It’s a big week for documentaries here in Metro Detroit. Freep Film Festival screenings and events run from Wednesday, April 27 through Sunday, May 1, at venues including Frame in Hazel Park, the Detroit Film Theater, the Redford Theater, and the Michigan Science Center, among others. They are also continued by a separate and unrelated screening of a historical documentary on the work The Wobblies playing at Cinema Detroit (another participating festival venue) on May 1, and a revival the weekend after Flint, a Freep 2021 selection centered on the city’s ongoing water crisis. With festival offerings encompassing activist profiles, policy investigations, fringe subcultures and insights into the lives of artists and restaurateurs, there should be something to call for virtually everyone. While not everything that plays Freep is available for preview, the following is a rough guide to the festival’s many offerings.
The opening of the festival is Gradually, then suddenly: Detroit’s bankruptcy, which dives into the story of not only the city’s bankruptcy in 2013, but also the fallout that followed, from the appointment of an emergency manager to delicate negotiations over city policies and assets. An eye for local history, too, is present in America you kill me, a long-delayed premiere centered on Jeffrey Montgomery, a civil rights activist whose trajectory as an activist was galvanized when his boyfriend was murdered outside a bar in Meto Detroit in what was later dismissed by investigators as ” just another gay murder”. Following the late firebrand’s career in state and national activism, the film seeks to explore the pivotal work of his career as well as his personal costs.
Beth Elise Hawk’s is hotter but barely frictionless. Break the bread, an Israeli feature film about the A-Sham Arabic Food Festival in Haifa, focusing on the struggles of cross-cultural collaboration between Arab and Jewish chefs there to bridge the gaps while preparing superb meals. Tighter by comparison is bad ax, a personal documentary centered on director David Siev’s own Asian-American family in the Michigan town of the same name. Focusing on the family’s experience as minority restaurant owners in Thumb, the film documents their struggles to keep their business standing in the reactionary environment of America’s early days of COVID-19.
Ramin Bahrani’s Sundance documentary tackles both culinary and martial subjects. 2nd chancewhich centers on the life of eccentric entrepreneur Richard Davis, who fell from the Detroit pizza scene before inventing the body armor in 1969. To his credit, 2nd appears to be a probing rather than a celebratory gaze, taking its subject’s trajectory into the body armor business for an opportunity to consider levels of power, fame, and the mythologies of self-starting in context. wider society. Providing a similar space to consider such themes is Riotville, United States, Examination by Sara Pettengill of a fictional town built for anti-uprising training exercises by the United States Army. Probing beyond the pyrotechnic theatrics of their maneuvers, the film seeks to delve into the narratives used to justify even the most drastic measures of top-down militaristic control.
Jenny Perlin is one of the most notable works on similar themes (which was available for review). Bunker, which moves between several underground former military and nuclear encampments modernized in different styles by a variety of men plotting the end of the world. “Survival isn’t everyone’s agenda,” one says, suggesting his job in a half-furnished dome was some sort of call, before lounging on a sofa. Taken like other men with dreams of self-sufficiency, those depicted vary in tone, skill, and even a little in taste, though the latter vary only so far. This last bit is striking within the visual fabric of the film, which consists of many traveling tours. While the millionaires he makes his subject of — “hard-working self-made people,” one marketer insists — have the wherewithal to turn their spaces into anything they could wish for, their bunkers are still outfitted with sparse caverns or endless outdated McMansions: outfitted with signifiers of luxury (ping-pong tables) or survival (masks and endless weapons), but no vectors of true color or life. The fantasies they fulfill are never pastoral or Edenic, despite everything at their disposal, and the men – who even when married seem to wish they were single – always appear alone.
Framed by contrast around a small but lively group of women dog sleds, Anu Rana’s Musher presents dog sled racing on the Keewenaw Peninsula as a lifestyle choice, a year-round concern, and a collaborative enterprise more than a competitive enterprise. Focused on riders as young as 11 alongside one with grandchildren at the end of the film, MusherThe action is quieter than you might think, highlighting the rhythms of day-to-day preparation that runners engage in long before they hit the snowy trails for one of CopperDog’s annual races in the country. ‘Upper Michigan. (These top out at 150 miles – far shorter than the Iditarod – but still present a formidable challenge.) “We live for winter,” said one woman before a tour of the living quarters of a hitch of dogs. The film has many, each a stripped-down showcase of DIY pastoral craft presented with clear authority but little pretension. These rhythms – of training and entertaining dogs, delivering new litters and maintaining homes – and, ultimately, of a community rising up to support each runner, all in concert with the seasons – achieve be soft and soothing while retaining a bit of mystery. When a runner suggests that running itself provides some kind of mindfulness exercise, it’s easy to believe them.
Equally anchored by small town life, iron family centers on Jazmine Faries, a woman with Down syndrome in her early thirties who annually presents a theatrical presentation of her own collaborative work. With productions rooted in his own whimsical, independent-minded creativity and elaborate workshop sessions with his brother and mother, Faries’ show regularly deals with the idea of a fantasized “double life.” Thanks to this, the show manages to speak both of the limits of its environment – a heavy television and pop-cultural regime, a small pool of encounters, a sometimes lack of understanding on the part of those around it and even difficulties in maintaining a healthy diet – as well as all she receives in terms of family and community support. Casting dreams and artistic creation as invigorating (if rarely changing circumstances), it’s unclear whether Faries could have a better life beyond Iron River itself if she found a path to one. There’s no doubt, though, that she’s making the most of what she’s got, which might end up being the only thing that matters.
A more politically engaged portrait is found in David J. Ruck’s The Erie Situation, orbiting recent environmental activism and resident water rights along Lake Erie. When industrial agricultural spillage precipitates toxic algae bloom near Toledo in 2017, recreational opportunities, wildlife and water quality suffer. Research, aid efforts and court battles follow each other in rapid succession in a conflict that raises questions that resonate more broadly with issues of governance, sustainability and climate change. The result is a sprawling case study of negotiations between activists, policymakers and industry to create a world that can work for each of them. As might seem natural given its busy subject matter, the film offers a certain sense of promise but little easy comfort.
Full details of the screening are available at freepfilmfestival.com.