“I wish I had good news,” says the poet Li-Young Lee in the documentary Poetry of Resilience. “You know, to say that [the human] spirit is resilient” — pause — “some days I feel that spirit is not so resilient.” Though Lee's perspective is ultimately global, he's speaking first of the fallout within his own family from the horrors they suffered during China's Cultural Revolution, the ways in which those horrors deeply and permanently scarred them individually and as a unit. But he's also elegantly shorthanding the conversations both in and between many of the films in this year's DocuWeeks film festival, which features a particularly strong lineup of shorts and features for its 15th anniversary.
A common thread running through this year's program is that there's an often palpable struggle within the films for them to arc toward the uplifting and affirming, even as rose-tinted glasses (the viewer's; the films' subjects) are crushed.
Poetry of Resilience is writer-director Katja Esson's artful, engaging 40-minute short documenting a gathering of poets who survived genocide in Rwanda, the atom bomb in Hiroshima, the Nazis in Poland and wars or deadly political strife in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq and Palestine, among other places. The writers use their poetry not only to bear witness to these atrocities but also to examine internal scars that often are beyond healing.
It's moving in its own right but achieves unexpected potency when juxtaposed with To Be Heard, a feature co-directed by Roland Legiardi-Laura, Edwin Martinez, Deborah Shaffer and Amy Sultan. Heard is, in many ways, a standard-issue item for contemporary American documentarians — turn the cameras on X number of troubled inner-city youths (with their absent dads, crushing poverty and domestic and neighborhood violence) as they stitch together self-esteem while dreaming of stardom on the poetry circuit. A big-time competition looms, natch, and the question burns: Will our young heroes slay their demons in time to snatch the trophy?
The team behind Heard doesn't even try to avoid the clichés that have sprung up around this kind of film (real life does throw one unexpected wrench), but you're still slowly pulled into the kids' worlds and their struggles, rooting for them even as you see the setup.
It's interesting not only to compare the filmmaking in these two docs but also to contrast the formulaic performing and writing styles of the poets in Heard to those of their elders in Resilience. The younger poets' trigger-reflexes toward the commodification and “performance” of self, and their naked pursuit of stardom, speak volumes about what modern America teaches its youth (all of us, really) about being an artist and a human being.
Also recommended: Darwin, an exquisite look at a small California town (35 residents) populated by eccentrics whose politics, complex histories and day-to-day life are the stuff that used to comprise novels; the short Maya Deren's Sink, a musing on the late filmmaker's life and creativity that not only features clips from her groundbreaking work but also replicates her style in the telling; Barber of Birmingham, an inspiring short that traces America's evolution from the violently segregated South of the 20th century to the place that elected Barack Obama as president, all through the eyes and experiences of a magnetic 85-year-old black barber; Unfinished Spaces, a witty survey (and dismantling) of Cuban politics, from Batista to the present day, through a look at the near mythological School of the Arts; The Boy Mir: 10 Years in Afghanistan, in which the young hero from the award-winning The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan stumbles into adulthood against the backdrop of war, making you laugh and breaking your heart in equal measure.
DOCUWEEKS | Aug. 19-Sept. 8 | Sunset 5 | documentary.org/docuweeks2011