2011 RiverRun documentaries take storytelling in a new direction

by Keith Barber

An African Election production still (courtesy photo)

The programming staff of the RiverRun International Film Festival has assembled an impressive collection of documentary films for the 2011 festival, including 10 films showcased in the festival’s documentary feature competition. The festival kicks off April 8 and runs through April 17 in Winston-Salem.

An African Election tells the story of the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election, a landmark event in modern African history and a model for future Democratic elections across the continent. Director Jarreth Merz does a spectacular job capturing the dramatic events leading up to Election Day as he and his talented crew follow the campaigns of the top two candidates — John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress, or NDC, and Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party, or NPP. Merz skillfully lays out the history of Democratic elections in Ghana without being heavy handed. He allows events to unfold before the camera in a cinema verité style that effectively builds tension. The stakes rise dramatically on Election Day as neither candidate is able to capture more than 50 percent of the vote. Ghana’s election laws mandate a runoff election, which is held a few weeks later. The runoff election results in a narrow victory for Mills, but those results are tainted by allegations of irregularities in a rural district. The election commissioner refuses to certify the results until the Tain District holds its own runoff election a week later. Representatives and party operatives of the NDC and NPP engage in heated discussions at election headquarters as police try to maintain order in the streets. For a brief moment, it appears Ghana might spiral into chaos, as the viewer is riveted by what unfolds on the screen. The resolution of a fierce political battle offers a ringing endorsement of the power of democracy as Merz lyrically documents the raw emotion, larger than life personalities and high stakes of elections in third world nations.

Space Tourists tells the whimsical tale of Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to fund her own trip into outer space. The film also chronicles the state of the Russian space program, which now offers rides to “space tourists” for a fee of $20 million. Director Christian Frei gains unprecedented access to Star City, which gained notoriety as the home of the former Soviet Union’s space program during the great Space Race of the 1960s. Frei shows the current dilapidated state of Star City and the abandoned legacy of Sputnik. Frei also introduces the audience to an inventor vying for the Ansari X Prize, an annual award given by the Ansari family to innovators in space travel technology. Ultimately, the film chronicles the story of a woman who fulfills her childhood dream of traveling to outer space while offering a touching expression of mankind’s insatiable desire to push the boundaries of the known world and explore the mysteries of the universe.

Armadillo is a cinematic achievement on a number of levels.

Director Janus Metz Pedersen brilliantly captures the story of a group of Danish soldiers shipped off to Armadillo, a military base in southern Afghanistan, in such a way that the viewer can’t discern if they’re watching a documentary or a scripted dramatic film. Pedersen doesn’t attempt to make a political statement about the war with interviews of generals and commanding officers. Rather, Pedersen and his crew remain embedded with the Danish platoon, as it becomes starkly evident why the war in Afghanistan is complex, frustrating, and perhaps unwinnable. The platoon is constantly under assault by Taliban fighters as the Danes experience losses of fellow countrymen. The raw emotions of commanders rise to the surface as the troops seek retribution. However, the soldiers get more than they bargained for as the nature of 21 st century war is accurately and brutally depicted in this first-rate film. Pedersen’s command of his craft is a thing of beauty and makes Armadillo a must-see at the 2011 RiverRun International Film Festival.

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The 13th annual RiverRun International Film Festival runs April 8-17. For ticket info, call 336.721.1945 or visit: