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March 05, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 05, 2004

True lives True lives (March 05, 2004)

Documentaries by local filmmakers to screen at Cinequest

by Susan Tavernetti

J an Krawitz wanted to explore what it means for documentary subjects to have their identities frozen in time. Bill Rose thought his nonfiction film was going to be about the resurrection of an artistic life.

But neither of those documentaries will debut during the 14th edition of the Cinequest Film Festival, which opened on March 3 and runs through March 14 in downtown San Jose.

Instead, Krawitz's "Big Enough" and Rose's "The Loss of Nameless Things" are fascinating studies of what happens when life throws people -- including filmmakers -- a curve ball. Both Palo Alto documentaries will make their world premiere at Cinequest this Sunday.

"You can't force an issue," said Krawitz, a professor in Stanford's department of communication's graduate program in documentary film and video.

She discovered what was interesting to her was insignificant to the dwarfs who appeared in her acclaimed 1980 documentary, "Little People." Now adults, none of them had anything remarkable to say about having their childhood captured on celluloid. Deciding to break from her practice of never revisiting the same topic, Krawitz thought "Maybe the children in this film should be allowed to grow up."

Times have definitely changed in the 25 years since Krawitz had read newspaper filler about a short-stature group in Southern Florida called the Mini-Gators who gathered to discuss their problems. Little had been written about dwarfism and in the pre-Internet era answers were not a mouse click away.

Curiosity took Krawitz to a symposium at John Hopkins Hospital, where the 5-foot 2-inch filmmaker towered over the 150 dwarfs in attendance. Hearing their amazing and often humorous stories made her forget about feeling like an uncomfortable, awkward outsider. It convinced her instead "to chronicle how these survivors navigated the world."

"Big Enough" revisits five of the original subjects through 16mm footage that never found its way into the first documentary. This time around, Krawitz also asked Mark, Len, Karla, Ron and Sharon about identity issues, to determine how their lives and attitudes have changed over two decades.

"The big questions included 'How has being a dwarf defined who you are?' and 'How has your life changed?'" Krawitz added. "I also wanted the average-size world to intersect with the film. What conditions -- such as looking for love, having or not having children -- are common to all of us? Another reason why I wanted to make this film is because of the specter of genetic testing. That's a huge issue that we obviously would not have dealt with in the early 1980s."

Whereas Michael Apted's "Seven Up" series makes a case for "Give me the child at seven and I'll give you the man," Krawitz's meticulously crafted work reveals surprising nuances of character. When medical doctors pronounced there was "no hope" because Len was going to be a dwarf, he decided "I'll be the best dwarf I can be." He became a feisty and funny stand-up comic, outraged by the social injustice and discrimination against little people. And now? The activist has "retired from being a dwarf" to go fishing.

Karla, an optimistic and naive 16-year-old, grew up to find life more challenging than she had ever imagined. She sadly proclaims that "Most people don't let me forget that I'm little." Yet her parents objected to her marriage on the basis of religious differences -- not the fact that her husband was an average-size man.

Five years ago, Mark met Anu at a Little People of America convention after her father had given up on plans for an arranged marriage. Dwarfs in India cannot get an education, so he could not find a suitable intellectual match for her. Lensed by Ferne Pearlstein ("Imelda"), some of the documentary's best scenes show the endearing couple engaged in everyday tasks, such as struggling to cook pasta or doing their laundry.

"That's what I love about documentary. Who could have imagined that moment?" said Krawitz, whose previous films include "Drive-In Blues" and "Mirror, Mirror."

Serendipity partners with Krawitz's smart choices to create a rich and rewarding viewing experience. Although the physical problems of dwarfism have not changed, America today is more accepting of diversity and difference. Krawitz's 53-minute film reflects the more inclusive attitudes of a culture that embraces short-stature star Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent") in something other than a fairy tale, comedy or fantasy.

As Ron points out, little people have "Small bodies but not small minds or attitudes." It's time for the rest of the world to be big enough to accept them for who they are."

Bill Rose's film illustrates how a little person might have saved what was left of Oakley Hall III's artistic life after his mysterious fall from a bridge in 1978. Hospitalized with head injuries, the prognosis looked poor for the 28-year-old playwright and co-founder of the Lexington Conservatory Theater in upstate New York.

"He lost his wife, he lost his career, he lost his talent, he lost his child but somehow his mind held onto Ubu, the clown created by an obscure 19th-century French playwright named Alfred Jarry," Rose said. "Through all those years of being alone in the wilderness of his own mind, he never let go of Ubu and Jarry."

Jarry was only 3 feet tall.

Rose met Hall two years ago through novelist Louis B. Jones, Hall's brother-in-law and Rose's good friend and sometime screenwriting partner. A Northern California theater company received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to stage "Grinder's Stand," the play Hall was writing about the unexplained death of explorer Meriwether Lewis when the tragedy occurred. Rose grabbed a Digibeta video package and headed to the cast read-through, thinking this might be an amazing story.

