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NEW YORK – Thursday was a magical day for documentaries at the New York Film Festival — and not just because Penn and Teller were in the house!
Two of the year’s best docs — Tim’s Vermeer, the Penn Jillette-produced/Raymond Teller-directed surprise hit of September’s Telluride Film Festival, and Jehane Noujaim‘s The Square, the Egyptian film that won the documentary audience award at last month’s Toronto Film Festival — both had their New York premieres at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the fest.
Tim’s Vermeer chronicles the obsessive efforts of Tim Jenison, a noted inventor and longtime friend of Penn’s, to prove that 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer used technology to achieve previously unequaled realism in his paintings.
At an afternoon press conference with Penn, Teller and Jenison following the film’s press screening, Jillette explained the roots of the project. One night he had been feeling down and called up San Antonio-based Jenison, asking him to come visit him and chat about anything except show business. Jenison flew out that night and starting talking about his theory about Vermeer and plans to test it — which, ironically, Jillette told him had to be documented on film, and so Jenison agreed to wait until arrangements could be made to film his work.
While Jillette was able to use his name to get meetings with studio execs about the project, he confessed that his involvement may have actually delayed its evolution: when they heard what the film hoped to show, they assumed he was pranking them and tended to look around the room for hidden cameras. “They thought I was doing a Borat thing!” he said with a laugh.
During the Q&A, a journalist asked a question that seemed to imply that Jenison, who meticulously documented every step of his effort to paint a “Vermeer” of his own using the process that he believed had been used centuries ago, had slipped up with an aspect of his experiment. This prompted the mild-mannered Jenison to give a detailed answer that left no doubt that he had not — and the more outspoken Jillette to follow that with the observation, “You don’t f— with Shady, cuz Shady will f—ing kill you!”
A major topic of discussion throughout the Q&A was how the art world might respond to Jenison’s discovery, which challenges everything we have ever known about how many great paintings came to exist. All three men emphasized that the film is an appreciation of great art regardless of its source, not an attack on it. “I’m not an art historian, I’m not an art critic and I’m not an art expert; I’m a computer guy who did a weird experiment,” Jenison said. Jillette added, “Tim is not confrontational. This is not an attack on Vermeer.” Assuming that Jenison’s theory is correct, he insisted, the achievements of Vermeer and others are no less majestic, just different. “It’s kind of like magic: does it matter how it’s done?”
During the film’s subsequent public screening, audience members seemed duly impressed with Jenison’s discovery, marveling at all the right moments. Afterwards, during a Q&A moderated by festival director Kent Jones, Jillette noted, “It’s rare to have a documentary about events happening in real-time, as opposed to looking back at an event or manufacturing an event.” And he complimented film editor Patrick Sheffield, who spent a year winnowing down 2,400 hours of footage and, along with Penn and Teller, trying to figure out the most effective way to tell the amazing story it documented. Jenison, for his part, was asked if he intended to undertake another similar painting effort anytime soon. He earned laughs by remarking that, after spending almost a decade researching and reenacting the work of Vermeer, “I don’t honestly feel like making a painting again, to be totally frank.”
At a reception after the film’s premiere, Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton, who won his first-ever Emmy last month days before his 87th birthday, was among many gushing over the film. An old friend of Penn and Teller, he told me, with great enthusiasm, “It was wonderful!”
Later in the evening, The Square, an engrossing look at the origins and complexities of the numerous protests against the Egyptian government that have taken place in recent years in Tahrir Square as part of the so-called “Arab Spring,” similarly wowed audiences.
While this film offers no jaw-dropping revelation, it does do a terrific job of conveying the issues and allegiances that have torn apart Egyptian friends and families in recent years by focusing on a few “faces in the crowd” at these mass gatherings and telling their stories. With charismatic protagonists, including an articulate young supporter of democracy, a conflicted adherent of the Muslim Brotherhood’s more fundamentalist approach and an Egyptian-born actor in American films who returned home to document the protests, it feels almost like a scripted drama. The film is remarkably current, showcasing footage of events that took place as recently as this summer.
Noujaim is an Egyptian-American woman filmmaker whose previous doc features include the highly acclaimed Startup.com and Control Room. Before the film, a New York Film Festival spokesperson proudly noted that Noujaim and Control Room were highlighted at the fest nine years ago as part of the “New Directors/New Films” sidebar that seeks to identify directors to watch, and that the fest is particularly proud on the rare occasions when one of those filmmakers go on to make another film that is included in the main festival lineup.
If both Tim’s Vermeer and The Square are not among those on the short-list for the best documentary feature Oscar when it is revealed sometime around early December, I will be very surprised indeed.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.
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