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A common film myth is that early moviegoers were terrified by the approach of a train in the 1895 Lumière film L Arrivé d un Train , confusing the images for reality. I had a similar experience recently, and while I didn't duck under my seat (and I doubt any of those original audience members did either), I can understand some of the shock they must have felt. While they were probably amazed that what they were seeing wasn't real, I was shocked to find that what I had viewed was . Pinki stood up on the stage, clutching her little purse and hiding behind her dad shyly. The audience excitement was palatable. Here was the little girl we had just seen a few minutes before on screen in Smile Pinki , in poverty-stricken India, with stitches on her upper lip from the free operation which fixed her cleft. It was a fairytale transformation, yet it was undeniably real.  

In February I attended "DocuDay LA 2009," an all-day event with screenings of the documentary films – all nine features and shorts – nominated for Academy Awards. A day pass was $55 and I was in it for the long haul – 14 hours from 9:30 am to 11:30 pm. In a few weeks I would be making a short documentary film with a friend of mine for a festival competition, and an intensive review of the genre was in order. My boyfriend Scott had heard about the event, and we both signed up, looking forward to the adventure. After that though, we got in a fight, and he wasn't talking to me. I decided to attend anyway; I had already paid the money, and I really wanted to see the films. I was hoping that he would show up too.  

I spent the Friday evening before making salads and preparing snacks to bring. I wasn't sure whether my food allergies would allow me to eat anything available there for purchase, and I didn't want to risk missing any of the documentaries or discussions. I was glad I had enough food and drink with me for quick snacking; after each film's question and answer session, there were only about 15 minutes until the next movie started. I was a few minutes late for one of the early films, and in the dark I miraculously managed to find my original camp out spot with all of my stuff untouched. I wasn't going to try that again.  

I felt a real camaraderie with the other participants who were also attending for the entire day. We all arrived by 9 am and conversed in line until the theater opened. After the first or second film, all of the diehard fans had found spots to claim, and we watched each other's belongings on breaks. The woman to my left chatted with me after each film while offering me candies and various types of scented hand lotion. She said she never stayed up past nine and squeezed my arm as she left before a later film finished. Her husband remained longer and shook my hand warmly before he took off. The viewers to my right were transients, each group friendlier than the last, and I had a nice talk with the couple behind me about the merits of each film and how thrilled we were to meet some of the filmmakers and their subjects. I scoured the audience relentlessly, but Scott never did show up.  

Without exception, the films were absolutely wonderful. James Marsh directed this year's feature Oscar winner Man on Wire , the story of Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who illegally rigged cables for a stunt between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. Robert Zemeckis has supposedly signed on to direct a narrative version of this same story, but how could actors ever do a better job than the actual participants in this suspenseful drama? The documentary is thrilling, funny, touching – as good as or better than any Hollywood heist movie. Philippe's larger than life personality matches the scale of his performances, and when he crosses over into newfound fame in America, he outgrows his old circle. The bittersweet break with his wife Annie and close friend Jean-Louis is made more poignant by their appreciation of the gifts he gave them - the perfectly poetic performance and the beautiful memory of participating in it with him. While the filmmakers never mention the events of September 11, every shot of the World Trade Center towers looms monumentally, infused with so much collectively understood pathos that nothing more needs to be said.  

Megan Mylan directed the Oscar winner for short documentary, the 39-minute film Smile Pinki . The movie chronicles free cleft surgeries for two children in rural India, five-year-old Pinki and an eight or nine-year-old boy. As social outcasts, both had dropped out of school before the corrective surgery gave them a chance for a better life. Even more moving than the children's reactions are those of the parents – the boy's mother, suspicious and untrusting, who is finally convinced to take him to the surgery, and Pinki's father, full of obvious love for his daughter and shame that he can't do anything to help her – both rewarded with their children's new smiles, something neither of them could have ever dreamed possible. Immediately following the film, director Megan Mylan came onstage with Pinki, her father Rajendra, and the surgeon Dr. Subodh Kumar Singh, to the stunned audience's thunderous applause and standing ovation. In addition to the DocuDay event, Pinki also attended the Oscar ceremony, though I read that while her smile dazzled on the red carpet, she was asleep by the time the award for her film was announced.  

Also based in India was another of the nominees in the documentary short category, the 39-minute film The Final Inch , which featured some plucky health outreach workers who fight daily battles against superstition, mistrust, and misinformation as they go out in the impoverished rural regions to vaccinate children against polio. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky explained some of the difficulties she and producer Tom Grant had in filming, particularly in gaining access. With men at work during the day, the local Muslim women left alone at home with the children would not let male cameramen into their homes, so Taylor Brodsky ended up shooting much of the b-roll footage herself. The images of horrifically crippled children and adults moving about with amazing agility are made all the more heartbreaking with the realization that their polio could have been prevented.  

Another short documentary that pulled on the heartstrings was Stephen Okazaki's The Conscience of Nhem En (26 minutes), a profile of a Cambodian man who as a 16-year-old boy worked at the notorious S-21 prison of the Khmer Rouge, photographing prisoners before they were tortured and killed. Photographer Nhem En's lack of remorse is in stark contrast to the bone-chilling stories of the three prisoners who survived their sentences, and the thousands of black and white photographs of Khmer Rouge victims speak more loudly and defiantly than Nhem En's sullen silence.  

