TCFF 2014 Documentary Reviews: Stray Dog, Flying Paper, Where The Trail Ends & One Good Year

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What I love about Twin Cities lineup year after year is the eclectic variety. Documentary is one of those genres I really need to see more of, so I’m glad there are quite a few of them this year. The past few years, I saw award-worthy docs like A Place at the Table, Bully, Gladiator The Uncertain Future of American Football, The Armstrong Lie, etc. at TCFF. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these would end up in the major award roster next year.


So here are the Documentary reviews …

Stray Dog

A documentary about an intellectual motorcyclist and guilt-ridden Vietnam war- veteran, Ronnie Hall, Stray Dog is a character portrait that ultimately doesn’t delve deeply enough to resonate.

Hall is a fitting subject, and director Debra Granik is adept at stringing together scenes that force us to consider society’s treatment of war veterans. She also reflects on the ways war permanently changes soldiers, often for the worse.

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But it is Stray Dog’s more subtle psychological themes that hold potential for the most emotional (and philosophical) resonance. Can we ever redeem our worst mistakes? What must we do to forgive ourselves? How much altruism overcomes past ethnocentricity and arrogance? Is it possible to adapt to new living conditions, particularly those that do not meet our expectations? And so forth. Troublingly, Granik never completely explores such ideas; take, for example, the question of redemption and altruism. In one powerful moment, easily the strongest in the film, she allows Hall to explain why he labels himself unforgivable, closing in on his face as he details his worst sins. His grief and regret are palpable, as is our own inability to connect the man we’ve been watching with the one he’s now describing. Yet, it is the only such scene in Stray Dog, and so the experience of seeing it quickly fades. Which means the film doesn’t connect to our personal psychological experience.

Make no mistake, though. Stray Dog is not a poor documentary. It is engaging throughout, and it does have intriguing ideas. It just doesn’t linger as powerfully as it might have with more fealty to psychology.

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Flying Paper

Flying Paper is one of the most heart-wrenching as well as uplifting docs I’ve seen in ages. It tells the story of resilient Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip on a quest to shatter the Guinness World Record for the most kites ever flown. Though it shows the war-torn condition in Gaza, the film doesn’t take the political approach. Instead it shows life as it is for these youngsters, who like any other kid in other parts of the world, just want to play.

Two of the main kids being interviewed are siblings Musa and Widad, outspoken and full of energy as they walk us through their daily lives and planning to be a part of the United Nations’ Kite Festival. Musa is the unofficial team lead of sort, showing a maturity that seems well beyond his 14 years. They show us how they make their kites with flour and paste, testing it and making sure it flies the way they wanted it to be. The kite symbolizes freedom, the one thing people in occupied territories could only dream of, so in a way, they sort of live vicariously through the kites that soar into the sky.

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Directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill and co-produced with a team of young filmmakers in Gaza. One of them is Abeer, a graduate from Voices Beyond Walls Youth Media Program who wants to be a journalist. She acts as the reporter in the film, interviewing kids in their homes as well as at the Kite Festival. It’s heart-wrenching to hear little girls younger than 10 years old telling stories about how F-16 flying low over their homes and how loud the helicopters are when they fly overhead. Later on Musa also show us pieces from a bomb or rocket/tank that were fired nearby. It’s more telling how they nonchalantly talk about it, as they’ve gotten so used to as that’s all they know all their lives.

As we go through one of the schools, a teacher said that kite-making builds team spirit and help channel their energy. I’d imagine that as they live in such a brutal condition, kite-making would make them forget – albeit briefly – the trauma of war.

The third act of the doc shows the astounding Kite Fest at Waha Beach. There are throngs of kids with their colorful kites and big smiles on their faces. They’ve so waited for this moment for so long and I couldn’t help being so excited along with them. Over 7500 kids were at the festival, 7202 to be exact, which easily broke the world record.

Despite the dark themes of war, there is such a joyful spirit in this film and by the end you truly care for these kids and what this record mean to them. It’s quite astounding how this film got made despite the ongoing blockade in the area, so if you get a chance to see it, I urge you to do so.

