Documentaries celebrate independence at IFFBoston
Most documentaries are by definition independent films — just ask those who must scrape together the funding and find the resources and time to bring their latest obsession to the screen. So it makes sense that the 15th annual Independent Film Festival Boston (April 26–May 3) has programmed so many of them. Of the 54 features on the schedule, 29 are nonfiction, and many of those films involve subjects that are themselves models of independence; they are mavericks and outsiders, either by accident or inclination or both.
Of these outsiders, some exploit their deviations from the norm to create works of art and, in the process, achieve self-fulfillment if not social acceptance. The subject of local filmmaker Eric Stange’s insightful “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” (Saturday, 1:30 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre) endured many tragedies — his mother, stepmother, and first wife all died of “consumption,” as tuberculosis was then called. It didn’t help that he had inherited the family curse of alcoholism.
Though he died at 40 under mysterious circumstances, Poe managed to transform his obsessions, misfortunes, and self-destructiveness into stories and poems that renewed the gothic horror genre and invented the detective story. Stange interviews experts ranging from Poe descendant Harry Lee Poe to Robert Corman, whose Poe adaptations are among the best. He also inserts convincingly creepy dramatic recreations of scenes from the writer’s life (it looks like Poe spent his adult life in damp basements, as many of these reenactments are shot in places like Fort Independence in Boston Harbor) to illuminate and illustrate his tragedy and posthumous triumph.
Local documentarian Robin Berghaus’s inspiring, heartbreaking, and sometimes hilarious “Stumped” (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre) takes up the traumatic tale of filmmaker and teacher Will Lautzenheiser, who was just beginning his career when all his limbs were amputated to save his life from a rare infection.
Lautzenheiser’s response? Stand-up (yes, he makes a joke about that) comedy. He takes his act to Improv Boston and quickly eases the audience’s discomfort about his situation into laughter with his dead-pan, hilarious routines. After he agrees to undergo revolutionary double arm transplantation surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the doubts and ordeal put his sense of humor to the test.
Luke Korem’s documentary “Dealt” (Saturday, 7 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre) concerns another disabled person who excelled in show business. But unlike Lautzenheiser, Richard Turner refused to acknowledge his disability, lest it define his accomplishments. Turner found his medium in card tricks, and through his acute tactile sensitivity and obsessive work ethic (he practices 18 hours a day, and his wife caught him once doing a one-handed shuffle while they were making love) he developed a skill that became legendary.
He never liked it when, after a dazzling performance, someone would invariably point out how a blind person (a characterization he hated) could pull off such feats. His pride verged on denial and vanity. He refused to learn braille, use a cane, or get a guide dog. Instead, he relied increasingly on family members to pick up the slack, which strained his relationships.
His sister, also blind and a success in her field of real estate, tells him he should acknowledge his disability and so provide inspiration to others. But the macho Turner, who has a black belt in karate and is shown eating the eyeball of a giant fish he has caught, won’t allow any concession to weakness until he begins to recognize that such stubbornness is a weakness itself.
Unlike Turner, the imperfect woman at the center of Boston University alumna Melissa Dowler’s “Letting Go of Adele” (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre) has no problem with service dogs. Her name is Marty, and she suffers from a rare heart condition that causes her to pass out without warning. Her highly trained black lab Adele, the world’s first cardiac alert service dog, has probably saved her life many times in the nine years they have been together.
But even service dogs must retire at some point, and Marty must contemplate breaking her intense bond with Adele and forming a new partnership with Hector, Adele’s potential successor. As pet owners know, the termination of such relationships can be more traumatic than breakups with human romantic partners, and Dowler’s film dramatizes that emotional workout as it shows how these dogs can transform a life that is constrained by physical limitations into one that is richly fulfilled.
In Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s brisk, illuminating “Burden” (Sunday, 8 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre), New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl notes that the term sado-masochism might come to mind when discussing the career of Chris Burden, who died in 2015 at age 69.
It’s hard to argue with that, since Burden will forever be known as the guy who in 1971 had someone shoot him in the arm for a performance art piece called “Shoot.” His teachers already marked him as brilliant if extreme after he submitted his master’s thesis, “Five Day Locker Piece,” in which he somehow squeezed himself into a foot locker for the title length of time. Other early works include “Trans-Fixed” (1974), in which his hands were nailed to the back of a VW Beetle.
If anyone seemed likely to die for his art, it was Chris Burden.
But after the 1970s he moved beyond such painful provocations to achieve more user-friendly art such as “Urban Light” (2008), composed of 202 antique Los Angeles street lamps. Permanently installed at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art, it has become, according to one of the film’s interviewees, as popular a photo op in LA as the Hollywood sign. Thus even the most extreme outsider can be transformed into a pop icon by the power of art.
Speaking of the power of art, fiction rates as high as nonfiction in this festival. Among the features that you should include among your must-sees are Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin’s family thriller “La Barracuda” (Saturday, 9 p.m. at Somerville Theatre), about two half-sisters at odds over the family legacy; Gillian Robespierre’s family dramatic comedy “Landline” (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. at Coolidge Corner Theatre) starring Jenny Slate as a woman who is fed up with her life and suspects her father might be having an affair; and “Band Aid” (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at Coolidge Corner Theatre), Zoe Lister-Jones’s off-beat family musical in which she stars as half of a troubled couple (the other half is Adam Pally) who are advised to transform their spats into songs to save their marriage. It’s a technique that the families in some other movies in this festival might want to consider as well.
For more information go to iffboston.org .
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.