Silverdocs Reviews: “Photographic Memory,” “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself,” and “Oma & Bella”

Our take on what’s playing at Silverdocs this year.

By: Washingtonian Staff

Photographic Memory

Playing Friday, June 22, at 1:15 PM, and Sunday, June 24, at 12:45 PM

Have a sullen, detached, troubled, or rude teenager at home? Care to commiserate with another parent over coffee? This is the film for you—though you’ll have to supply the coffee, and it won’t be your turn to talk for an hour and a half.

In Photographic Memory, director Ross McElwee—best known for the 1986 documentary Sherman’s March, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes—offers a self-effacing and sympathetic guide to the trials of watching a sweet, companionable child turn into a hostile young adult. His son, Adrian—whom we see in both the present day and home movies—is a creative, smart, but angry kid who has managed to finish high school and is living with his parents and younger sister. A writer, videographer, and extreme skier (among other talents), Adrian nevertheless seems to have no direction or interest in college when the film begins. In an effort to understand his son, McElwee undertakes a journey into his own past “to try to remember what it was like to be in my twenties and have most of my life ahead of me, as Adrian has now.”

Armed with journals, photographs, and a sketchy memory, he travels to the French town of St. Quay, in Brittany, where he lived for a year in the early ’70s. In addition to his existential project, he’s searching for two people he remembers only by first name and with whom he’s lost touch: Maurice, a photographer who hired McElwee as an assistant when he saw the young American taking pictures in a cafe, and Maud, a produce seller who became his lover. The first relationship ended abruptly with an unfounded accusation by his boss, the second with McElwee’s departure on a leg of his trip that didn’t include Maud.

After some effort, McElwee tracks down Maurice’s ex-wife as well as his own former girlfriend. Through the wife, Hélène, we learn some of the truth behind Maurice’s firing of McElwee. For her part, the now-sixtyish Maud proves a warm though reserved host, reminiscing with McElwee over home-cooked frogs’ legs. The whole thing feels a little anticlimactic, like Hercule Poirot following a series of juicy clues only to discover that the victim died of natural causes.

All the while, the film goes back and forth between France and McElwee’s relationship with his son—including video chats, home movies both recent and past, and narration. Amid the banalities (“I love my son, but sometimes he drives me crazy”; “How did I get to be this old?”) are some astute insights. In observing that the child who was so lovable is always present in even the most difficult adolescent, McElwee says, “Teenagers don’t realize how much they’re protected by a younger version of themselves, which rises up to defend them.”

In the end, I couldn’t help thinking there’s simply a fundamental difference between McElwee and his son that no rooting around in old journals or flights to France can change: Forty years ago, McElwee was curious, open to adventure, and, by his own admission, romantic as he traveled through a foreign landscape. His son suffers, for the time being, from an unhappiness in his soul that has kept him idling (and emitting noxious fumes). Ross was Ross, and Adrian is Adrian. We’re left in an inconclusive state, as is the director—and the dad.

On the bright side, life has a tendency to keep rolling after the camera stops.

—WILLIAM O’SULLIVAN

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself

Playing Thursday, June 21, at 8:30 PM, and Saturday, June 23, at noon

Whether you’ve glimpsed him on film, read his work in print, or perused the venerable Paris Review, it’s likely you’ve heard of George Plimpton. Part erudite intellectual WASP, part quixotic truth-seeker, Plimpton, the subject of Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself, lived with a joie de vivre friends and colleagues found infectious—and which directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling accurately capture in this fun-filled romp through the high points of Plimpton’s fabled career.

With narration by the title character himself (Plimpton died in 2003 at the age of 76), as well as snippets and observations from an impressive roster of those who knew him well—from Gay Talese and James Lipton to Graydon Carter, Hugh Hefner, Joe Schmidt, and Albert Maysles—the film documents Plimpton’s varied and impressive career. Starting in Paris, we watch the young George, the son of well-to-do parents, make his mark as the preeminent interviewer of literary icons, establishing the Paris Review as one of the most influential magazines of its day. Plimpton’s Q&As with the 20th century’s most important writers (Philip Roth, Terry Southern, T.S. Eliot, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov, to name just a few) not only earned him accolades—Hemingway said of Plimpton, “This kid is the real deal”—but they started him on a career trajectory as a collector of life experiences: From Paris, Plimpton went back to New York, which led to successful stints as a Sports Illustrated writer, author, bit-part actor, and professional hobnobber.

