A moment captured in “306 Hollywood” finds the mother of filmmaker siblings Elan and Jonathan Bogarin scolding them for undertaking an endeavor she considers “crazy.”
Did they ever feel the same way?
“Of course. But not in the way that would stop us,” Elan Bogarin says. “When you take on a multi-year project and dive into this place you’ve known your whole life, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Now that we’ve come out the other side with the film — and people who see it come up to us and reveal they’ve had a similar experience — then you can say to yourself that it was crazy, but it was worth it.”
Co-directed and narrated by the brother/sister team, their documentary “306 Hollywood” will screen as the opening night feature at the 22nd annual Kansas City FilmFest, a juried competition that showcases more than 100 regional, national and international films.
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“It’s a really raw example of how time is gonna get us all. We have to either challenge and embrace it or suffer with it,” she says.
In 2001, the Bogarins started filming Annette Ontell, their elderly Jewish grandmother, every year for 10 years. The interviews took place at her address that gives the film its title, located in Hillside, N.J.
"We kind of knew it was nothing special,” Jonathan says of grandma’s little white house during a sequence in the film. “But for two city kids, it felt (like) the universe.”
When the outspoken and witty Ontell died in 2011 at the age of 93, the filmmaking duo decided to turn her abode into a movie set, exploring what remained as if embarking on an archaeological dig. The result is a poetic and sometimes surreal meditation about life and loss, and what one person’s existence represents in the larger scheme.
The Bogarins find dramatic weight in simple scenes of shredding Ontell’s canceled checks and tax returns. But they also incorporate unusual, elaborate methods to drive their point home.
They find audiotapes of family arguments and re-create these with actors mouthing the words. Models wearing Ontell’s clothing put on a throwback fashion show on her front lawn. A physicist analyzes what actually happens to the departed’s remains. The Bogarins even take a trip to Rome to a more classical archaeological site to contemplate its place in their story.
“We consider it a magical realist documentary,” she says. “The house is an entry point for understanding how we see the world and how we see ourselves. Even more than that, the house becomes your imagination.”
While Elan lives in a tangible home in Brooklyn and Jonathan resides in neighboring Manhattan, the Bogarins do have ties to Kansas City that made an impact on their film.
Jonathan lived for a few years in Missouri when his professor wife taught at Washington University in St. Louis. When attending a friend’s wedding in Kansas City, he visited Hammerpress, KC’s celebrated letterpress and design studio.
Bogarin recalls, “Jonathan bought some postcards and sent them to the whole family – including my grandmother. We always remember thinking how beautiful the postcards were. Then once we were doing the (film) titles, we paused and said, ‘We know exactly who to get.’”
Hammerpress’ contribution adds one more distinctive visual element to a project that thrives on them. Just as their grandmother made her living as a fashion designer, the Bogarins intentionally “designed” their film in a way that sets it apart from comparable pictures.
“We’re documentary filmmakers. We’re visual artists. I’ve also worked in fiction film. The goal was to marry these together,” says Bogarin, who also produced the 2009 dark comedy “Big Fan.”
The strategy obviously worked because “306 Hollywood” earned a trip to Sundance in January, where it received a nomination in the Best of Next category.
“Sundance is as big and grand and makes as much of a difference as people say it will,” she says.
“You are terrified when you’re making a film because you put so much of your life on hold to finish a film. When it went to Sundance, it was like, ‘OK, this was worth it.’”
All the years of shooting and editing proved taxing on Bogarin. But the stress didn’t drive a wedge into the relationship between her and her filmmaking partner.
“At the end of the day, the only reason we could get through this was because we are siblings,” she says. “You can’t get divorced. What are you gonna do? Walk away?”
“306 Hollywood” screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Other highlights of this year’s KC FilmFest include:
“Social Animals” explores one of the most addictive habits of teenagers: Instagram. “This generation has only known a world where the rapid capture and sharing of images is part of their daily social experience,” says director Jonathan Ignatius Green.
His documentary feature debut follows three teenagers – a risk-taking photographer, pageant queen and Midwestern girl next door – who navigate the dicey divide between their digital and real worlds.
“We are social animals and sharing is an important part of the human experience. But the excess of even good and natural things usually becomes not good,” says Green, a graduate of Olathe South High School, who also spent his freshman year at KU before transferring to the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Despite all the pitfalls, Green admits he loves Instagram. “In the opening credits of the film I used my Instagram handle @ignatiusgreen as my director credit,” says the filmmaker, who landed a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.
“And as a visual storyteller, it’s kind of like a drug for me. What I hate is when my phone becomes a compulsive, if not addictive, killer of silence and boredom in my life. Silence and boredom are where good ideas come from, and, frankly, where emotional health comes from.”
“Social Animals” screens at 12:10 p.m. Friday.
Rodents of Unusual Size
The phrase “Rodents of Unusual Size” famously hails from “The Princess Bride.” But it also serves as the title for “an offbeat environmental documentary about giant swamp rats invading Louisiana,” according to co-director Chris Metzler.
The KCK native (who previously made “Everyday Sunshine,” a documentary about the band Fishbone) says the movie focuses on defiant people on the edge of the world who are defending their communities from the onslaught of a curious and unexpected species. That species is technically called “nutria,” a large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodent.
Metzler claims one of the challenges of making the doc (which is narrated by Wendell Pierce of “The Wire”) was how many hours he spent in boats.
“Being a native Midwesterner, it took some time to find my sea legs, and, thankfully, none of us filmmakers fell in the water,” he says. But in keeping with his KC culinary tradition, he did get a chance to barbecue a nutria with New Orleans jazz musician Kermit Ruffins.
“If you barbecue anything it tastes pretty good,” Metzler says. “And that holds true for swamp rat.”
“Rodents of Unusual Size” screens at 12:05 p.m. Friday.
The 22nd annual Kansas City FilmFest runs Wednesday, April 11, to Sunday, April 15, at the Cinemark on the Plaza, 526 Nichols Road. Elan Bogarin, Jonathan Ignatius Green and Chris Metzler will attend their festival screenings. The complete lineup and showtimes can be found at kcfilmfest.org.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”