After 13 years of picking interesting films for the Homer Documentary Film Festival at the Homer Theatre, owners Jamie and Lynette Sutton have dialed in their selection criteria:
— “Is it well made movie?” Jamie Sutton said.
— “Does it matter?”
“The best documentary film festival north of Toronto,” as Sutton calls it, opens with a barbecue dinner at 6:15 p.m. today followed by a gala showing of “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.” The gala show is free with a festival pass purchase or $20 general admission.
Over the past 12 years, the Suttons have sought out the best of the year’s documentary films. They start picking films by asking other festival directors what films they loved. For 2016, Jamie Sutton said they talked to the directors of the LA Fest in Los Angeles, the AFI Documentary Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and HotDocs in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“My standard line is, ‘If I’m going to show the best nine documentaries of 2016, what movies do I have to show?’” Jamie Sutton said he asked them.
Jenn Wilson at LA Docs gave him 25 films.
“I said, no fair, you have to give me 10,” he said.
In considering their selections, they wound up looking at 37 films on Vimeo, the online film sharing service. They narrowed that down to 15 and then nine.
“These all came to us because someone thought this was great,” Sutton said. “I take everybody’s opinion. Partly it has to do ultimately with balance. You can’t have all rock-and-roll tour docs.”
This year’s fest does have one music film, “Music of Strangers,” about an ensemble of eclectic musicians formed by Yo Yo Ma.
“He (Yo Yo Ma) decides there are people all over the world making music — let’s make music together,” Sutton said. “There are people with instruments you never thought existed.”
The star of the show is a bagpiper from Galacea in northern Spain.
“She is just jumping all over. She plays like a rock star,” Sutton said.
The group also goes into a Syrian refugee camp.
“They play for these devastated people. You’re brought to tears,” he said. “Everyone who looked at it said ‘This is the movie.’”
“Music can be the language maybe not of politics exactly. It’s the language of understanding,” Lynette Sutton added. “That’s the whole message: music connects people.”
A film similar to “Life Inside,” a previous DocFest hit about how music helps break out of their shells elders with dementia, is “Life Animated.” In that film, it’s animated Disney cartoons that help an autistic boy, Owen Suskind, connect with the world. Owen’s father, the writer, Ron Suskind, discovered one day that he could communicate with his son through the vocabulary of Disney characters.
“He would use Disney characters and the things they would say in the appropriate circumstance,” Jamie Sutton said. “They spoke for him.”
As in past years, the festival includes documentaries with a political and environmental focus. One of the stronger films is “Zero Days,” Sutton said, about the development of the computer virus Stuxnet and its use to disrupt the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
“This is what documentaries are for,” Sutton said. “Go out and change the world — this is bad. Let me tell you how bad it is. Let’s look at the leaders of the world and say ‘Let’s fix this.’”
A whaling film, “The Islands and the Whales,” also should shake up some minds, Sutton said. This one has a twist, though: it looks at the people of the Faroe Islands in Denmark and their ancestral tradition of hunting pilot whales.
“It’s important socially and economically and customarily to who they are,” Sutton said.
But there are environmental consequences. The whales start accumulating large amounts of mercury and poison the islanders.
“This is a culture having a look at itself and saying, ‘What about whales? Are whales going to be a continued part of our cultures as they have been for a thousand years?’” Sutton said.
Because of the presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday, the festival will take a break at 5 p.m. that night and broadcast the debate live. Those with a festival pass can get in free while others can pay a donation to benefit a local nonprofit. Sutton said he figured the DocFest audience would probably be the same audience watching the debates, so why not watch it together?
Other films in the festival include “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” about the life of the poet; “Normal Lear,” about the creator of TV shows like “All in the Family” that challenged 1960s and 1970s concepts of comedy; “Obit,” about the obituary writers of the New York Times; “Chicken People,” about chicken breeders who raise the birds for show, and “My Love, Don’t Cross that River,” about an elderly Korean couple deeply in love who recognize eventually one of them will die.
Admission to each film is $9 general and $7 discounts and $7 for matinees or $60 general for a festival pass (including the gala dinner) or $50 with discounts.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.