Last year, “Young@Heart” caused ripples when it sold to Fox Searchlight to become the first distribution deal to emerge from the L.A. Film Festival, so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the festival put documentaries front and center this year, even in a city where there’s no shortage of name actors that most other festivals would deploy to lure audiences. Instead, one of the more anticipated star attractions in Los Angeles was a talk with HBO documentary czar Sheila Nevins, who participated in a wide-ranging conversation with L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein about her career of mixing high class projects like the recent doc “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” with, well, “Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal,” which premiered at the festival hours after Nevins finished up. (The latest from “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, which follows Fleiss’s construction of “a stud farm” for women, actually went awry to the point that Nevins steps in to interview Fleiss.)
In fact, HBO was such a presence at the festival that when one audience member wanted to compliment “Trinidad,” the elegant history of the sex change capital of the world in Colorado, the woman said, “It felt like a narrative film. It felt like an HBO film.” And that might actually be selling it short. The directorial debut of Jay Hodges and PJ Raval, the latter of whom served as cinematographer on the recent Sundance winner “Trouble the Water,” is a film that creeps up on you, not unlike the realization that the women who have formed an unlikely community in the heart of frontier country were actually at one time men. As the film recounts, the town became a haven for transgenders when Dr. Stanley Biber pioneered the sex change operation and, since his passing in 2006, one of his patients, Dr. Marci Bowers, took charge of the local hospital where the operations now actually pay for the rest of the hospital’s services. Hodges and Raval arrive in town just in time to shoot the construction of Morning Glow, a recovery house that not only provides a dramatic arc for the story, but slyly demonstrates how post-ops are just like anyone else, in moments as simple as arguing over the proper trim for the doors of the house.
If “Trinidad” was about the struggle to fit in, “Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe” is about busting out, which is what I thought I wanted to do five minutes into director Harry Kim’s frenzied biography. Between the shaky camera work and Choe leading a chorus of Pygmy children in the Congo chanting “titties and ass,” there didn’t seem to be much hope for either my eyes or American diplomacy to be spared in this portrait of a Korean-American artist who rose from tagging tunnels in L.A. to getting paid millions by the likes of Scion and Nike for his unique and vibrant paintings. Amazingly, Kim is there from the beginning of Choe’s unusual career, catching the tagger as he stands on the roof of a car to create a series of whales on the side of the freeway in his early twenties, then capturing an older but not necessarily wiser Choe lamenting on how he’s sold out by doing graffiti for corporate presentations. The thrill may have subsided for Choe, who in one scene punches his own nose repeatedly to get the proper shade of crimson, yet watching him work, illegally or not, is invigorating. The film’s messy aesthetic seems all too true to the artist, who, if he didn’t insist on defying categorization, would be classified in parts as self-destructive, misogynistic, cynical and yes, immensely talented.