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SLIFF Saturday: 'Dear Zachary,' 'American Swing' and 'Let the Right One In'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 10, 2008 - Way back in the late 20th century, after the Academy Award nominations were announced, I would routinely get phone calls from St. Louisans asking me if any of the film nominated in the documentary categories had played here. And I would routinely answer "No."

After the surprising success in the past few years of such films as "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "March of the Penguins," area theaters, particularly the Tivoli, have done a better job of showcasing documentaries. And Webster University includes documentaries in its excellent film series. But some of the good ones would still miss us, if it were not for the St. Louis International Film Festival.

These days, more and more filmmakers are producing documentaries, often spending years on the projects and running up large debts. And, appropriately, the St. Louis festival has booked more feature-length documentaries this year than ever before - the total is 44, almost twice as many as in 2007. The filmmakers will attend most of the screenings.

With the help of festival executive director Cliff Froehlich, I chose five promising-sounding documentaries to screen. Here are brief reports on what I saw, and what I thought:

"Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father," tells an almost unbelievable, jaw-dropping story that begins with a tragedy - the murder of 28-year-old Dr. Andrew Bagby. Then it moves into an area that might be described as deadly serious farce. More tragedy lies ahead. 

After Bagby's corpse was found in Pennsylvania, police sought Dr. Shirley Turner, his spurned lover. Evidence strongly suggested that she was the killer. She fled to Newfoundland, where extradition procedures that would last for many months were set in motion. During most of that period, she was free. In the meantime, she had a baby whose father, it was established, was the late Dr. Bagby. Bagby's parents moved to Newfoundland and began fighting for custody of the child, a boy named Zachary.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, a lifelong friend of Dr. Bagby, makes extensive use of film and video shot at birthdays, weddings and other family occasions to tell the story of the short, mostly happy life of Andrew Bagby, who seems to have had very few enemies and many friends. Kuenne also traveled across the country after the 2001 killing, filming interviews with Bagby's friends and relatives in several cities, including St. Louis. Finally, he went to Newfoundland to record the struggle of David and Kathleen Bagby to get custody of their grandson from a mother they feared would harm him. They got very little help from Canadian officials.

The story is a powerful one, generally well told, building to a strong conclusion. At times, the style of the documentary is unnecessarily hyped-up - as, for instance, when still photos of Canadian government representatives are animated to make them look foolish. Their deeds alone already make them look foolish enough, indeed dangerously so. But the director's anger is quite understandable, and some viewers may find that letting the fury flow through the film helps make its devastating point. In any event, "Dear Zachary" is a compelling documentary that should be one of the surprise highlights of the festival.

Plato's Retreat "was a family place" says one aging libertine in"American Swing,"an entertainingly goofy documentary about the sex club that flourished in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Plato's was closed down by increasing societal abhorrence of group and anonymous sex occasioned in great part by the AIDS epidemic. 

In the 1970s, perhaps the sleaziest era in American history, the 1960s simultaneously rotted and were commodified. Both factors were at work at Plato's Retreat, whose founder, a former kosher-meat salesman named Larry Levenson, was able to make loads of money while having sex with his paying customers.

You could walk into a room at Plato's, one patron recalled, and see "200 bodies on the floor writhing like worms in a bucket." Filmmakers Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman intersperse faded, badly focused shots of the multitudinous writhing with recent interviews with the former writhers, most of whom have suffered the predictable but still jarring ravages of time, lending an aura of melancholy (or perhaps horror) to some of their fond remembrances. At times, the filmmakers seem to take Levenson more seriously than he deserves to be taken, although there may be more irony in that approach than is immediately apparent.

As for the claim that Plato's was a "family place," the speaker was not just talking about husbands and wives arriving and leaving together, but about an actual "family night" in which patrons brought their children to Plato's to see where Mommy and Daddy were spending their evenings. Fortunately, on family night, everyone kept their clothes on and their raging desires in check.

Let the Right One In

Reiewed by Susan Hegger | Beacon Issues and Politics Editor

Twelve-year-old Oskar lives a life as cold, wintry and dreary as an early film by Ingmar Bergman. Bullied at school, ignored at home, Oskar spends his nights gazing out his window or sitting in the dark, snow-filled courtyard of his nondescript apartment block. It's not until he meets 12-year-old Eli, a wan, ghostly pale girl who is perfectly comfortable in freezing temperatures without shoes or coat, that Oskar learns about courage and love.

Eli, a vampire, is as lonely as Oskar. She tells him, "I can't be your friend," but in fact she becomes his only friend, teaching him everything from how to solve a Rubik's cube to how to stand up to a bully. And, before he completely understands, he offers her his undying friendship in return. In a typical preteen gesture, he cuts his hand, wanting them to share a blood oath -- and is shaken by her response.

Shorn of its gothic veneer, or the modern hothouse versions, this icy vampire tale is almost melancholic. The attacks, generally seen from a distance, are short, vicious and cruel; the victims are usually those stumbling home after a few too many -- winter must be hard on everyone in Sweden. The few truly gory scenes seem oddly misplaced, disruptive of the film's tone and mood.

