More than a dozen documentary features will unspool at this year’s Austin Film Festival, and the lineup is one of the best in recent years. Here’s a look at some of the top documentaries. Look for more reviews throughout the festival, which continues through Thursday, at austin360.com/movies.
‘The Muslims Are Coming!’
The sound’s not great, camera work is spotty and the editing choppy. See this funny, profoundly moving docucomedy for the astonishing grit, wit and courage of its director-stars.
To combat the Islamophobia sweeping their native land, New York-based comics Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah took their show to the Deep South, Arizona and Utah. And filmed it.
“Muslims can be pretty fluffy and adorable,” says Iranian-American Farsad, named one of Huffington Post’s 50 Funniest Women in 2011. “And we thought it was time there was a movie to showcase that.”
In two rented cars – they couldn’t afford a bus – but no security, the comics and crew visit a gun show, a firing range (where a hot casing flips into Farsad’s cleavage) and even the Muslim-demonizing American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss..
Along the way, they set up an “Ask a Muslim” booth, hold a “Bowl with a Muslim” party and, near Temple Square in Salt Lake City, stage “Hug a Muslim” with surprise results.
Interspersed with the stunts and stand-up, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and many others weigh in on the politics of bigotry vs. the power of comedy.
(World premiere at 8:30 p.m. Friday, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Imax Theatre. With directors Negin Farsad & Dean Obeidallah in attendance. Also screens at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Austin Convention Center, Screen 1, Meeting Room 18).
‘Ann Richards’ Texas’
Don’t let it be forgotten that once there was a lot of humor, compassion and smarts in Texas government. But that was when a fiery Democratic hell-raiser named Ann Richards walked the earth.
Six years after her death, The Guv is the focus of a new biography, a one-woman play and a well-timed film awarded WGA Best Screenplay of a Documentary at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival. This cinematic love letter is not a biopic. It’s not even history, but it is great fun, a dazzling look back at Richards’ life and legacy that reminds us why we miss her.
With interviews, cartoons and archival footage, the filmmakers take us on a lightning careen through her rowdy winning campaigns and history-altering loss to the candidate she called Shrub.
Originally titled “Backwards and in Heels” for the line about Ginger Rogers in Richards’ George H. W. Bush-mocking keynote at the 1988 Democratic convention, the starry doc flashes on journalists, staffers, pols and friends like Bill Clinton, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.
Oddly, there’s no mention of the boost The Guv gave the film and music biz in Texas nor of her longtime companion, writer Edwin “Bud” Shrake, whose life she anchored for 17 years and who is buried beside her in the Texas State Cemetery.
The filmmakers should have ended with the segment on the feisty feminist’s most lasting legacy — the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in South Austin and the last line of Shrake’s eulogy: “Ah-men. And Ah-women. And Ah-Ann.”
(7 p.m Wednesday, Paramount. Directors Jack Lofton and Keith Patterson in attendance.)
No, this fast-paced, powerful doc isn’t about Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden – Notre Dame’s famous 1924 backfield. Nor is it just about Pestilence, War, Famine and Death – the Book of Revelation’s Apocalypse riders.
With 23 eminent world-view thinkers, cartoons and archival footage, debuting director Ross Ashcroft takes a provocative look at another foursome – modern-day greed, violence, injustice and exhaustion of the world’s resources.
Truth-tellers like Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, linguist-philosopher Noam Chomsky and Nobel laureate economist James Stiglitz leave no doubt: we must change our economic system or bequeath our grandchildren disaster.
You won’t hear this kind of bold, no-holds-barred talk on the campaign trail. That’s because pols prefer to talk about “morning in America,” not about how the world really works and why our way of life is heading for the cliff. If it’s true that empires last 250 years and pass through six ages – pioneer, conquest, commerce, affluence and intellect, ending with bread and circuses in an age of decadence — then, the experts say, our empire, mired in Neoclassical economics, could follow in Rome’s sandals.
There may yet be time, brother, and the film offers up some audacious and radical restructuring. But there’s vast apathy, Chomsky says, and “too many don’t give a damn.” That’s not you after seeing this film.
