There are many interesting documentaries in the Kino Pavasaris program this year, and yesterday I saw three of them, that dealt with three very distinct people, trailblazers in their fields. The documentaries, Searching for Sugar Man, Woody Allen: A Documentary, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi approach their subjects differently, but with appropriate love and admiration, each highlighting the different brands of genius on display.
Searching for Sugar Man is the story of an American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, who, despite achieving phenomenal success in South Africa, never received any recognition at all in the United States, despite recording several albums. Interestingly, the musician never learned of his popularity overseas, where his music became the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement for a generation that needed all the encouragement they could get. Rodriguez is still a household name in South Africa, on the same level as Elvis Presley. Rumors there claim he committed suicide on stage years ago, either by firearm, or by setting himself on fire. The fascinating part of the documentary is the character of Sixto himself, an extraordinarily simple, hardworking man who wasn’t at all above doing simple hard labour to make money. In fact, he seemed to revel in it, showing that a true artist can elevate the simplest of things to the level of art. That, combined with the beautiful, hauntingly sad folk songs of Rodriguez makes this film a must-see for fans of music everywhere.
The theme of elevating simple work to the level of art carries over into Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The subject of the film, Jiro Ono, is the world’s foremost sushi chef. Being the first sushi restaurant to have received three Michelin stars, Jiro’s place is in Tokyo’s subway, and seats only ten people. The exclusivity of the privilege to dine there dictates that reservations must be made months in advance, and the price of the meals starts at 30,000 Yen (over 300 USD). Jiro himself began the business humbly, however. According to him, his children did not recognize him on the rare occasions they saw him during his time training to become the best at his chosen occupation. Now his children are following in his footsteps, but the stress placed on his eldest son to take over after his father’s retirement may be too much – even if his skill was comparable to his father’s, his father’s innovation was such that merely performing at the same level would not be enough. On the most basic level, the ins and outs of the business of top-quality sushi restaurant is interesting enough, showing the process, for example, of tuna auctions. More particularly, however, it is about dedication and discipline, which could be attributed in part to the culture of self-discipline in Japan. In this way, Jiro’s story could be seen as representative of anyone who has had to make sacrifices in order to achieve success and perfection of skill. Jiro himself admits readily, however, that he will never finish improving. Innovation and discipline in him has come to a point where he does not stop creating even in his sleep, literally dreaming up new ideas for sushi. All of this is, of course, attained by rigidly adhering to a strict schedule, and always planning for the next day.
The process of tirelessly looking forward to the next project also applies to Woody Allen. The documentary film about him, simply titled Woody Allen: A Documentary, will be a nice retrospective to those of us that are intimately familiar with his work, providing a historical/biographical perspective one would not get from simply watching the director’s films. Alternatively, it could serve as an introduction to those who perhaps have not yet familiarized themselves with the one-time stand-up comedian’s work. The man himself does not speak very much in the film, but the insight he gives into his process, combined with the perspective given by people that know him well, shows a man who believes in steady output, restlessness, and always working on the next idea. His process is almost deceptively simple, literally keeping ideas in a drawer, and stapling in hand-written portions of text into his scripts, which he types on the same typewriter he’s used for decades. Finishing the filming on one project, Woody immediately launches into writing the next, and he does so quickly. The critics that speak in the film do not universally praise each of his works, but instead highlight the ones that made a significant impact. Woody scoffs at the idea of slowing down and putting out less films. He would rather make many films, all of them striving, but not necessarily succeeding, and hit, with at least a few of the projects, either some critical, audience, or personal satisfaction – it becomes clear throughout the film that his personal favorites do not match closely those that others elevate to the status of a masterpiece. Nonetheless, due to this tight self-discipline, and by principle not submitting to the meddling of studios, Woody Allen has been able to make precisely the films he wants for over forty years now, and as each truly great film of his is discussed, the mind reels at the body of the man’s work.
Stylistically, of course, the three documentaries are rather different, but each manages to engage the audience by displaying the product the different subjects work for so diligently on the screen. Sugar Man is filled to the brim with the singer’s music, Jiro’s sushi glistens in all of its mouth-watering glory on the screen, and comedic clips from the entirety of the filmmaker’s history provide much of the entertainment in the Woody Allen documentary. Whether one enjoys music, films, or food, therefore, they’ll be able to find something to match their tastes in the documentary film program in this year’s Kino Pavasaris festival.
Of the three, however Searching for Sugar Man is the one that deserves the most acclaim as a film, providing an engaging narrative on its own, which could match the surprises and twists worthy of the best of fiction. If one is to see any documentary film this year, this one should probably be it. Hardly surprising, perhaps – the movie won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature a month ago, an honor which it heartily deserves.