JWR Articles: Film/DVD - American Documentary Film Festival 2014 - Opening Night (Directors: Theodore Ushev, Julie Cohen) - April 1, 2014

American Documentary Film Festival 2014 - Opening Night

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Opening night doesn’t disappoint

The third annual American Documentary Film Festival began on a literal high note with two films and a live recital that—to varying degrees—juxtaposed our most universal art with the much darker arena of politics.

Gloria Victoria
Theodore Ushev
2013, 7 min.
Five stars

A riot of colour and creativity

This year, the three featured countries are Canada, Chile and Germany. It is hard to imagine a more fitting “first frame” than Ushev’s setting of Shostakovich (Symphony No. 7) where the brilliant filmmaker uses sharply edged animations to terrifyingly complement the angry music (seldom has the snare drum and double reed melodies been used to greater effect). The film most artfully balances (deftly pitting colour vs. black-and-white) the common labourer (largely in the fields) with the truly awful mechanization of horrifically powerful instruments of destruction. The final setting of the sun over the wreckage on Earth will linger in memory as long as humankind settles the score by violence rather than compromise and informed reason. JWR

Makudupanyane Senaoana well into his role

I Live to Sing (Ndiphilela Ukucula)
Julie Cohen
2013, 78 min.
Four and one-half stars

Culture knows no colour?

Breaking into the diva-laden, élite driven (maestros, senior managers and their boards—not to mention artist managers) is difficult at best. Being born and raised in South Africa makes the task well-nigh impossible until the end of apartheid in 1989 gradually opened the doors to any qualified student at the University of Cape Town’s opera school.

Cohen’s subjects are a trio of promising voices: soprano Linda Nteleza (trying to break out of her shell and overcome the loss of her parents and a bout of TB), tenor Makudupanyane Senaoana (this drink of a man lights up the screen with his zest for life and early understanding as to just how the world works) and bass-baritone Thesele Kemane (the most mature instrument of the Met hopefuls, his inner-fear manifests itself in the ability to project to the back rows).

Their opera coach and pit conductor comes in the dedicated, energized personage of Kamal Khan who knows both the music as well as the obstacles that lie ahead for his charges to find the way to world stages, adoration and fame.

Their other mentor—here serving as stage director for an upcoming production of The Tales of Hoffman—is relocated Italian Angelo Gobbato who has great passion for his work, but a decidedly short memory. When the magnificent new opera house Artscape opened in 1971, Gobbato (on the rise as a singer in those days) assured Cohen that, “yes, blacks and whites were welcome from the get-go.” In a table-turning moment that would be cheered heartily by Michael Moore, she produces instant evidence that the majority of South Africa’s population were not welcome in the Wagner shrine until 1975—producing a crimson visage that confirmed the historical re-write: tutta forza!

The best moments, not surprisingly given the masterworks captured in rehearsal and performance were the operas—notably Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars at Glimmerglass where the African roles were taken by real Africans—came from the musical segments.

With Oliver Stone looking on to the West Coast première, the intertwining of the political elements then and now (with special emphasis on Nelson Mandela) packed a few punches, but just as often produced the hope that the bully pulpit would be abandoned for more helpings of Western music’s time-tested treasures.

Adding a bit of fun, yet feeling a tad contrived was the interjection of a few bars about the jungle… A chorus of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—immortalized in Disney’s The Lion King—felt as wrong as leaving the inner-drama of whites competing with blacks for spots at the school in the hard-to-believe world of one for all, all for one.

How fascinating it will be to follow these burgeoning careers—a true encore that only needs the element of time to tell. JWR

Post-screening performance

The sequel began immediately as all three principals took their turns on stage to perform an aria from the standard repertoire.

Senaoana led off with his easy-flowing tenor that—through the magic of digitalization and sound mixing—sounded much more present in the film. Once the fine art of supporting the lines even more as the dynamics decrease is fully learned by Nteleza, she may attract considerable notice. Similarly for Kemane, whose phobia about projection proved only too accurate in the early going, where more work should be put into singing through every phrase and not easing off the diaphragm until the last decibel of sound has been wrung out of the marvellous contours of art song.

Kudos to the AmDocs artistic trust for beginning the festival with films and a wee recital far of the beaten path at other documentary extravaganzas. JWR

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