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Why documentaries fail – and why they work - Cleveland Jewish News: Leisure

Why documentaries fail – and why they work

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Posted: Friday, April 12, 2013 11:53 am | Updated: 1:40 pm, Fri Apr 12, 2013.

The 37th annual Cleveland International Film Festival, which broke attendance records in its first week, offered a slew of documentaries the evening of April 9. These three showed the limitations and the promise of the genre.

The first was “Dancing With the Trees,” Dennis Scholl’s film about the efforts required to build a museum in Biloxi, Miss., honoring the local (and fantastic) potter George Ohr. The architect was Frank Gehry, and the complex, which he designed to “dance with the trees,” is engaging and flexible. What complicated the venture was Hurricane Katrina, but city residents persevered, and the museum symbolizes what they tout as the comeback of the Gulf Coast. The movie is a tad testimonial-heavy, but Gehry and Ohr – the latter’s career told through period photographs – are captivating, as is the musical score.

“Dancing” was a prelude to “Red White, and Blueprints,” Jack Storey’s “Rust Belt Documentary” about youthful energy in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland. The movie lasted a little more than an hour, but it didn’t work.

Storey seems to have showcased his buddies in the five cities, and his movie semi-effectively shows some of their connections, suggesting the growth of a regional mindset.

But in glossing over problems that have kept these cities on the national sidelines for four decades, Storey’s movie felt more like public relations than journalism. There was no process, no texture, just testimonials on these cities’ grooviness and toughness.

As for Cleveland, where was East 4th Street, Uptown, Ohio City, Tremont?

No matter the city, Storey failed to communicate what the place felt like. He told superficially, at best, and he didn’t show.

According to Storey and his interviewees, these cities, presented in separate segments with brief historical context setting, are the coming thing. All they have to do is raise their self-esteem, he suggests.

That may well be. But neglecting to show the process – in Pittsburgh, for example, he interviews two guys who facilitate nonprofits but doesn’t show a nonprofit, let alone how those guys operate – was a major oversight. Bland, too white and too yuppie, “Red, White” missed its mark by a mile.

The best documentary of the evening was Bill Morrison’s “The Great Flood,” a riveting hour and 20 minutes marrying Morrison’s remarkable excavation of vintage newsreels and outtakes to an outstanding, Americana-flecked score by Bill Frisell, a great jazz guitarist heading a remarkable band (got to drop the name of trumpeter Ron Miles). Frisell, by the way, will lead a band called Beautiful Dreamers at the Allen Theatre at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 27. The show, part of the Tri-C JazzFest, also will feature violist Eyvind Kang and Kenny Wollesen, the drummer in the Morrison-Frisell movie.

The film starts with a computerized pan over the Mississippi River as it is about to burst its banks. It shifts into period material as close to 150 levees break, flooding 27,000 square miles, killing 246 and devastating seven states.

The Great Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in U.S. history. Morrison and Frisell have made poetry out of its devastation. They’ve also crafted eloquent commentary on race, politics and the shift from the agrarian to the urban.

The images, presented thematically and chronologically, span families clinging to their roofs, river water rushing with such turbulence the water looks like muscles flexing, rebuilding with horse and plow, and the migration north. Part of the subtext is the evolution of rural blues into rock and roll. Midway through, the director, who lives in New York and experienced his own flood in Hurricane Sandy, inserts a rapid-fire “chapter” paging through the Sears & Roebuck catalogue of 1927 to illustrate what the flood washed away and to show how little things mattered during the tragedy.

There are obvious reasons the film resonates: Morrison’s own experience, Hurricane Katrina, the historicity of the imagery, all black-and-white, all celluloid, much blotched by age. But one of the main ones is that “The Great Flood,” unlike most other documentaries, is silent. There is no narrator, no script. The pictures and the music speak for themselves, for each other – and, before we know it, for and to all of us.

— Carlo Wolff

Watch the Great Flood trailer here. It's courtesy of Bill Frisell

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