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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jun. 17, 2011 | 3:54 PM

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LA Film Fest Doc Picks

Kicking off at it’s new location in downtown LA for the second year in a row, the Film Independent Los Angeles Film Festival truly offers something for everyone.  Wanna bring the kids?  How about a new version of Winnie the Pooh.  Like offbeat fare from Hong Kong?  Check out Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame at the Ford Amphitheater.  No film fest would be complete without a one word titled indie starring John C. Reilly.  Last year we had Cyrus, this year it’s Terri

The festival features competition in the narrative, shorts and documentary categories. FilmRadar has already published interviews with several of this year’s shorts directors.  Look for additional coverage throughout the festival.  It’s no surprise that this year’s documentary offerings are particularly strong.  Here are five selections to get you started:

Position Among the Stars

Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich

The third film in a trilogy about an Indonesian family trying to break the cycle of poverty, this film offers a rare glimpse for Westerners into contemporary life in Jakarta.  It’s full of heartbreaking moments, none more so than when granddaughter Tari is told that her parents can’t afford to send her to college, despite an academic acumen that promises a bright future.  Anyone who complains excessively about conditions in the United States would do well to see Helmrich’s film.  In spite of the bleak conditions on display, though, there are also moments of pure joy, as in an extended sequence where recent high school graduates ride motorcycle wheelies through the night to a soundtrack of giddy Indonesian pop.  Through it all, the family’s matriarch remains a calming presence who’s determined to see the family succeed.

Sex Crimes Unit

Directed by Lisa F. Jackson

A sexual assault occurs every two minutes in the United States.  One in six women in America will be the target of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.  40 % of rapes go unreported. These chilling statistics provide the framework for Jackson’s disturbing but informative look at the New York District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit, the first of its kind in the nation.  Long running TV shows like Law and Order have had the effect of making us take investigative units like this for granted, but Jackson’s film paints a potent portrait of how far we’ve come in prosecuting these crimes over the past few decades.  Not surprisingly, the unit features mostly women, but it was founded in 1974 by Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau.  He explains in the film that there was one person in the unit when he came in.  Morgenthau also reveals a more personal reason for his involvement: “I have five daughters,” he says.  The film’s frank discussion of the crimes under investigation is harrowing, but the work of these investigators is tireless, and Jackson’s film gives it the laudatory treatment it deserves.

Paraiso For Sale
Directed by Anayansi Prado

How much would you pay for paradise?  That’s the question raised in Anayansi Prado’s revealing doc about the tourist trade in Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Panama has seen an enormous influx of retirees moving into the area over the past few years, and the result has been an explosion of development with little regard for impact on the local community.  The filmmakers were able to secure the participation of a number of Bocamanians, plus a cameo from actor/musician Ruben Blades, who took a break from his entertainment career to become involved with the local politics.  Blades also provides music for the film.  The emerging mess of thorny land disputes illustrates a glaring disparity between Panamanian laws set up to protect indigenous people and a government who seems to have little interest in enforcing them.

Project Nim

Directed by James Marsh

Those familiar with Marsh’s Man On Wire will recognize the virtuosity on display here.  Taking the 2008 book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human as its source, Nim is the true 70’s story of a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother and raised as a human child on the upper west side of New York.  The whole scheme was hatched by a Columbia University science professor who wanted to see if it were possible for chimps to learn sign language. This being the 70’s, the professor’s freewheeling attitude and penchant for hiring then firing attractive young female assistants seems to be par for the course.  Eventually the study runs its course, and the rest of Marsh’s film is devoted to Nim’s troubled journey in captivity.  HBO has secured the US television rights to the project.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
Dir. By Andrew Rossi

Print Media is Dead!  Long Live Print Media!  Taking the much ballyhooed “death of the mainstream media” as it’s rallying cry, Rossi’s glossy doc largely proves that the Old Grey Lady is alive and well.  While a venerable institution like the Times has had to make some difficult adjustments,  an increasing web presence mixed with good old fashioned stubborn reporting would seem to indicate that the paper will be around in some form for many years to come.  Special props are due to Times media reporter David Carr for lashing out at Times detractors like an erudite junkyard dog.  At the very least, Carr’s epic takedown of the young turks at Vice magazine is worth the price of admission.

The Film Independent Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 16th-26th in Downtown L.A.  For screenings, tickets, and showtimes, visit

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