15th Annual Raindance Film Festival

By Owen Armstrong

crazy-love-dan-klores.jpgCrazy Love, 2007

Setting a darker tone amongst this year’s offerings was Dan Klores’ documentary Crazy Love, the bizarre and incredible story of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss. Klores begins by creating a playful and romantic image of a young couple in love with Pugach - a wealthy and successful 32 year old attorney – and Riss – a stunning and ambitious 20 year old girl – candidly describing their overpowering attraction towards each other. As events unfold and Pugach refuses to leave the woman he is already married to, Riss ends their relationship, sending Pugach into an obsessive frenzy. In the summer of 1959, Burt Pugach paid a thug to throw lye into Riss’ face as she answered the door to her home. Disfigured and partially blind, she pressed charges against Pugach and he was sent to prison for 14 years.  

Where Klores’ film excels is in its examination of the aftermath of these events. On his release – having kept up correspondence whilst in prison – Pugach proposes to Riss live on television and inexplicably, she accepts. Though none of the representative friends or family featured in Crazy Love can fathom this as a reasonable union, it is perhaps the absurdity of the situation that overshadows the most basic connection that Pugach and Riss share. This is only made explicit during the latter part of the film in which we see them together existing as a married couple. They are both, in their own way, completely intolerable.

Riss’ version of events is certainly regretful while Pugach barely expresses a sense of remorse, but it is in watching them antagonise and feed off each other that we understand their relationship as one of total dependence. Klores does not especially seek this conclusion about human nature under extreme circumstance but in an abstract way, his film fulfils the old adage that beauty, in whatever capacity, is in the eye of the beholder.

killing-of-john-lennon-andrew-piddington.jpgThe Killing of John Lennon, 2006

Another of this year’s more anticipated features was Andrew Piddington’s The Killing of John Lennon. Set in the days prior to Mark David Chapman’s shooting of the pop star icon, Piddington utilises the young killer’s real life testimonies to recreate the final thoughts and motivations behind one the most notorious assassinations of the 21st century.

Newcomer Jonas Ball beautifully captures the emotional flux and complexity that flows through Chapman’s statements, striking a fine balance between compassion and discord. Most obvious is Chapman’s susceptibility to the media that surrounds him, adopting in particular the values and characteristics of Holden Caulfield from J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Chapman’s words suggest a child-like fascination with celebrity while at the same time expressing a vile contempt for it, and it is this fusion of ideals that goes some way to understanding the psychology of a man with no sense of identity. Piddington avoids simply piecing together the moments that define Chapman’s ultimate actions by exploring his overwhelming need to belong – finding the same solace and franchisment in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People as he does in the Bible. Ball is exceptional in playing out Chapman’s interactions with the people around him, convincingly charming and innocent while at the same time disconnected and volatile.

GJ Echternkamp’s documentary and debut feature Frank and Cindy was a beautiful and unique portrait of the lives of his somewhat estranged parents. Well into the throes of a 23 year long marriage, Echternkamp’s film tells of the seemingly disastrous combination of unemployed one-time pop idol Frank Garcia and his maniacal and often resentful wife Cindy Brown. Deluded by once grand notions of fame and celebrity, Cindy’s dreams have been thwarted by Frank’s reluctance to support his family, despite providing him with a home and converting her basement into a recording studio. Frank’s continuing alcoholism is a disturbing glimpse at his addictive personality and inability to make necessary changes to his lifestyle, even at the behest of his obviously committed partner.

frank-and-cindy-gj-echternkamp.jpgFrank and Cindy, 2007

Though rarely appearing on-screen, it is clear that Echternkamp’s film is as much an exploration of his own life as it is an expose of his parents’. Admirably, his film bares the most personal aspects of his upbringing at the same time as remaining relatively observational, perhaps refraining from judgement in the hope that his two leads will redeem themselves. Culminating with the young filmmaker’s birthday, it becomes clearer that Frank wants to make a good impression on his stepson by performing at his party in front of about 30 guests. Whether pre-performance nerves are a sign of Frank’s genuine affection for GJ, or simply stage fright, the moment is touching nevertheless, and regardless of Frank and Cindy’s anxieties, the film continues on to chronicle both characters’ concerted efforts to stabilise their lives together as a family.

Continuing the theme of familial documentary filmmaking was Stuart Urban’s Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead. Serving as a more personal update to his father Garri’s acclaimed autobiography of the same name, both Urban’s revisit the once Nazi and Soviet occupied territories of Eastern Europe from which Garri had escaped in 1943.

At once a reminiscence on the memory of his father as a charismatic and personable individual, and an attempt to examine the truth behind his elaborate and, at times, unbelievable tales, Urban’s film celebrates his father’s life as much as it attempts to confront the mysteries within it.

viva-anna-biller.jpgViva, 2007

Despite the obvious emotional impact of recalling and to an extent, reliving specific moments from Garri’s life, there is a great deal of his miraculous escape which is left undisclosed, much to the discontent of his son. Focusing in particular on the recovery of his father’s KGB file, Stuart is ultimately denied elucidation as it is revealed that, just prior to his death, his father had destroyed the limited number of documents that were eventually retrieved.

Due to the fact that Garri’s own enquiries take place largely off-screen – with Stuart’s repeated assurance that he is notorious for getting his own way – it is not known whether or not Garri was actually working as a spy within the KGB, who would have allowed for his escape.

With the exception of a rekindled relationship with an ex-lover whom he hadn’t seen since his escape 50 years ago, Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead is, above all, a compassionate account of the construction of Garri Urban as a character, motivated by the absolute necessity to preserve the image he projects.

Writer, director, actor and producer Anna Biller’s debut feature, Viva is the story of two young women tired of the shackles of marriage who decide to leave their demanding husbands and experience a life of freedom. They soon find themselves working as escorts before joining a nudist philosophy entourage and later meeting a ‘glamour’ photographer.

viva-anna-biller-2.jpgViva, 2007

Though the plot is far from complex, the quality of Biller’s film is more in its assimilation of cinema of a particular era. A tribute more than a pastiche, the experience of watching Viva is as close as can be to the aesthetic and narrative structure of late 60s/ early 70s low budget soft porn, from the wonderfully camp and self-assured performances to the multi-coloured barrage of negligees and décor - audio glitches have even been placed sporadically throughout the film to further emphasise the implied age of the print.

Biller, who also stars in the title role of Viva, has produced a tirelessly exacting throwback to the world of Hershell Gordon Lewis and Radley Meztger, replicating every narrative value attached to the films it emulates. Entirely flirtatious and built to tantalise rather than satisfy, Viva is a Technicolor window into the years of sexual revolution and exploitation cinema.


Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and filmmaker. He lives in London.