The real thing

Detroit Docs’ third year even bigger, broader

Once again, the annual Detroit Docs film festival has accumulated an astounding collection of documentaries from around the globe, and is serving them all up in a weeklong celebration of nonfiction cinema. Here’s just a sampling of some of the offerings. For a complete schedule of films and panels and talkback sessions, visit


Boys of Baraka

The Baraka School in Kenya opened in September 1996, a privately funded venture designed for at-risk boys in Baltimore public schools who weren’t eligible for other programs due to delinquency or poor academic records.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s utterly riveting Boys of Baraka focuses on one group of Baltimore preteens who are given the chance to attend the seventh grade at the school.

On the surface, the film may seem like ABC’s manipulative juvie reality show Brat Camp, or, more appropriately, like the superlative true-life coming-of-age tale Hoop Dreams. But the arc of this story is even more complex: There’s no big game for these boys to look forward to. Some, like the unpredictable, short-fused Montrey, don’t seem likely to make it in the new environment; others, like the self-proclaimed “strong like Frederick Douglass” Richard, seem to be a perfect fit with the boarding school’s strict work ethic.

The sight of city kids — most have never been out of Baltimore — in the vast plains of Africa is shown for its wonder and amazement instead of any culture-clash humor. From lizard infestations to loneliness to the experience of being in a racial majority, each boy responds in his own way, and the filmmakers allow ample screen time to track each one. The film doesn’t focus on the Baraka School’s history or legacy; such background might help the viewer to better understand a heartbreaking development late in the film. But it’s clear that the film’s intent is to immerse the viewer completely in the boys’ lives — both in Africa and back at home — and at that it succeeds brilliantly.


Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456) at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 4.


Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress

Singer-songwriter, poet, historian, stand-up comedian, journalist, politician, soldier, activist — the late Oscar Brown Jr. may have been many things, but for someone referred to as “one of the first young African-Americans to ever appear on television as non-comic relief,” he’s woefully underappreciated today. Donnie L. Betts’ documentary aims to right that wrong, presenting Brown’s storied life through still photos, archive footage, performance clips and rich, tale-spinning interviews with the man himself. In candid interviews, Brown describes his upbringing in Chicago in the ’30s, on through the social upheaval of the ’60s. Along the way his pals and admirers register their praise, among them such icons as Eartha Kitt, Al Jarreau and Studs Terkel.

Betts also incorporates extraneous dance numbers, animation and other artistic flourishes, ostensibly in an attempt to emulate his subject’s multitalented nature. The gamble doesn’t pay off aesthetically; the movie sometimes seems busy and restless instead of rousing. Though the idea of having Brown’s story told in his own words is noble, this is one instance where some Ken Burns-style supplemental narration would help tie together loose threads. But the director gets the important stuff right: The interviews are extensive and fascinating, and the footage of Brown performing — both as a young man and as an elder statesman of the poet-songwriter movement — fully illustrates there was much more to the man than just what he recorded as a musician. “If he wasn’t singing, he could be writing. If he wasn’t writing, he could be acting,” a friend of Brown’s explains; by the end of Music is My Life, even that seems like an understatement.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2.


Lucha Libre: Life behind the Mask

Far from the affected, macho pomposity of American professional wrestling, there’s Lucha Libre, its grassroots Mexican counterpart. If you’ve only caught a couple surreal minutes of it on the Univision channel, or know it only from jokes made about it on The Simpsons, then you haven’t seen the whole picture. In Latino culture, the purveyors of the sport — known as luchadores — are something like folk heroes and approach their pastime with a great sense of reverence and history.

What’s surprising about Carlos Garcia and Rich Walton’s documentary on the phenomenon is how low-key it is, both in the style of the filmmaking and the subject matter itself. These are, by and large, average, mild-mannered, upstanding family men who just happen to enjoy wearing skin-tight, glitter-covered masks and beating each other to a pulp on the weekends. Their literal stomping grounds are the bingo parlors, community centers and dancehalls of Southern California, taken over one night every month or so by body-slamming heroes. Their children look up to them with awe and envy; their fans follow their every move through Web sites and radio appearances. Meanwhile, no one is allowed to see them take off their masks, a tradition the filmmakers respect by blurring out the faces of the wrestlers. Never do Garcia and Walton adopt the easy, condescendingly humorous viewpoint so common to American filmmakers investigating a flamboyant subculture. They prove themselves to be technically accomplished as well: Lucha Libre is shot and edited beautifully, and there’s a fantastic score by roots-rockers the Cuban Cowboys.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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