(Originally written for The Boulder Weekly1)
Documentary film festivals can be a hard sell. You don’t get the star power that goes with fictional films, the impossibly dramatic moments, or the singularly well-crafted denouement that wraps the whole thing up into one resonant piece. The documentary is all about stories.
In turn, the documentary film festival is only as good as its stories. At this year’s fifth annual DocuWest Documentary Film Festival, they’re in no short supply.
“I could talk your ear off on that,” says Wade Gardner, artistic director and co-founder of DocuWest.
According to Gardner, each year, he and his staff spend six to eight months searching for the best documentaries for the festival. Unlike some other film festivals, DocuWest doesn’t program on any theme beyond what Gardner thinks will interest its audiences in Boulder and Golden.
“I really do my best to put myself in the seat of those that are going to come,” he says.
According to Gardner, festival headliner Big Joy is particularly well-suited to its audience in Boulder, home of Naropa’s School of Disembodied Poetics. The film centers around James Broughton, a Beatgeneration poet and avant-garde filmmaker who has gone largely forgotten in history, but not by those he spent time with — including Big Joy co-director Stephen Silha.
“I first encountered [Broughton] when I ran into his films at an auditorium at the MoMA in New York in 1979,” Silha says. Entranced by the “poetic eroticism” of his films, Silha was thrilled to meet the man himself 10 years later at a Radical Faerie gathering in Oregon, where Broughton became his friend, and later, mentor.
A writer, Silha had initially conceptualized Big Joy as a book, but soon realized it was meant to be a film.
“I think that in order to really show his struggle, you need to be able to quote from his films,” Silha explains. The stakes were high: “There’s nobody that’s ever put together his whole story, including himself in his autobiography.”
With zero filmmaking experience, Silha enlisted the help of co-director Eric Slade to tell Broughton’s story, who agreed, on the condition he not have to raise any money. The two had different views of the final product — Silha’s more poetic, with animation and performance art, and Slade’s more conventional — but they managed to split their creative differences.
“The result of our differing visions makes for a better film,” Silha says.
Along with Big Joy’s Broughton, DocuWest has another low-key protagonist in fellow headliner Good Ol’ Freda. The documentary explores the story of Freda Kelly, who at the ripe age of 16 nabbed her first job as secretary to The Beatles. (Yes, those Beatles.) Kelly would serve the band for more than 10 years, longer than the band was officially together. The documentary screened on Sept. 11.
Both documentaries appeal to what Gardner called the “ah-ha! moment” of many appealing nonfiction films: “Documentaries that make you go, ‘Huh! I didn’t know there was such a thing,’ or ‘I didn’t know there was such a person.’”