The fourth Chicago International Documentary Festival continues through Sunday, April 8, with screenings at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; Portage; Society for Arts, 1112 N. Milwaukee; and Univ. of Chicago Doc Films. Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $9, $7 for seniors and students, and $7 for shows before 2 PM or after 10 PM. A festival pass good for ten screenings is available for $70 but does not include the closing-night gala; for more information call 773-486-9612. Following are selected films; for a complete schedule visit chicagodocfestival.org.
The Big Sellout Director Florian Opitz shows a good eye for affecting details in this 2006 German documentary on the privatization of government services: a mother struggles to find dialysis for her son in the Philippines; a private water company installs meters that require prepayment, over Soweto residents' protests; British Rail workers display a succession of new uniforms provided by private companies. But the People magazine approach is superficial at best: economist Joseph Stiglitz tells of how privatized monopolies can charge exorbitant prices, but we never learn if the water companies in Bolivia and South Africa actually did that. In English and subtitled German, Spanish, and Tagalog. 94 min. (FC) Opitz and Stiglitz will attend the screening. a Sat 4/7, 5 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.
Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street Phil Ranstrom's paean to the old Maxwell Street Market plays like three separate documentaries, each with its own feel and thesis. The first part, which details the market's beginnings after the Great Chicago Fire and its growth during the waves of European immigration and African-American migration, resembles a pedestrian History Channel program. The second flows much better, showing how the market's cultural melting pot fostered the birth of electric blues, and the third investigates the collusion between City Hall and big business that allowed the University of Illinois at Chicago to buy the area for campus expansion, then sell a large chunk to private developers. Ranstrom sees gentrification as inimical to urban vitality--this should have been his primary focus. 100 min. (AG) Ranstrom will attend both screenings. a Fri 4/6, 6:30 PM, Chopin Theatre; also Sun 4/8, 3 PM, Portage.
Chernobyl: The Invisible Thief Bernard Debord's Sun and Death, a recent French documentary on victims of the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in Chernobyl, was scathing in its treatment of the Soviet government's lies and cover-ups. There's less finger-pointing and more personal sadness in this German documentary by Christoph Boekel: his wife, whom he met when she served as his Russian interpreter on another film project, died from exposure to Chernobyl radiation. The most memorable interviews here are with a talented painter who worked on the mop-up team after the disaster (and has also since died) and a former science editor at Pravda who's followed the story for two decades. In German with subtitles. 59 min. (JR) Also on the program: Jerzy Hoffman's 50-minute Polish/Ukrainian documentary Ukraine: Birth of the Nation. a Sat 4/7, 7:30 PM, Society for Arts.
RCrazy Sexy Cancer If there's such a thing as a feel-good movie about cancer, then Kris Carr's video memoir is it. A beguiling former actress with a can-do attitude, Carr is devastated to learn she has a rare, incurable cancer, but she throws herself into augmenting her medical treatment with macrobiotic diets, spirituality, yoga, and networking with other cancer fighters. Her talent for improvisational humor (she compares liquid barium to the stuff found on peep-show floors) gives the film much of its energy, while her compassion for other patients adds gravitas. Carr doesn't talk about happy endings--she's in stage four of the disease, and as she says, there is no stage five--yet her acceptance of her condition frees her to approach life head-on. 89 min. (AG) a Sat 4/7, 7 PM, Chopin Theatre.
Dale NASCAR fans are the target audience for this documentary about racer Dale Earnhardt, though it makes a sturdy primer for the uninitiated. Directors Rory Karpf and Mike Viney trace Earnhardt's life from his hardscrabble childhood in North Carolina (where his father escaped the local cotton mill to become a legendary short-track racer) to his formative years as a grimly determined, somewhat reckless young driver and his 2001 death during the Daytona 500. Earnhardt became a working-class hero and a devoted family man, but unfortunately Karpf and Viney only allude to the darker aspects of his character that helped forge his success. 100 min. (JK) a Sat 4/7, 5 PM, Portage.
R Excellent Cadavers Adapting and updating a book by American journalist Alexander Stille, this gripping Italian documentary (2005) recounts the decadelong campaign by magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino to break the back of the Sicilian Mafia. The centerpiece of their prosecution, a giant "maxi-trial" in Palermo, produced hundreds of convictions in the mid-80s but probably cost both men their lives: they died in separate bomb attacks in 1992. Silvio Berlusconi's campaign against the Italian judiciary subsequently gutted many of the legal tools that helped Falcone and Borsellino win their convictions, and the movie leaves little doubt that the Cosa Nostra is still, as one judge puts it, "an organic part of the Italian political structure." Marco Turco directed. In English and subtitled Italian. 91 min. (JJ) a Fri 4/6, 1 PM, Chopin Theatre.
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib The end credits of this HBO documentary about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal reveal that some of the interviewees were paid, which proves there are other ways to get people to talk. Director Rory Kennedy (Pandemic: Facing AIDS) rounded up some of the military police and intelligence specialists who were punished and fingers the people higher up the chain of command who skated (General Geoffrey Miller, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, and U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld). Her treatment of the story doesn't add much to the public record, but given the willful amnesia of most Americans, this serves as a handy reminder of where the war on terror was headed all along. 78 min. (JJ) Also on the program: Christopher Booker's The C Number. Booker will attend both screenings. a Sat 4/7, 4:30 PM, Chopin Theatre; also Sun 4/8, 7 PM, Portage.
