‘The human at the center of it’

Docs to see this weekend at the Denver Film Festival

Anonymous Sister, courtesy Denver Film Festival

“I don’t think we see the human at the center of it,” Jamie Boyle says, “what their life looks like now, how they fell into it, how they came out of it. I think that’s really been largely missing.”

Boyle is telling me about Anonymous Sister, her documentary about her sister and her mother’s opioid use disorder, but our conversation drifts to the implications and ramifications of documentary filmmaking—particularly when it comes to painting a complete portrait of the subject.

“You never really know what the camera is going to do, what its presence is going to do,” Boyle continues. “Some standards have been implemented since—in the doc community—where people are trying to require therapy after some of these lengthy interviews . . .  I’m a big advocate for that, and I wish I would have engaged in that more, and I wish I would have budgeted for it and demanded it because we ask a lot of doc subjects. And when it’s your family member, you see the repercussions.”

Like many first-person documentaries, Anonymous Sister draws its strength from emotional truth, from the human face. To watch Anonymous Sister is to live with the Boyle family, understand their struggles, and relive their trials and tribulations. It’s an excellent piece of work, one you don’t want to miss.

And you’ll have two chances this weekend, Nov. 12 and 13, as the 44th Denver Film Festival comes to a close.

You’ll also have two chances to catch Brandon Kramer’s doc The First Step (Nov. 13 and 14), with bestselling author and political commentator Van Jones as the human at the center. Jones is trying to get a criminal justice reform bill passed. And to do it, he aligns himself with Jared Kushner, son-in-law to then-President Donald Trump.

Alliances come at great costs these days, and even the mention of Trump causes Jones’ closest supporters to run for cover. The country is deeply divided along partisan lines, and it’s not what is done but who does it that counts. As one conversation in a documentary loaded with stalemate conversations asks: Are we our voting record? Or is our voting record just part of who we are?

Jones takes it from all sides. But the title, The First Step, isn’t just an allusion to the program Jones wants to see enacted; it’s a suggestion, an approach to healing hurt communities. To let them see you in pain and to share it with others. Many want an all-or-nothing approach, but Jones stumps for steps. They may not be perfect, and the work won’t be done tomorrow, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

But trying to find that somewhere can be equally frustrating, as Sarah Terry’s doc, A Decent Home (Nov. 11), can attest. The issue here: The vanishing affordability of affordable housing, specifically when it comes to mobile home parks.

According to A Decent Home, there are 46,500 mobile home parks across America, with a median household income of $30,000 per year. Or, “The sweet spot of the industry,” as Frank Rolfe says.

Rolfe is the co-owner of the sixth-largest mobile home parks business in the U.S. and the co-owner of Mobile Home University, a business class crash course in how to squeeze money out of mobile home park renters. As Rolfe tells his students, renters lack the leverage to argue or move. So if you raise the rent, they either have to pay up or vacate, at which point their trailer becomes abandoned property, and the owner of the mobile home park takes possession and rents it out to the next resident.

Rolfe’s practices are far from unique. And though A Decent Home focuses primarily on the Denver Meadows Mobile Home Park in Aurora, Terry travels around the country to find similar stories in Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Even California’s Silicon Valley, where a mobile home park butts up against the ever-expanding Google campus. 

Similar to Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, Terry juxtaposes the faces of those left out with those forcing the leaving, specifically Rolfe and Denver Meadows owner Shawn Lustigman. One has no qualms with Terry’s camera, the other does. There is always a human at the center, whether they want to be there or not.

ON THE BILL: The 44th Denver Film Festival, November 11-14, multiple venues and online. Information at denverfilm.org/denverfilmfestival/dff44/.

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