When the Edinburgh International Film Festival first began in 1947, it was a documentary event, opened by pioneering filmmaker John Grierson

Hannah Patterson
Patterson is a screenwriter and producer. She has a background in film journalism and as commissioning editor of Creative Essentials, a series of books about filmmaking.

This year, in an acknowledgement of its roots and the current richness of the genre, it introduced a new award for best documentary.

Judges Alisa Katz, a US producer, an Australian “Variety” journalist named Russell and Jim Hickey, a former director of the EIFF, had a wide variety to choose from to find the recipient of the new doc award: from Kirby Dick’s engaging investigation into the anomalies of the US ratings system and Haskell Wexler’s impassioned plea for shorter working hours for American film crews in Who Needs Sleep? to a portrait of a globalised Willy Loman working at a Mumbai call centre in John and Jane and a new addition to the current ‘end of the world is nigh’ sub-genre of documentaries, “A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash.”

The winner, The Great Happiness Space: Take of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, USA), is a beautifully shot, uncommonly non-judgemental portrait of life at one of Osaka’s top host clubs, the café Rakkyo in Minami. Focusing on the most popular host, Issei, and the hoards of women who pay thousands of dollars to spend time with him (sexually or socially), the film shows him frankly discussing how he lies to make them feel good, encouraging them to spend money on champagne, admitting that he would like to have a meaningful long-term relationship. The fact that most of the women who pay for Issei are themselves prostitutes who come to buy the very dreams they spend their working life peddling is particularly poignant.

Air Guitar Nation (Alexandra Lipsitz, USA), undoubtedly the most outright entertaining film at Edinburgh, looks at the unexpected success of the first US qualifiers for the Air Guitar World Championships, held yearly in Oulu, Finland. Contestants took the competition seriously, developing onstage alter egos, appropriating outlandish names. The film concentrates mainly on the burgeoning rivalry of two American entrants – punk rock “Bjorn Turoque”, by day a software developer, and Asian fury “C-Diddy”, an actor by profession – and follows them all the way to Finland. To declare the winner here would be to spoil the surprise but suffice to say that on their first entry to the competition the Americans pretty quickly established their country’s right to be recognised as the ‘home of rock’.

Al Franken: God Spoke is another documentary with wide appeal, co-directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (also co-director of the exemplary political doc “The War Room”), and a fascinating watch for anyone interested in the machinations of the US political system. The action opens on left-wing comedian Franken shortly after he’s published his book “Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” and successfully defended a law suit from Fox. He subsequently sets up radio station Air America as a counterpoint to the majority right-wing US radio, and campaigns to have Bush ousted in the elections, along the way taking a mixture of well-aimed pot shots at nemesis Bill O’Reilly, and other Republican pundits Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. While Franken himself is hardly ‘balanced’ in his views, with a tough skin and a healthy ego, his refreshing lack of deference makes for very funny viewing. He’s also prepared to put his money where his mouth is, as evidenced by his decision to run for office in 2008.

51 Birch Street is a very different kind of documentary, which director Doug Block (founder of The D-Word) was prompted to make following the death of his mother from pneumonia in 2002. He decided to use his camera to communicate with his father, mine the mysteries of his parent’s relationship and once and for all deal with his own unresolved issues from the past. Then, mere months after his mother’s death, his father, after a 54-year marriage, announced his decision to marry his former secretary Kitty and move to Florida. Alarm bells ringing, the issue of a possible affair raised, Block’s subsequent discoveries challenged his own preconceived notions; on reading his mother’s powerful diaries, he realised that the past played from the vantage point of the present is never quite what it seems. Less effectively droll or affecting than one of Ross McElwee’s films (“Time Indefinite” comes to mind), “51 Birch Street” skilfully captures the family as a locus of societal expectation – the frustration of a suburban ‛50s housewife, of marriage constraints, and the sexual liberation promised by the ‛60s – also the damage and pain of shattered expectations and the possibility of regeneration through communication.

 


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