Grace Kelly, Destiny of a Princess This English-language version of a French documentary by Patrick Jeudy is mediocre celebrity journalism, offering less insight or information than breathless speculation about why Kelly gave up Hollywood stardom to marry the prince of Monaco when the couple was never even seen kissing in public. There's no analysis of Kelly's career (her best movie, Rear Window, isn't even mentioned), and most of the narrative consists of voice-over by an actress pretending to be a real-life journalist who interviewed Kelly a few times. 59 min. (JR) Also on the program: Suree Towfighnia's 23-minute Tampico. Towfighnia will attend the screening. a Sun 4/8, 5 PM, Society for Arts.
His Big White Self British documentary maker Nick Broomfield profiled South African white supremicist Eugene Terreblanche in The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife (1991); this 2006 video mixes old footage with a new interview but offers scant insight into the heart of racism. "The Leader" appears with his followers, wearing Nazi-like insignia, and there are overlong scenes with two who knew him. His followers wanted an all-white homeland, preferred race war to the end of apartheid, and ultimately turned to terrorist bombings. Most revealing is that Terreblanche drunkenly attacked his own black employee, an act that sent him to prison. Today he writes poetry--and seems unrepentant. 93 min. (FC) a Fri 4/6, 9 PM, Portage.
In Memoriam Alexander Litvinenko Jos de Putter and Masha Novikova recap the mysterious November 2006 poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of the FSB (Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) who won political asylum in Britain and accused his old organization and President Vladimir Putin of various conspiracies against the Russian people. The Byzantine story cries out for an objective narrator, but rather than reconstruct his career and evaluate his charges, this Dutch production throws together sensational news footage and speculation from Litvinenko's allies (his widow, his father, fellow dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, exiled Chechen foreign minister Akhmed Zakayev). Like many contemporary news accounts, the resulting documentary begins with a conclusion--that Litvinenko was silenced by the FSB--and works backward into obscurity. 55 min. (JJ) Also on the program: Olly Lambert's 38-minute UK documentary The Tea Boy of Gaza. a Fri 4/6, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.
RIn the Shadow of the Moon David Sington's glossy tribute to the Apollo space program mixes archival material and recent interviews with the astronauts to survey what still ranks as NASA's greatest achievement. Lamentably Sington blows through the program's early history to focus on the Apollo 11 mission, which might be understandable if the program's 14 years weren't so full of excitement. The astronaut interviews are fun and occasionally moving, but the real reason to see this is the remastered archival footage, some of it previously unseen and all of it spectacular. 100 min. (Reece Pendleton) a Fri 4/6, 9 PM, Chopin Theatre.
RKill the Messenger Possibly the festival's most radioactive entry, this 2006 documentary for French TV centers on FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds, who was fired from the bureau's translation unit in March 2002 and subsequently claimed she'd seen evidence of money laundering, narcotics trafficking, and participation in the nuclear black market. Attorney General John Ashcroft twice invoked the State Secrets Privilege to silence Edmonds, and because she's been legally gagged, directors Mathieu Verboud and Jean-Robert Viallet fill in the blanks themselves. The documentary's second section draws on a Vanity Fair article by David Rose to charge that the bureau was infiltrated by Turkish spies, but the most explosive (and least corroborated) allegations come in the third and last section, which posits that U.S. neoconservatives conspired with Turkey and Israel to funnel nuclear technology to Pakistan. 83 min. (JJ) a Sat 4/7, 9 PM, Chopin Theatre.
ROrange Revolution Steve York directed this lively account of the mass demonstrations that gripped Ukraine in 2004, following the ruling authoritarian regime's attempt to steal the presidential election from the charismatic reform candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Hundreds of thousands of citizens occupied Kiev's central square and surrounded government buildings for several weeks in a tense standoff with government troops. York, whose previous film, A Force More Powerful (1999), examined several nonviolent revolutions, nicely captures the excitement and volatility of the events on the ground, and his access to the uprising's key players makes for a timely and fascinating look at grassroots democracy in action. In English and subtitled Ukrainian. 106 min. (Reece Pendleton) a Sat 4/7, 7 PM, Portage.
Senator Obama Goes to Africa Bob Hercules will attend this screening of his 60-minute work in progress. Tickets are $15. a Sat 4/7, 8 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.
They Chose China Shui-bo Wang's riveting Canadian documentary (2005, 52 min.) tells the story of 21 American soldiers captured during the Korean war who were released in 1954 but immigrated to the People's Republic of China instead of returning home. Archival footage shows them citing the intolerance and paranoia of the McCarthy era as they renounce their allegiance to America. Wang focuses on those who stayed in China the longest, including the lone holdout, the late James Veneris; others returned to the U.S. to face court-martial and national opprobrium. (JK) Also on the program: Michael Prazan's 52-minute French documentary The Nanjing Massacre: Memory and Oblivion (2006). a Sun 4/8, 7 PM, Chopin Theatre.