Salem Film Fest

Documentary Spotlight: “Karl Marx City”

What was it like to grow up in the most surveillanced society in history? And just what are the possible after-effects when that heavy-handed system of secret police and informers all comes apart in a matter of weeks? Petra Epperlein grew up in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and was a very young woman at the time of its rather sudden collapse in 1989. In the fascinating new film that bears the title of her hometown, Epperlein (who co-directed the film along with her husband-partner Michael Tucker) explains that there was nothing that extraordinary about her childhood where she, along with her family and millions of other East German citizens, played the “go along to get along” game as well as possible. But when her seemingly well-adjusted father commits suicide a decade after re-unification, the questions that arise would eventually lead to this documentary. What the couple came up with is a work that combines elements of a personal film essay with an engrossing retrospective deep dive into the history of the GDR’s infamous secret police (known as the Stasi) with some relevant cautionary signposts for our society along the way.

“Karl Marx City” does start out a bit slowly, with Epperlein’s cautious buildup of the narrative of her family’s fairly normal life within the context of a repressive Eastern Bloc nation. Or was it all as unremarkable as it seemed. When it’s discovered that her father was receiving anonymous and vaguely threatening letters prior to taking his own life, it becomes imperative to probe deeper and eventually led Epperlein back to city where she grew up, which is notable for having a bust of Karl Marx’s head that is so colossal that they didn’t even bother trying to knock it down when most symbols of the old regime (most notably the Berlin Wall) met a similar fate in late 1989 and early 1990.

Petra Epperlein has produced several films with her husband, the most well known probably being “Gunner Palace” from 2004, about young American soldiers stationed at one of Saddam Hussein’s palatial compounds during the Iraq War. Here, Petra goes before the camera in many scenes, more often than not holding her boom mic, interviewing her former neighbors or experts in the field of Iron Curtain dirty dealings. And what a business it was. East Germany was a country with a population of about 17 million but with 92,000 secret police officers aided by some 200,000 informers.

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Karl Mark City, with 12,000 snitches all to itself, is presented as a microcosm of the country, with constant snooping and a population permanently divided by mistrust—the real Orwellian 1984. In a land where it’s said if three people are sitting at a table, one is an informer, Epperlein has to at least speculate that maybe her dad was one of those informers.
In the dual pursuit of personal closure and historical reporting, the directors spend a good chunk of the film’s middle third inside the mammoth vaults of the Stasi’s former headquarters, where former GDR citizens can view the files of themselves and family. Here among the 111 kilometers of aisles are some 41 million index cards (!!) of gathered personal information. This is where “KMC” really gains some heft, as we begin to feel the mind-boggling end result of the state’s pathological pursuit of “conspiratorial objectives” (in the memorable phrase of an ex-Stasi agent). Epperlein and Tucker also make great use of old surveillance camera footage, blending it in with their own stark B&W imagery, and making for a beguiling re-creation of a place where “the enemy is everyone.”

In the case of Epperlein’s father, some of those old dictates seems to have carried over. And although there is some closure and a measure of redemption here for Epperlein and her family, there is no skirting the issue of the long psychic hangover after the fall of the GDR. The former socialist state has had significant problems with de-population as people (esp. younger women) have fled to the former West Germany and elsewhere: it’s asserted that Karl Marx City (which quickly reverted to its historical name of Chemnitz) had the lowest birth rate in the world soon after re-unification, while whole neighborhoods were left deserted, waiting for demolition. The use of “conspirative objectives” to gain political advantage is a problem not confined to former police states, as the recent U.S. election has shown us. At the recent screening of “Karl Marx City” at the Salem (MA) Film Fest where I saw this, Epperlein stressed the needed “responsibility to be vigilant of a democratic state.” These are words that should be well-heeded from someone who grew up in a place that was “stuck between an abandoned past and an unredeemed future.”

