Movie review: From light to heavy at the Homer Documentary Film Festival

Living on the Kenai Peninsula, film festivals are a little hard to come by. Sure, we get the occasional one or two day presentation of a film or two, mixed with some niche shorts, typically as part of a larger event, but that’s not really a festival in the terms that larger cities like Austin, New York, or even Anchorage know it.


Homer, however, for over ten years now, has gamely been putting on a Documentary Film Festival to rival any film fest in any similarly sized, or even larger, city in the country. The Homer Theater, a pure product of the love of cinema if there ever was one, brings up ten or so of the most interesting, current, and often controversial documentaries playing throughout the country, and then shows them in rotation all day for a week. These are films that would almost never get seen in a theater, at least not in our market, and it’s a great service to the community that the Homer Theater provides. Hopefully it’s good for their bottom line, as well, but seeing as the owners offer the films free to any students who want to come, I can’t imagine it’s a huge money-maker.

By the time this goes to print, the festival will be all but over, but don’t despair. The films I’m going to highlight (I was lucky enough to get to see four over the weekend) will certainly be available to rent or stream sooner than later, and I’m pleased to say that I can recommend them all, though a few more than others. Though the schedule was pretty diverse, I managed to see two non-controversial music oriented films, and two definite muckrakers.

Muscle Shoals

“Muscle Shoals” was the first of the documentaries we attended, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. To be honest, though I recognized almost all the music from the film — everyone from Percy Sledge to Aretha Franklin to Bono appears — I knew next to nothing about the small Alabama town from which the movie takes its name. In the Deep South, in an area where people hear music in the constant movements of nature, it was perhaps inevitable that such an important music scene would appear. Focused mostly on the life story of music producer Rick Hall, “Muscle Shoals” tells the story of a small yet tenacious production studio that managed to catch the ear of some of the most amazing talents of a generation, all of whom professed to be able to achieve the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” a quality that is difficult to describe, but whose success is impossible to deny. Not only is the narrative interesting — tragedy, comedy, and drama surrounding the birth of the music industry — but the film is one of the beautiful I’ve seen in a long time. Rich, saturated color imbues every frame. “Muscle Shoals” is a film I’d definitely see again.

Grade: A

20 Feet from Stardom

The next film we attended was one I’d heard of, and was pleased to see it on the bill. “20 Feet from Stardom” tells the stories of the back-up singers whose melodies make the stars who they are. The movie is certainly interesting, focusing on several generations of singers at once, but perhaps not as successful as “Shoals.”

The theme here is a little harder to pin down, as each of the back-up singers have a slightly different trajectory and vastly different career goals. I liked the history, I liked the casual interaction that the characters have with such major talents as The Rolling Stones and Sting, and I liked the thought of these women who could claim to have been a part of far more hit records than their corresponding lead singers ever could. Due to the fact that the back-ups often work for several different groups at once, in differing capacities, they can claim a greater piece of music history, a fact that is also highlighted in “Muscle Shoals’” depiction of the careers of various studio musicians. In “20 Feet,” however, not all the players are equally interesting, and at times it feels like the filmmakers are more excited about certain characters who have less of a story arc than others. It’s a minor complaint, however, and the film opens doors to a world I knew next to nothing about.

Grade: A-

Dirty Wars

After seeing the friendly, non-controversial music docs back to back, we came back the next day for the less fun films. Taking a break, my wife left me to watch “Dirty Wars” on my own, and it’s probably for the best because the one-two punch of this plus the next film would have put a damper on our anniversary weekend. “Dirty Wars” is muckraking conflict journalism with a grand tradition. If only the film itself were better. Told from the point of view, and with a constant and irritating voice-over by journalist Jeremy Scahill, “Wars” outlines a shadow war going on behind and to the side of the known conflict in Afghanistan. After taking on the story of a family who, by all appearances, were mistakenly attacked by a shadowy special ops team in Afghanistan, Scahill begins to uncover a series of mishaps and outrages, none of which the U.S. government will even begin to own up to. By the time he reaches the end of his threads to discover the true identity of the military group responsible, the identity is shocking to say the least.

The film is designed to outrage the audience, and that it does, but, and this complaint almost feels a disservice to the important tale it has to tell, as a movie the entire thing is hampered by a main character who is at times mopey, whiny, and by all accounts, exhausted.

Grade: B-


“Blackfish,” as far as I can tell, is the most well-known of the documentary features at the festival and tells the story of Tilikum, the orca whale who killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, last year, as well as two other people over the course of his troubled life. I was seriously affected by this film, especially considering I’d just been to SeaWorld this summer with my family. Told mostly from the perspective of former SeaWorld trainers, “Blackfish” parallels the life of Tilikum, from his early days at a substandard water park to the big leagues of SeaWorld Florida, with the history of the use of orcas as entertainment in water parks across the globe.

What struck me was not the concept that whales are extremely intelligent. I think in this day and age we’re all pretty hip to that idea, but rather that that intelligence might not automatically be a good thing. The premise is basically that Tilikum, and maybe others of his community, is disturbed. One quote by a whale scientist sums it up well: “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?!”

The film drives a stake through the heart of SeaWorld’s most valuable commodity, not by vilifying the whales, however, nor the trainers, but by suggesting that money, not science, has been at the center of every decision made about these amazing animals since day one. The horror of the deaths of multiple people (none of which is actually shown) was bad enough, but scenes of baby whales being forcibly separated from their mothers is heartbreaking in the extreme, especially in the light of the fact that wild orcas never, throughout an entire lifetime, separate from their mothers. Pod families are intensely tight-knit, so much so that their language is unique to the pod. Thus, the information that SeaWorld spreads about the whales, that the hodge-podge family groups that are artificially created by the company are as good as those in the wild is self-serving, at best. Similarly the official line that all orcas live to be 25-30 years (this is a typical lifespan in captivity) when the reality is three to four times higher in the wild, is a shocking mischaracterization.

The only problem I can see with the film is that, as SeaWorld refused to be interviewed, the film is a little one-sided. Granted, that side is pretty strong, but there is a case to be made that having whales in captivity allows the public to see them in all their glory, thus engendering a love of nature and conservation. I see that, but at the same time, if the orca is as intelligent as scientists think, that of a full-fledged decision making individual with a deeply complex emotional awareness, do we have any right to keep them? This film has convinced me that we don’t but I’m probably an easy mark. How this plays out in the heartland is another question. One thing I can say though, I don’t think I’ll be going to a Shamu show anytime soon.

Grade: A

“Muscle Shoals” is rated PG for brief language. “20 Feet from Stardom” is rated PG-13 for somewhat less brief language. “Dirty Wars” is apparently unrated but contains both language and some disturbing scenes of the aftermath of war violence. “Blackfish” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.


Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.