No Pulp Fiction Here

in 39th Chicago International Film Festival

by Barbara Lorey

Besides the International and the New Director’s competitions, the Chicago International Film Festival also features an international documentary competition, Docufest, presenting a wide range of very different styles of directing in this year’s non-fiction work.

In the US, documentaries are apparently back in style in movie theaters, primarily due to “Bowling for Columbine”, Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary, in commercial terms the most successful in movie history. For many critics, his paramount success proves that audiences, tired of the usual TV drivel, are increasingly willing to turn to stories drawn from real life for entertainment and in-depth information, which seems to have energized both documentary filmmakers and distributors.

The first of the two jury favorites was “My Architect: A Son’s Journey” (Gold Hugo), Nathaniel Kahn’s deeply moving quest to understand the mysterious life of his father, the legendary architect Louis Kahn. The second was Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Brian’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (Silver Hugo), a gripping day-by-day account of the attempted coup against the Chavez government of Venezuela in 2002. Both will also be released shortly in the US and shown in movie theaters.

Louis Kahn, renowned for conceiving such iconic buildings as the Salk Institute, the Kimball Art Museum and the monumental Capitol of Bangladesh, is a giant among 20th century architects. However, when he died a penniless loner from a heart-attack in Penn Station in 1974, his body lay for days in the city morgue since the address in his passport was crossed out. When he was finally identified, Kahn was discovered to have left behind three families, one official and two secret ones, none of which knew about the others. Nathaniel, the youngest of the three Kahn-children born to three different women, was twelve years old when his father died.

Combining childhood memories, rare personal footage and compelling interviews, his five-years worldwide journey into the mysteries of his father’s private life mixes soul-searching bewilderment over the contradictions of this complicated eccentric and charismatic parent who managed to juggle three separate families with an analysis of the legacy of the monuments of space and light this visionary architect left behind.

This riveting narrative takes us from Penn station’s bleak, subterranean men’s room to the haunting beauty of the monumental parliament and capitol Buildings in Dhakka, Bangladesh, from his mother’s retreat on the New England coast into the very heart of Jerusalem where his father attempted to build a temple, from interviews with his cab drivers, former lovers and clients to the world’s most celebrated architects such as I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Philip Johnson.

Nathaniel Kahn’s chronicle of his search for understanding is not only a deeply moving tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness, but also a celebration of art and architecture.

Being at the right place at the right time is the dream for many documentary filmmakers. When Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Brian went to Venezuela to make a film about the “people’s president”, Chavez, they found themselves unexpectedly and suddenly caught up in the middle of a coup d’etat. The attempt to overthrow the Chavez government, providing us with an amazing and fascinating first-hand account of these dramatic events from inside the presidential palace.

During the screenings in the sold-out theater, the wild applause of the mostly young audience, welcoming the presidential guards when they finally take action to recapture the palace building and to arrest the putchists, exploded amidst whistles and jeers directed toward Secretary of State Colin Powell denying on CNN any US participation in the events.

The Gold Plaque went to Rithy Panh’s extremely disturbing “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine”, a narrative about the Cambodian Shoah that is quite painful to watch. From the 17 000 prisoners held captive between 1975 to 1979 in Pnom Penh’s ‘Security Bureau’, only a handful survived the policy of systematically and meticulously organized extermination by methodical starvation, beatings, rape and execution, implemented by the Communist Party of Democratic Kamputchea.

Panh persuaded the three escapees and their former torturers to return to the actual site of S21 which has now become a Genocide Museum, to re-enact the former routines of everyday terror and to confront their captors and tormentors. His haunting, and terrifying investigation of the feelings and motivations through the testimony of these ordinary ‘genocide-journeymen’ is also an attempt to come to terms with Cambodia’s collective history. However, whether Rithy Panh, who refers to Primo Levi’s “Understanding everything is almost the same as forgiving”, will actually achieve his goal of turning the page and “stopping the ghosts from haunting the living” remains an open question.