DOCUTAH documents tragedy, laughter and love

By Brian Passey

Last week I had my most complete DOCUTAH experience yet, seeing two of the Shorts Program collections and five other stand-alone films. Yet I still only saw about one-sixth of what the documentary film festival offered.

DOCUTAH is still one of Southern Utah’s newest arts festivals but it’s already proving to be one of the region’s flagship events. If you think you’re not a “documentary person,” you may want to give it a try next year. Just in the 13 films I saw there was a wide variety.

My favorite film of the bunch seemed to appeal to the judges as well. “Off the Rails” not only won the Best Picture award but also Best Direction. It’s a feature-length film about a man with Asperger’s syndrome whose love of all things transit has led to dozens of arrests through the years for impersonating subway and bus drivers in New York City.

Filmmaker Adam Irving speaks about his film "Off the Rails" on Thursday at the Electric Theater in St. George. (Photo: Brian Passey / The Spectrum & Daily News)

Filmmaker Adam Irving is certainly deserving of the Best Direction award. He did a masterful job, telling the story in an entertaining way while showing both the lightness and darkness in his subject’s life. There’s a wonderful balance of drama and humor, solid cinematography and a creative use of animation and reenactment segments.

Irving attended the Thursday night showing of “Off the Rails” at the Electric Theater in St. George and answered questions following the screening. After listening to him, it was even more obvious that he deserved the award. On camera, his subject, Darius McCollum, was a delight, full of wonderful quotes. However, Irving said he filmed 40 hours of footage over the course of four years and much of what Darius had to say was rather mundane. So his persistence truly paid off.

“Train Man,” a feature film based on Darius’ story is planned with Julia Roberts slated to play his attorney. Personally, though, I’m hoping to see “Off the Rails” go on to bigger things with an Oscar nod for Best Documentary Feature.

Sadly I missed DOCUTAH’s Best Foreign Film winner, “Free Speech, Fear Free,” and most of the other award winners. However, I did see “The Search,” a wonderful Spanish-language film from Argentina that won Best Student Picture. “The Search” was both terrifying and heartwarming as it told of one grandmother’s search for her grandson, who was illegally adopted after his mother was executed in the Argentinean Dirty War.

But I really enjoyed some of the other films that didn’t win any awards. Other selections from the Shorts Programs included “West Empire” and “The Dance of the Infants,” both of which featured some truly spectacular cinematography, creating a visual feast.

One of the most moving films was “HomeGirls,” which told the stories of two women who were formerly involved in gangs and drugs but were now trying to rebuild their lives with the help of Homeboy Industries. I noticed that some audience members left as one of the women was telling her story, which involved a number of expletives but also describe a horrific beating and sexual assault perpetrated by the father of her children. I did not enjoy listening to it either, but I feel like that is why we have documentary films: to learn about the reality of the human condition … in all its beauty and ugliness.

On a much lighter note, the first film I watched was “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival,” which is the delightful story of a small town in Iceland with an annual Al Capone Festival. Now that DOCUTAH is over I can reveal that this and a handful of other films were actually mockumentaries, not documentaries. They were fake. And this one was among them. Many audience members didn’t seem to catch on until they recognized “Saturday Night Live” and “Portlandia” cast member Fred Armisen, one of the creators behind the “Documentary Now!” mockumentary series.

Well played, DOCUTAH. Well played.

Another highlight for me was “Finding My Tribe.” I’ll admit I hadn’t planned to see it until I found out the filmmaker, Taylor Doose, was the son of Ernie Doose and Cindy Still of the DiFiore Center here in St. George. But I’m so glad I went. The documentary featured a number of people with tattoos talking about why them got them and what they mean to them. They also spoke of the concerned looks and more outright persecution they sometimes face because of their appearance. By humanizing his characters, Doose made it possible for those who judge people with tattoos to instead see them as people, parents, students, employees, etc., rather than just walking stereotypes.

The question and answer session after “Finding My Tribe” was almost as entertaining as the documentary itself. Doose spoke eloquently about his film, which was a student project, and even made the audience laugh quite a bit with his affable personality. I’m certain some audience members walked out of there reassessing their own stereotypes about people with tattoos.

I sure hope so.

Email reporter Brian Passey at brian@thespectrum.com and follow him at Facebook.com/PasseyBrian or on Twitter and Instagram, @BrianPassey. Call him at 435-674-6296.