Although only one film can be designated the “best documentary,” another work presented in competition—through sheer audacity, energy and spectacular visual presence—demands to be recognized with the 2009 SFIAAFF Special Jury Award: DIRTY HANDS.
This is a film like no other about an individual that has no comparison. And it is what every artist working with film hopes to experience and achieve: a perfect, almost sublime, match between camera and subject. Stimulating, profane and sometimes uncomfortable, both move in step with each other, screaming and dragging the audience into an insanely energized and zig-zag narrative that is impossible to separate from the artist, or his wildly kinetic art. Entirely refreshing, beneath the intoxicating pace and intensity is a noteworthy choice to frame the individual first through his work, rather than through his Asian American identity.
Dirty Hands is the result of seven years devoted by a filmmaker to understanding and participating in the life of his subject, his friend. With this in mind, it’s easy to say the film required no discipline to create and discover, and that may be true. But because it does work against every grain of objectivity and distance that is often the hallmark of documentary film, it is true to the reckless and rebellious ‘life and times of David Choe.’ In its intimate understanding, its knowledge of knowing when to pull away and when to draw focus, it paints a true and truthful image of its subject, unfinished, undone and wild. And that truth is what every good work of art strives to achieve, and the backbone of any good documentary—Asian American or otherwise.