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Where The Trail Ends

If there is a documentary that is meant to be seen in the hugest possible screens, it’d be this one. It’s fantastic for adrenaline junkie or anyone who appreciates epic cinematography that captures one of the most breathtaking nature scenes that would truly take your breath away.

There are five main free-ride mountain bikers: Darren Berrecloth, James Doerfling, Andreu Lacondeguy, Kurt Sorge and Cam Zink, who are featured here as they search for un-ridden terrain all over the globe. The first terrain shown was in Utah and boy I thought it was already scary and dangerous enough, but no, it’s deemed too easy for them. And off they go to various locations such as Nepal, China, Argentina and Canada. Each place seems more exotic than the next, and the cinematography by Brad McGregor is never less phenomenal from start to finish. The high-speed camera was often placed on the bikers’ helmet so you could see from their point of view and totally got the adrenaline rush pumping. I was as in awe of these daredevils and their death-defying stunts as I was with the amazing camera work.

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Now, this is no doubt one of the most-beautiful documentaries ever filmed, but at the same time, there’s only so much one’s eyeballs could take in. I never thought I’d say this but there are actually moments where I was yawning and looking at my watch. No, I’m not saying the film is boring, it’s just that this doc is more eye candy than anything else as there’s barely no emotional connection with any of its subjects. At times it felt as if I was watching an hour-long commercial for Red Bull, Specialized, Contour, etc. To be fair though, I was truly amazed that these bikes hold up being used in such extreme ways. These bikers seem like they’ve made out of rubbers too. I mean they get hurt, some broke their collar bones, foot, back, etc. but it’s still a feat it’s not worse!

There is one rather touching moment however. One of the bikers, I think it was Darren Berrecloth, almost lost it when he couldn’t bring himself to pull a certain dangerous stunt because he broke his back doing the exact same thing back in his home town. There he was, with the magnificent terrain sprawled right in front of him, beckoning for him to do it. Yet knowing how horrifying the back-breaking experience was that he simply couldn’t bear it again. His utter disappointment was palpable but in the end, everyone knew he made the right decision.

Director Jeremy Grant certainly knows how to make an exciting ride that’s chock-full of incredible spectacles. Where The Trail Ends is worth a look because the visuals is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Just don’t expect something profound or anything with an emotional depth.

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One Good Year

“One Good Year” tells the story of four family farms tucked in the densely wooded forest of Northern California. Interspersed between shots of emerald green hills and bucolic community festivals, these entrepreneurs show endless dedication to their crop and willingness to be one with the land. Oh, did I mention they are marijuana growers? Humboldt County, the home of filmmaker Mikal Jakubal, is, as David Samuels from the New Yorker put it, “The heartland of high grade marijuana farming in California.”

In this new 80-minute documentary, we meet four farmers permitted to grow the green leaves under Proposition 215 (California’s medical marijuana law) – Jory, Kim, Syreeta and Blossom. The film explores the dedication of this quartet to organically growing “the best weed anyone has smoked” juxtaposed against others in the area who exploit the environment to make a quick buck on the illegal (but more lucrative) marijuana trade.

It’s a topical subject, as Minnesota (home of the Twin Cities Film Fest) passed a medical marijuana bill earlier this year, joining nearly half of the states in the country with similar provisions. Undoubtedly it will offend some people – in one scene Blossom’s preschool daughter wanders through the crop while Blossom proclaims, “My mother taught me how to grow marijuana.” But Jakubal does a good job of showing us a personal commitment to the marijuana trade apart from the hype of drug cartels and stoned hippies.

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The four featured in the film are clearly not getting rich off their crop – Syreeta lives in a worn, treehouse like structure with a rusty old pickup in need of repair. When asked why she does it year after year, Blossom replies, “I think there will always be a market for good organic cannabis. I think they’re fun to grow.” The music in this show is particularly complimentary, including the work of local artists such as the Camo Cowboys, whose tune “Family Felony” provides a fun twang.