The only nominated short documentary filmed in the U.S. was The Witness – From the Balcony of Room 306 , an account of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination as told by Memphis civil rights leader Rev. Billy Kyles, the only man on the balcony with King at the time of his death. Kyles' wonderful rhetoric evokes King himself, bringing alive the mood in the country and in Memphis at the time of the murder. For years Kyle would not tell his story, finally agreeing to do so for family friend and producer Margaret Hyde. The film was directed by Adam Pertofsky, who told the audience how honored he was to be chosen to direct a film so integral and important to the history of America.  

Another homegrown film was The Garden , a documentary feature directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, the story of a grass roots fight in Central Los Angeles to save an urban community garden from destruction. The impassioned local citizens stage an admirable battle against the unfeeling and corrupt government machine, with appearances by celebrities Willie Nelson, Danny Glover, and Daryl Hannah. Aficionados of Los Angeles politics will revel in the intricacies of the machinations and the unflattering portraits of local politicians and personalities. The urban farmers' perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds is absolutely inspiring and confirms that while American bureaucracy may desperately need repair, the strength of the human spirit is still strong.  

On the theme of government ineptitude, on a scale almost unimaginable, is the feature Trouble the Water . This is the tale of aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott who, unable to leave New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, stay and videotape the flood and ensuing destruction. Their infinite patience and fortitude in the face of bureaucratic bungling and endless delays are absolutely mind-boggling. I can't remember the last time I had such a visceral feeling of how insignificant my own problems are in the scale of difficulties in the world. Kim and Scott's faith and determination to rebuild their own lives, by overcoming obstacles most of us could not fathom, let alone deal with, with generosity and warmth to spare, are awesome, in the Biblical sense of the word. When Kim stages an impromptu rap to her song "I'm Amazing," there is not a shred of doubt in the audience, and we could hardly hear the next scene for all the cheering. That excitement was only exceeded after the film when directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin announced that Kimberly and Scott were in attendance. The celebrities were clearly pleased and embarrassed by the crazily enthusiastic welcome.  

After the question and answer session, I ran out to use the restroom, and as I was coming back in, I almost ran right into Scott Rivers. I didn't see him though, he was holding a little two-year-old girl with a bright lime-green shirt and multi-colored hair ribbons tied around each of her cork screws. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared in her big eyes. They had a baby! I could have reached out to touch her. Scott smiled at me and walked by. I felt honored somehow, touched by grace, and decided then and there that I would stop by to see my own Scott on my way home.  

Americans are not the only ones betrayed by the American government, as shown in the feature documentary The Betrayal ( Nerakhoon  ). This film chronicles 23 years in the life of Thavisouk Phrasavath who, when still a boy, escaped from war-ravaged Laos to what he thought was the promise of a better future in the U.S., as told by the American military establishment that persuaded his father to serve with them. The help pledged on the U.S. side never came, and Thavisouk's family struggled to forge their own way, to lose and find their own identities, in the hostile immigrant world. As a close friend of Thavisouk's for many years, director and cinematographer Ellen Kuras was able to catch intimate familial moments, and the images were the most beautiful and poetic of all the documentaries shown that day. The film's co-director and hero Thavisouk was present at the screening, nearly weeping with joy at the affectionate welcome from the audience.  

The busy day wrapped up with a showing of the Werner Herzog feature, Encounters At the End of the World , a portrait of life in an isolated scientific community of Antarctica. While I had heard of him, I'm embarrassed to say I had never seen a Werner Herzog film previously, and now I want to see all of them. I was completely enchanted by his dry wit and the droll anecdotes recounted in his endearing accent. The movie is hysterical. While all of the subjects seem absolutely normal, it soon becomes apparent that they are hanging on the very edge of sanity, and a slight puff of wind from the west or east could push them decidedly off balance. Werner Herzog is that little puff, pushing them with his curiosity ever so gently, then tugging them back before they are lost in the abyss. Unfortunately, he was not available for the Q&A session, which is probably just as well for him; I'm sure we would have never let him leave.  

It was near midnight when the event ended and I drove away, elated, excited, and determined to see Scott. How could he remain angry when there were people who survived Hurricane Katrina and were pushing forward with their lives – not just existing either, but using their experience as momentum for a new, better start? What negative feeling could really be worth holding on to when there were legless people resignedly dragging themselves onto moving buses in India every day? What if there were a major earthquake in Los Angeles tomorrow and life as we knew it ended? I wanted to be grateful for every waking moment.  

I'd love to write that my attempt to make peace was successful, that my pronouncement of having arrived with no other agenda than to give him a hug was met with warmth and love, but it wasn't. Scott did hug me, albeit reluctantly, then announced that he had nothing to say. He was annoyed that it was so late and couldn't understand at all what a possible earthquake tomorrow had to do with our current problems. After all, he hadn't seen the films. Would they have affected him as they did me? As their reality, and the full realization of their reality, mixes with my own determination and inspiration, the result of the magical concoction remains to be seen.  

Purists would argue that even in documentary, the reality presented is still a form of cinematic unreality, but nevertheless, it is much more real and moving than any fiction could be.  For that I am grateful.


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