Virginia Film Festival: Report #2

filmfest VFF-1Documentaries are sometimes most interesting not for their ostensible subject, but for what they reveal in the background.




filmfest VFF-red-army

Sunday was documentary day for me at the Virginia Film Festival, and I saw two very different films that both offered a look into worlds far removed from a prosperous college town in central Virginia. That’s one of the reasons I love documentaries: They can take you of your own world and show you a different way of life, but two hours later, you’re back home without even a trace of jet lag. Special bonus for St. Louisans: Both docs will screen as part of the 2014 St. Louis International Film Festival.

Even if you’re not a hockey fan, you’ve probably heard about the “Miracle on Ice.” At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a team of American amateur hockey players won the gold medal, defeating the mighty Soviet team in the process. The Soviet Red Army team was considered the best in the world, having handily defeated an NHL all-star team as well as the American team in an exhibition match earlier in the year. The team was also a high-profile part of the Soviet propaganda machine, with its successes trumpeted as demonstration of the superiority of the Communist system.

U.S. coverage of this event generally focused on the American team and coach, with the Soviets reduced to stereotypes and ciphers. Gabe Polsky’s Red Army seeks to shift the balance by looking at the players and coaches of the mighty Red Army team and their place in Soviet society, and not just in 1980. The Red Army team occupied the upper echelon of a feeder system in which the most promising young hockey players were selected for special training, with the best of the best chosen for the Red Army team.

The full-time job of these hockey players was to train and practice their sport, and they developed a graceful, team-oriented style of play sharply contrasting with the rough stuff typical in the NHL. Some of the most interesting footage in Red Army is of training; far from emphasizing brute strength, the players complete complex drills requiring balance and agility. Analysis of their playing style is also rewarding, with their intricate passing patterns creating a sort of ballet on ice.

If you’re a hockey fan, Red Army is a must-see, and even if you’re not, it’s worth your time for its view of life behind the Iron Curtain. Polsky tracked down a number of players from the 1980s for contemporary interviews (Slava Fetisov is the attention-getting star of this documentary, just as he was on ice), and dug up a lot of interesting archival footage as well.

filmfest VFF-stray-dog-RStray Dog is Debra Granik’s documentary about Ron Hall, who played Thump Milton in Winter’s Bone. Since I’m a huge Winter’s Bone fan, this was on my must-see list from the start. Granik takes a verite approach to her subject: a grizzled Vietnam veteran, RV park manager, and biker whose complex life is slowly revealed, and with it the life of many living on the margins of American society.

Hall would be the first to tell you that he’s far from perfect, but he has a big heart and tries to do his best by everyone. When one of his tenants is behind on the rent, he gives him a temporary pass, noting that “I have to make a living, but I don’t have to make it off one person.” He studies Spanish to better communicate with his Mexican wife, Alicia, and her two adult sons, and ushers the sons through the bureaucratic process so they can stay in the country. He and his buddies fix the trailer of a woman whose daughter was killed while serving in the military.

Gradually you learn something of Hall’s past. He was married once before, to a Korean woman. He still suffers the effects of his Vietnam service, with frequent nightmares par for the course (as Alicia explains to her sons before the four of them share a hotel room). He spent many years living a less than salubrious life, and uses his experience to offer advice to other veterans as well as members of his own family.

Documentaries are sometimes most interesting not for their ostensible subject—in this case, Hall—but for what they reveal in the background. In Stray Dog, the background subject is poverty in the land of plenty. Although the people you meet in this film are mostly good-hearted and self-sufficient, you also can’t help noticing how many show signs of ill health and bad dentistry (one man pulls several of his own teeth to save on dental fees); even their ill-fitting clothing provides a stark contrast to the sharp look of Alicia’s sons, recent arrivals from the much poorer country of Mexico. | Sarah Boslaugh

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