Last week I went back to Durham for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. My first day I saw six films and almost went to a seventh but thought better about it. Seeing good work is always inspiring and I quickly identified a unifying theme, the art of obsession.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith chronicles a time of fertile creativity in a New York City building where jazz greats collide and play music until dawn. All of this takes place in the same building where the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith lived. From 1957-65 Smith took tens of thousands of photographs and made miles of taped audio recordings of the goings on in the building.
The film is a part of a much larger project which involves the task of archiving all of Smith's material and has spawned an audio series, an exhibition, a book, and now a documentary film.
What struck me is that the entire project is fueled by obsessive drive - Smith’s to ceaselessly record images and sounds, the musicians' to play and create, the documentarians' to sift through stacks of photographs and recordings and to craft stories we can follow. Their work sifting through all this data is like someone blazing a trail through the stacks in a hoarder’s apartment.
Forever, Chinatown, drops us into the obsessive world of Frank Wong, who spent decades making intricate dioramas of the Chinatown of his youth. An aging optimist in the midst of a changing San Francisco, Wong's lovingly created, hyper-realistic dioramas present an idealized version of Chinatown tha_t may never have existed.
Uncontrollable obsession is a central theme in Off the Rails, which follows the life of Darius McCollum, a man arrested 32 times for operating a subway car or bus as he impersonated an NYC transit operator. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, McCollum's obsession with trains is both his joy and his downfall.
I think documentarians have to be a bit obsessive. You have to fall in love with your subject, whether it is a person or an object, and be willing to compulsively learn more and more about it. When the folks from The Jazz Loft Project started sifting through the 44,000 pounds of W. Eugene Smith's photos, notes, and tapes in 1997, I'd be willing to bet they had no idea that they had stumbled into their life's work for the next 18 years. If they had, would they have started? Obsessions are like that. You never know where they will lead.