At times the film gets a little too technical, such as when Jory is describing her seed crop – “This one is Mexican Columbian crossed with Indica from Thailand…” (Oh, of course it is!) Far more helpful are the explanatory text graphics throughout the film explaining certain growing terms like “sexing,” the art of removing male plants to prevent unwanted pollination (only the female plants produce a smokable bud). Overall, it’s a thought provoking addition to the current debate over legalization in this country.

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Bonus Doc – Health Focus: One Community’s Effort

This doc wasn’t part of the TCFF lineup but it played in the film fest lounge as a free community event

Raise your hand if you want to live in an unhealthy community. Yeah, me neither. “Health Focus: One Community’s Effort,” shown at the Showplace Icon Theatre in St. Louis Park as part of the Twin Cities Film Fest, is a new documentary from Twin Cities Public Television. It covers the creation of “Health in the Park,” a grassroots initiative started last year and funded by The Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota with an aim to increase the overall health and wellbeing of St. Louis Park residents.

A first ring suburb directly west of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park is home to approximately 46,000. “It reminds me of a small town village in an urban setting,” Christa Getchell, President of the Park Nicollet Foundation, says in the video. Out of 50 applicants statewide, St. Louis Park was one of only nine cities chosen, in part because of their level of community engagement. “Our community is known for working together,” says Rob Metz, St. Louis Park School Superintendent. “You don’t see that everywhere.”

Full disclosure: I am a St. Louis Park resident and volunteer for Health in the Park’s Better Eating Action Group. As such, I tend to focus on nutrition but there have also been focus groups and presentations aimed at other aspects of healthy living such as increasing access to sidewalks and bike trails. “Because it’s so multifaceted, you can jump in where you feel most comfortable,” says Susan Ericksen, a St. Louis Park resident and Health in the Park Volunteer.

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Far from being a low level amateur project, “Health Focus” was made by Twin Cities Public Television so the production value in this 25-minute story is high. In many scenes, you see community members in various settings partaking in outdoor and indoor activities the city has to offer juxtaposed against various interviews staged in a way so you see the “City of St. Louis Park” logo in the background.

As the old saying goes, talk is cheap. But with the support and engagement of dedicated community members, St. Louis Park is poised to turn “Health in the Park” into more than just a series of conversations. If you miss it at the Twin Cities Film Fest, you can check out TPT’s website for a schedule of upcoming showings or visit the Health in the Park website to learn more about this initiative.

Not sure if I should rate this one? Admittedly I am biased as a St. Louis Park resident and Health in the Park volunteer.

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Have you seen any of these documentaries? What did you think?

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16 thoughts on “TCFF 2014 Documentary Reviews: Stray Dog, Flying Paper, Where The Trail Ends & One Good Year

    1. I really enjoyed Flying Paper! It’s enjoyable as well as heartbreaking, I love it when documentaries virtually took you to a place you’ve never been and truly made you think about your own life. We always take things for granted living in a free country like the US!

        1. I kind of felt a bit guilty after I watched it y’know, how we got annoyed by silly little things, ahah. Yeah, it made you think but at the same time it wasn’t bleak or depressing either. It’s a lively doc, hope you get to see it!

  1. Out of all of these listed, Flying Paper appeals most to me for the subject matter. Stray Dogs sounds interesting too since I have quite a few family members involved in the military, and a couple who are veterans. Really great reviews all around. I enjoyed reading each of them! Sounds like there were several good documentaries to watch this time around!

    1. Flying Paper is the one I recommend most, it’s got a heart-wrenching message but it’s also very enjoyable to watch. I also saw one during the film fest that wasn’t part of the lineup, it just happened to screen at the same theater. It’s called Citizenfour, about Ed Snowden, boy that was incredible, a must-see for anyone who uses the internet on a daily basis.

  2. Pingback: Monthly Recap, Top 5 Picks from TCFF 2014 + Fave Movie(s) of OCTOBER |

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