SFIFF 2016 Recap – Part 2, Documentary Features
Of the documentary features I screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, Weiner, Life, Animated, and Author: The JT LeRoy Story float to the top of my list–Weiner for deepening, humanizing, and complicating a public figure who has become, for most, a political punchline; Life, Animated for the exuberance and good ol’ fashioned love of life it inspires; and Author: The JT LeRoy Story for exploring the borderlands of creativity and the interactions between trauma and art.
(For my overview of the SFIFF narrative features of 2016, see Part 1 of my recap.)
When JT LeRoy—a gender-bending author whose work brought him friendship with actors and rock stars—was revealed as a fictional persona invented by Laura Albert, many duped celebrities felt angry, betrayed. Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which shares Albert’s perspective for the first time, does not pretend to be an even-handed exploration of the controversy—we hear only from Albert and her sympathizers—but is no less fascinating for its one-sidedness. Director Jeff Feuerzeig makes copious use of the artist’s obsessive self-documentation in presenting a woman who channeled her trauma into a project that took on its own life.
Some might say Anthony Weiner destroyed his own life. Certainly the documentary Weiner, which follows the former Congressman during his run for NYC mayor in the aftermath of his Twitter scandal, depicts a less-than-perfect individual. But the film also provokes us to question the fairness of a system that refuses a talented and passionate politician the right to make private mistakes and still go on to serve the public. Regardless of your own opinion on that matter, Weiner is an eye-opening, compassionate, nuanced, and, at times (and not always intentionally) entertaining film. A documentary not to miss.
Though I usually shy away from issues-based documentaries, Under the Gun promised to explore a question that I personally find baffling: with all the mass shootings in our country, why is it so difficult to enact even the most basic gun reform legislation? Director Stephanie Soechtig interviews journalists, NRA members, gun reform activists, and, most harrowingly, family members of gun violence victims to find the answer. Though Under the Gun doesn’t necessarily come across as unbiased, I did leave the movie thinking that maybe, as with climate change, there is no “other side” worth talking about.
Owen Suskind is a young man living with autism who relates to the world using Disney animated movies. The success of Life, Animated, the documentary that tells his life story, can almost entirely be attributed to the innocent charisma of its subject. (Indeed, the SFIFF audience gave Owen, who attended the screening, a standing ovation.) Also incredibly moving are the testaments of his father, mother, and brother—a more fiercely and ingeniously dedicated family you’ll never meet. Though the inclusion of some darker or more complicated moments might have made for a more compelling film, Life, Animated is nonetheless irresistible.