A sneak peak
2009 Durango Film Festival satisfies hunger for true stories

- “Sons of Lwala” a stirring documentary about two brothers from a poor Kenyan village who fulfill their dying father’s wish to become doctors

by Judith Reynolds

Next Wed., March 4, the Durango Independent Film Festival will once again open with a free movie night. DIFF organizers have wisely chosen to showcase a different documentary at each theater, the Gaslight and the Abbey. On free night, DIFF also offers one feature, “Gospel Hill,” and one shorts program tantalizingly titled “Sex, Death & God.” Here are some notes about the two opening documentaries plus five more of the festival’s more than 80 offerings I was lucky enough to preview.

- “An Unlikely Weapon” screens at the Abbey at 6 p.m. on March 4. The second showing will be at noon on March 7. Whether you know the name Eddie Adams or not, most likely you’ve seen his most famous war photograph – a horrifying image of a Saigon police chief executing a Vietcong guerilla. The 1968 photograph became a symbol for the brutality of the Vietnam War and has entered the halls of memorable war photography along with Nick Ut’s burning child. Ut is one of many professional colleagues interviewed for this documentary.

In his long career, Adams covered 13 wars. When burned out, he returned to New York City to pursue more benign genres like fashion and celebrity photography. Late in his life, he established Bathhouse Studio, a now-famous workshop in upstate New York for aspiring photojournalists. His bluntness, candor and courage made him a hero to many young American photographers.

“An Unlikely Weapon,” of course, refers to Adams’ camera. Ironically, filmmaker Susan Morgan Cooper began the film when Adams had only a short time to live, so it’s a true biopic.

Adams died in 2004 at the age of 71 of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Toward the end, he became stiff and silent. None of this is shown, but interviews with colleagues portray an always cantankerous and defiant Adams as he slips toward the grave. Not to give anything critical away, the film ends on an uplifting note as

- “Courting Condi” plays at the Gaslight at 9 p.m. on March 4, and again at 12:15 p.m. on March 7. Director Sebastian Doggart and his star Devin Ratray (pronounced Ruh – TRAY) have assigned themselves a difficult task. “A demented odyssey,” says a character early in the film. He’s right, and you will have to stay the course to get the payoff.

Promoted as a docu-tragi-comedy, the film teeters on a flimsy premise: Ratray’s fictional crush on Condoleezza Rice. But it appears to be rudderless. Is it a musical, biopic, comedy, stalker film or diatribe? The conceit hangs on an unappealing hero, an overfed, self-indulgent musician who wants to meet and marry Rice.

Ratray’s pilgrimage takes him to Birmingham, Rice’s birthplace, then Denver, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. He interviews Rice’s former neighbors, childhood friends, teachers, an old boyfriend and political colleagues.

How the filmmaker got these people is a mystery. The interviews reek with exploitation, especially the one with Rick Upchurch, Denver Bronco and Rice’s former fiancé.

After mixing news footage, live interviews and a batch of juvenile “Love Videos,” things take a turn. Doggart wraps up with Rice biographers, former colleagues and political heavyweights like Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff, and Richard BenVenisti, a respected member of the 9/11 Commission. They weigh in on the real Condi and her role in ginning up an unjustified war. It’s a mixed bag and a hard way to get there.

- “Pirate for the Sea.” Ron Colby’s documentary about Paul Watson focuses on a conservationist who bears witness to tragedies at sea. Some call Watson an eco-terrorist. Others say he’s one of the most ardent activists alive, willing to put his life on the line again and again for whales, seals and creatures of the oceans. Like the Adams’ film, “Pirate for the Sea” traces a life dedicated to something larger than self. Watson’s philosophy and confrontational tactics stem from the idea that human beings are not the only animals entitled to live on this planet. He doesn’t always win, but he makes inroads on illegal commercial and governmental plundering. This is thrilling stuff. “Pirate for the Sea” screens at noon on March 5, and again at 6 p.m. on March 7, at the Abbey.

