The fourth Chicago International Documentary Festival runs Friday, March 30, through Sunday, April 8, with screenings at the Beverly Arts Center; Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; Facets Cinematheque; Harold Washington Library Center; Portage; Society for Arts, 1112 N. Milwaukee; Univ. of Chicago Doc Films; and Wilmette. Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $9, $7 for seniors and students, and $7 for shows before 2 PM or after 10 PM. Passes are available for $250 (all screenings), $125 (20 screenings), and $70 (10 screenings), but only the first includes admission to the opening- and closing-night galas; for more information call 773-486-9612. Following are selected films through April 5; for a complete schedule visit chicagodoc
RBallet During the early stretches of Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 documentary on the American Ballet Theatre, it’s great to see rehearsing dancers and their prompters thinking with their bodies, then trying to explain their thoughts and feelings in words. In keeping with his interest in institutions, Wiseman looks occasionally and tellingly at other parts of the company’s operations, particularly its handling of business. The final 70 minutes shows the dancers on the road in Europe, resting, practicing, and performing; apart from a thrilling performance of The Rite of Spring, this section is oddly anticlimactic, perhaps because the camerawork has become more touristic. 170 min. (JR)
a Fri 3/30, 2 PM, Wilmette; also Mon 4/2, 8:30 PM, Facets Cinematheque.
Basic Training Frederick Wiseman’s fine black-and-white documentary (1971) follows a group of army draftees through eight weeks of basic training at Fort Polk, Kentucky, in the summer of 1970. It’s notable for Wiseman’s careful observation of the process and his fleet, economical editing; beneath its prosaic surfaces roil the issues of racism and the ongoing debacle in Vietnam. 89 min. (JJ) a Thu 4/5, 9 PM, Facets Cinematheque.
The Big Sellout Director Florian Opitz shows a good eye for affecting details in this 2006 German documentary on the privatization of government services: a mother struggles to find dialysis for her son in the Philippines; a private water company installs meters that require prepayment, over Soweto residents’ protests; British Rail workers display a succession of new uniforms provided by private companies. But the People magazine approach is superficial at best: economist Joseph Stiglitz tells of how privatized monopolies can charge exorbitant prices, but we never learn if the water companies in Bolivia and South Africa actually did that. In English and subtitled German, Spanish, and Tagalog. 94 min. (FC) a Mon 4/2, 3 PM, Society for Arts; also Thu 4/5, 7 PM, Chopin Theatre.
Dale NASCAR fans are the target audience for this documentary about racer Dale Earnhardt, though it makes a sturdy primer for the uninitiated. Directors Rory Karpf and Mike Viney trace Earnhardt’s life from his hardscrabble childhood in North Carolina (where his father escaped the local cotton mill to become a legendary short-track racer), to his formative years as a grimly determined, somewhat reckless young driver and his 2001 death during the Daytona 500. Earnhardt became a working-class hero and a devoted family man, but unfortunately Karpf and Viney only allude to the darker aspects of his character that helped forge his success. 100 min. (JK) a Sun 4/1, 9 PM, Chopin Theatre; also Wed 4/4, 7 PM, Beverly Arts Center.
RDomestic Violence One wouldn’t expect a documentary by Frederick Wiseman about domestic violence to be anything less than powerful, but it’s his subtle, low-key approach to such an emotionally charged subject–one too often presented in luridly melodramatic terms–that makes this 2001 film so devastating. After some brief early sequences involving police responses to domestic-battery incidents (one of which is very graphic), Wiseman spends the bulk of his time at a Tampa, Florida, shelter for abused women and their children, observing the shelter’s deceptively mundane activities: intake interviews, staff meetings, case-management sessions, support groups, and schoolroom activities. The picture that emerges from these scenes is fittingly complex, and it sets up a final sequence that’s as haunting as anything I’ve seen in a long time. 196 min. (Reece Pendleton) a Tue 4/3, 8:30 PM, Facets Cinematheque.
RExcellent Cadavers Adapting and updating a book by American journalist Alexander Stille, this gripping Italian documentary (2005) recounts the decadelong campaign by magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino to break the back of the Sicilian Mafia. The centerpiece of their prosecution, a giant “maxi-trial” in Palermo, produced hundreds of convictions in the mid-80s but probably cost both men their lives: they died in separate bomb attacks in 1992. Silvio Berlusconi’s campaign against the Italian judiciary subsequently gutted many of the legal tools that helped Falcone and Borsellino win their convictions, and the movie leaves little doubt that the Cosa Nostra is still, as one judge puts it, “an organic part of the Italian political structure.” Marco Turco directed. In English and subtitled Italian. 92 min. (JJ) a Sat 3/31, 7 PM, Portage; also Wed 4/4, 3 PM, Society for Arts.
