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Just the Facts 

Many of the films at DocFest focus on the freakish -- and we like it that way

Wednesday, May 12 2004
Real life is so boring. Commutes, work, dishes, laundry, blah blah fucking blah; it's the last thing that would inspire me to make a movie. So how is it that documentarians manage to produce such fascinating films? After viewing a number of selections from the four-day cavalcade of nonfiction flicks known as the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, I have the answer: It's all about focusing on the freakish.

The most literal example of this maxim can be found in Traveling Sideshow: Shocked and Amazed, a brisk history of the carny peep show directed by Heavy Metal Parking Lot's Jeff Krulik, which introduces viewers to such notable modern performers as Zamora the Torture King (also known as the Human Pincushion) and bod-mod enthusiast the Lizardman, whose lifelong desire to emulate reptiles has resulted in head-to-toe tattooed scales, a surgically enhanced forked tongue, pointy filed teeth, and subdermal Teflon implants that create horned ridges over each eye.

Not quite as colorful but still very odd are the characters in Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea, a look at the hardy few who live by the shores of the stagnant, salt-choked, man-made lake that was once a tony resort area but now reeks of the millions of fish that die on its beaches each year. Though filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer dispel the persistent rumor that runoff from Mexico's polluted New River created the Salton Sea's troubles, their look at the lake's slide from upscale to ecological disaster -- and the quirky residents who endure and hope for better days -- is still a queasy ride.

Some of DocFest's directors do manage to find the unusual in everyday happenings. Locals will no doubt be riveted by Up for Grabs, a deliciously mean-spirited portrait of the two men who each claimed rightful ownership of the baseball Barry Bonds hit into the stands for his record-setting 73rd home run in 2001. Naturally, watching two grown men stage courtroom hissy fits is immensely amusing, but director Michael Wranovics also wrings a stinging indictment of both America's legal system and our inability to play well with others out of his material.

Equally adept at extracting entertainment from the (relatively) ordinary is Dirty Work, a 60-minute depiction of disgusting jobs, which begins with funeral home scenes so disturbing that my horror-fan friend begged us to turn it off after just five minutes. Those who can persevere through the initial gross-out, however, will find an engrossing (if stomach-turning) account of three men who actually love pumping septic tanks, embalming dead bodies, and collecting bull semen for artificial bovine insemination. It's real life magnified in all its ghastly, nauseating glory, and like it or not, you won't be able to look away.

About The Author

Joyce Slaton


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