Slow, quiet, almost elegaic, this movie creeps up on you. Its glacial pacing can make it easy to dismiss, but if you open yourself up -- and invite it in -- it just might leave a haunting impression.

Short takes:

Song Sung Blue

Greg Kohs, U.S., 2008, 85 min.

"Song Sung Blue" tells the inspiring and ultimately tragic love story of Lightning & Thunder, Mike and Claire Sardina, a Milwaukee husband-and-wife singing duo who pay tribute to the music of Neil Diamond.

Mishima (A Life in Four Chapters)
Paul Schrader, U.S., 1985, 121 min., Japanese

Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Schrader considers this his finest work. Visually stunning and structurally audacious - featuring John Bailey's cinematography, Philip Glass' score and Eiko Ishioka's sets and costumes - the film offers a portrait of acclaimed Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata).

Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle, U.K./India, 2008, 120 min., English & Hindi

Jamal, an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" But he's arrested on suspicion of cheating. How does he prove he's not?

Of Time and the City

Terence Davies, U.K., 2008, 74 min.

SLIFF alum Davies - widely regarded as one of Britain's (and the world's) greatest filmmakers - provides a love song and eulogy to his birthplace, Liverpool.

Matt Krentz, U.S., 2008, 110 min.

Two junior-college students find release and therapy while playing on one of the most competitive street courts in the U.S. Written and directed by local hero Krentz, who co-stars, "Streetballers" reveals unexpected aspects of St. Louis.

The Last Lullaby
Jeffrey Goodman, U.S., 2008, 93 min.

Price (Tom Sizemore) is a former hitman struggling with the boredom and restlessness of retirement. He returns to his old life for a major payout, but the job turns complicated when he develops unexpected feelings for his target.

Jennifer Phang, U.S., 2008, 106 min.

Reflective, subversive and gorgeously photographed - with bursts of animation - "Half-Life" takes place after global warming has passed the tipping point. The air around the Wu family crackles with strangeness and unpredictability.

Alone (Faet)
Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom, Thailand, 2007, 92 min., Korean & Thai

This hard-edged supernatural thriller tells the story of Pim, who moves from Thailand to Korea to escape the guilt of being the surviving half of a conjoined twin.

Chasing Birds

Greg Woodland, Australia, 2008, 54 min.

Australia is home to more than 800 species of birds. It is also home to a unique species of bird lover - "twitchers" is the commonly used name - who take their ornithological enthusiasm to the extreme.

Accelerating America
Timothy Hotchner, U.S., 2008, 90 min.

This film tells the story of a revolutionary school in Providence, R.I., that gives inner-city youths who are at risk of dropping out a second chance by accelerating their studies.

Documentary Shorts, Women's Stories

91 min.

  • Kick Like a Girl (Jenny Mackenzie, U.S., 2008, 24 min.): The Mighty Cheetahs, an undefeated girls' soccer team, competes in the boys' division.
  • The Ladies (Christina Voros, U.S., 2007, 13 min., English & Hungarian): Ancient Hungarian sisters continue to cling to their sewing, grudges and each other.
  • Mariners & Musicians (Steven Lippman, U.S., 2006, 24 min.): Musician Rosanne Cash offers reminiscences, songs and observations about her storied family.
  • Passages (Marie-Josee Saint-Pierre, Canada, 2008, 24 min., French): This animated autobiography follows the filmmaker's difficult birth process.
  • Unbridled (Eva Saks, U.S., 2008, 6 min.): At Bethlehem Farm, "broken women and broken horses" heal each other.

Fashion Victims (Reine Geschmacksache)
Ingo Rasper, Germany, 2007, 105 min., German

In this madcap comedy, a middle-aged traveling salesman of ladies' fashion loses his driver's license just as a young competitor threatens to steal his best customers.

Under the Bombs (Sous les bombes)

Philippe Aractingi, Lebanon/France, 2007, 98 min., Arabic, English & French

During a ceasefire in the Lebanon-Israel conflict, a Christian taxi driver transports a Shiite woman from Beirut to the heart of the conflict to find her son. They discover a common bond despite their very different backgrounds.

Times and Winds (Bes vakit)
Reha Erdem, Turkey, 2006, 107 min., Turkish

This intensely lyrical film depicts the bumpy emotional lives of three preteen friends - Omer, Yakup and Yaldiz - and the ways their families curb their dreams and desires.

Stolen Holidays (Les Petites vacances)
Olivier Peyon, France, 2006, 90 min., French

Each school holiday, Daniele accompanies her grandchildren on the train that takes them to the south of France, where her daughter's ex-husband lives. When the father isn't there, she takes them on a "stolen holiday."

St. Benedict's Rule

Jay Kanzler, U.S., 2008, 84 min.

Founded in 1881, Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri is an apparent refuge, serving as home to Benedictine monks. But on June 2002, a gunman walked into the abbey, killing two monks and seriously wounding two others.

My Mother's Garden
Cynthia Lester, U.S., 2008, 70 min.

The movie follows the tortured path taken by 61-year-old Eugenia Lester, whose hoarding disorder has entered a dangerous and life-threatening stage, and how her children try to correct it.