"The play is beautifully written in blank verse, full of sturm and drang ," Rose added. "After the read-through, I sat down with Oakley and it was immediately apparent that the guy I was talking to was not the guy who had written the play we had just heard. Oakley appreciates the play the way I appreciate the play. We both think, 'The guy who wrote that is really good.'"

A natural storyteller, Rose has fashioned an intriguing documentary through interviews with friends and family, 16mm-film footage, photographs and play readings. "The Loss of Nameless Things" is a mythic, larger-than-life tale about a Golden Boy who literally fell to earth. It has the heightened drama of a Victorian melodrama and the suspense of a good mystery.

The parallels between Hall's art and life are haunting, as though the artist envisioned the life he was about to lead before it happened. This is the stuff of Greek tragedy, of a wild Jack Kerouac figure transformed into Frankenstein monster, of selling one's soul to the devil. Rose connects the mortal man to the myths with superb artistry.

Unlike his award-winning narrative ("The Stars and Their Courses" and "Horace Chooney") and corporate work, Rose admitted that "We didn't know what we were doing, where the story was taking us."

Without a script and with startling revelations around every corner, he and director of photography Mickey Freeman adopted a "When in doubt, shoot it" approach. Then Rose sat down with editor Rick LeCompte to pare 200 hours of footage into his first feature-length documentary.

The ending is not what Rose anticipated nor what Hall's family wants to accept. They are still lamenting their own loss of nameless things, the pieces of Hall taken from them in 1978. They mourn what might have been. As Hall's current wife, Molly, says, "We're not going to know what his third play would have been like or his tenth. It's a big, big loss."

Rose described Hall as a "one-of-a-kind car with no brakes anymore" who can no longer discuss the structure of his plays or the internal lives of his characters -- even though he gets up every morning at 5 a.m. to write. A "gentle, loving, nonjudgmental, open, and kind soul who really connects with children" inhabits his body. Mimicking Jarry, he chews on toothpicks.

Three accomplished Palo Alto shorts will also be shown at the festival. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson's "The World as We Know It" is a stark, 4-minute meditation on the human cost of war with cinematography by Jon Else. Andy Schocken's "Old Glory" also takes an activist stance, satirically commenting on the merchandising and other misuses of the flag in post-9/11 America. Melba L. Williams' "A Thousand Words," a lyrical documentary about her father, will compete in the student shorts competition. Both Schocken and Williams are students in Stanford's documentary film and video program.

Cinequest Maverick Spirit Awards will be given to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the screenwriting team of David and Janet Peoples ("Blade Runner," "Unforgiven," "12 Monkeys") and extreme sports legends Warren and Kurt Miller.
"Big Enough" will screen March 7 at 7 pm at the San Jose Repertory Theatre and March 9 at 7:15 pm at Morris Dailey Auditorium, located on the San Jose State University campus.
"The Loss of Nameless Things" will screen March 7 at 2 p.m. and March 8 at 5 p.m., both at San Jose State University Theater. Oakley Hall III will appear on Sunday with Rose.
Andy Schocken's "Old Glory " and John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson's "The World as We Know It" in "Shorts Program 3: Docu-Nation" will screen March 6 at noon at SJSU's University Theater and March 7 at noon at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.
Melba L. Williams' "A Thousand Words " in "Shorts Program 7B: Student Shorts" will be shown on March 7 at 9:15 p.m. at Camera 3 and March 10 at 9:30 p.m. at University Theater.
"Liberty: 3 Stories About Life & Death" by Mountain View filmmaker Pamela Walton will screen March 6 at 9:15 p.m. at SJSU's University Theater; March 7 at 2:30 p.m. at San Jose Repertory Theater; March 8 at 1 p.m. at University Theater. The film explores a lesbian family of friends and lovers coping with the death of two members. Told in three parts, it shows the power of film to bring back the deceased and reveals the pain and joy of living and dying.

What: Cinequest San Jose Film Festival 2004
When: March 3-14
Where: Screenings will be held at Camera One Cinema (366 S. 1st St., San Jose); Camera 3 Cinemas (South 2nd St. & San Carlos, San Jose); San Jose Repertory Theatre (101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose); San Jose State University Hal Todd Theater (adjacent to University Theater) and SJSU Morris Dailey Auditorium (centrally located on the SJSU campus).

Info: Tickets can be ordered through March 13 by calling 408-295-FEST (295-3378) or online at Ticket orders can be picked up the following day at San Jose Repertory Theatre or San Jose State University Theater. In the case of a sell-out, rush tickets will go on sale 30 minutes prior to the event/screening on a cash only, first-come, first-served basis.

Cost: Tickets are $9 general admission; $7 for students (with valid student ID) and seniors (55 +). Event tickets are $10-$50; TenPack (10 vouchers to attend 10 regular screenings of your choice) are $60. Films & Forums Pass* is $125; Gold Pass* (excludes closing-night gala) is $195. A Platinum Pass* (full festival pass, plus hospitality suite access; Metro Platinum VIP party; Platinum Row seating at special events) is $500.
* Does not include "Life of a Maverick" fundraising event with Governor Schwarzenegger

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