Coming to a PBS near you, Leslie Tai’s How to Have an American Baby documents the largely unseen world of California “maternity hotels.” In these residential homes Chinese mothers-to-be travel to give birth in an American hospital and grant their child dual citizenship. It’s a fascinating not quite off-the-books business: part Air BnB, part ad hoc HMO. The healthcare system of the United States is famously rather hostile to many of its own citizens, and navigating it as an outsider takes some guidance from the proprietors of these “hotels” (who also spend their hours keeping houses full of pregnant women stocked with food and toiletries). Unfortunately, the film waffles its focus between too many points of view. We’re tantalized by several storylines – the operation of the hotels, the fates of the women, the objections of the locals – but most disappear and leave the viewer frustrated when subjects appear and disappear with little fanfare or resolution. Conceived as a series of vignettes and then reconsidered to follow some subjects more closely, the movie splits the difference and frustratingly serves neither format. Once again the crowd adds to the experience, though – witnessing a difficult birth as a group is a unique experience in collective tension. You’ve never heard a full theater give such an appreciative response to a crying baby.
On the subject of prenatal portrayals, the best find of the festival came from one its returning alums and played perfectly with True/False’s theme of separating fact from fiction. Ramona from Victoria Linares Villegas (last year’s It Runs in the Family) follows Camila Santana, an actress preparing for a role as a teenaged mother in the Dominican Republic. Feeling unprepared to portray the role of a working class teen, Santana and Villages conduct a series of interviews with real-life pregnant teens about their experiences and how Santana might translate these onto screen. The teens begin to take a more active role in the film’s development, including a very funny scene where they give feedback on a performance rehearsal in real time. Soon the film finds itself full of leads, with multiple Ramonas taking over the role.
Ramona puts a gentler spin on a conceit reminiscent of The Act of Killing, though this movie seeks to uplift its subjects through filmmaking rather than see them condemned by their own imagination. The production’s invention makes it worthwhile itself, but it’s also a treat to watch, demonstrating the value an eye to design can bring to nonfiction filmmaking. Production designer Shaina Cohen and cinematographer Jaime Guerra make the colors pop – a refreshing approach compared to the dull colors of so many “professional, serious” images – and applies this approach to both the fictional sets and the real-life hovels they visit, suggesting these worlds may exist apart, but it’s a distance that can be bridged. The film’s cathartic climax comes as inviting as a warm bath. Villegas received the festival’s Visionary Award and has clearly distinguished herself as a talent to keep watching.
The Danish-Pakistani memoir Moosa Lane was an interesting look into the history of a family with feet on two continents, much of it captured on home video, though I found myself nodding politely more than sitting rapt at attention. An exploration of the changing landscape of the Coachella Valley, with a special emphasis on its imported date palms, in Feet in Water, Head on Fire shook me loose with its constantly shifting focus. Incorporating hand-developed 16mm film and using actual dates and native plants in the process, the film attempted a sensational experience on a wavelength I didn’t occupy. Maybe it’s a matter of personal preference, but I had better luck with the anthropological than the topographical this year.
Such as the screwy look at humans in the Czech film Art Talent Show a light, observational doc that reflected last year’s humans-and-art highlight GES-2. Several emerging young artists have applied for an exclusive art academy and must complete a litany of written, oral and performative exams to gain entry. The staff, emerging young artists themselves some years ago, make the students jump the hoops, and their responses – eager, defiant, confusing – create a collage of hilarious human behavior that could double as a psychology experiment. Directors Tomáš Bojar and Adéla Komrzý bring an appropriately light touch and deadpan point of view to the antics, though they could use to be more judicious in the middle section. They’ve found a lot of gold in hours and hours of exams, but too large a trove cheapens its value. The time with the students is occasionally broken up by the point of view of the staff including an after-hours custodian angered to the point of violence by a submitted artwork, and a couple of charming if somewhat bigoted old ladies who run the front desk.
Art Talent Show doesn’t have much to say other than what funny things people can be, but sometimes that’s all that needs to be said. What funny, strange, terrifying, uplifting, disappointing, brave, quiet, rebellious people we can be on the screen, or sitting together in the dark, recognizing these things in each other.