Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Documentary evidence


From Keith Patterson's documentary Ann Richards' Texas. (Photo: DocFest)
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The 11th Annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs Nov. 8-21 at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, Terra, 518 Gallery and Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas. Here are some highlights.

Ann Richards' Texas In hindsight, one of our most important and possibly tragic recent elections was the bitterly fought 1994 contest between then Texas Governor Ann Richards (born and raised in Lakeview, Texas) and Texas Rangers CEO George W. Bush (born in Connecticut and raised in Midland). Years after her bruising defeat, Dorothy Ann Willis Richards would describe the "whispering campaign" against her masterminded by W.'s political "brain," Karl Rove.

"The Bush Campaign and the Christian Coalition put fliers under the windshield wipers in all of the cars in church parking lots that had a black man kissing a white man and said, 'This is what Ann Richards wants to teach your children in the public schools.'"

Some pundits would later claim that Richards – who shot to national fame keynoting the 1988 Democratic National Convention with wicked one-liners such as her caustic putdown of W.'s dad, George H.W. Bush, "born with a silver foot in his mouth" – seriously underestimated W., for whom the campaign was both payback and a dress rehearsal for the White House.

Filmmakers Keith Patterson and Jack Lofton gather an articulate army of Richards' friends – Bill Clinton, Lily Tomlin, Willie Nelson – to place her meteoric career in perspective. A onetime junior-high history teacher, by the 1970s Richards was spearheading a grassroots upheaval in what had been a white boys club running the Texas Democratic Party. By 1976, when she was elected to the Travis County Commissioners Court (like the SF Board of Supervisors), Richards had backed a rainbow coalition of feminists, blacks, Mexican-Americans, gays and lesbians to win seats in the Texas Legislature. It was precisely the company she kept that the Bush forces zeroed in on.

"They said, 'A lot of these people who worked for her are not married, and if they're not married, maybe they're gay.' The next step was, 'Well, maybe if she has [supporters] who are gay, maybe she's gay.' The fact that I'd been married 30 years and had four kids seemed to make no difference at all." 

Ann Richards' Texas recalls a kind of Lone Star Camelot when it was both hip and a hell of a lot of fun to be a Texas lefty. The film recounts some of this good old gal's lasting achievements, the establishment of an all-girls leadership academy, and a book's worth of Bubba-vanquishing toasts. "May you be as rich as a Republican, and enjoy the sex life of a Democrat." (Shattuck, 11/14; Roxie, 11/18, 21)

Broken Mike "Is it true that you Americans can no longer torch a fag [British slang for cigarette] in public?"

"I think in Texas you can still do that."

There are moments in this amusing if queer-comedy-free zone where wannabe comic Michael Agostini's desperation shows. Doubling as Broken Mike's director and as the Seattle International Comedy Competition's least-funny guy standing, the balding ex-history teacher is at least a good sport as a parade of bratty 20-somethings whiz by to a niche on cable TV.

Wannabe comic Michael Agostini appears in Broken Mike.
(Photo: DocFest)

Broken Mike provides an odd barometer on the gender wars: a young female comic, Natalie Gray, wins top honors while barely appearing in the film; the winning guys manage several pokes at prevailing standards of homo panic.

"Rory freaked me out, we French-kissed tonight."

"I see girls walking in the park, sit down, and one girl lies in another girl's lap. Now I'm walking through the park with my buddy Bill. Maybe I want to lie in Bill's lap, and look up and say, 'You know, man, your goatee looks so different from down here.'"

Apart from a gaggle of Canadians going for funny in Seattle, and a tree-hugging comic's almost coming to blows with a surly logger crowd, the doc's defining moment has Agostini rip off his shirt to reveal a big-girl-size bra. Later he taunts the youngest, cutest and runaway first-place winner. "Anybody want to have sex with Jeff Dye?" (Roxie, 11/16, 20)

Scene from Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's Battle for Brooklyn.
(Photo: DocFest)

Battle for Brooklyn Had Walter O'Malley gotten his way a half-century ago, Brooklyn's Atlantic (train) Yards would be the site of a domed Dodger baseball stadium, and there would be no San Francisco Giants. Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's doc has the pacing and cliffhanger reversals of a great postseason series; an intimate tale of a holdout, a guy who fought NYC's plans for the Barclays Center basketball arena; and a riveting saga of how the powers of eminent domain allow cities to bulldoze neighborhoods in the name of Big Sports. (Roxie, 11/9, 15)

A Girl Like Her Ann Fessler explores the bitter truths behind the needs of unwed pregnant women to be seen as "good girls" during the Eisenhower years. Strong archival clips shine a light on customs requiring that young women conceal their condition in secret maternity centers, then give up their little bundles of joy for anonymous adoption. According to Fessler, between 1945-73, a million and a half women lost kids to adoption, with the vast majority from upwardly mobile white families. Before 1972, women who became pregnant in high school or college were promptly expelled. Of the 100 women Fessler interviewed, 30 never had another child. (Shattuck, 11/10; Roxie 11/17, 18)

Fight Life I've often wondered if the buff guys in mixed martial arts ferociously grappling each other in positions seldom obtained outside of sex are ever uncomfortable that their passionate, uncompromising engagement with other hot young men might be misunderstood. James Z. Feng's otherwise excellent doc fails to address this point. He does embed us in the daily lives of three Bay Area MMA fighters who pursue their unforgiving sport for low wages, and often without health insurance. (Roxie, 11/10, 11)


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