Sacramento International Film & Music Festival

Documentaries abound at Sacramento International Film & Music Festival

“Faster, fellas. Just a bit faster.” Filming <i>Running the Sahara</i>.

“Faster, fellas. Just a bit faster.” Filming Running the Sahara.

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Last week, Entertainment Weekly magazine saw fit to discuss “what it means to be a citizen of our ever-growing Reality Nation.” This involved flattering probes of MTV’s hit show The Hills, director Nanette Burstein’s new high-school documentary American Teen and other offerings from the apparently inexhaustible motion-picture cottage industry of reality in quotation marks.

This week, the ninth annual Sacramento International Film & Music Festival gets into the same game, expanding its own contributions in the category of “documentary” significantly, to nine from last year’s two.

What’s the deal with all these docs? It’s not just that getting a camera and gathering footage has gotten so cheap and easy that almost anyone can do it, it must also be about what we’ve been getting, and wanting, when we go to the movies. Have we grown so weary of cosmetic and computer-aided enhancement that life itself—or some version of it, anyway—has become the new elixir of escapism?

Sipping on the fest’s stiff cocktail of memoirs, rants, profiles, public-service announcements and standard-issue investigative journalism might be a way to find out.

Yes, by now documentaries play out in patterns so familiar that they border on (and sometimes cross the border into) shtick: The testimonies from talking heads, preferably a mixture of regular folks and experts. The animation or snappy graphics or other flourishes of postproduction, intended to enliven or at least distract from those talkers’ dully expository chatter. The generic here’s-how-you-should-feel music. The campy Eisenhower-era TV spots tossed in for ironic amusement. The “and so I set out to …” thesis statement, from a filmmaker/narrator who hasn’t necessarily justified a first-person perspective on the given material. And then the vaguely patronizing narration itself, which tends to tie a bow around things at the end so as to, presumably, sound a note of hope.

What’s more, for their elaborations on the obvious, some have high degrees of what can only be called the “no shit” factor. For instance, maybe there’s not much new to learn from Secrets to Love: A Journey to Find the Happily Ever After, in which local filmmaker Tracie Donahue’s divorce prompts her inquiry into what makes marriages work today. But maybe we still have a lot to learn from old ideas anyway.

Similarly, both Kelly Nyks’ Split: A Divided America and Oroville native Lulu Fries’Dat’s Holler Back: [Not] Voting in an American Town at least begin to limn the exhaustingly rancorous partisanship of our modern campaign season, plus the widening gulf between those who’ve checked out of the electoral process entirely and those who’ve become almost compulsively involved with it.

Political involvement always does tend to suggest doc fodder. For Running the Sahara, three guys ran 50 miles a day for more than a hundred days across the world’s largest, hottest, driest desert to point out how fucking thirsty people can get in that part of the world. Don’t you want to meet them, and to help? Or how about the first Asian-American women ever to work in the New York Police Department, who get together for Tea & Justice?

On the other hand, the “no shit” factor all too easily morphs into the “oh shit” factor. To wit: Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections, an exposé of voting-machine, ah, irregularities in recent national and regional elections. Suffice to say that new math adds up to a hefty sum of reasons to worry about whether and how your vote will mean anything.

In other grim news, maybe you’re feeling guilty because you think you’ve done nothing about the genocide in Sudan. Actually, as Familiar Voices points out, your 401(k) might be funding it. So that’s something. No, this is not a film to see for entertainment or diversion. It’s one in which, among other testimonies, a scholar describes the curtailment of aid to Darfur as a weapon of mass destruction and a Nobel Peace laureate talks bluntly about how to disarm it.

Less urgently (to some), For Those About to Rock: We Educate You, a student film, explains some things that young bands might want to know about the perils of major-label recording contracts. And in another view of musicians and their industry, Sacramento native John Mounier spent four years with the Faithway Doves to take us for a divine and tuneful ride on The Gospel Bus.

Maybe acts of faith are what all documentaries come down to: in filmmakers’ and filmgoers’ ability always to wonder about the human condition—and, whether in quotation marks or not, to keep it real.