Have You Seen Andy? Two decades after her childhood friend, Andy Puglisi, vanished from a public pool in Lawrence, Massachusetts, documentary maker Melanie Perkins delved back into the unsolved case, looking for new clues. The intensive weeklong search that followed Puglisi’s disappearance in 1976 turned up little evidence, though most signs pointed to abduction. Perkins narrows the list of possible suspects, but a clear resolution proves maddeningly elusive. This 2006 documentary does a fine job of showing how the incident affected Puglisi’s family, friends, and working-class community, but Perkins’s presentation of her own investigation is sketchy. 79 min. (Reece Pendleton) a Sat 3/31, 5 PM, and Mon 4/2, 9 PM, Chopin Theatre.
RHigh School II High School (1968), Frederick Wiseman’s second film, avoided overt editorializing but clearly indicted the authoritarianism, banality, and mediocrity of American public education, as exemplified by a typical high school in Pennsylvania. Twenty-six years later, Wiseman investigated the more ethnically diverse Central Park East Secondary School in Spanish Harlem, and High School II (1994), three times as long as the original, offers an inspiring brief for the virtues of progressive education. Whether the topic under discussion is the Rodney King verdict, the practical complications of teenage parenting, the structure of literature courses, or individual student performances, the interactions between students, teachers, and parents mostly seem like models of intelligent and enlightened behavior. 220 min. (JR) a Sat 3/31, 9 PM, Facets Cinematheque.
His Big White Self British documentary maker Nick Broomfield profiled South African white supremicist Eugene Terreblanche in The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (1991); this 2006 video mixes old footage with a new interview but offers scant insight into the heart of racism. “The Leader” appears with his followers, wearing Nazi-like insignia, and there are overlong scenes with two who knew him. His followers wanted an all-white homeland, preferred race war to the end of apartheid, and ultimately turned to terrorist bombings. Most revealing is that Terreblanche drunkenly attacked his own black employee, an act that sent him to prison. Today he writes poetry–and seems unrepentant. 93 min. (FC) a Fri 3/30, 5 PM, Facets Cinematheque; also Sat 3/31, 3 PM, Society for Arts.
RHot House Shimon Dotan’s extraordinary Israeli documentary (2006) goes inside high-security prisons to examine the networks forged by incarcerated Palestinians, most of them doing time for terrorist acts. Many study political science and international relations and acquire diplomatic skills negotiating with wardens, and some campaign for seats in the Palestinian parliament from their cells. Inmates are grouped by party affiliation, and their spokesmen exhibit varying degrees of tact and humor, but all share an unswerving commitment to their cause. By far the most disturbing interview is with a former TV anchor who masterminded the 2001 Hamas bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria; upon learning that not three but eight children died in the blast, she flashes a gleaming smile. In English and subtitled Hebrew and Arabic. 89 min. (AG) a Fri 3/30, 7 PM, Facets Cinematheque; also Mon 4/2, 8 PM, Wilmette, and Tue 4/3, 3 PM, Society for Arts.
In Memoriam Alexander Litvinenko Jos de Putter and Masha Novikova recap the mysterious November 2006 poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of the FSB (Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) who won political asylum in Britain and accused his old organization and President Vladimir Putin of various conspiracies against the Russian people. The Byzantine story cries out for an objective narrator, but rather than reconstruct his career and evaluate his charges this Dutch production throws together sensational news footage and speculation from Litvinenko’s allies (his widow, his father, fellow dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, exiled Chechen foreign minister Akhmed Zakayev). Like many contemporary news accounts, the resulting documentary begins with a conclusion–that Litvinenko was silenced by the FSB–and works backward into obscurity. 55 min. (JJ) a Fri 3/30, 8 PM, Harold Washington Library Center; also Sun 4/1, 4 PM, Wilmette.
A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar … Too slick and sound-bitey for its own good, this documentary about U.S. lawyers aims for the smart-aleck tone of its title while throwing out punchy statistics as if it were a PowerPoint presentation. Director Eric Chaikin interviews many of the usual suspects (like the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz) and several wannabes preparing for the California bar exam. But apart from learning that the U.S. has about 800,000 lawyers (reportedly four times as many as the rest of the world combined), I didn’t emerge from this feeling any wiser about the subject, and the strident efforts to entertain, including a few animation segments, only made the experience more wearying. 89 min. (JR) a Sun 4/1, 1 PM, Chopin Theatre; also Wed 4/4, 4 PM, Wilmette.
RA Lion in the House I haven’t cried during a movie in a long time, but then I’ve never had to watch a little girl suffer through a spinal tap before. Documentary makers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert had just finished nursing their own teenage daughter through cancer treatment when they embarked on this six-year chronicle of five kids battling the illness at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Having been there themselves, they aren’t afraid to record the most invasive procedures or the families’ worst moments of anguish and doubt, which makes for a grueling but unforgettable experience. Some of the kids die, some survive, but all of them face the illness with a dignity that’s the definition of heroism. Bring tissues, but don’t miss this one. 230 min. (JJ) a Sun 4/1, 11 AM, Society for Arts.
