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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

LAFF Succeeds with Thought Provoking Documentaries

Even though I’ve made LA my home for the past thirteen years, like most people who live here, there are many annual events that take place that I’ve never gotten around to experiencing. The LA Film Festival is one of them. But this year is different. After living in San Francisco and never visiting Alcatraz, and living in New York City and never going to the top of the Empire State Building I’ve decided it’s about time I enjoy my surroundings. And so far in regards to the LAFF, I’m really glad I’ve made the effort.

It’s not even that much of an effort really. Now that the Festival is in its second year at LA Live downtown it’s very easy for me to take the Metro from Hollywood for a $3 roundtrip. Granted, finding a place to eat between screenings can be tough when an event at the Staple Center is happening, but the Regal Cinema has turned out to be a real discovery for me. I don’t know about the popcorn, but the screenings I’ve been to so far have all been in great theaters with impressively large screens and incredibly comfortable seats that rival those at the Arclight. The films themselves have ranged from the well-financed, star-studded, heist job gone terribly wrong, Drive to the low budget, lackluster independents attempting to be kooky (I’ll spare giving a title). However, I’ve found that the truly dependable tickets for this year’s fest are the ones for the many thought provoking documentaries, particularly Once I was a Champion, Salaam Dunk and Paraiso for Sale (which screens for the last time tonight at 9:50pm).

Once I was a Champion is the story of ultimate fighting champion, Evan Tanner. Many people are familiar with this story, but I was not and do not wish to spoil the many surprises in store for any one who might think this is just another sports bio. It is most certainly not. Granted the title does suggest that this film might just be about the spectacular raise and ignoble fall of an athlete who now bemoans what was and could have been. But there is so much more to this film and its subject than you could possibly imagine. The thing that interested me the most was the in-depth and personal perspectives the filmmakers were able to obtain from the conflicting accounts of many of Tanner’s closest friends and fellow athletes. In an interview with director Gerard Roxburgh and producer Kirk Porter they made it clear that they wanted to approach the film as a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, establishing plot points where the audience would fall in love with the hero, come to dislike him, and fall in love with him all over again, and they succeeded. I fully expect to see Roxburgh at many more festivals in the future with narrative films and look forward to see what his distinctive voice will bring us in the future. “I Once was A Champion” screens two more times during the festival, Thursday the 23rd at 5:30pm and Saturday the 25th at 7:20pm.

Likewise, Salaam Dunk is another documentary well worth catching on the big screen. All though it also involves a sport, Salaam Dunk is most certainly not a sports film. It’s mostly about female empowerment. The YWCA and Girl Scouts of America have been saying it for years, and now Salaam Dunk demonstrates how sports can offer young women so much more than just the opportunity to develop athletic skills. Especially if the team is composed of young women who live in a society where playing a game like basketball can provoke violent acts upon the participants. The college students in this film live in a progressive area of Iraq where women are allowed to play sports under certain restrictions. And because it’s unlike anything these women have ever experienced they find new strength in themselves and the multi-ethnic friends they never thought they could have before. Ladies bring your friends, and dads bring your daughters. You’ll be delightfully surprised with the warmth and joy this film inspires. Salaam Dunk screens Tuesday the 21st at 7:10pm, Wednesday the 22nd at 4:00pm, and finally on Friday the 24th at 7:40pm.

Paraiso for Sale was another well-executed film that had me leaving the theater with my mind reeling a mile a minute. This documentary tells the ongoing tale of an isolated area in Panama which was once an unknown paradise. But now this paradise is under threat from developers as well as individuals who have taken advantage of the near non-existent government in order to participate in what amounts to a land grab. What is particularly maddening is that the natives who have lived on land for generations are being forcibly removed from their homes. Even ex-pats with titled land they bought in good faith are facing an un-winnable battle against corporate giants who wish to build gigantic developments. It seems almost unfathomable that this could happen and that no one is doing anything about, least of all the local government. Granted, this is an issue as old as time when one thinks of the history of the US, or even Europe. But what is most astonishing and even heartbreakingly demonstrated in this fair and balanced documentary is that we, as humans, haven’t learned our lesson yet, on either side of the battle lines. Come on out tonight and catch Paraiso for Sale for its last LAFF screening at 9:50pm. No doubt you will leave the theater discussing the film with fellow audience members whether you know them or not. This film will make you think, and wonder if the rest of the world is right – that there’s just no fighting the guys with the most money.

Whether you catch a documentary or not, there’s plenty to see at this year’s LAFF. And you’ve got practically five whole more days to do it. So, no more excuses get out of the house and begin enjoying the many blessings an LA summer has to offer. This could be the beginning of a whole new tradition.

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