That All May Be One

Karen Kearns, U.S., 2008, 55 min.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet - committed to community service and active in social-justice pursuits - prove fiercely intelligent, passionately engaged and delightfully good-humored.

The Stem Cell Divide
Barbara Shuman, Jill Mogil & Sharon Pollack, U.S., 2008, 90 min.

The film covers two years of controversy in Missouri. The questions of when life begins and whether the hope for cures should override religious beliefs are eternal quandaries. Those questions elicit thoughtful, emotional responses from both sides of the debate.

Number One With a Bullet
James Dziura, U.S., 2008, 90 min.

This harrowing film explores the interrelationships between guns, poverty, drugs, hip-hop culture and cultural violence, showing how the music industry has glorifyied violence for profit.

Josh Tickell, U.S., 2008, 90 min.

Tickell, a leading expert on alternative fuels, takes the audience on a revelatory journey to explore America's addiction to oil, from its historical origins to current alternatives.

The Objective
Daniel Myrick, U.S., 2008, 90 min.

In this supernatural thriller, U.S. special-ops forces go to remote mountains of Afghanistan to locate an influential Muslim cleric. But as the team ventures deeper into the unforgiving mountains, eerie and unexplainable events suggest that they may face something more terrifying than weapons of mass destruction.

Who Does She Think She Is? 

Pamela Tanner Boll & Nancy Kennedy, U.S., 2007, 84 min.

Even in today's supposedly liberated world, women are often expected to choose between working as artists and caring for children. Here are five bold women who refuse to choose, instead striking a balance between mothering and creativity.

Katrina's Children
Laura Belsey, U.S., 2008, 85 min.

Told entirely from the viewpoint of 19 children, ages 5-13, from different neighborhoods of New Orleans, the film captures with vivid poignancy the tragic ramifications of the great manmade and natural disaster.

Robert McFalls, U.S., 2008, 52 min.

The remarkable Dervaes family - father, son and two daughters - runs a small organic farm in the heart of urban Pasadena, Calif. The film portrays urban pioneers living a "Little House on the Prairie" existence in the 21st century.

Kassim the Dream
Kief Davidson, U.S., 2008, 87 min., Acholi, English & Swahili

The alternately horrifying and inspiring story of boxer Kassim "The Dream" Ouma, former light middleweight world champion, traces his path from a kidnapped 6 year old trained to be a soldier to an asylum seeker in the U.S.

Martino Unstrung
Ian Knox, U.K., 2007, 82 min.

Neuropsychologist and author Paul Broks travels America in search of the soul of legendary jazz guitarist Pat Martino, silenced by memory-stripping brain surgery to remove a tumor. Broks explores the nature of memory, self, creativity and the brain systems underlying personal identity.


Richie Mehta, Canada/India, 2007, 101 min., English & Hindi

In this multilayered portrait of modern India, auto-rickshaw driver Amal is content driving customers around New Delhi. But his simple life is upended when an eccentric, aging billionaire bequeaths Amal his entire estate.

Faro, Goddess of the Waters (Faro, la reine des eaux)
Salif Traore, Mali, 2007, 96 min., Bambara

An engineer returns to the rural village of his birth to uncover the identity of his father and start a waterworks project. His arrival coincides with the drowning of a young villager and village elders determine that sacrifice is needed to appearse Faro, the spirit who rules the waters.

Anthony Fabian, South Africa, 2008, 107 min., English & Zulu

In this moving true story of apartheid-era South Africa, Sandra is born with distinctively African features despite having two white Afrikaner parents. She defiantly opts to reclassify herself as "colored" when she becomes an adult, causing a painful and seemingly irreconcilable break with her family.

The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de l'epicier)
Eric Guirado, France, 2007, 96 min., French

When his father becomes ill, Antoine - immature at 30 years old - reluctantly leaves Paris for Provence, where he must take up the family business. Accompanied by Claire, a friend on whom he has a secret crush, Antoine gradually warms to the initially gruff villagers.

Not by Chance (Nao Por Acaso)
Philippe Barcinski, Brazil, 2007, 90 min., Portuguese

Enio, a traffic-control supervisor, and Pedro, an obsessive pool player, find comfort in their measured, mathematically exact lives. However, the sudden deaths of Enio's ex-wife and Pedo's wife upend the men's stable existences.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Mark Herman, 2008, U.K./U.S., 94 min.

Adapted from the children's novel, the movie is a fable about the untold number of children who were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The lives of a commandant's and a Jewish boy, separated by a barbed-wire fence, become intertwined.

The Inferno
Giuseppe de Liguoro, Italy, 1911 (restored in 2004), 71 min.

The first full-length Italian film ever made, "The Inferno" is a wild re-imagining of Dante's epic, an extremely loose adaptation that takes inspiration from the illustrations of Gustav Dore to conjure its visions of hell. With live musical accompaniment by the New Music Circle.

Throw Down Your Heart

Sascha Paladino, U.S., 2008, 97 min., Bambara, English, French, Jola & Swahili

Virtuoso musician Bela Fleck takes his banjo on a journey to Africa to explore the little-known African roots of his instrument and record an album. His musical adventure takes him to Mali, Gambia, Uganda and Tanzania.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement