LAFF 2011: Documentary Feature Competition Wrap

Ryland Aldrich, Festivals Editor

LA Film Fest has wrapped on downtown Los Angeles with the jury award for Best Documentary Feature going to Beverly Kopf and Bobbie Birleffi's lesbian identity doc Wish Me Away about country singer Chely Wright. While we have yet to catch this highly praised film, here is a quick look at a few of the other docs that played in competition at this year's fest:

Anayansi Prado's Paraiso For Sale is a remarkably well put together doc about an island off the coast of Panama called Bocas Del Toro that has become a hot bed for American retirees. Bocas is just one of many places in Central America that is being faced with a wide array of problems as the influx of foreign money causes land disputes, health and sanitation issues, and questions of who really belongs. With a population made up of indigenous peoples, long time residents of Afro-Caribbean descent, upper class Panamanians, American pioneers who have lived on the island for years, and new foreign developers with deep pockets, every issue on the island has multiple sides. Prado effectively mixes talking head interviews with some genuinely exciting drama centering around a mayoral election to paint a portrait of a land and a people in the midst of drastic change.

When documentarian Linda Goldstein Knowlton and her husband decided to adopt a baby from China, they were curious about the sort of identity questions their young girl would have when she came of age. Goldstein Knowlton set out to find girls of similar backgrounds and ask them what it was like to grow up under such circumstances. Somewhere Between is the engaging identity documentary that emerged from her experiences following four teenage girls adopted from China at a young age. Goldstein Knowlton couldn't have imagined the drama that would unfold as the girls grapple with issues from searching for their parents to helping other orphans find homes in the States. This is a fascinating look at some remarkably well spoken young girls who are dealing with issues most adults can't even imagine.
A number of questions still remain about the death of mixed martial arts champion Evan Tanner in 2008. After battling with alcoholism his entire life, a presumably sober Tanner wandered off into the desert, never to return. After watching Gerard Roxburgh's Once I Was Champion, we unfortunately do not know that much more. What we get is a whole lot of people's opinions on whole lot of subject matters in Tanner's world. Roxburgh falls victim to trying to squeeze it all in. Tracing Tanner's life from high school through his fighting successes, relationship problems, alcoholism, and on to his death, Roxburgh subjects the audience to an endless stream of talking heads giving opinion after opinion about whom Tanner was and why he did whatever it is they are talking about then. It is exhausting. The film is at its most entertaining during the fight sequences - but it becomes obvious that's not what Roxburgh is trying to do when those dry up after the first section of the film. Tanner embraced social media, using Myspace as a way to converse with his fans. Roxburgh touches on this towards the film's end - but it isn't fully developed and might have been a way into a story that could have used more Tanner and was in desperate need of a stronger editorial hand.

Not many people have heard of Marc Dreier - and he has Bernie Madoff to thank for that. But Dreier was another financial criminal who orchestrated a fraud that bilked over $700 Million from large corporate investors. After pleading guilty, Dreier was ordered to stay under house arrest for 60 days until his sentencing. While Dreier wasn't allowed out, filmmaker Marc H. Simon and his cameras were allowed in. The product of those 60 days is the fascinating doc Unraveled. Dreier spill his guts to the camera about every detail of his plot and how it snowballed beyond his control. Simon makes an excellent decision to structure the film around the drama of the sentence length, creating a taut, deliberate pace . Dreier has no idea if he'll get a slap on the wrist or be thrown in a hole for the rest of his life. What emerges is an extremely human portrait of a man standing on a frightening precipice.

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