One of the best aspects of this jovial documentary is that we get to see Plimpton undertake these sometimes odd and often ridiculous jaunts through participatory journalism. Here he is on the flying trapeze, there he is as a cowboy in a John Wayne Western; he pops up playing the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, in the boxing ring with Archie Moore, QBing for the Detroit Lions. It’s a never-ending stream of Plimpton foibles and frolics, all done to feed the genius storytelling skills of this universal amateur.

The clips of speeches, party shots, and archival TV footage lend themselves nicely to understanding the richness and diversity of Plimpton’s world, which is peppered with a very Forrest Gump-ian series of historic coincidences. Perhaps one of the less successful elements of Plimpton! is the underlying question as to whether Plimpton struggled with being taken seriously among his intellectually superior clique; whether his set-up-fail, set-up-fail cycle of gaffes wounded his Harvard-educated mind and made him secretly envious of a life that could have included more intelligent pursuits. His old friends and various interviewees speculate that it did. But watching the film, quite frankly, it appears he doesn’t really care. For Plimpton, life was more a Technicolor reel of adventure and surprise, a “who knows” dive into the happy abyss.

—KATE BENNETT

Oma & Bella

Playing Thursday, June 21, at 7 PM and Saturday, June 23, at 10 AM

The creative-writing adage “Write what you know” could apply just as well to aspiring documentary filmmakers. In both cases, what you know can lead to what you don’t—and that’s where it gets good.

Such is the case with Oma & Bella, a modest 75-minute film, in German with subtitles, by Alexa Karolinski—a 2011 graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts—about her grandmother, Regina (a.k.a. Oma, German for Grandma) and her friend Bella. The two eightysomething Holocaust survivors have shared a Berlin apartment ever since Bella moved in to help Regina after a hip operation.

We see the women cooking, telling stories, shopping at the market, cooking, visiting a cemetery, offering tastes to the director, cooking, getting their hair done . . . did I mention cooking? There’s a lot of it, and you wonder who’s eating all this food—whole chickens, pigs’ feet (I think), cabbage, fruit compote, cookies, blintzes—made by two elderly women with such quiet lives. But does it matter? This isn’t a movie about food. It’s about what Oma and Bella share, which appears to be almost everything.

I’ve seen few depictions of friendship as matter-of-factly lovely as Oma & Bella: the pair walking side by side into a beer garden for an afternoon glass of Berliner Weisse; Bella insisting the trash bags are too heavy for Regina to carry by herself and toddling after her to relieve her load; Regina gently putting drops in her friend’s eyes.

The fact that these two Jews are survivors of the worst atrocity of the 20th century—Regina born in Poland, Bella in Lithuania, both sent to concentration camps as teenagers—might lead you to expect an hour-plus of tears, bitterness, or Nazi horror. But this film builds so subtly that you might wonder whether it’s going to have a climax.

There are certainly dark notes: While Bella’s marriage was happy (of her husband, she says, “You can’t believe that it was this wonderful once upon a time. . . . There’s so much love in this picture”), Oma tore her unfaithful husband’s face out of photos. Memories of going out and having fun every night as young women are tempered by the fact that as adolescents they did anything but—Regina was 12 when war broke out, in a camp by 14.

But two moments late in the film make the audience—and director—really sit up. In the first, Bella suggests that after being released from the camps, some survivors exacted revenge. Keeping the extent of her participation vague, she recalls: “The Russians liberated us and said, ‘You have two days to do whatever you want. Then comes normal life.’”

A few minutes later, Bella tries to remember a dream, and just when you think she’s going to trail off, she begins telling the riveting, chilling, and utterly unexpected story of her father’s death. For the first time, we see tears.

Oma and Bella is a film of the quotidian. But there’s nothing quotidian about what these two have endured. At a large Shabbat dinner they host (so that’s what all the food is for), a simple toast sums up the admiration you’ll feel at the end: “To Oma and Bella!”

—WILLIAM O’SULLIVAN