2001 Sundance Film Festival Update #5: "Fact Is Stranger?"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 26, 2001

There's an old adage that states "fact is stranger than fiction", and, based on some of the offerings presented at Sundance 2001, there's clearly some truth to that proverb. Of course, when one ventures into the realm of filmed facts, a distinction needs to be made between documentaries, which (unless they are produced by Michael Moore) are supposed to represent reality, and features, which, although "based on a true story", often take liberties with the historical record. Still, such quibbles aside, here's a quick look at a few exhibits for the defense.

Kenneth Carlson's documentary Go Tigers! is presented with all the adrenaline of a traditional Hollywood sports movie. However, since the events chronicled therein are true, and there's no assurance of a "happy" ending, there's actually a fair amount of suspense about how the big game will turn out. The film chronicles the 106th season of the Massillon Tigers high school football team, culminating with their on-field battle against their arch-rivals, the Canton McKinley Bulldogs. Massillon is a small Ohio town of 33,000 facing a fiscal crisis as a result of the virtual abolition of the U.S. steel industry. Because of the town's financial situation, the future of the school and the football team hangs in the balance pending the outcome of a November vote on a tax levy.

Massillon is a place where high school football reigns supreme. It's the talk of the town not just during the fall, but 365 days a year. From birth, every boy is bred to play football, and those who choose not to are branded as outcasts and ostracized. Carlson's approach to the town's rabid enthusiasm for the sport is even-handed. He presents both the good and the bad. Along the way, taking a page from Hoop Dreams, he offers insight into the lives of three Tigers players. Rather than forming the heart of the movie, however, this ultimately becomes little more than background color. Carlson doesn't have enough time to present a game-by-game account of the 1999 season, follow efforts to pass the levy, deal with various social concerns about high school football (such as the process of "redshirting", whereby a player is held back in eighth grade so he will be bigger and stronger by the time he enters high school), and offer fully realized characterizations of three boys.

As documentaries go, Go Tigers! is engaging but not superior. It involves viewers in the Tigers' 106th season, but doesn't offer anything new or surprising about the world of high school sports or the towns that follow their teams with an obsessive fervor. The best way to view this film is as a fairly traditional sports movie. It certainly has all the elements, and Carlson has pieced it together in such a way that it represents a genuine crowd-pleaser. (Since it's a documentary, it's unlikely to get any kind of widespread distribution, but it may eventually show up on cable TV or PBS.)

Another film competing in the documentary category is Mark Lewis' The Natural History of the Chicken, a short (56 minutes), lightweight look at (what else?) the chicken. Employing interviews with offbeat characters (a Florida woman who babies her pet chicken, a Maine woman who used mouth-to-beak resuscitation on her bird) and a series of "dramatic recreations", Lewis reminds us that chickens are more than just fodder for the family dinner. The movie offers about five vignettes, some of which are cute, some of which are amusing, and some of which are dull. Interspersed with these are glimpses into the chicken and egg processing industries (omitting graphic depictions of the mass slaughter that precedes packaging). As a brief diversion, The Natural History of the Chicken is likable enough, but its lack of substance makes it a failure as anything more ambitious.

The provocatively titled Fuckland is a curious mixture of documentary and drama. The first Argentinian film to receive the official "Dogma 95" seal of approval (and the eighth movie overall to be acknowledged by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's group), Fuckland is far more interesting in concept than in execution. Arming his lead actor, Fabian Stratas, with a small, hand-held camera, director Jose Luis Marques sent him to the Falkland Islands to shoot a clandestine film. Part of the intention of Fuckland is to present an unbiased view of the Falklands as they exist today, nearly two decades after Argentina lost the war with Great Britain over the territories. But the film also has a fictional narrative element, as well. Fabian woos a Falklands native (actress Camilla Heaney, who actually hails from England) with the objective of having sex with her. His ulterior motive, which is not revealed until late in the proceedings, does little to soften our opinion of him as a opportunistic predator. Unfortunately, most of Fuckland isn't terribly interesting, and the amateur camerawork, despite being necessary under the circumstances, becomes aggravating. The only time the movie has any sort of spark is during the Fabian/Camilla scenes, as the two stumble through the awkwardness of developing a new relationship. These sequences, which at times have an unfeigned naturalness that recalls the work of French master filmmaker Eric Rohmer, were all improvised. Outside of the leads' interaction, however, Fuckland works better as a sleep aid than as a motion picture. Proving that more than a lively title is necessary to hold an audience, Fuckland is an interesting failure - but a failure nonetheless.

The energetic and visceral Chopper is an Australian import that offers a somewhat fictionalized account of events in the life of Mark "Chopper" Read, a ruthless killer who has become a best selling author in his native country. Using the same kind of blood-and-violence-drenched mixture of comedy and suspense that enlivened well-known productions like Pulp Fiction and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, director Andrew Dominik brings Read to life with all the fury he can muster.

In Australia, Read is a hugely controversial and immensely popular figure (his first novel sold over 250,000 copies). Dominik's intention with this movie is to present a picture of a man who is so unpredictable that no one - not the audience, not other characters in the movie, perhaps not even himself - can predict his next action. It's this kind of spontaneity that gives Chopper its edge. As it follows Read from a mid-'70s incarceration in a maximum security prison to another time in jail during the early '90s, Chopper never lets the viewer feel completely comfortable. Dominik's direction is fresh and lively, and the camerawork is exceptional.

