10 Films Worth Watching at the Tel Aviv Documentary Film Festival

More than 100 films are being screened at this year’s Docaviv Festival, including documentaries about Steve Jobs, Marlon Brando and Janis Joplin. A guide to 10 that are worth seeing (and one that’s not).

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
From 'Call Me Marianna.'
From 'Call Me Marianna.'Credit: Courtesy
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

This has been a good year for documentary filmmakers in Israel. Now showing in movie theaters across the country are documentaries that have brought tens of thousands of viewers to box offices. Among them: “Mr. Gaga” and “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?," both by Heymann Brothers, and Ido Haar’s “Presenting Princess Shaw.” The success of the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival (Docaviv, for short, this year running until May 28) helped convince distributors that an enthusiastic and substantial audience exists in Israel for documentaries, not only for Hollywood blockbusters.

This year’s festival, being held, as always, primarily at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, will show more than 100 films from all corners of the planet. The theme is “New World Disorder,” referring to terrorism, societal rifts and class struggles. There is a particularly interesting Israeli Competition, whose films I haven’t yet seen, and a “Depth of Field Competition,” focusing on films that deliberately obscure the boundaries between cinematic genres. (Full disclosure: I am one of the judges in this category, so my survey will not relate to the six films in it.)

For the perplexed, here’s a short guide to five films I’ve seen and five more that I haven’t seen but that greatly intrigue me. (Three of them – “Listen to Me Marlon,” “Steve Jobs” and “Machine of Human Dreams” – will be broadcast in the near future on Yes Docu satellite television.)

1. ‘Listen to Me Marlon’

This film, by director Stevan Riley, is a challenging work that deconstructs the documentary-biography genre, which generally relies on a chronological narrative based on archival material and interviews with friends and acquaintances. (This was the case with the previous documentary about the star, which was titled, simply, “Brando,” and told his life story wearisomely and unimaginatively for two and a half hours.) Riley’s film relies on Brando’s voice almost exclusively and makes original use of a digital hologram that reconstructs his face. The result is disturbing: Brando’s reconstructed head floats in space and looks like the combination of a human being and a machine; a kind of cyborg that speaks in the voice of a Hollywood icon. Still, despite the temptation, Riley is smart enough to make only limited use of the hologram.

Brando’s tempestuous life – his son served time for murder and his daughter committed suicide at the age of 25 – could furnish the material for a tear-jerking miniseries. However, Riley succeeds in transforming the amazing treasure the actor left behind in the form of dozens of hours of audio recordings, into a riveting film that not only offers a glimpse into Brando’s life, but also explores the psychological struggles he coped with and his immense contribution to changing the rules of acting in Hollywood. The impressive result earned the film critical acclaim and a nomination for the World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary at the 2015 Sundance Festival.

Screenings: May 20 at 19.45; May 26 at 21.00 (Habima Square, free entrance); May 28 at 21.30

2. ‘My Scientology Movie’

Louis Theroux is a British-American documentarist who looks like an overgrown version of Harry Potter, but is known for his wonderful ability to extract surprising confessions from controversial interviewees such as pedophiles, neo-Nazis, homophobes and a host of colorful characters. Teaming up with director John Dower, Theroux serves up an eye-opening documentary experiment that tries to crack the secret of the attraction of one of the world’s oddest cults (as Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” tried to do last year).

After the Church of Scientology’s leaders refused to be interviewed for the film, placed Theroux under obsessive surveillance and threatened to sue him, he decided to use actors in order to reenact key scenes in the church’s history. At times, “My Scientology Movie” seems to be more amusing and not as deep as Gibney’s film, but after an hour and a half in the company of former Scientology executives and current activists who are hounding Theroux, a complex, ambivalent portrait emerges of the connection between faith, performance and obsession.

Screenings: May 20 at 17.30; May 23 at 16.45; May 27 at 20.00

3. ‘Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine’

This film by the prolific, prizewinning director Alex Gibney opens with a long montage of passersby laying wreaths at the entrance to Apple stores around the world on the day after the death of the company’s revered CEO Steve Jobs on October 5, 2011. The camera zooms in on the face of an elderly Japanese woman until we see the suffering and pain in her eyes, though she is mourning for a man she never met. As in his previous film, “Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” Gibney treats Jobs’ heritage as a type of cult. If capitalism purports to be a substitute for religion, the iPhone is the equivalent of the crucifix or the Bible: every true believer carries one on his person.

But according to the numerous interviewees in “Steve Jobs,” the iPhone is not just a product that became a cult object. It is no less than the expansion of human consciousness. Jobs’ genius lay in his being among the first to understand that in the modern era people don’t want to buy a computer; they want the computer to be part of their personality – a “second self,” in the term of the technology researcher Sherry Turkle. That’s why the iPhone was designed as a smooth black screen that offers a perfect reflection: look at it and you see yourself.

