Film and Television Features


After having mixed feelings about most of yesterday's films, day two delivered an outstanding triple bill, and the three strongest films of the festival so far.

Point And Shoot tells the story of Matt VanDyke, who had a privileged existence in middle class Baltimore, but found himself yearning for danger overseas. Taking inspiration from the action films and choose your own adventure books that had defined his youth, VanDyke set about transforming himself into an absurdly macho protagonist of his own creation. Thus, Matt VanDyke became 'Max Hunter'. Armed with pocket knives, a video camera, and (of course) a motorcycle, VanDyke set about on creating his new personal mythology on the dusty roads of the Middle East and North Africa. What begins as an enthralling adventure documentary soon develops into something richer and more surprising when VanDyke befriends a group of Libyans. Motivated by a troubled mix of further thrill-seeking, narcissism and a genuine desire to help his friends, VanDyke transforms himself once again, this time into a committed revolutionary in the struggle against Gaddafi. Complicating VanDyke's journey at every step is his OCD, which also results in an obsessive need to document every step of his adventure. This works hugely to the advantage of director Marshall Curry, who is able to craft a gripping and confidently told narrative out of VanDyke's extensive material. Where the film really shines though is in its exploration of themes of identity and self-mythology. Everybody in the film, from VanDyke himself, to US soldiers and Libyan freedom fighters, seems to be obsessed with a constant need to define their identity in front of the cameras. As VanDyke himself says at one point: “everybody wants something to share on Facebook”. It would have been easy for Point and Shoot to have turned into a shallow adventure film, but director Marshall Curry has managed to create something multi-layered and engrossing that takes full advantage of the conflicts that lie at the heart of VanDyke's character.

As a big fan of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing what director Steve James had produced for his latest film. Life Itself is a big-hearted tribute to film critic Rober Ebert, which lovingly celebrates his life without ever feeling overly reverential. The film charts Ebert's passions and achievements with warmth and snappy pacing that confidently displays the same skilled storytelling that is so apparent in Steve James' other work. Throughout this we also hear entertaining anecdotes from some of the most articulate and passionate voices in the industry, most notably Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. While the film's title may focus on life, Steve James' film also succeeds as a poignant reflection on death and preparing for the end. Ebert wanted a film that was honest and candid, and some of the scenes towards the end of his life, in which he can no longer speak, eat or drink, make for particularly difficult viewing. However, Life Itself is never a film that feels overwhelmed with sadness. When faced with the end of his existence in the film, Ebert reflects with optimism: “This is the 3rd act. And its an experience”. This same sense of optimistic hopefulness pervades the whole of Life Itself.

In contrast to the emotional highs and lows of Life Itself, Concerning Violence was a much more intellectual experience, that refreshingly demanded a high degree of intelligence from its viewers. The film is an adaptation of Frantz Fanon's non-fiction analysis of decolonisation, The Wretched of the Earth. Concerning Violence works hard to preserve the passionate eloquence of Fanon's original text, which is only accentuated by the searing intensity of the reading provided by Lauryn Hill. During the reading, Fanon's words also flicker across the screen in the form of text, displaying a celebration of the written word that is somewhat unusual in documentary. This is complimented by an impressive variety of well-chosen archive footage from African nations going through decolonisation, mostly sourced from 1970s television archives. As with director Goran Hugo Olsson's previous film, Black Power Mixtape, much of the archive footage is allowed to play out at length, giving it room to breathe and be fully appreciated. Perhaps the strongest highlight are the interviews, which provide the film with a rich contrast of voices, from impassioned revolutionaries to painfully deluded white settlers. Concerning Violence is less a film about a specific time and place, and more a powerful study of the effects of decolonisation, which criss crosses back and forth across the African continent as it steadily constructs its arguments. With so many documentary films now focused on constructing narrative and character arcs, Concerning Violence demonstrates that there is still room for the intelligent essay film to thrive.

Both Life Itself and Concerning Violence are up for DocFest's Special Jury Prize this year, and its hard to think of two more disparate contenders. Though they're enormously different in tone and the experiences they offer, either one would be a deserving winner of the top prize.