Nonfiction Inspirations: Documentaries at Dubuque 2022

in Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (11th)

by Robert Horton

In the variety of films offered by the 2022 Julien Dubuque International Film Festival, the documentary section was notably lively. The documentary award went to Paul Stuart Bachow’s Against All Odds: Surviving the Holocaust, a collective portrait of four people who eluded death during the Holocaust, each with an astonishing story to tell. The testimonies are powerful; not so effective is the film’s animated reminders of how often “luck” entered into the survivors’ stories.

Also nominated were Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat, and Barbara Bentree’s Origami in the Garden. The former boasted an irresistibly upbeat approach to the history of the automat in America, that self-service cafeteria that bloomed in the first half of the 20th century. The film makes the case for the automat as a democratizing force in fast food, and along with testimonials from notable automat fans (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner), it has a theme song—especially created for the film—written and performed by Mel Brooks. Origami is a chronicle of the ambitious origami artist Kevin Box, whose large-scale paper-and-metal sculptures have elevated origami to a new prominence in the art world. It’s also a look at the New Mexico compound where Box and wife Jennifer have created a workshop/garden to further their philosophies.

Another feature-length documentary, Brett A. Schwartz’s Raised Up West Side, took a special award for Best Use of Music, although I didn’t see that one. The winner of one of the two Best Short awards (in the longer short category) was also a documentary, Brian Michael Buss’s Robert’s Village, a profile of the wonderfully optimistic Robert Serunjogi. Having escaped a hard life in his native Uganda, Serunjogi (certainly the friendliest guest at a film festival full of friendly guests) was working as a janitor at Colorado State University when his stories of his home village led to a fundraising effort to provide education for young people in Uganda.

That short film earned its feel-good outcome. Other documentaries tended toward the more formulaically inspirational: Nick Nanton’s Dreamer, for instance, highlights a group of entrepreneurs using conventional methods of never-say-die uplift; a representative example of the film’s subjects is Anousheh Ansari, the Iranian-born woman and tech millionaire who became a space tourist in 2006. Ron Chapman’s From Earth to Sky creates pleasant vibes around the subject of Indigenous architects such as Douglas Cardinal, whose works include the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and Tammy Eagle Bull, the first Native American architect in the United States. Chapman makes a strong case for the convergence of so much Indigenous talent in the world of architecture, after years of struggle. Both films unfold along familiar, TV-friendly lines.

More formally adventurous was Jannis Lenz’s Soldat Ahmet, a study of a Turkish immigrant in Austria who serves in the Austrian military. Shot like a narrative film, with painterly cinematography by Jakob Fuhr and inventive music by Benedikt Palier, the film has the forward momentum of fictional storytelling, but with the uncertainty of nonfiction. Our subject, 30-year-old Ahmet Simsek, is a bundle of contradictions: He’s a professional soldier and an accomplished boxer, and thus a model of masculine behavior. Yet he is drawn to acting, cast as Stanley in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, a process that requires exercises that call on his sensitive and reflective side. He must also face the fact that he will need to cry onstage—something he hasn’t done in his real life in years. Meanwhile, his traditional family wonders why he hasn’t married and produced children yet. Ultimately, Ahmet may be as mysterious to us as he is to his family, but the film around him is an evocative look at a figure “in between.”

For cinephiles, a high point in Dubuque’s documentary selection was Nadia Tass’s Oleg: The Oleg Vidov Story, a profile of the 1960s Soviet star who escaped to the West in 1985. The film is hardly objective, as Vidov’s American widow, Joan Borsten, is one of the producers. But it presents a rich trove of photographs, movie clips, and new interviews with Vidov’s friends and colleagues, thus painting a compelling picture of a star who had the looks and the camera-friendly intensity of a Russian Alain Delon. The film gathers an impressive group of talking heads, including Mikahil Baryshnikov (somehow a septuagenarian, still looking extremely cool), Walter Hill (who directed Vidov in Red Heat), Brian Cox, and Roger Donaldson (who cast Vidov in Thirteen Days). It may not be an innovative film, but by arranging itself around someone who is not a household name but nonetheless worthy of close inspection, Oleg is a fine example of the purpose of the documentary profile: to shine a light, organize a timeline, and let the viewer meet someone they might never forget.

Robert Horton