“The Case of the 3-Sided Dream” and a Musical Life Well-Lived

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The Case of the Three-Sided Dream
Directed by Adam Kahan–2014–88 minutes

I’m not exactly sure when jazz became such an object of penny-ante scorn. Most recently, there was the witless “satire” of Sonny Rollins that made news after appearing on the blog of New Yorker magazine. It was a fake first-person confession of a man once touted as the “Saxophone Colossus” who admits that “I hate music. I wasted my life” and concedes that the Library of Congress should be burned to the ground because it contains a few of his records. Written by Django Gold, it is so devoid of authorial effort that it could not possibly have taken more time to write than it does to read. More generally, the name itself has become a by-word for a passé genre best ignored, even to the point where Jay Leno’s “who buys jazz?” tagline was accentuated by his showing cutout-bin CD covers of his own band leader, Kevin Eubanks.

So it is at least a bit heartening to see “America’s native art form” (per Dizzy Gillespie) enjoying a bit of a renaissance on film. This includes the highly-touted 2014 documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On” where Clark Terry, the much-honored trumpet player whose career dates back to Count Basie, helps a blind 23 year-old piano protégé prepare for an international competition while he himself is pushing 90. (Terry died last month). Also, John Coltrane’s masterpiece ballad “Naima” played a key part in this year’s foreign-film Oscar winner, “Ida.” Now add to that “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream”, Adam Kahan’s dazzling documentary about Rahsaan Roland Kirk that I saw in its Massachusetts premier this week at the great all-doc Salem Film Fest.

Kirk, who died way back in 1977, was certainly one of his era’s wildest innovators. The blind saxophonist built on the great leap forward of bebop pioneers like Coltrane and Charlie Parker, referring to himself as a “journey agent” exploring any and all avenues of sound with no “self-imposed barriers.” Rahsaan, as he wanted to be known, would show up on stage with several saxophones (some of his own invention) strapped on, as well as flutes, piccolos, whistles and who knows what all. Blowing on several reed instruments at one time was his trademark (some said “gimmick”) a sign of restless creativity that could hardly be contained.

Especially in the 70s footage, by which time he was dressing in African clothes and incorporating everything from gongs to smashed furniture into his performance, Kirk was a natural as a musician that benefited from being seen as well as heard and Kahan includes much live (and largely uninterrupted) footage. The viewer is treated to him doing his signature “Serenade to a Cuckoo” on the BBC in 1964, a titanic rendition of “Volunteered Slavery” at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival and a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show that came about after he and some colleagues creatively protested the lack of “black classical music” on the airwaves. Kirk assembled an all-star ten-piece outfit (including Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes) and did a bang-up job on “Haitian Fight Song” even though the producers requested they do “My Cherie Amour.”

Kahan includes some playful pop-art animation sequences to play along with Kirk’s recorded spoken-word pieces, which show his advocacy of populist self-realization and his puckish sense of humor as well. The affecting interview segments are with family, friends and musical collaborators—academic talking heads and celebrities are absent. Since most everything Rahsaan did seemed geared towards “connection to community” this all seems to the good.

During the Q&A time with Kahan that followed, many older viewers (several of whom had seen Kirk in concert back in the day) seemed impressed that a young guy like himself would be drawn to a subject that died around the same time period he was born. The director’s answer was interesting and one I could relate to. He reached a certain age in young adulthood and decided he would buy some jazz records because he felt it was something he should know. That this curiosity and openness to join into the larger cultural heritage would lead to something special—a national treasure like Rahsaan Roland Kirk getting his documentary day in the sun—is not surprising. Some 15 years after being captivated by a Kirk album he found at a yard sale, Kahan has paid it forward with a great film but for so many others I’m afraid this won’t be the case. Perhaps at the root of this easy-way-out dismissal of music genres like jazz is the fear of commitment to work for (or even bothering to understand) an aesthetic greater good. If you’re into music today why bother to master an instrument when you may be able to take the short-cut to the top by over-vocalizing a boilerplate pop song on “The Voice.” That mindset has largely replaced virtuosic and collaborative musical forms with a quest for personal celebrity that is hollow at its core. Now we can start talking about “a wasted life.”

