Land of the free, home of the brave

DocFest offers a cockeyed view of a kooky country

By Cheryl Eddy


Things I learned while screening a double-wide stack of DocFest discs: there's a perilously thin line between superfan and super-stalker. Bacon and Miracle Whip wrapped in a tortilla makes a pretty tasty snack. It's possible to be pro-bird, but not anti-cat. When uttered in the context of The Price is Right, the words "a new car" and "come on down" battle for the title of three greatest in the English language. And there are two passionate schools of thought that divide the Bigfoot-is-real community: flesh-and-blood vs. supernatural.

America may be super-fucked in many ways, but we'll never be short on weirdos, nor will documentary filmmakers ever tire of recording their antics. DocFest's 2008 slate is roughly three-fourths devoted to the United States of Oddballs. And why not? Seriously, it's fascinating stuff. One of the best films is by Swiss filmmaker David Thayer, who travels across the Northwest in search of men who've devoted their lives, or at least a good chunk of hobby time, to studying the region's most elusive life form. Bigfoot: A Beast on the Run is as deadpan as anything in the Werner Herzog canon; it never once mocks its subjects, even when talk strays from giant footprints and muffled audio recordings to men in black and photographs of the creature in "interdimensional orb form."

A different type of hunt is the focus of Andy Beversdorf's Here, Kitty Kitty (2007), filmed in the trenches of Wisconsin, circa 2005, amid the great should-feral-cats-be-declared-"non-protected" debate. In other words, should you be able to shoot that stray cat that's been yowling around your garbage cans? In this corner: the slightly befuddled academic who published a study blaming free-ranging felines for the state's declining songbird population. In the other: kitty-rights activists. Cute, furry peril is also a theme of Bunnyland (2007), in which filmmaker Brett Hanover trails Pigeon Forge, Tenn. resident Johnny Tesar, a.k.a. "Johnny Rock," a singular character who implausibly finds Native American artifacts every time he looks at the ground — and was suspected of slaughtering a golf course's 73 cotton-tailed mascots, among other misdeeds.

Another strange pocket o' Americana surfaces in Elvis in East Peoria (2007), which is kind of about Jerry, an unambitious Elvis impersonator, but is also about the platonic yet curiously close relationship he has with his manager, Donna, who truly believes Jerry "oozes Elvis." (In case you're wondering, this is where I learned about the magic of bacon plus Miracle Whip plus tortillas.) Crave more creepy fandom? Sean Donnelly's I Think We're Alone Now, about a pair of obsessed Tiffany fans, is among the more unsettling films I've ever seen. Despite a slight whiff of exploitation — one of the subjects has Asperger syndrome, the other is an alcoholic, and both are on disability — the film is a jaw-dropper, filled with trainwreck moments and revelations. Like, did you know Tiffany can time travel and communicate with aliens? More important, does she know?

Lest you think this entire festival focuses only on backwoods crazies, let me assure you that Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks, an insider's look at New York's storied Chelsea Hotel, presents urban eccentrics galore — plus footage of the burning Twin Towers as shot from the hotel, and much lamenting about how the building's recent change in ownership has affected its longtime residents. But not every DocFest pick has a dark flipside: Jeruschka White's Come on Down!

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