Although New Yorkers have seen the end of the Oscar-qualifying run known as DocuWeeks, moviegoers in Los Angeles still have the opportunity to check out one final slate of nonfiction films at the Sunset 5 in Hollywood and it's quite possible the International Documentary Association has saved the best for last.
While my first week picks “Better This World,” “Unfinished Spaces” and “The Carrier” have come and gone, though undoubtedly will resurface somewhere soon, this week in Los Angeles offers the chance to see the prize-winning Latin American doc “The Tiniest Place,” centering on the small community of Cinquera in the Salvadorean jungle, and the much-lauded “Hell and Back Again” from war photojournalist Danfung Dennis about the struggle of 25-year-old Nathan Harris reintegration into daily life after returning from the frontlines in Afghanistan. Also not to be missed are the doctor-approved "Dying to Do Letterman" about a cancer patient's attempt to perform standup on the “Late Show,” which is literally is accompanied two men in smocks outside the theater and “Chevolution” director Trisha Ziff’s latest, “The Mexican Suitcase,” a treasure trove of Spanish Civil War-era photographs taken by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Seymour that leads Ziff to discover how they were uncovered and the revelations they contain for contemporary generations in Spain.
However, it is a duo of films that are already well-traveled on the festival circuit that made me take a much-needed break from plotting out Toronto Film Festival to run over to the Sunset 5 and I’d encourage others to follow suit. Here’s why…
It would be understandable to walk into “Being Elmo” with mild trepidation. Like witnessing a magician reveal their secrets, seeing a film dedicated to the man who pulls the rods of the fuzzy red Sesame Street character could well ruin the illusion. Fortunately, Constance Marks' pulling back of the curtain not only suggests there's no illusion to ruin since Elmo’s alter ego Kevin Clash is every bit as kindhearted as his most famous creation, but that there's an even more inspirational story for children to be told than any one of the daily lessons served up on “Sesame Street.”
As it turns out, Clash himself was a child living in working-class Baltimore when he first caught a glimpse of “Sesame Street,” immediately identifying with a neighborhood populated by various races, but even more with its denizens made from cloth and fur. Then 10 years old, he was an outsider largely due to his shyness, yet it was his single-mindedness about becoming a puppeteer that would separate him further. The truly magical part of Marks’ documentary is seeing how Clash’s determination, demonstrated by risking his parents’ fury by cutting up a fur coat to make his first puppet, led to his discovery by a local TV station and subsequently, Jim Henson’s creature designer Kermit Love, who would pave the way for Clash to become part of the Muppet family.
While the film briefly alludes to trouble in Clash’s other family — a picture of his ex-wife carrying a child is hastily introduced three-quarters in, the first time the audience finds out he was ever married — the film concentrates mainly on the joy he brings to millions of children, culminating in one of the most heartwarming endings imaginable. Brief at just 72 minutes, it really is fun for the whole family that nonetheless offers proper tribute to Clash and his signature character, and moreover his perseverance and influence on future generations. Beyond the film’s run at DocuWeeks, it’s opening in New York for a full-fledged theatrical run on October 21st, followed by a national rollout that’s described here.
One would need military-grade tissues to make it through Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert’s documentary with dry eyes, but then again, the revelation of their film is that military-grade isn’t what it should be.
“Semper Fi” methodically chronicles the crusade of Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger to get the U.S. military to acknowledge and clean up the water contamination that took the life of his nine-year-old daughter and potentially thousands of others at the Camp Lejeune base. While Hardmon and Libert provide evidence that Camp Lejeune wasn’t the only military base affect by poor oversight and unlawful disposal of cleaning solvents in the drinking water, the film sheds light on the frightening prospect that the North Carolina outpost was a waystation where leukemia and male breast cancer could spread between generations. With families moving away from Camp Lejeune, they did not move away from the potential for disease.
It’s definitely a sight to see burly men such as Ensminger and breast cancer victim Michael Partain take up arms with legal pads and highlighters rather than firearms. Though the film threatens to hit a wall a half-hour in with the relentless amount of tragedy that’s befallen everyone involved, “Semper Fi” becomes a fascinating depiction of a grassroots campaign to get protection for future generations of military families from contaminated water, a task that means everything from dueling with well-funded lobbyists to reclassify certain chemicals and human carcinogens to giving speeches at veterans’ town hall meetings.
Just as Ensminger’s single goal of cleaning up the water requires a sprawling array of duties, Hardmon and Libert keep a focus throughout the film while balancing out a bevy of different narratives that elevates it from the realm of most activism-driven documentaries. It would be enough for a film like "Semper Fi: Always Faithful" to simply expose a ghastly situation and bring attention to it, but the series of twists and turns involving the military's mishandling of damaging documents and the film's heartwrenching portrait of Denita McCall, a Marine whose parathyroid cancer threatens to leave her daughter without a mother, provide a real story to tell. As McCall says, "To a certain extent, it's [the Marines'] fault that we're fighting so hard" and "Semper Fi" embodies that strength as a film that won't go down easily.