Around the world with SF International Film Festival documentaries
Elsewhere in SFIFF's documentary programming, two films take contrasting approaches to the artistic process. Of local interest, Jeremy Ambers' Impossible Light, a close-up look at the Bay Lights — the high-tech art installation that illuminates the western span of the Bay Bridge — smartly runs a lean 71 minutes. First, we meet project founder Ben Davis, who had a brain wave one sunny day while idly staring at the bridge, which he'd always appreciated despite its ugly-stepsister status next to the glamorous Golden Gate. After artist and LED wizard Leo Villareal joins up, the ball really gets rolling, and Light tags along as a dedicated group of big thinkers form alliances with Caltrans engineers and other hands-on types who believe in Davis' "impossible idea." Nobody who sees this film about what became a truly collaborative process — Bridge workers scale the towers, tinkering with laptops! Creative types scramble to raise eight million bucks from private donors! — will ever take the intricately twinkling end result for granted.
The opposite of straightforward: The Seventh Walk, inspired by the nature-themed art of Indian painter Paramjit Singh. Director Amit Dutta brings Singh's work to life with his questing camera, floating through the Kangra Valley's leafy forests and across streams as water rushes, birds squawk, and insects hiss on the soundtrack. We also see Singh himself, dabbing his textured, abstract work onto canvases as the movie around him becomes more surreal. Occasional poetry fragments appear on screen to make the waking-dream vibe even more immersive: "Deep in the forest, the musk deer frantically pursues its own fragrance: laughter!"
Despite its title, it takes awhile for laughter to enter Happiness, Thomas Balmès' tale of Peyangki, a restless nine-year-old monk living in remote Bhutan — the last pocket of the country, which prizes its "gross national happiness," to get electricity. Stunningly composed shots (those mountains!) showcase a simple, deeply traditional lifestyle that's about to completely change, for better and probably worse — ominously, everyone's conversations already revolve around television. When Peyangki gets the chance to travel to the capital city, he's fascinated by everything: mannequins, crutches, packaged snacks, aquarium fish, and, at last, TV, where the first thing he glimpses is Wrestlemania (and he's on to it immediately: "Is it real?"), and you can practically see the innocence melting away.
A more conventionally-structured doc comes from Stanley Nelson, no stranger to powerful material with previous films like 2011's Freedom Riders, 2006's Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple, and 2003's The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson returns to the civil rights movement for Freedom Summer, which mixes archival material and contemporary interviews to detail the youth-propelled African American voter drive amid menacing intolerance in 1964 Mississippi.
News reports about the disappearances of workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — "Mickey" to wife Rita, as eloquent and composed today as she is in 1964 footage — weave throughout the film, with the discovery of their bodies recalled by folk legend Pete Seeger, who learned about it while performing on a Mississippi stage. While the events detailed in Freedom Summer have been covered by numerous other documentaries, Nelson's impressive array of talking heads (not identified by name, though many are recognizable) brings a personal, eyewitness touch to this history lesson. *