Palm Springs Docs

Every year San Diego hosts a ton of film festivals. Besides the San Diego Film Festival organized by the San Diego Film Foundation, there also are Latino, Jewish, surf, black, LGBT, and other cinematic events. What’s missing, though, is any documentary film festival. That’s too bad, as far as I’m concerned; it’s the genre I can count on most reliably to wow me. The first time Steve and I went to an event devoted exclusively to docs (the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, held every year in Durham, North Carolina) we were ecstatic. After three days and 17 films, we felt that our brains had exploded (in a good way).

Twice in recent years I also had the chance to attend the superb Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival in Colorado Springs, almost entirely non-fiction. But even that’s an awfully long way to travel. So I was pleased and interested to learn that Palm Springs is the venue for the four-year-old American Documentary Film Festival. Its website said MovieMaker Magazine had declared it to be one of the “world’s top 25 film festivals worth the entry fee.” Intrigued, we decided to check it out.

In the months leading up to it, I got several hints that it might not be up to the level of professionalism of the North Carolina and Colorado events. For both of those, we’d had flex passes that made it easy to breeze in and out of the showings. AmDocs (as the Palm Springs event is known), offers one too, but by the time the discounted early fee ended, no schedule had yet appeared on the website.

We decided to gamble on a flex pass anyway. Still, weeks passed before we learned what it would allow us access to. Finally, the list appeared — more than 120 films ranging from 3-minute shorts to full-length features. Instead of being shown in a cluster of theaters that were easy to switch between, however, they appeared to be scattered over three separate cities (Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert). That didn’t seem promising.

It wasn’t until just days before the festival that I noticed the website had added a list of what was playing each day in each theater. With three screens, it was clear the Camelot Theater complex would be hosting most of the action. Still, all the programs weren’t offered in a graphic form that would enable any normal person to figure out what he or she could make it to and when. Not until we checked into the festival hotel (the Saguaro) last Thursday night and consulted a physical program left for us by some friends could we actually begin plotting what our schedules for the next three days should be.

Our experience at the other two festivals helped us figure out what to see. (I’ve learned that almost any subject can be interesting.) Even the far flung venues were less of a nightmare than I’d anticipated. We wound up making the 25-minute drive to Palm Desert on Thursday and basically camping out in and around it all day long in order to attend the four screening events (7 films in all, including the shorts). We returned the next morning for the first documentary of the day (a historical look at the events that launched Mark Twain to international stardom), then drove to the Camelot and made it our base for the rest of the festival.

Most importantly, the movies did what we were hoping for — the majority of them were excellent, and a few dazzled us. Of the 16 we saw, here’s my list of the most memorable (more or less in order of wonderfulness):

— Top Spin. Both beautiful and suspenseful, it told the story of three high school students vying to compete in 2012 for Olympic glory — in table tennis.

— Jesus Town, USA. I figured this world premiere would be classic mockumentary, focusing as it did on the production of an annual passion play that’s been presented in the Oklahoma back country for 88 years. Instead, life intervened, and the filmmakers were there to capture it. Both Steve and I were in tears by the astonishing conclusion.

— 88 Days in the Mother Lode — Mark Twain Finds His Voice. A charming look at some California and literary history involving one of our greatest authors.

— No Problem: Six Months with the Barefoot Grannies. How to train some of the world’s poorest ladies to be solar engineers. Amazing.

— Cat Show. I was braced for this look at the world of cat shows to be tedious. But the filmmaker fortunately found a vivid, original, and inspiring protagonist. I felt fortunate to spend an hour in her company.

— Big Voice. Demanding Santa Monica high school choir director pushes his students to become “one big voice.” Watching the process was both moving and educational.

— J Street: The Art of the Possible. Now I know all about this influential new Israel lobby.

— Growing Home. Everything I wanted to know about what it’s like to live in a Syrian refugee camp. In just 23 minutes.

Saturday night we also watched an almost two-hour homage to the great American director John Ford. It was made by the less great Peter Bogdanovich, who was on hand to pontificate after the screening.

If the choice ever comes up for me again, I might skip Bogdanovitch. But AmDocs itself is young and promising. I’d be happy to return.

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