Short Lens

New-school documentaries speak from the heart.


runs Sept. 11-29 at Little Theatre

With auteur theory pretty much dead and buried, and corporate-hatched franchise flicks dominating the box office, is there any room left for personal expression on film? At first glance, you wouldn't look to documentaries for such subjectivity, since the Oscars annually reward the same ploddingly pedantic docs (racism is bad, sexism is bad, homophobia is bad, and the Holocaust is very, very bad). On the margins of the form, however, innovators like Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) and Michael Moore (whose Bowling for Columbine opens Oct. 18) have been helping to unburden documentaries from lecturing and rectitude.

That doesn't mean the six titles being shown in this three-week series lack for an agenda. Take the example of Judith Helfand, whose A Healthy Baby Girl and Blue Vinyl (co-directed with Daniel B. Gold) play Thursday, Sept. 12, through Sunday, Sept. 15. Here is a woman with issues. Girl (1996) relates how the director suffered cancer and a radical hysterectomy as the result of the steroid diethylstilbestrol (DES), which doctors prescribed to her pregnant mother in the '60s. Girl starts as a poignant video diary of Helfand's illness, with snapshots and home movies, then follows her as she joins an advocacy organization and lobbies Congress in '92. (Helfand breaks into tears on CBS, allowing Dan Rather to look manfully concerned.) Helfand's guilt-ridden parents feature prominently in kitchen-table debates—and even lend a hand with the camera and microphone.

Helfand's unhappy experience with one carcinogen motivates her one-woman investigation into another: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which her parents have installed as siding on their Long Island, N.Y., home. Traveling in Vinyl (2001) from Louisiana to California to Venice to learn about PVC-caused illnesses and pricey, environmentally-sound building-material alternatives, Helfand again extrapolates from the personal to the political, badgering the PVC industry until it finally grants her an interview with a spokesperson. By then, she and her totemic plank of blue siding have earned many frequent flyer miles, but Helfand remains a character firmly rooted in Long Island.

To view both films back-to-back is like becoming a member of the Helfand family (a fine and loving place to be), but 60 Minutes this is not. Helfand is far more emotional and occasionally bumbling than Lesley Stahl; as a result, she's far more likable and recognizably human for her flustered flaws. Throughout, her "I'm just a Long Island gal, not a scientist" shtick keeps the populism from hardening into militancy. In Girl, she runs into an old college pal-turned-drug industry attorney (defending DES); she blocks out his face and lets him implicate himself with his own words, rather than attacking the hapless corporate lackey like mad-dog Moore.

Helfand's long-suffering mother gets to the truth about her daughter's anti- siding mania when she says, "I think you're reacting to this like it's a loss in your life." Exactly—she's taking the siding personally. It's defacing her childhood home and memories, poisoning them, if you will. The PVC on her home is like the DES in her cells. Yet it's hard not to share in her voice-of-the-people outrage against pharmaceutical and industrial interests that market dangerous consumer products. Helfand's grassroots tenacity is like Julie Kavner doing Rachel Carson—and to possibly equally valuable effect.

AN INDIVIDUAL perspective also drives Nancy Kelly's 2001 Downside Up (Wednesday, Sept. 18), which chronicles how her dying home town of North Adams, Mass., has been partly revived by the $35 million MASS MoCA museum. This documentary communicates all the ambivalence of a prodigal daughter lately returned to "this sad, loser place." Not one to wear her emotions on her sleeve (unlike Helfand), Kelly quietly voices skepticism in her polite queries to boosterish museum officials and wary locals.

Everyone wants to believe MASS MoCA—which opened in '99, after 14 years of wrangling—will miraculously anchor an artsy/high-tech renaissance in the old factory town, but such rhetoric is rebutted by the dot-com crash during Kelly's multiyear project. Up's great virtue is that she really took her time with the film, giving us an organic sense of North Adam's rise and fall and rise. She repeatedly visits the museum with friends and family to gauge their reactions to conceptual art installations—such as suspended, upside-down trees.

What about the danger of gentrification? Compared to the alternative, blight, "It's a better problem," says one of Kelly's interviewees. That Yankee pragmatism is refreshing, as is the pioneering spirit of the SoHo exiles and hipsters who brave North Adams. "I think this is 90 percent propaganda," says one restaurateur of the supposed synergy between town and museum, "but we're all supporting each other."

Kelly's work is more pat, polished, and ultimately optimistic than Helfand's, but that notion of mutual support—between filmgoer and filmmaker, as well—is a fitting motto for the First Person series. Blue Vinyl has already aired on HBO, which suggests there's a small but viable number of viewers (outside the MPAA) who care about personal, pointed, and even occasionally pointless modes of documentary expression. Instead of being rigidly instructed, they want to hear from new conversational voices. As it turns out, the "I" may be the most promising one speaking.

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