Film Reviews: DocTalk at the Independent Film Festival of Boston — Bands of Outsiders

Documentaries celebrating communities shine at the Independent Film Festival of Boston.

By Peter Keough

A scene from Every Little Thing. Photo: Sundance

Call it the anthropomorphic sentimentalist in me, but I found a tiny, damaged hummingbird’s struggle to fly just an inch in Sally Aitken’s Every Little Thing among the most moving cinema moments of the year. One of several outstanding documentaries in this year’s Independent Film Festival of Boston, it screens on May 6 at 6:45 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre (followed by a Q & A with producer Bettina Dalton and Cinematographer Ann Prum).

Aitken’s subject is Terry Masear, a Los Angeles academic who for the past two decades has dedicated herself to rescuing, healing, and rehabilitating hummingbirds, setting up a hotline by which people who come across injured birds or abandoned nestlings can ask her advice and bring their foundlings into her home to be treated. Aitken focuses on several of these creatures, all with individual names and personalities, as Masear painstakingly heals their wounds, soothes their fear, builds their strength, and eventually returns them to the wilds of Beverly Hills. A dubious reward, perhaps, given the dangers of predators, environmental pollution, and careless or cruel human beings. And other hummingbirds — among the skills Masear tries to instill in her wards is how to fight.

Some don’t make it. Those that don’t Masear buries in the backyard, their tiny jewel-like bodies adorned with blossoms. “Their bones are so light,” she says, “that they disintegrate in a couple of days. Like they never were.” But not for her: she regards each of them is a unique, vivid, indelible being. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” So goes the verse in Matthew. But for Masear the question is not rhetorical; no less than human beings, the value of even these smallest of creatures is incalculable.

What compelled her to take up this seemingly eccentric and solitary vocation? In between the stunning footage of hummingbirds Aitken inserts home movies and photos from Masear’s past, touching on her troubled childhood, her happy marriage, and the tragic death of her husband. Like the birds, she too is damaged, and perhaps she is healing herself through this work. But she is not alone, as a community of “finders” has gathered around her project, strangers who rescue hummingbirds, bring them in, and intently follow their progress under her care.

A scene from Ren Faire-Episode One. Photo: Nate Hurtsellers

This theme of odd, serendipitous, and tight-knit communities informs several other documentaries in the festival. In Lance Oppenheim’s Ren Faire-Episode One (screens May 2 at 9:30 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre followed by a Q & A with the Oppenheim, executive producer Christian Vazquez, and producer Nicholas Nazmi), the first installment of a three-part HBO series and the IFFBoston’s first venture into episodic offerings, a real community has grown up around a simulated one.

The Texas Renaissance Festival has been regaling visitors for 50 years with its Medieval Manor–style revue of cosplay jousters, jesters, magicians, wenches, and other faux period personae. It has grown so much that, Disney-like, it has become its own village, one now wracked by a power play for succession to the aged reigning King.

That would be the current owner, the revered and feared George Coulam, aka King George, a truculent octogenarian who lives in a mansion that looks like a cross between a hobbit-hole and a Las Vegas funeral parlor. He is unpretentious and straightforward in his desires. He wants to sell the operation, tend to his garden, and get a “companion.” To the latter end he employs a young man referred to as the “King’s Scroller” who keeps him abreast of the latest prospects at the 15 dating sites on which he shamelessly describes himself as a sugar daddy.

But who shall succeed the King? There is Louie Migliaccio, dubbed the King of Corn because he has cornered the establishment’s lucrative kettle corn operation. He is crafty and ambitious and might have pockets deep enough to buy the Festival from George. With his towering gray man-bun, his gaunt nervousness, and his Red Bull habit, he has the lean and hungry look of a Game of Thrones villain.

Another contender is Jeff Baldwin, the current general manager, who now and then wistfully recalls his previous post as the entertainment director when he could indulge his thespian ambitions. But he wants to keep his current powerful position and he regards the threat of the upstart Migliaccio with anxiety and resentment. Indeed, he muses, might this not be like King Lear, with Migliaccio as one of the wicked sisters, and himself as the ill-fated Cordelia?