Screenings: May 20 at 13.00; May 28 at 12.30

4. ‘Machine of Human Dreams’

The Israeli director Roy Cohen’s film, which is also about our obsession with technology, was shot mostly in Hong Kong, where a technology guru and computer genius named Ben Goertzel is trying to create artificial intelligence that will make it possible for a robotic body to interact with the physical world as though it were human. The results of his work are far from impressive. But Goertzel’s failed experiments and the surrealistic encounters he has with Hong Kong bureaucrats who are trying to understand what happened to the millions they poured into the project, offer a rare and complex behind-the-scenes look at the collective fantasia of a world controlled by machines. Interviews with Goertzel, his family and his former and present “friends” shed light on the rise and fall of the person who was supposed to be the Steve Jobs of AI.

Screenings: May 26 at 18.15; May 27 at 18.00

5. ‘Dig!’

Film festivals are an excellent opportunity to see classics on the big screen, and this one, by Ondi Timoner – who is a guest of the festival with her new film about the British comedian Russell Brand – is justly considered a rockumentary classic. For seven years, Timoner followed two indie rock bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, and their respective frontmen, Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor-Taylor. What started out as a close friendship quickly became an ugly rivalry, when Taylor-Taylor and his band were offered a recording contract, while Newcombe and the Massacres became junkies, alcoholics and generally self-destructed. The intimacy that Timoner was able to forge with her protagonists makes “Dig!” a highly charged, complex documentary that deconstructs and reassembles the concept of “rock star.” This 2004 film has become a must-see.

Screening: May 24 at 20.30, Tel Aviv Port (free entrance)

Looking forward

Here are five films I’ve read about and heard about and am eagerly awaiting the chance to view at last:

1. ‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’

JT LeRoy was acclaimed in the United States as a brilliant author in the 1990s, until it was revealed that this was the pen name of the writer Laura Albert. The new, much talked-about film by Jeff Feuerzeig (“The Devil and Daniel Johnston”), purports to provide a view from within about one of the great scandals of modern American literature.

Screenings: May 21 at 19.30; May 24 at 22.30; May 28 at 22.00

2. ‘Unlocking the Cage’

The veteran filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus spent five years documenting Steve Wise, a highly unusual lawyer: His clients are animals and he is out to obtain legal rights for them. The film raises fascinating questions about the differences – and similarities – between humans and our four-footed friends.

Screenings: May 22 at 19.00 and 22.00, at Makom Lashevet, 22 Hamashbir St., Tel Aviv (free entrance); May 23 at 17.30; May 28 at 18.00

3. ‘Call Me Marianna’

A Polish film about a 40-something railroad engineer who was born a male and wants to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Polish bureaucracy compels Marianna to sue her parents in order to obtain authorization to embark on the process, but in the meantime her economic and family status deteriorates and she finds herself out on the street.

Screenings: May 23 at 19.45; May 25 at 12.45

4. ‘Goodnight Brooklyn – The Story of Death by Audio’

Docaviv’s “Music” category is particularly strong this year – there are films about Janis Joplin and Arcade Fire – but I am waiting mainly for “Goodnight Brooklyn,” because it’s about the destruction of a legendary performance space as a result of its quite hostile takeover by the hipster media corporation Vice.

Screenings: May 20 at 20.30, at Romano House, 9 Jaffa Road, Tel Aviv (free entrance); May 27 at 22.15

5. ‘Holy Hell’

On the subject of cults and religions, it’s impossible to ignore this widely discussed film, which tells the story of the Buddhafield cult. Its members aspired to create a communal utopia but found themselves serving a passionate and destructive guru who brainwashed them. Sound familiar? Indeed, but the genre of movies about cults is always of interest.

Screenings: May 20 at 19.30; May 22 at 22.25; May 25 at 12.30

Bonus: One to skip

Noah Baumbach is an indie filmmaker whom Israeli hipsters are very fond of (mostly thanks to “Frances Ha” and his semi-autobiographical “The Squid and the Whale”). Of late, Baumbach has become a very prolific director, having made no fewer than three films in less than three years: two features – “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America” – and his first documentary, “De Palma,” which is having its Israeli premiere in Docaviv. Even though the project sounds promising (it involves a collaboration between three directors: Baumbach, Jake Paltrow and Brian De Palma himself), in practice it’s the equivalent of a gig and should be viewed at home on the small screen. De Palma has made classics such as “Scarface,” “The Untouchables” and “Carrie.” Many of his films have achieved cult status because of their wild combination of Hitchcock influences and popular culture. (Consider “Body Double,” a weird fusion of “Vertigo,” “Psycho” and truly bad porno.) Regrettably, Baumbach and Paltrow made do with one long, quite anemic interview, in which they avoided challenging De Palma or asking him critical questions about his attitude toward women or the reasons he found himself working outside Hollywood. The result, which will interest mainly sworn De Palma admirers, is eminently skippable.

Screenings: May 20 at 21.45; May 21 at 12.45; May 28 at 16.45

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