Films with issues

Asheville Film Commission Chair Leni Sitnick was fuzzy on The Asheville Film Festival’s theme at the opening-night press conference on Nov. 6; either it was “Celebrating the Spirit of Human Potential” or “Celebrating the Potential of the Human Spirit” — the former mayor mentioned both. Regardless, it may have been an awkward fit with the festival’s feature films.

Yet no matter how you put it, the uplifting maxim fit the inaugural event’s documentary offerings just fine.

Exemplifying the theme of human perseverance — though somewhat negatively — was the AFF-award winning Live and Let Go: An American Death.

Directed by Jay Spain, the film skillfully tells the story of ex-newspaper reporter and snowbird Sam Niver — who, after suffering from prostate cancer for eight years, decides he wants to die on his own terms, with dignity, only to find euthanasia laws coming between him and his final goal. Spain’s documentary moves between showing the civic-minded, warm-hearted man once known as “Mr. Bedford” (because of his contributions to the town of Bedford, Ohio, where they even named a street after him) to the increasingly ill but still-determined invalid Niver later becomes. The documentary handles a tough issue honestly.

But euthanasia was far from the only social concern crowding the festival weekend’s plate.

The Yunnan Great Rivers Expedition is the Survivor-style tale of The Nature Conservancy’s journey to southern China’s Yunnan Province — where three of the world’s major rivers run within 55 miles of each other. Conservancy officials hope to establish an eco-rafting industry there that will, ideally, replace logging, dredging for precious metals and other industries that Yunnan residents have resorted to as their older ways of life have disappeared.

The film, directed by Jim Norton, suffers some from a lack of drama (one participant reveals that only an oar was broken on the presumably harrowing trip) — while I personally suspect that Chinese peasants might not view rafting trips sold to rich Westerners as the most desirable road to the region’s success. Yet Yunnan was still a compelling portrait of a people and an environment little viewed by Western eyes.

Closer to home was John Disher’s Emma’s Gifts, a well-told piece about a family’s struggle to raise Emma, who has Down’s syndrome, and Abigale, her twin.

And Catherine Gray’s I Can’t Marry You, which takes the timely subject of gay marriage and waters it down, making and remaking the same argument — some gay people are in committed relationships and deserve to get married — in the same way. Poorly shot and edited, the laborious, hour-long film could have been pared to a quarter of that length.

One of the festival’s few feature-length documentaries, Greater Southbridge, was directed by recent Asheville transplant Rod Murphy, who’s currently making a documentary about a longtime, weekly bluegrass gathering at a private residence near the local Moose Cafe. Greater Southbridge is a portrait of the auteur’s former hometown, a burnt-out Massachusetts burg 90 miles south of Boston that apparently boasts an unusually large concentration of eccentrics.

Murphy, who’s said in interview that he was going for the “cult thing” with Greater Southbridge, worked on the film over a five-and-a-half-year period, finally getting L.A.-based editor Scott Morgan to wade through the footage. Morgan picked out material that highlights eccentrics, racists, and eccentric racists — in that order — to create an 86-minute documentary that’s received critical acclaim and awards from festivals nationwide.

In a particularly interesting move, Murphy, like several other AFF filmmakers, brought some of his film subjects with him to the festival — including Jerry Sciesnewski, a charming “Mr. Southbridge” who’s obsessed with bottle-deposit bills (“Five cents is not a joke,” Sciesnewski declares. “Money doesn’t grow on trees”).

While some criticism of Greater Southbridge is warranted over its exploitation of its subjects, its filmmaker is ultimately redeemed by his good heart and admirable commitment to his former home (86 minutes seems too long to stay in Southbridge, though Murphy lived there for 15 years).

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