Two Milwaukee Film Festival documentaries about art are as different as the artists portrayed.
Peter Anton of Almost There is a cantankerous, demanding and infirm 83-year-old outsider portraitist who paints the people and events in his life.
He is discovered by directors Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden who become, on the way to mounting the first public exhibition of his work, not only his biographers but the latest in a string of caregivers.
Anton is also a hoarder. His about-to-be condemned home is stuffed with art in various stages of decomposition and is so filthy that the filmmakers wear masks over their nose and mouth when visiting him.
In The Russian Woodpecker, by Chad Gracia, similar masks are worn by the people of Chernobyl in the Ukraine after the 1986 nuclear accident in a futile attempt to protect them from radiation that in animation is shown to spread like a storm front on a weather map.
Avant garde artist Feodor Alexandrovich was four years old when he was evacuated from Chernobyl after the accident. The Russian Woodpecker is an account of his attempt to make art out of the experience.
Past events are portrayed in vintage footage and in photos showing people gathered to watch the accident on a bridge where radiation was the worst and of a May Day celebration held in a “radioactive drizzle.”
Alexandrovich’s white whale is a still standing antenna array in Chernobyl that sent radio waves into the U.S. presumably in an attempt at surveillance and that can be heard as a ticking noise that accounts for the film’s title.
In investigating the accident Alexandrovich uncovers a high ranking Soviet apparatchik he believes triggered the accident to cover up his own ineptitude. Its circumstantial and speculative but push back by the Russian government lends it credibility.
Both films are as different as cheese and chalk. But both illustrate the non fiction technique of finding structure and imposing narrative on raw footage. And both include a twist that proves life is stranger than fiction.
Alexandrovich becomes concerned for his safety after encountering politically sensitive material. The film even carries a disclaimer: “The authors … in no way intend to injure relations between the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.”
And in Almost There, which strongly suggests In The Realms of the Unreal about the eccentric outsider artist Henry Darger, the filmmakers stumble across a secret from Anton’s colorful past that puts everything they’ve learned about him in a different light. Both films struggle to end with a redemptive coda.
The Russian Woodpecker is in the competition program and was shown over the past weekend.
Almost There is in the festival’s Documentary program and shows Tuesday at the Times Cinema and Sunday at the Avalon Theater. The filmmakers are scheduled to attend.