Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011: Documentary

For all its flaws, the Edinburgh Film Festival, which ends tomorrow, has presented a fine selection of documentaries from around the globe, possibly fostered by new connections with Sheffield’s much acclaimed documentary festival. They’ve ranged from inspired and thought-provoking all the way down to practically unwatchable.

To get the unwatchable out of the way first, Esther Anderson and Gian Godoy’s Bob Marley: The Making of A Legend was a bargain bucket collection of found footage from the reggae icon's early career which played out almost incomprehensibly without any attempt on behalf of the film-makers to provide context or meaning. Definitely for Marley obsessives only, and even they might find it hard going.

Equally impenetrable was Kevin Jerome Everson’s Quality Control. This is a portrait of working life in an Alabama drycleaners, shot on grainy black and white 16mm film and conducted in long static takes. The daily routine of the predominately African-American workforce is shown in forensic detail to a soundtrack of pulverising machine noise. The film swiftly becomes monotonous and relentless in its depiction of human beings working in a machine environment. To be fair, this was probably the director’s plan, to plunge the viewer into this hostile, near alien environment. But it doesn’t make for a particularly entertaining or edifying experience.

Speaking of hostile environments, one film which won significant plaudits was Danfung Dennis’s harrowing documentary on American troops in Afghanistan, Hell And Back Again (screening tomorrow, read Dylan Matthew's review).

Of a perhaps gentler ilk was Troubadours (screening tomorrow), Morgan Neville’s excellent film about LA’s Troubadour club in the 1960s’ and how it gave birth to the West Coast singer-songwriter movement spearheaded by the likes of James Taylor, Carole King and Jackson Browne. Featuring candid modern-day interviews with all these figures, as well as Steve Martin, Elton John, David Crosby and even a disarmingly aged Cheech and Chong, “Troubadours” recalls an artistic idyll in the midst of clamorous times.

It perhaps paints too much of a rose-tinted view of the past, only mentioning in passing Taylor’s heroin addiction or the alcohol-fuelled demise of eccentric Troubadour owner Doug Weston. There’s also only an inkling of how this self-sufficient music scene degenerated into the bloated excess of Eagles (not THE Eagles, as Steve Martin points out), but still this is a tremendously enjoyable film with a great all-access soundtrack.

Another piece on self-sufficient artists was Jared Alterman’s short (well, 54 minutes) documentary, Convento. A depiction of the Dutch Zwanikken family, mother Geraldine and adult sons Louis and Christiaan, who live their lives in rural Portugal surrounded by Christiaan’s machine toys and clockwork robots. It made for a surreal Dali-esque scenario, akin to coming across Blade Runner’s replicant workshop baking in the mediterranean sun.

My documentary of the festival, however, has to be Liz Garbus’s brilliant Bobby Fischer Against The World. This tremendous film focuses on the rise and long slow decline of the greatest chess player America, quite possibly the world, ever produced. Focusing in particular on Fischer’s great chess tournament versus the Soviet champion Boris Spassky, which took on enormous significance as it played out against a cold war backdrop in 1972 Reykjavik, the film also documents this troubled man’s traumatic childhood and upbringing and how this led to his total immersion in the game of chess to the negligence of his own mental health.

We see a man who becomes a victim of his own paranoid conspiracy theories, managing to alienate all friends and helpers, before even aggrandising the home country which once feted him by playing a twentieth anniversary rematch with his old rival Spassky in the midst of the UN embargoed Yugoslavia. “Bobby Fischer Against The World” is a marvellously engrossing film about a now near-forgotten figure and how his one passion became his ultimate ruin.