On Monday night, I return to the Somerville Theatre and to the Mississippi Delta region for “Woodpecker,” a film set mostly in the little town of Brinkley, Ark., population around 4,000. I’ve never been to Brinkley, but I grew up about 100 miles away, just outside Little Rock, so the film has some inherent interest.
“Woodpecker” is presented at the festival as a narrative feature, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. Parts of it are straight documentary, as director Alex Karpovsky relays the facts of the apparent rediscovery in Brinkley in 2005 of the ivory-billed woodpecker, previously believed extinct since the 1940s. The sighting of a bird believed to be woodpecker in question sets off a frenzy of news coverage (in file video, Wolf Blitzer seems particularly excited) and draws ornithologists, amateur birdwatchers, and assorted kooks to the little town, briefly helping to revitalize its depressed economy. But then no one can seem to produce another verifiable sighting or track down a nest, and everyone begins to wonder whether the initial sighting was real or not. Meanwhile, local sportsmen are frustrated that much of the bayou has been closed for hunting and fishing due to the sighting, leading to a conflict between them and the townsfolk who are benefitting from the tourism.
So that’s all fine and good, and it could make for an interesting documentary. But Karpovsky is up to something else entirely, interpolating a fictional character into the mix and following his hapless attempts to spot the bird. The character is Johnny Neander, played by Jon Hyrns, and could be described as a redneck Dwight Schrute, except not funny. Really not funny. In long, long take after long, long take, not one little bit funny. Just tiresome, and condescending to Southerners and rural people of all regions.
After the film, Karpovsky comes out for a Q&A in which he seems totally oblivious to this and convinced that Jon Hyrns is a real laff riot. He reveals one thing that’s very telling, I think: He’s from the Boston area himself, and thus a fine example of what makes Southerners, even educated, well-traveled Southerners who would never think to designate someone a “Yankee,” annoyed with East Coast elitists.
I close out my Monday night with another program of short films; this time it’s “Tales of Whimsy.” All the films included are entertaining and—sure enough—whimsical, but it’s the longest one, the 23-minute “The European Kid,” that catches my attention. It’s about a young man (Ben Grinnell), maybe in his late teens, who’s on the run from criminals trying to collect on his gambling debts and hides in the home of his former girlfriend, whose parents hate him and whose sister he’s also slept with. Though people identify him as European, he speaks with an American accent and has no particularly European attributes I can find. He’s kind of a chubby kid, with a strange, hound-dog face, but apparently catnip to the ladies, and his interactions with each member of the family are so dryly funny that I didn’t mind that nothing ever quite made sense. The director/co-writer, Ian Martin, shows real potential, at least as long as he’s casting Grinnell as his lead.
As the festival began in one of the world’s coldest places, so it closes in another, at the opposite end of the planet, with the documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” Werner Herzog’s inquisitive, acerbic, highly subjective travelogue of Antarctica. Starting from the McMurdo Station at the continent’s edge, Herzog explores its wildlife, geology, and undersea diversity and those who study them, with a particular interest in the outsiders who find themselves there because, as one explains, “If you take all the people in the world who aren’t tied down, eventually they fall to the bottom of the earth.”
The film is split almost evenly between moments one might find in any nature documentary and moments that are pure Herzog, such as when he tries to keep a taciturn penguin researcher talking by asking him about reports of gay penguins or goes on a tangent about people pointlessly trying to get themselves into the Guinness Book of World Records. Throughout, Herzog comes off as a curmudgeonly uncle, both fond of his subjects and vexed by their inanity. Often he lets his camera simply catch them saying absurd things and then linger while their own obliviousness indicts them as fools; other times his voice-over will intervene during a long-winded tale to explain that the interviewee will continue in this vein interminably, and here’s her actual point.
It’s a fascinating film, though not a truly great one, but it fills every seat in the big room at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and the crowd responds enthusiastically, sure that they’ve seen something special. A show of hands before the film demonstrates that most of the crowd has seen multiple films at the festival, many more than 10, and there’s an overall sense of success for the festival and satiation for a film-hungry crowd.
Did we learn anything, though? Are there trends or themes that might tell us something about where independent film is headed? There’s a lot of interest in that perennial indie-film subject, outsiders and the bonds that form between them. And unhealthy or at least questionable relationships between adults and children got a lot of play. We’ve seen a lot of voice-over narration, often from unreliable narrators, so that seems to have returned to vogue. And it’s clear that Werner Herzog is everywhere, all the time.
I guess the big lesson here, from the tremendous variety of styles, points of view, and intentions of these films, is that independent film is an infinite number of things, all the time, any one of which might offer a corrective or at least a balance to the standard Hollywood dreck. Really, what independent film offers, at its best, is a view into worlds and lives that Hollywood doesn’t even know are out there.
Awards at the Independent Film Festival of Boston 2008
Grand Jury Prize, Narrative: “Ballast” directed by Lance Hammer
Special Jury Prize, Narrative: “Momma’s Man” directed by Azazel Jacobs
Audience Award, Narrative: “My Winnipeg” directed by Guy Maddin
Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: “Song Sung Blue” directed by Greg Kohs
Special Jury Prize, Documentary: “Secrecy” directed by Robb Moss and Peter Galison
Audience Award, Documentary: “Life. Support. Music.” directed by Eric Metzgar
Grand Jury Prize, Short Film: “Man” directed by Myna Joseph
Special Jury Prize, Short Film: “Glory at Sea!” directed by Ben Zeitlin
Audience Award, Short Film: “Tony Zoreil” (Tony Zear) directed by Valentin Potier
Programmer’s Choice Award: “Goliath” directed by David & Nathan Zellner