Salem Film Fest: So many docs, so little time

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The weeklong all-documentary Salem Film Fest, running from March 6-13, has a great and remarkably diverse line-up of films, with 37 features and almost as many short subjects. I was able to see several of them last week and even if I can’t get back there in its last two days, will have a sizable checklist for future viewing choices.

I feel a little silly that before this year I was largely unaware of this supercool event that takes place in my hometown of Salem, Mass. and that is barely a half-hour’s drive from where I live now. It’s been gong on for seven years and during that whole time I was writing a book called “Documentary 101.” Actually, considering the 420-page ordeal, maybe it’s not that surprising. In conjunction with the festival I took a “Discovering Documentary” class taught by Erin Trahan, co-editor and publisher of the online film magazine, The Independent. An all-day class (at the Montserrat College of Art in neighboring Beverly) the week before was followed by an inclusive SFF full day pass on a Saturday accompanied by panel discussions etc. Any non-fiction film buffs in my neck of the woods take notice for next year, it was great! And as for the Salem Film Fest, what a first rate program, accompanied by a welcoming vibe, all centered on the town’s historic Essex St. pedestrian mall. Looks like March may be the new October for the Witch City when it comes to attracting attention…

Of the film’s I did see, the opening night presentation of “A Fragile Trust,” profiling the plagiarizing New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, was a treat. Filmmaker Samantha Grant was in attendance (as were most directors of the selected films, it seemed) and during the Q&A, one person compared it to Errol Moris’ Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” as a mea culpa coup of sorts. Robert McNamara’s defensive testimony in “Fog” of his dubious high-level role in escalating the Vietnam War may have more gravity. But Blair’s high-profile case, which caused an erosion of confidence in journalism at a time when traditional news could least afford it, is no small potatoes. Blair’s rampant ego, blended in with lingering mental health issues and substance abuse, led to a prominent scandal and his presence in the film as a less-than-reliable interviewee was fascinating stuff. (“Where does the illness stop and the gaming begin?” wondered one of the talking heads). A show of hands at the Q&A revealed about half thought the film made them at least somewhat sympathetic of Blair, while the other half were left with disdain. Another example of the engaging power of the documentary form, although I have to agree with my sister Pam, who I watched it with it with, Grant should tone down that cue-happy soundtrack music. If you get a chance, check out “A Fragile Trust” when it airs on PBS on May 5th.

On Saturday, I saw the charming “Tokyo Waka” by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, about the 20,000+ jungle crows that inhabit one of the world’s biggest cities. The poetic flow of this work reflected both the natural world’s interaction with the built environment and the Japanese people’s philosophy of everyday life as seen in relation to this enigmatic, iconic bird. Also got to check out the vibrant “Everybody Street” (directed by photojournalist-filmmaker Cheryl Dunn) about notable photographers who have worked the streets of New York City through the decades. Tellingly, most of the folks behind the camera (like Joel Meyerowitz, Jill Freedman, Bruce Davidson and the Serbian-born Boogie) are as least as fascinating as the diverse multitudes they take pictures of, and that’s saying something. Like “Waka” this is a sidelong portrait of a great city as a whole.

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Among the entries I circled in the program for future viewing: “Dear Mr. Watterson” about the creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip; “Rich Hill”, a look at the de-population of large swatches of heartland America thru the example of one Missouri town; and relatedly, “The Human Scale”, Andreas Dalsgaard’s new film on the urban challenges facing a world where 80% of the population will be living in large cities by 2050. And as a fan of music docs, I hope to soon be seeing “Elektro Moskava” (pictured above) and it’s tale of Russia’s vital historical role in the development of electronic music. Sounds like it would make a great double feature with 1995’s “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” about Russian-born Leon Theremin who invented the self-named first electronic instrument. Theremin, who was the toast of Manhattan in the pre-war years, mysteriously disappeared (and rumored to be a kidnap victim of the KGB) before turning up a half-century later in Moscow, making a trip to NYC in his last years to be re-united with his protégé Clara Rockwell. I always sensed there were other stories where that came from.

You can still see the entire festival line-up at salemfilmfest.com. Happy viewing!

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is now available as an e-book in all formats for only $4.99, more details in next post.