Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Never-Ending Lust for Adventure

Two weeks into the New Year and San Francisco's annual parade of film festivals is well under way. This weekend, the Castro Theatre is hosting the German Gems Film Festival; a week later the theatre will be taken over by the Noir City Festival. The schedule for the San Francisco Independent Film Festival was recently announced and, no sooner does that wrap up than people will be lining up for the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival and San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival in March.

Documentaries form an important part of most festivals. Two of the films being shown at the German Gems Film Festival clearly demonstrate how the subject matter that attracts documentarians can range from the precise and methodical to the rambunctious and free-spirited.

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One might jump to the conclusion that Celebration of Flight is all about the history of aviation, ranging from the legend of Icarus up to the debut of the Airbus A380. One would, of course, be wrong.

Written and directed by Lara Juliette Sanders, this is essentially a film about the passion for airplanes shared between two oddly mismatched men. One is Daniel Rundstroem, a 78-year-old retired aviator who, during his heyday, was the personal pilot for the King of Yemen. The other is a young Carib (Kalinago) Indian  from the West Indian island of Dominica who, though born as the grandson of a tribal chieftain, was put up for adoption by his parents at an early age.

Rainstar and Daniel working on their plane

Together, they are an odd couple who share the a common goal of building their own airplane in the middle of a Caribbean jungle and competing in Lakeland, Florida's "Sun'n Fun International Fly-in and Expo" against other designers. Neither man can reach his goal without his partner for, while Daniel has a wealth of knowledge about aviation from his many years of flying, he is no longer as spry and strong as his young friend, Rainstar.

After four years of following Daniel and Rainstar's efforts, the filmmakers accompany Daniel to Berlin, where he is reunited with his son, Niels-Holger (with whom he has had no contact for 10 years). The meeting is polite but never really affectionate. Whereas Niels-Holger may be Daniel's biological son, Rainstar is the young man he treats, mentors, and loves as a second son.

The highlights of this film are not the competition in Lakeland but, rather, the vintage footage of Rundstroem's early days piloting planes for Arab royalty while trying to land on minimal airstrips in hazardous landscapes (and occasionally having to stuff his aircraft's tires with grass in order to get the plane rolling again). The footage devoted to the ordering, receiving, and fitting out of airplane parts has much less spark.

Transporting the plane through the jungle

Like the sea, aviation can be a jealous mistress. Thus, it comes as no surprise to learn that Daniel's marriage failed while he was off flying planes around Africa. However, what becomes clear as the film progresses is that while Daniel has had an exciting career, his meticulous, low-key personality is far from charismatic. Although this story is very much his to tell, he's not a particularly engaging narrator. Here's the trailer:

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Bjoern Richie Lob's exciting new film, Keep Surfing, is quite the opposite. Unlike the more traditional big-wave surfing documentaries that followed in the wake of Bruce Brown's 1966 genre groundbreaker, The Endless Summer, Keep Surfing has very little to do with ocean surfing. Instead, it's about learning how to surf in the middle of Munich, where a man-made river cutting through a city park near a major art museum has created a rare and tempting wave phenomenon.

Known as the Eisbach, this small river flows through Munich's English Garden. After years of experimentation, local surfers managed to rig a system of ropes and planks that can increase the strength  and height of the wave so that as long as a surfer can maintain his balance, he can keep surfing. While the runoffs from heavy rains can provoke roiling waters, they can also fill the river with tree branches, dirt, and dangerous debris.

The film's protagonists are largely counterculture, anti-authoritarian types who take great joy in surfing nude, hanging ten while holding an umbrella in one hand, and enjoying themselves come rain or come shine. Although some may be getting a bit long in the tooth, a younger generation of surfers has demonstrated remarkable dexterity and staying power.

Nude men surfing the Eisbach wearing nothing but cock socks

Unlike ocean surfing (where the wave is coming at the surfer from behind), the people who go river surfing are facing into a standing wave. Close to the Eisbach, the nearby bridge and river banks are often lined with spectators. Surfers can arrive on a municipal bus, head over to the bridge and jump into the water with their surfboards -- even when police helicopters are hovering overhead telling them to get out of the water.

Packed with thrills, this a surfing film like nothing you have ever imagined. Words can't do it justice -- Keep Surfing has to be seen to believed. Here's the trailer:

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