If not King Lear, other comparisons might be made to Succession crossed with George Romero’s Knightriders (1981) and with a rancid whiff of The Apprentice. Oppenheim, who deftly skewered the absurdities of another microcosmic community in Some Kind of Heaven (2021), slickly orchestrates the seedy machinations of this exemplary American tragicomedy.

A scene from Happy Campers.

A notch or two below the battling entrepreneurs in Ren Faire-Episode One on the social class scale, the residents of Inlet View, Virginia, in Amy Nicholson’s daft and endearing Happy Campers (screens May 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre followed by a Q & A with Nicholson and production assistant Tim Schadt) were drawn to the location because of the cheap prices and idyllic oceanside location. But the properties themselves are of sub-trailer park quality, with dilapidated infrastructure, dicey sewage, run-down RVs, and a colony of feral cats. As one homeowner good-humoredly describes it, it is “the armpit of America.”

Nonetheless, the Inlet View crew returned there every summer, as did their children and grandchildren. It was a multigenerational working-class melting pot, with people from different backgrounds and states communing over a love of barbecues, beer, sun-basking indolence, randy humor, kitschy sentiment, and lasting, unlikely friendships. It was a place where everybody watches out for everybody else and, surprisingly in this era of partisan polarization, you don’t hear in this film a single nasty political remark.

Unless, that is, you include references to the hated developers about to put this dream to an end. These outsiders also saw the value of the location and started buying up lots in order to demolish the site and build the kind of properties that would draw deep-pocketed investors. So now it is the last summer for the folks at Inlet View, as their only option is to sell what they have, pack up the La-Z-Boys, nautically inspired gewgaws, and other valuables, and put the rest to the torch. They will miss the long summer afternoons gazing at the sea and playing gin rummy and sparking up the grill, but mostly they will miss their friends, soon to be scattered again across the country, never to return.

The eight Providence, Rhode Island, artists in Jeremy Workman’s entertaining and provocative Secret Mall Apartment (screens May 5 at 7 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre followed by a Q & A with Workman and subjects Michael Townsend and Colin Bliss) had, like the denizens of Inlet View, fallen victim to real estate developers. But, unlike them, they decided not to accept their fate passively but to fight back — using their most powerful weapon, their artistic imagination.

A scene from Secret Mall Apartment.

Like many graduates of art programs, this group had taken over a parcel of neglected real estate, an abandoned factory in the old, derelict mill section of the city. And, as is often the case, their efforts stirred the interest of investors who bought up the area, evicted the residents, razed the neighborhood, and built new properties for the wealthy.

The artists escaped this catastrophe and found new lodgings in another run-down area. But the developers came in again and kicked them out. This time the project was the vast Providence Mall, which became for them the hated symbol of the capitalist exploiters who had dislodged them from their messy, fertile, and free-spirited dwelling places. So in 2003, after discovering a forgotten, unused niche in the depths of the labyrinthine structure, they decided to transform it into a living and working space. Over the course of four years they brought in furniture from Goodwill, hooked into the mall’s electricity, and built a cinder block wall with a locked door to which each had a key. They were constructing a poor man’s parody of the ideal, over-priced bourgeois existence that the mall was trying to sell. It was a secret art installation and a cool place to hang out and plan other art installations.

Perhaps the latter is what gave the greatest value to the secret apartment — here they were able to focus on projects that would benefit the community at large. These included artwork engaging the patients at a children’s hospital and a memorial for the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. But the secret apartment also possessed a deeper, ambiguous, Borgesian kind of subversiveness, a meta-mirror of the insatiable consumerist culture that it gleefully inhabited. And this makes the film’s coda all the more satisfying, a sequence in which the filmmakers re-create the secret apartment, a simulation of a simulacrum that undermines the baleful reality.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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