping a parent clean out an expansive lifetime of collecting objects, 306 Hollywood resonated with me strongly on several chords. Material possessions, no matter how insignificant they may seem to the living, were something touched, hidden away and cherished by our recently deceased and serve as tangible objects to their wavelengths.

Where 306 Hollywood lost me came in the Bogarins use of whimsical — or ‘magic realist,’ as the film’s press notes continually call out — ideas such as the notion that the soul of a person lives on for 11 months after the body’s death, which is exactly the amount of time they give themselves to clean out their grandmother’s home or the strained use of a found telescope. And don’t even get me started on the coy voice-over the film employs. On paper, I’m sure these ideas sounded quirky, but in execution, they sink the film with a look-at-me devotion that comes across as manipulative and cloying.

If 209 rue Saint-Maur failed to capture any prizes, I am glad Irene Lusztig’s Yours In Sisterhood took home the Best Feature award. Looking at “Ms.” magazine, a publication devoted to the burgeoning feminist movement in the early 70’s, Yours In Sisterhood is compelling not for the history of its printed existence but for what was left unpublished.

Through a series of direct-to-camera performances, various women read unpublished but recently unearthed letters from the magazine. Some are the actual writers of the letters. Most are not, their only connection being that they exist in the same town the letters and their authors emanated from.

Going beyond that trick, Lusztig then films the women reacting to the letters. Some empathize. Others don’t. However, each segment is unique in capturing the flurry of emotions that permeate their faces as they try to make sense or visualize the words being given the light of day after so many years. It’s a simple exercise, but one that feels urgent for the moment.

Like I said in my previous post, Dallas VideoFest has chosen films that ask serious questions. Yours In Sisterhood may not have all the answers, but like it and many others at this year’s event, the fact that they’re being asked shows hope for the future.