- “Sons of Lwala” is a stirring documentary about sons and fathers. Two brothers from a poor Kenyan village fulfill their dying father’s wish for a medical clinic at home. Filmmaker Barry Simmons dropped everything to illuminate the odyssey of Milton and Fred Ochieng, poor African boys who overcame huge obstacles to become doctors.

"An Unlikely Weapon" shows Wed., March 4, at the Abbey

“Sons of Lwala” is a stirring documentary about sons and fathers. Two brothers from a poor Kenyan village fulfill their dying father’s wish for a medical clinic at home. Filmmaker Barry Simmons dropped everything to illuminate the odyssey of Milton and Fred Ochieng, poor African boys who overcame huge obstacles to become doctors.

Both Ochieng parents died of AIDS, and the epidemic in Africa is a given. Early scenes demonstrate what village life was like when no medical care was available. Need and parental death motivate the brothers to take action. Blessed with high intelligence, the Ochieng boys earned scholarships to prestigious American4

- “1000 Journals” traces an odd global art project through to completion. A few years ago, a San Francisco artist known as Someguy decided to randomly send out blank journals to see what would happen. Motivated by a belief in human connection and armed with a democratic art form, Someguy launched 1,000 journals.

Inspired by a popular 1998 business book, Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, the question was: What happens to our creativity as we get older? Someguy’s answer became the journal project. He prepares, packages and wonders if people will pick up the journals. Then, he wonders if they will write, draw or paste stuff inside? Will the journals keep moving?

News of the project spreads, and Someguy establishes a website, mailing journals to people who want in on the project. The film visits participants around the world, and there are unintended consequences. Many journals go missing. Others are corrupted by devious and angry people. Some people erase earlier entries. To the filmmaker’s credit, he includes it all. The world isn’t filled with nice people wanting to connect.

When a few journals eventually make it “home,” Someguy gets ambitious – an exhibition, a book? That’s when I lost interest. Make of it what you will – self promotion, exploitation or a legitimate project?

- “Under Our Skin,” is a disturbing documentary about a controversial disease and the medical and legal confusion surrounding it. Figures put out by the Centers for Disease Control about Lyme disease suggest that 200,000 Americans per year may contract it. Although it’s named after an East Coast town where a concentration first developed, Westerners are also susceptible. Why? Because it’s caused by a deer tick.

Filmmaker Andy Abrahams is nothing if not thorough. He interviews patients, doctors, lawyers, insurance executives and politicians to cover all aspects of the controversy. The deer-tick link was established in 1981, but severely ill people continue to be told their condition is psychosomatic or they have multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Once drug and insurance companies came into the mix, some doctors with industry connections wrote reports highly skeptical of the “new” disease. Other doctors who successfully have treated patients with Lyme Disease have been punished.

It’s nasty business and a film worth seeing.

- “The Day After Peace,” covers a 10-year struggle to have one day without war. Jeremy Gilley, a British actor turned activist, wants to create a day of global peace. He asks: What might happen if people paused, took a breath, reflected, and gave up violence and hatred for 24 hours?

Gilley begins his campaign modestly – with the backing of parents and friends. He learns he’s not the first to have the idea. In 1981, a UN resolution supported One Day of Peace, but no date had been selected and nothing had been done. Using that platform for action, Gilley goes to the UN and chats up officials. He chooses a new date, Sept. 21, because his grandfather who had been a POW during World War II thought 9-21 was a lucky number.

Gilley successfully gets two countries to back a new UN resolution, but 9/11 intervenes. The project languishes amidst fear and cynicism. The young Brit, however, doesn’t give up and pursues what many do these days – a celebrity endorsement – and signs on Angelina Jolie, Jude Law and Annie Lennox. Law accompanies Gilley to Afghanistan to set up a polio immunization program and they have one day of peace there in 2007. Miraculously, the Taliban cooperated. With one success in his pocket, Gilley goes on.

Pardon me, but as you can tell by the above, there’s too much Gilley in this story, self aggrandizement. That’s the fatal flaw of this documentary, however worthy the cause. Judge for yourself. •