You want presidential candidates? Or women and girls taking over their worlds? How about a lighthearted look at death? Or extreme dog grooming?
You can’t go wrong with any of the 30 feature-length documentaries screening at this year’s Independent Film Festival, Boston (running Wednesday, April 24 through Wednesday, May 1). From sub-culture to counter-culture to deep dives into the lives of American teens, my advice is to follow your nose into whatever unfamiliar territory strikes your mood. (Never heard of the Radical Monarchs? You’ll be happy you did.)
The festival has an abundance of documentaries with local ties (“WBCN: The American Revolution,” “Not for Resale,” “It Started As a Joke,” “Jim Allison: Breakthrough”) and also pulls favorites from top-tier festivals like Sundance (“Knock Down the House”) and SXSW (“Running With Beto”), just a few examples for each category. Some titles, like “One Child Nation” about China’s one child policy, will return to Boston for a theatrical release, and others, like “Eat Up” and “Pizza A Love Story” will build on the momentum of world premieres.
To give you a hand, here are the seven documentaries that stood out to me this year (or head over to Sean Burns' guide of the feature films):
Sunday, April 28
Not ready to deal with another presidential race and its candidates just yet? Or still haven’t processed the last one? “The Candidates” might tell us all we need to know about where we’ve been and where we’re headed. Over the fall of 2016, students at Townsend Harris High School don the roles of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson to campaign for their peers’ votes. The Queens school has been staging a real-time mock election since 1996. The young man who plays Trump grabs the mic from his opposition and rouses lunchroom crowds with “USA” chants. Hillary’s strategist coaches her to be “softer. No, softer!” When the Trump “Access Hollywood” tape breaks, high school Trump’s mood, and strategy, darkens. Will the kids vote on policy or personality? Refracted through the lens of young people who do their homework and ask tough questions of their political process, the future feels less ominous, even brims with potential.
Sunday, April 28
You may already know that bees are in trouble, with colonies collapsing at rates as high as half per year (when 10 percent is considered normal). But did you know that almost the entire American agricultural honey bee population is in use during California’s almond flowering? How about that the crated insects then zig-zag thousands of mile to Pennsylvania’s apples, to Washington’s cherries, to Maine’s blueberries, only to “rest up” and make honey? Honeybees are doing the job native pollinators — increasingly rare, some endangered — no longer do. One expert after another cites how industrialized farming practices do not support biodiversity. Herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and a high demand for unblemished produce also make the list. It’s a familiar story about agricultural systems on the brink told in a fairly conventional way. Yet here seeing, versus just reading an article, makes a difference. I didn’t know that honeybees carry their dead on their backs to escort them out of the hives. (Read a Q&A with the film's creator Peter Nelson.)
Sunday, April 28
Remember when kids would walk home from school for lunch? Probably not. But that’s why many of Boston Public Schools’ old buildings aren’t outfitted to prepare and serve fresh meals twice daily, though nearly 80 percent of its students qualify. (For some kids, it’s all they’ll eat in a given day.) Instead, students are served re-heated plastic-wrapped meals made out of state. Boston entrepreneur and Shah Family Foundation president Jill Shah saw this as problem — or a puzzle, as she calls it — worth solving. "Eat Up" documents the creation of a pilot program between the foundation and BPS that includes upgrading on-site kitchens, training staff, and radically transforming menus, and hopefully eating habits, behavior, and academic performance. If it sounds tough, it is. Shah’s unwavering optimism and laser vision buck up against bureaucracy’s slow grind — and lunch staff who have to adapt or move on. The film bristles with a subtle tension, familiar to anyone who has attempted to change an institution from the outside in. Boston, we know, can resist such change. But as Shah says, “We’re not going away.”
‘Ernie & Joe’
Saturday, April 27
Ernie is the older guy who seldom veers from his nightly routine of homework help, dinner, workout, then reading from the Bible. Joe is a decade younger, a Marine Corps combat veteran, and survivor of childhood trauma. As police officers in San Antonio’s unique mental health unit, they respond to calls from people who are suicidal, hallucinating or scaring others. Because as this doc makes clear, most communities struggle with how to deal with mental health problems, despite how common they are. “Ernie & Joe” takes audiences along as a passenger for tense, highly intimate calls, to talk down potential bridge jumpers or to follow up with them. The partners have a way of drawing out the person in crisis, instead of reacting to the weapon she or he may wield. It’s a story about relationships, trust and empathy. These officers believe those skills can be learned, practiced and prioritized over gun use. They’ve made it their life’s work.
‘Cold Case Hammarskjöld’
Sunday, April 28
Wearing naval whites just like his movie’s villain, “Cold Case” director Mads Brügger stitches first-person journalism to theatrical documentary, conspiracy theories to murder mysteries. To begin, Brügger and friend Göran Björkdahl investigate the suspicious 1961 death of Dag Hammarskjöld, then U.N. secretary general. But mid-way, in a devilishly funny scene involving a metal detector, pith helmets, a pair of shovels and a celebratory cigar, Brügger reveals his “moment of truth.” It’s one of his many lines two South African women secretaries type onto a sticky note and place on a hotel wall. (This choice remains suspect despite his attempt to expose the ruse.) The film’s too-surgical tone loosens and deadly pace picks up. Now, his documentary “borders on fiction.” Things only get weirder, and uglier. Can we recollect what evidence we’ve actually seen? Is Brügger meeting any standard of journalism? The answers don’t matter as much as the question: Who benefits from perpetuating a racist, colonial grip over African nations? Present-tense intended.
Saturday, April 27
Some friends play poker, some have fight clubs, this group of aging death nerds compete to see who can predict the most celebrity deaths in a given year. Their ringleader is movie-crazed, with something like 4,500 recordings at home. For him the “riplist” gives an occasion to recollect classic Hollywood stars and to text his buddies when someone dies. “Riplist” pokes respectful fun at mortality’s taboos and riffs on documentary tropes, like subtitling one member “At the grocery store” and interviewing him in the toothpaste aisle. It’s certainly not a visual film. They mostly sit in a recording studio and shoot the shit over each draft pick. The film is at its best with vignettes about who the members are outside of their annual gathering; one grew up in a funeral home, death hits too close to home for another. They don’t have much to say about what happens after we die and even less about why they play. People live and grieve in mysterious ways and this documentary offers an offbeat sliver of both.
Sunday, April 28
If your ears perk to the word salvage alone as mine do, then you’re probably game for an hour plus of picking through one small town’s dump. “Salvage” is no sweaty-hands “Free Solo” type documentary. It’s more like a crockpot full of treasures locals score — from cases of vermicelli that one scavenger eats over several years, to working power tools — intercut with interviews with the dump’s truest believers. They are mostly older folks who grew up in Littleknife and have seen their isolated Northwest Territories mining town go from self-reliant and insulated from consumer culture to one where Amazon is just a click and — gasp — two-week delivery away. They call the rest of civilization “The South” and the closer it creeps the farther the dump’s advocates feel from a sustainable future.
The Independent Film Festival Boston runs from Wednesday, April 24 through Wednesday, May 1 at the Somerville, Brattle and Coolidge Corner theaters. For more info, click here.