JWR Articles: Film/DVD - American Documentary Film Festival 2015 (Directors: Jon Sams, Liliana Correa, Nicholas Mejia, Sergio Oksman, Boris Poljak) - March 29, 2015

American Documentary Film Festival 2015

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Reviewed at the 2015 American Documentary Film Festival
Photo Montage

AmDocs 2015 is most assuredly on trend with this grouping of films whose still photography subject matter generally translates well into moving pictures. Recently, Finding Vivian Maier (cross reference below) lit the cinematic flame for hidden-away gems and astonishingly good, unknown talent. Hopefully all of these works can help stem the tsunami of selfies that bombards serious viewers from every digital device on the planet.

The Surreal and the Self
Jon Sams, 2013
8 min. Four stars

Learning through trial and error

Twentysomething Kyle Thompson’s determination to make a living as a photographer zipped right past the typical wedding market and is now flying full force into the heady world of surrealist images. Unhampered by any formal training (not necessarily a bad thing when wanting to push the boundaries of original thinking), the young man’s craft development came through the self-imposed discipline of a 365 project (one photo per day for a year: framed, shot, edited and uploaded).

Unlike the likes of Maier who found subjects while walking the streets of New York City, Thompson pre-imagines his material then brings together any needed props (helium balloons are great fun), setting (frequently outdoors) and model—more often than not himself. Stating bluntly, “I had no idea what I was doing,” there’s a refreshing honesty in the man and his burgeoning work.

For his part, Sams seems to be a kindred spirit, producing a taut, insightful mini-portrait with obvious respect and care. JWR

Victor’s Photo Studio
Liliana Correa and Nicholas Mejia, 2014
25 min. Three stars

So far away from selfies

Anyone who has seen their own photos come to life in an odourous fixer bath will appreciate this chronicle of a master studio photographer as he goes about the painstaking process of capturing the person behind the eyes rather than merely the image before him.

Frustratingly, the subtitles have been poorly translated, leaving English speakers without any of the nuance from the craggily handed, fastidious, geriatric portrait maker. Not surprisingly, the best moments come as the cinematographer artfully captures dozens of finished works—in all shapes, sizes and mattes (happily accompanied by a covey of budgies)—that reveal a life of truly human revelation. JWR

Family portrait

A Story for the Modlins
Sergio Oksman, 2014
26 min. Five stars

Found lives

Eerily similar to Searching for Vivian Maier (whose unknown photographs—almost all just negatives—were stumbled upon by a collector with a hunch at an auction), the life and times of the Modlin family nearly found its way to the trash until the filmmaker happened upon it, sitting neglected on a city street.

What follows is a truly magical history of the Modlins: Elmer (a wanabe actor whose only big screen claim to fame was an uncredited bit part in Rosemary’s Baby), wife Margaret (a strong-willed woman who abandoned her own kin for the chance of expressing herself through sculpture and painting—and like Maier, never seeking a large audience or financial rewards for her considerable gifts) and only child Nelson (the good-looking young man gradually soured on posing for Mommy Dearest, eventually flying the coup only to abandon his eye-catching physique and let his body go to seed).

The methodology? Literally a blank canvas, which is then fed pictures from the considerable found stash that—mostly—speak for themselves. The deft narration is ideally complemented by a pair of bare hands and forearms that snap the photos into place then snatch them away in near-rhythmic fashion.

A wee bit of home video puts voice to Elmer and Margaret and also allows a much more detailed view of her creations—not least of which is a two-headed sculpture that was meant to serve double duty as urn for their ashes. Sadly, their collective demise laughed in the face of such promise, if only they’d felt comfortable enough in their own skin to share the fruits of their labours with others.

One can only wonder as to how many more treasure troves of excellence are rotting away in landfills around the globe or ignored in flea markets everywhere. JWR

Production photo

Boris Poljak, 2014
28 min. Two and one-half stars

Big Brother tourism style

Poljak’s premise seems fine: Using hidden microphones and long-range cameras, record the comings and goings of dozens of picture-snapping tourists after they’ve trekked up a considerable hill in hopes of visiting Croatia’s 12th century St. Nicholas Church. Alas, the Ministry of Culture has seen fit to padlock the old-stone place of worship so its beauty must largely be savoured from the outside.

Viewers, accordingly, become voyeurs as the multi-national visitors have a picnic, take a pee, flash panties, meditate, propose marriage or reach the top on a bicycle without having to push it the last few yards.

Fun as it seemed to some in the audience, with so much surveillance in public places—mostly in cities and on transportation systems—it’s sad to think that Big Brother can now also spy on innocent folks during a cultural outing. JWR

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