Festival Watch

Fiona Morrow applauds the documentaries shown at Cambridge
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The Independent Culture

The 23rd Cambridge Film Festival draws to a close this weekend, having continued to build on its increasingly strong programme. Alongside an impressive range of new movies, both mainstream and art-house, the festival is also known for its emphasis on South-east Asian cinema, and its surprisingly extensive Focus On Canada. Less high-profile, perhaps, is its small-but-significant documentary schedule, this year covering all the bases - from cinema, music and biography, all the way to the meaning of life.

Which brings us to Peter Mettler's Gambling, Gods and LSD, for which screenings were packed. Traversing continents - Canada to Switzerland, the USA to India - Mettler, through a series of apparently random connections, seeks to illuminate a fundamental human urge: why we seek to transcend our mortality. From 55 hours of shot footage, Mettler has constructed a fluid cinematic essay that questions what we are searching for in life, and if it is ever possible to find it. Thus, we watch as born-again Canadian Christians writhe in ecstasy; a couple are married while bungee-jumping; and a woman in a Las Vegas sex shop is strapped to an "erotic electrical stimulator" (a full body machine, vibrator included). Of the last, Mettler asks: "What excites you?" "Cooking," is her priceless reply.

While filming, Mettler asked each of his subjects the same questions, though they are rarely heard on screen. One, "Is there a difference between looking for something and just looking?", beautifully underlines the film's own arc of transcendence. Mettler offers a bizarre journey that is as intoxicating as it is philosophical; if you get the chance (it will be screened at the ICA in London later this year), I recommend that you take the trip.

Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound follows another search, but this time it's acceptance, rather than transcendence, that's the goal. Following the curiosity that is the USA's National Spelling Bee, Blitz pieces together a social jigsaw of the States, while celebrating the determination of a bunch of youngsters each desperate to prove themselves. From mixed ethnic and economic backgrounds, the young teens put themselves (or are driven by ambitious parents) through enormous linguistic hoops in preparation. Angela, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who speak almost no English, is teaching herself; Neil is of Indian descent and must suffer his father's intense system for improvement; Ted is a rural Missouri boy whose intelligence sets him apart from his community. Harry is a film-maker's gift: a quirky little thing, blessed with a fabulously expressive face. Few could fail to be impressed by the effort the youngsters show, or feel their pain when they fail. Many of the audience will wince at the thought of spelling many of the test words themselves. And, although they are battling to beat each other, the real fight is between a child and a dictionary. A definite crowd-pleaser.

Kenneth Bowser's celluloid version of Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls starts very well. Tracing the rise of the idiosyncratic movie brats from their own obsessions with the nouvelle vague, Bowser begins to construct an informative and compelling history, from Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde to Roger Corman's B-movie factory, and beyond. He has assembled some great faces - Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper - but the big guns are notably absent. One can only assume that the gossipy nature of Biskind's original dissuaded the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Beatty, De Niro and Spielberg from collaborating.

They were probably right to steer clear, for it's when Bowser becomes seduced by Biskind's ripples of minor scandal - hard drinking, soft drugs - that his film loses its way. Suddenly, the timeline goes to pot, we're ping-ponging back and forth across movies, and any semblance of a thesis evaporates. Which is a shame, considering the richness of the material.

Dennis Hopper turns up again this weekend in Ariane Riecker and Henning Lohner's Dennis Hopper: Create (Or Die). A long-overdue biography of one of Hollywood's genuine mad/bad cult icons, the documentary explores not only Hopper's acting career, but also his directorial slate - Easy Rider, Colors, The Last Movie, The Hot Spot, Out of the Blue - and his art. (Hopper's painting, photography and sculpture was the subject of a recent major retrospective exhibition.) Old muckers (and compelling characters themselves) Sean Penn, David Lynch and Wim Wenders reminisce.

Time was that a film like this might have ended up on TV. Now, it's just as likely to get a cinema release. The unexpected numbers currently turning out in London for a film about a small, rural, French school (Etre et Avoir) certainly suggest that, given the right push, many of the documentaries screened at Cambridge will go on to become quiet little hits.

Festival ends 20 July.

'Dennis Hopper: Create (Or Die)' Sat 6.45pm, Sun 1.45pm; 'Spellbound' is on general release from 10 October