What’s remarkable about this year’s Beaufort International Film Festival isn’t that there are no feature films. It’s that the documentaries are as good as any feature film.
Gary and I are screeners for BIFF, which means we see the good, the bad and the ugly submissions every year. This year the features were in the latter category and I give Ron Tucker and Rebecca Berry enormous credit for not lowering the high standards of the festival just to fill the category.
Luckily for Lowcountry film buffs, the stack of submissions did include some of the best documentaries ever and all our favorites became official selections of the 7th annual Beaufort International Film Festival. Here’s why: they didn’t fall into the trap of passionate insiders. Producing a documentary usually takes longer than a feature because to be any good, the filmmakers have to gain the trust of subjects and earn access. It’s easy for producers to be so grateful to their subjects that they lose the ability to edit any out. Redundancy is the death of so many docs we screen, particularly those that try to document a church or charitable mission to raise awareness for a good cause. When you’re too close you feel bad about leaving any tearful, heartfelt story on the cutting room floor. Even when almost everyone interviewed says the same thing.
None of that happens in the documentaries screening at this year’s festival. And given the incredibly emotional nature of them that’s a real achievement. Take our favorite doc for example: “Besa: The Promise” which will show at 3:30pm on Thursday February 14th. Catch a cold mid-day if you have to take off work to see this. This film has already racked up awards from major film festivals around the world, and accolades from less-than-average Joe’s like this one:
“At a time when conflict between Muslims and Jews attracts the attention of the media, it is heartening to be reminded that mutual aid and friendship also have characterized the relationship. The story told through the photographs of Norman H. Gershman is especially inspiring, because the Muslims who saved Jews in World War II did so at enormous risk to their own lives.”
“Besa: The Promise” follows several Jewish families who were hidden and rescued by Albanian Muslims during the Holocaust. Each family has an amazing story and in some respects they all share the same story. But the producer/editor, our good friend Christine Romero, managed to select only the parts that didn’t overlap or repeat. And in the process of winnowing and editing, she told the one story that is both universal and incredibly personal.
The logline is “An Albanina man must fulfill the promise made to the Jewish family his Muslim father rescued during the Holocaust.” We got sucked into that son’s journey of understanding his own father and a man he barely remembered. By letting that one story breathe and develop, Christine found an actual, dramatic plot that keeps us riveted to the individual while slowly revealing the universal. If you think you’ve seen all the Holocaust-related stories your heart can absorb, make room for a surprise.
If “Besa: The Promise” was the only documentary of this level in the festival it’d be worth buying the pass. But it has stiff competition.
We were also drawn into the incredibly personal story of a woman who finds her long-lost brother after his mental illness caused him to drop out of her life for twenty years. It’s a first-person narrative, told in Rebecca Richmond’s own voice, and usually those make me nervous. In the hands of less talented filmmakers, this technique can feel self-serving and distract from the point of the film. But director Kyle Tekiela found the sweet spot and spooled out the story with as much suspense as any feature.
You’re not sure you even like the sister in the beginning. Her search seems somehow emotionally distant, like she’s not coming completely clean. But when you realize why, “A Sister’s Call” packs an even bigger punch. It plays at 11:50am on Thursday and the director will take questions afterward.
The other blockbuster documentary entry is one that just aired last night on PBS’s Independent Lens. But don’t wait for a rerun to see “As Goes Janesville” when you can watch it on the big screen at 1:45pm on Friday the 15th. Ostensibly, this is about the closing of a GM plant in Wisconsin right and the new governor’s battle to bust unions. Gary’s from Wisconsin. I’m the granddaughter of a labor union rep. We thought we knew this story and couldn’t stomach another kick in the stomach of the middle class. But again, the storytelling lifts it out of the political running-in-circles you might expect.
And one other documentary I want to spotlight isn’t technically competing in the documentary category. That’s because “The Children of Kabul” is technically a student film that plays at 9:20am on Saturday the 16th. I can’t remember any student submission tackling a topic as tough as child labor in Afghanistan, but Jawad Wahabzada uses his nationality to gain access you can’t imagine. The cinematography is as beautiful as the four street kids Jawad follows: Omid, Sanabar, Yasamin and Fayaz. They pick garbage, wash cars and hammer metal to support their families. It’s not an uplifting film and I give Jawad credit for not finding happy endings to a story without one. This is one documentary where I actually would like to know more about the filmmaker – his own story might provide the hope I craved after watching this powerful film.