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Four Penetrating Documentaries Highlighted At 2014 Kansas City FilmFest

Courtesy gorevidaldocumentary.com

Film festival curators work diligently to give audiences an eclectic menu with as much breadth and depth as possible. The 2014 edition of the Kansas City FilmFest offers dozens of experimental, animated, and even “Afrofuturist” short films, as well as narrative comedies and dramas hoping to generate buzz. But from the offerings previewed by this writer, the strength of this year’s festival rests on its documentaries.

The best documentaries always seem to be crafted with a mix of luck, skill, and serendipity. In the case of director Nicholas Wrathall’s hagiographic Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, he trails Vidal through several months of his golden years, which coincidentally overlap with the writer finding himself in bad enough health to necessitate his departure from his beloved cliff-side home in Italy. (The same framing was evident in the recent Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which ended with the performer’s self-determined exile from New York City.) Though barely able to walk, he remains sharp as a tack and regrets nothing despite a lifetime of controversy and strong anti-government sentiment.

Scanning Gore Vidal’s literary, political and public life is akin to looking through a carefully selective time capsule of the 20th century. His family roots touch both the Kennedys and the Gores; his entertaining squabbles with such luminaries as William F. Buckley and Truman Capote became the mid-1960s equivalent of viral sensations; and his political campaigns cooked up a lot of rhetoric but no victories. He was at his best as a writer, though, and the filmmaker gives the historical works like “Burr” due respect while not neglecting the ground-breaking, gay-themed “The City and the Pillar” and the gender-flux debauchery of “Myra Breckinridge.”

Contrasted with the Vidal film, Rich Hillexamines lives much less gilded cage than shut-off utilities.

Credit Courtesy Sundance.org
A resilient Andrew, profiled in "Rich Hill," a new documentary at the 2014 Kansas City FilmFest

Filmmakers Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo subtitle their movie Three Boys in Small Town America – the town being Rich Hill, Missouri and the boys being Andrew, Harley and Appachey, whose families are struggling to keep their heads above water. The adults in the boys’ lives tend to be impulsive, misguided and maladaptive, which gives a squalid logic to two of boys’ problems with school or the law. Yet the fact that Andrew’s family has moved more than a dozen times in his thirteen years and he remains healthy, focused and precociously well-spoken is rife with lessons about resilience.

Credit Courtesy indiewire.com
"The Galapagos Affair" chronicles the foundation of a civilization on the island of Floreana, one of the documentaries featured at the 2014 Kansas City FilmFest.

Composed largely of black-and-white home movies, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden is like a haunted travelogue about a place teeming with ghosts. In the early 1930s, two bohemian Europeans, Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch (whose actual writings are voiced by Cate Blanchett), fled civilization and inhabited the unpopulated island of Floreana in the Galapagos. Though they filmed almost every clod of turned earth, they weren’t seeking publicity; in fact, they were mortified when more settlers arrived after the Western world got wind of their falsely idyllic though Crusoe-like adventure. As more Europeans arrive, including a fake Baroness who sets up a fiasco of a hotel , what started as a fantastic retreat becomes predictably human, along with ungrateful neighbors, infighting, and a pair of mummified remains.

The growing ecological move toward “green burial” is graphically chronicled in Amy Browne’s A Will for the Woods. Clark Wang is a psychiatrist diagnosed with lymphoma who, as the film opens, lies down in what will be his plain wood casket to see how it will fit. He and his wife are so committed to green burial (which disallows embalming fluid and steel vaults) that they allow Browne’s crew to film Wang’s waning months. Called “preserves” instead of cemeteries, they are often found in annexed woods and forests abutting the traditional burial sites. The most striking visuals show row after row of headstones (many in disrepair) and then the verdant acres whose only hint of death is revealed by rounded knolls ceremoniously topped with twigs and branches. It’s like the personification of the phrase “ashes to ashes.”

Kansas City FilmFest, April 5 - 13, 2014, Alamo Drafthouse, 1400 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo., and Cinemark Palace at the Plaza, 500 Nichols Road, Kansas City, Mo. Check the website for a complete schedule of listings.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.