January 29, 2003

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Storytelling
Sundance doc Stevie experiments with radical compassion.

By Susan Gerhard

 

WITH A COLLECTIVE moan of grief and self-flagellation, Sundance's documentary filmmakers have, for the past four years, gathered for a panel titled "Whose Story Is It?" Usually, there's no documentary back story quite as appalling as the one annually told by the respected elder statesman of the panel, Jon Else. (Shortly before a national TV audience was to see a man confess to the hideous crime of setting up Fred Hampton's murder, the man committed suicide.) But this year there were surely a couple of candidates. One was Documentary Grand Jury Prize-winner Capturing the Friedmans, a film in which one of the subjects – who donates his own extensive, tormented/tormenting home movies to the project – could lose his career once the reels are widely shown. Another, The Same River Twice, featured glistening naked bodies of later-to-be upright politicians and/or parents high on life and other stuff, floating down a river in various states of bliss.

While audiences at the festival spend much of their time casting judgment on the lives they see in the movies, at this panel the filmmakers are on trial for their mostly well-meaning exploitation of these lives. Generally, the crowd assembled to decide this very Janet Malcolm-style quandary breaks into three categories: those who favor the journalist, those who favor the murderer, and those who understand the filmmaker's job to be a little bit of both. By panel's end, everyone's running for comfort to a middle ground, where filmmakers show more compassion for the offscreen, after-movie lives of their subjects, because they should care, and also (let's just admit it) because they want to avoid the bad P.R. that might accompany a bloodbath.

But is there a way to transcend this kind of greasy deal-making? Conspicuously absent from this year's panel was the one filmmaker at the festival who put this question at the very center of his film. With a film unironically titled Stevie, Steve James (Hoop Dreams) returns to the life of a young, messed-up man who also happens to be named Steve. A decade earlier he'd befriended the boy as an advocate, a "Big Brother," but largely abandoned the relationship when he moved upstate. When James returns, camera and crew in tow, it seems it's not so much to pick up the big-buddy conceit where it left off but to put the young man's sordid life on the big screen – a task that is heinous to most observers within the first uncomfortable minutes of the movie.

One can feel that class food chain at work in this predatory practice: as if these out-of-the-way, poor, strange, or troubled characters are raised like farm animals for the slaughter of our cinematic pity. But the film quickly takes a strange turn when little Stevie, he of sweet-faced big lips, turns out to be not just a run-of-the-mill misfit in his Confederate flag chic, but one who's actively inflicting more pain on others: he brags about beating his first wife and contends with allegations that he's molested a neighbor's young girl. Filmmaker Steve has to decide just how deeply to get involved with subject Stevie's real life as it gets exponentially more complicated right before his eyes. Does he bail him out of jail? Buy him a drink? Help him find God? Go fishin'? James chooses most of the above and lets the camera roll as he blunders through one of the most uncomfortably honest relationships in the history of documentary film, exposing his own mistakes in the process. Stevie's unflinching eye deservedly won it the festival's documentary cinematography prize. James even naively, and profoundly, films himself reinstigating a family fight that two troubled parties had just resolved.

At one point, one of Stevie's four-wheel-drivin' friends tells an awkwardly middle-class James that he could put in a call to an Aryan Brotherhood pal in the pen to make sure little Stevie won't be killed on his first day behind bars – but only if James tells him to make the call. The man pushes the point and demands an answer. James, so deeply crossed over into the uncharted territory of subjectivity and compassion, doesn't even seem to be aware of the tension this country rowdy, a potential object of middle-class disdain, is trying to create for his film. "Make the call," James tells the guy, nonchalantly. A page has certainly been turned in the annals of documentary filmmaking.

Susan Gerhard is a Sundance Institute Arts Writing Fellow.