At the 42nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), ULLA JACOBSEN discovered high quality documentaries and very committed audiences who provoked hour-long Q&A sessions.

In line with their audiences, the American documentary filmmakers are very committed to their filmmaking. They have to be. Working without substantial television money and public funding means they have to scrape together many small funds from a variety of different sources.

That’s what Stanley Nelson did, spending seven years to raise money for making “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Sword”s. A very informative, well composed and engaging film documenting the history of the Black Press in the US and its importance for civil rights struggles. Using archive footage and stills, articles from the press and interviews with historians and journalists, he manages to not only document the history of the Black Press, but also to outline the history of the oppression of African Americans and the gradual improvements they obtained through persistent struggle. He focuses on certain important journalists and publishers and the most influential papers like “Chicago Defender “and “California Eagle”, and includes specific incidents that makes the film more lively and engaging.

Starting in 1826, the Black Press was the voice of African Americans, since the dominant press only used space on them if they were involved in crimes. Only the Black Press carried stories about the lynching and slaughter of African Americans, or poor treatment of black people at cafés. The film reveals how the Black Press was an essential factor in awakening African Americans and even a direct catalyst for social change.

“The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords” is the first film to thoroughly document this important part of history.  It won awards at both Sundance and SFIFF and will hopefully be purchased by and shown on television all over the world.

Another remarkable but very different American documentary is “Genghis Blues”, the first film by Roko Belic. It is a well-structured narrative documentary that reveals a good sense for advancing a story. It revolves around the meeting between the blind American blues musician Paul Pena and the Tuvan throat-singing master Kongar-ol Onda. They are both very charismatic characters who meet over their common passion: Throat singing, which wipes out all the cultural differences between their two very different backgrounds. Paul Pena taught himself this very special method of singing by listening to it on the radio. He also taught himself to speak Tuvan and got in touch with Kongar-ol Onda.

Paul Pena was invited by Kongar-ol Onda to Tuva to participate in their annual throat-singing contest. The film crew goes with him and films his trip and the contest. Structured around this unusual event and meeting, and led by two charismatic characters, the low-budget cinematic quality is easily excused. The quality suffers by the filmmakers’ including themselves in the film which only gives it an annoying, naïve touch.”Genghis Blues” received the audience documentary award at the SFIFF and Sundance.

The Vietnam war continues to haunt the American consciousness and filmmaking – and it is almost unbearable to watch any more films on that subject. Nevertheless, “Regret to Inform” (nominated for an Oscar) by Barbara Sonneborn approaches the subject from a fresh viewpoint: Women and their losses. She herself is the widow of a soldier who died in the war. She tells her story and those of the other widows and also goes to Vietnam to find women with stories that are obviously far more violent.

The Vietnamese women saw their family members being killed, they prostituted themselves to American soldiers, have wounds that go much deeper than their American sisters. But undeniably however, loosing the man you expected to spend your life with and even have children with already at the age of 20 is tough. The film’s strength lies in the excellent interviews with the women, and “Regret to Inform”  is touching without getting overly sentimental.

Still, the question remains: Why make this film now? But in the light of the Kosovo war – often compared with Vietnam – it raises the question: Is any war worth the loss of individual lives and the horrors it leaves behind in their families?