(5:30 p.m. Sunday, Austin Convention Center, Screen 1, Meeting Room 18. Also screens at 3 p.m. Monday, the Hideout Theatre)
‘Rising from Ashes’
At last a story about cycling that doesn’t mention doping. The only performance-enhancers in this inspirational don’t-miss documentary directed by Austin native T.C. Johnstone are determination, fortitude and pride of country.
Before the mass murders of 1994, the East African state of Rwanda had a history of cycling. In the lovely “Land of a Thousand Hills,” bikes were how you got around, went to work and transported stuff.
That, too, was a victim of the genocide that took an estimated 800,000 lives. During the systematic killings when Olympic cyclist Adrien Niyonoshuti lost 60 family members, bikes were how thousands escaped.
After seeing how gifted Rwandans were as riders, mountain bike inventor Tom Ritchey fantasized about a cycling team to represent their shattered nation. To scout, he recruited Cycling Hall of Famer Jock Boyer, first American to compete in the Tour de France in 1981.
Executive producer Forest Whitaker narrates the strikingly photographed film, but it’s tough, empathetic Boyer who engagingly describes coaching a national symbol of hope. Johnstone spent two years as filmmaker for Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and has a passion for redemption stories. For both haunted Team Rwanda and its fabled coach, who talks openly of his time in prison, this is a rousing recovery drama.
(‘Rising from Ashes’ screened on Thursday and screens again at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Texas Spirit Theater.)
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Gayatri Roshan, co-directors of this affecting eco-warrior documentary, follow three far-flung activists as they take on some of the most urgent environmental issues of our time.
In India, Rajendra Singh, a government official gone rogue, makes a 40-day pilgrimage down the Ganges to rouse public opinion against the factory pollution and dams that are destroying holy “Mother Ganga.”
In northern Canada, Dene Indian Eriel Deranger, an indigenous rights crusader concerned with the recent uptick of cancer among her people, battles the biggest industrial development in the world — the Tar Sands, an oil deposit larger than Florida, and its proposed 2,000-mile Keystone XL Pipeline.
In Australia, inventor Jay Harmon, who says he grew up isolated from people and so finds inspiration in the architecture of nature, seeks investors willing to risk millions on a revolutionary vortex device he claims will slow global warming.
But these are all-too-human beings, not superheroes, and, besides corporate power and community opposition, they struggle with doubt, family, resistance to their methods and insolvency.
Their stories, stunningly filmed on three continents by Emily Topper, mesh together in flash clippings. If the result is somewhat disjointed, it’s still an important moving window on the efforts of three deeply committed individuals trying to save a river, a people and Earth.
(6:15 p.m. Friday at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Imax Theatre. With co-director Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee in attendance. Also screens 3:45 p.m. Sunday at Austin Convention Center, Screen 2, Ballroom E.)
‘Mr. Cao Goes to Washington’
Hollywood screenwriters could not have conjured the real-life Crescent City characters and plot line of S. Leo Chiang’s compelling documentary so emblematic of our times.
In 2005, federal agents found $90,000 in Rep. William Jefferson’s home freezer. Three years later, the disgraced nine-term Democrat from Louisiana lost to the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress.
In an upset, emigre Ahn “Joseph” Cao, dubbed “the Accidental Congressman,” became the first Republican since 1890 to serve his district, which includes New Orleans. A devout Roman Catholic and former seminarian, Cao joined the GOP because it opposed abortion.
His largely African-American constituents believed the earnest lawyer was in the wrong party, but Cao, a fan of Barack Obama, vowed to do the right thing and always vote his conscience. And he did, becoming the only Republican to vote for the Affordable Health Care Act, thus assuring GOP retaliation.
Then, concerned about abortion funding, he voted against health care reform, thus assuring presidential endorsement of his Democratic opponent and ending his congressional career.
Chiang puts us in the picture but could have told us more about Cao, who landed in Houston at 8, earned degrees from Baylor, Fordham and Loyola and now raises funds for Vietnamese-American candidates.
This edifying and important doc, which airs on PBS in November, is sure to trigger argument. Was Cao a political naif, a pioneer or a man too public-spirited for his party?
(7:30 p.m. Saturday, Austin Convention Center Screen, 2, Ballroom E, with producer-director S. Leo Chiang in attendance. Also 6 p.m. Tuesday, Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Texas Spirit Theater.)