ROrange Revolution Steve York directed this lively account of the mass demonstrations that gripped Ukraine in 2004, following the ruling authoritarian regime’s attempt to steal the presidential election from the charismatic reform candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Hundreds of thousands of citizens occupied Kiev’s central square and surrounded government buildings for several weeks in a tense standoff with government troops. York, whose previous film, A Force More Powerful (1999), examined several nonviolent revolutions, nicely captures the excitement and volatility of the events on the ground, and his access to the uprising’s key players makes for a timely and fascinating look at grassroots democracy in action. In English and subtitled Ukrainian. 106 min. (Reece Pendleton)
a Sun 4/1, 5 PM; also Wed 4/4, 3 PM, Chopin Theatre.
RRow Hard No Excuses The primary subjects of this engrossing, tautly edited documentary are two middle-aged men competing in the Atlantic Rowing Challenge, a grueling 3,000-mile race from the Canary Islands to Barbados; they’re the only Americans and the oldest to participate. First-time director Luke Wolbach captures the human drama of the race, noting the nearly obsessive determination of the rowers (among them an Englishwoman who insists on finishing after her husband bails out and a pair from New Zealand who win in near-record time). Virtually all of them endure a laundry list of physical pains and discomforts, as well as the growing claustrophobia of being confined to a small craft. 88 min. (JK) a Sat 3/31, 7 PM, Chopin Theatre; also Sun 4/1, 5 PM, Beverly Arts Center.
The Store The store in question is Neiman Marcus’s flagship (and corporate headquarters) in Dallas, and as with many of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries scrutinizing American institutions, this 1983 feature provides a kaleidoscopic look at day-to-day operations, in this case during the Christmas shopping season and on the eve of the store’s 75th anniversary. Wiseman eavesdrops on jewelry sales, fashion shows, strategic meetings, training sessions, job interviews, photo shoots, and other protracted activities; company bigwig Stanley Marcus gets flattering attention, and Lady Bird Johnson makes a cameo appearance. The pursuit of consumerist pleasure has seldom been so glorified or so tedious–this sociological record is best saved for a time capsule. 118 min. (TS) a Wed 4/4, 8:30 PM, Facets Cinematheque.
RThey Chose China Shui-bo Wang’s riveting Canadian documentary (2005, 52 min.) tells the story of 21 American soldiers captured during the Korean war who were released in 1954 but immigrated to the People’s Republic of China instead of returning home. Archival footage shows them citing the intolerance and paranoia of the McCarthy era as they renounce their allegiance to America. Wang focuses on those who stayed in China the longest, including the lone holdout, the late James Veneris; others returned to the U.S. to face court-martial and national opprobrium. (JK) Also on the program: Michael Prazan’s 52-minute French documentary The Nanjing Massacre: Memory and Oblivion (2006). a Wed 4/4, 1 PM, Society for Arts.
RThree Comrades A former Muscovite now working in the Netherlands, Masha Novikova has made a stinging indictment of war with this 2006 portrait of three young men whose lives were torn apart during Chechnya’s struggle for independence in the 1990s. The men witnessed Grozny being decimated by Russian bombers and tanks, and one of the trio, a seasoned TV journalist, shot battle footage that’s used in this documentary. The only survivor of the three, a surgeon who treated people on both sides of the conflict, now lives in exile, having eluded imprisonment in Russia. This is a heartbreaking look at the barbarity of ethnic cleansing and the carnage wrought by opportunistic politicians. In Russian and Chechen with subtitles. 99 min. (AG) a Sat 3/31, 9 PM, Chopin Theatre; also Tue 4/3, 4 PM, Wilmette.
RTiticut Follies Frederick Wiseman’s first documentary (1967) is a masterpiece of muckraking in which he examines the workings and inhumanities of a state mental hospital in Massachusetts. Wiseman’s focus is on the complex relationship among liberal professionals (who come off badly), guards (who come off not so badly), inmates whose only reason for being locked up is that they are “mentally ill” (whatever that means), and inmates who’ve committed serious crimes and have to be segregated. As with most Wiseman documentaries (High School, Law and Order, Hospital, Basic Training), the emphasis is on institutions and the way they dehumanize. 84 min. (DD) a Sun 4/1, 7 PM, Facets Cinematheque; also Thu 4/5, 6 PM, Wilmette.
RWelfare One of Frederick Wiseman’s strongest documentaries, this nearly three-hour look at a New York welfare center (1975), which concentrates on the interactions between clients and social workers, is both pungent and unbearable in its depictions of frustration and anger on both sides of the counter. Wiseman’s customary refusal to add an offscreen commentary makes the film even more compelling, though it may irritate viewers who feel they need to know more about the cases to decide how they feel about them. Throwing us into the thick of things without a map, Wiseman dares us to reach conclusions according to the evidence of our eyes and ears. It’s impossible to emerge from such an experience unscathed. 167 min. (JR) a Sun 4/1, 8:30 PM, Facets Cinematheque.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ballet.