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Nonfiction Filmmakers Still Tell Rich Stories

January 24, 2010

The Bay Area has long been known as a center for documentary filmmaking. Many local documentarians have won or been nominated for Academy Awards, including Sam Green (“The Weather Underground”) and Robert Epstein (“The Times of Harvey Milk”). The area is home to the Independent Television Service, a major financer of documentary films, as well as some of the most respected film schools in the country.

But the success of local documentaries can’t be attributed to education and financing alone. The region itself seems especially tight-knit and supportive.

“The Bay Area is a very good place to be a documentarian because of the cooperative nature of the community,” said Janis Plotkin, a programmer for the Mill Valley Film Festival. “For a small city, San Francisco has amazingly supportive resources for independent filmmakers.”

But fundamentally, the success has to do with storytelling. Some local filmmakers, like Christian Bruno, are pushing the limits of narrative. Mr. Bruno’s jewel-like film “Strand: A Natural History of Cinema” mines the history of the region’s once-opulent movie palaces in a lyrical manner that makes it feel like an archaeological dig. He burrows through time with the aid of diverse interviews, archival footage and contemporary scenes shot on 16-millimeter film to convey the idea of cinemas as sites of social interaction and imaginative exploration.

But as three compelling new homegrown documentaries show, local filmmakers are also using more traditional storytelling techniques, like character-driven narratives with a strong three-act structure, in powerful ways. The Talbot Players’ “Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders” series; Katherine Bruens’s “Corner Store”; and David Silberberg’s “Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank!” tell engrossing tales by focusing on key characters.

The tried-and-true storytelling formulas clearly work. The slow-burning “Corner Store” follows the journey of Yousef Elhaj, owner of a Mission district corner deli, as he travels from San Francisco to his native Palestinian territories to be reunited with his family, which he hasn’t seen in 10 years. The film provides a moving insight into one man’s struggle to reconcile the kinship he feels for his adopted Bay Area home with his Middle Eastern roots.

“Corner Store,” which will be screened at next month’s San Francisco Independent Film Festival, trundles along languorously, with atmospheric shots of bustling Palestinian marketplaces and San Francisco streets.

Despite its meandering pace, the film is engaging because of Ms. Bruens’s deep, meditative portrait of the protagonist and the straightforward narrative arc. Moving from San Francisco to the Palestinian territories and back to San Francisco, the three-part structure makes viewers feel as if they were traveling alongside Mr. Elhaj.

The layout of “Sound Tracks” is equally pronounced. The documentary, which begins on Monday night on most PBS stations, comprises three distinct and fascinating narratives about the intersection of music, travel and politics. The segments provide fresh angles on relatively well-known subjects by offering miniature character studies.

The first story explores the genesis of the hit Russian pop song “A Man Like Putin,” a peppy piece of musical propaganda that has grown to be something of a calling card for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin. The segment focuses on the song’s composer, Alexander Yelin, a rock music dissident turned promoter.

The next section delves into the legacy of the Nigerian music pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti. It centers on Mr. Kuti’s youngest son, Seun, who stepped forward as a teenager to lead his father’s band after Mr. Kuti’s death in 1997.

The third segment follows the Kazakhstani virtuoso violinist Marat Bisengaliev as he tries to recoup the battered reputation of his country in the wake of “Borat,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s blockbuster 2006 mockumentary that didn’t do much for Kazakhstan’s global reputation.

“Sound Tracks” makes a virtue of its three-part structure; the individual narratives come together cumulatively to make its resounding overall point: music is a powerful agent of community building and social change.

Meanwhile, Mr. Silberberg’s engrossing documentary “Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank!” explores the life and work of Mr. Blank, a Bay Area artist and filmmaker best known for building art cars (vehicles festooned with different objects) and documenting that scene. The film, also showing at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, not only creates a vivid, fond portrait of the eccentric Mr. Blank (a man who seems to love chickens more than people), but also provides a profound meditation on the pros and cons of rugged individualism. Although the film moves back and forth through time, it basically unfolds in three stages: Mr. Blank’s youth, his growing interest in art cars and his more recent activities.

All three films palpably demonstrate the power of traditional storytelling. But there seems to be a push on the local documentary scene for a more innovative approach, like Mr. Bruno’s, as well.

“There are many types of documentaries, and the form is not limited exclusively to stories driven by characters,” Michele Turnure-Salleo, the San Francisco Film Society’s director of filmmaker services, said in an e-mail message. “A compelling subject or inquiry can form the backbone of a nonfiction film, and funders are supporting work that extends beyond traditional character-driven storytelling.”

As long as the rich filmmaking community and resources continue in the Bay Area — and as long as the documentarians put their narratives front and center — the combination of experimental and trusted approaches should further the success.



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