With a movie like this, in which the main character often seems to inhabit the realm of tall tales (right alongside Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox), it's easy to question how far from the established facts Chopper strays. Dominik gets a preemptive strike against those who would criticize the movie on those grounds by mentioning in a pre-credits disclaimer that certain events in the film have been enhanced to generate a better narrative. It's also worth mentioning that the movie is based on a book by a man who's motto is "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." So, although the events portrayed in Chopper are purportedly all true, one has to take just about everything with a grain of salt. As far as I'm concerned, it's irrelevant - the movie works, regardless of its factual accuracy or lack thereof.

The best thing about Chopper is the lead performance by Eric Bana, who powerfully inhabits Read's huge boots. Not having ever seen a picture of the real man, I can't say how closely Bana resembles him, but the quality of acting in this film is top-notch, and no one gives a more riveting portrayal than Bana. This is the kind of work that demands notice and praise from anyone who sees it. More than anything else, Bana is the reason that Chopper is such a compelling motion picture.

Moving slightly further into the realm of fiction, we find Timothy Linh Bui's Green Dragon, a conventional but heartwarming tale of life for Vietnam refugees in the U.S. camps erected to hold them during the mid-'70s. Although the basic narrative is fictional, Bui developed it after hearing the stories of many of those who entered the United States through those camps. Bui and his younger brother, Tony (who co-wrote the story and won accolades at Sundance two years ago for his film, Three Seasons), were both residents of a camp for some time during their youth, but neither has clear memories of the situation. The recollections of Bui's mother are what prodded him to develop this project.

The story opens in April 1975 - the month the long war in Vietnam ended with the fall of Saigon. Thousands upon thousands of South Vietnamese had fled their country for the United States, where they were held in temporary camps until "sponsors" could be found that would allow them to integrate into American society. Green Dragon tells the story of several refugees in California's Camp Pendleton. There's a young boy who's looking for his mother and the cook who befriends him, an English-speaking man who is given the job of camp manager by the officer in charge, and a married woman who is reunited with her first, true love under less-than-ideal circumstances. These intertwined stories (as well as others) are played out as radio broadcasts announce the last gasps of the South Vietnamese army.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Green Dragon is Bui's recreation of Camp Pendleton, circa 1975 (filming actually took place in Camp Pendleton). The film opens up a window into a portion of history that many Americans are not aware of. Ultimately, despite occasional, largely unnecessary melodramatic flourishes, Green Dragon works, and there is a sense of emotional catharsis at the end. And, although the screenplay has its awkward moments (the relationship between the cook and the little boy is played up for maximum tear-jerking ability), it avoids more pitfalls than it falls into. The cinematography is lush and the performances are universally good. (Including appearances by American actors Patrick Swayze as the camp commander and Forrest Whitaker as the cook.) As a debut and a calling card, Timothy Bui's Green Dragon may not be as strong as his brother's Three Seasons, but it's still a worthwhile effort.

Finally, there's 101 Reykjavik, which is only loosely based on factual events (although, in its portrayal of Iceland, it shows a side of a country that most international viewers will not be familiar with). Director Baltasar Kormakur (one of the stars of fellow Icelandic filmmaker Fredrik Thor Fridriksson's Angels of the Universe) asserts that aspects of this film are autobiographical, although he hastens to add that none of them are related to the movie's salacious elements. 101 Reykjavik tells a story of what people do during winter in a country where the sun doesn't shine, snow comes down almost non-stop, and even "the ghosts are bored." In fact, as the lead character states, "the only reason anyone lives [in Iceland] is because they're born here."

101 Reykjavik is a bizarre comedy that introduces us to Hlynur (Hilmir Snaer), a 28-year old man who defines the word "loser." Hlynur spends his days lying in bed, surfing the Internet for porn sites, and generally doing nothing worthwhile. He still lives with his mother, and, on those rare occasions when he ventures out of the house, it's to get plastered at the local pub. He has a girlfriend of sorts, whom he treats badly, doing things like slipping out of her bed in the middle of the night and closing the door in her face after she gives him a Christmas present. For Hylnur, life is just a vacation from death. Then Lola (Victoria Abril), a Spanish flamenco teacher and his mother's lesbian lover, enters his world. He is attracted to her, and they eventually have a one-night stand that results in Lola's pregnancy. And, since Lola is practically married to Hylnur's mother, that puts him in the bizarre position of essentially being his son's brother, or his brother's father.

101 Reykjavik uses a combination of humor, pathos, and general weirdness to good effect. Unfortunately, watching this movie requires viewers to spend 100 minutes in the company of Hylnur, who is a rather reprehensible human being. He never takes responsibility for his actions, is nasty to just about everyone, and, when the chips are down, he sinks into a morass of self-pity. Nevertheless, despite the unpleasant protagonist, it's hard not to appreciate what the film has to offer, dark and offbeat though it may be. In addition to giving audiences an unvarnished look into some of the ins-and-outs of life in Iceland (not that we're supposed to think that every family situation is as convoluted as this one), 101 Reykjavik has the added attractions of a wonderful performance by Victoria Abril (probably best known for her role in Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), a refreshingly frank outlook on sexuality, and a memorable soundtrack. With its nods to Oedipus and Hamlet, 101 Reykjavik offers a lot to digest, and provides a frothy chaser to wash it down with.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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