Atlanta Jewish Film Festival: Eisner Documentary

The 2009/Ninth Annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is scheduled to run from January 14-25, 2009. In fact, tickets went on sale earlier this month on December 9. And just to give folks a little taste of what’s on the horizon, festival organizers were kind enough to let me watch a few of the films to be featured at this year’s festival. In the next few weeks leading up to the festival, I will be providing my reaction to watching a few of the festival’s featured films.

In this first round, I was able to view director Andrew D. Cooke’s 2007 documentary, Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist. While Eisner died in 2005, the documentary had well been under way for a few years prior to his death with his involvement (and extensive interviews). Cooke did the film in cooperation with his brother, Jon B. Cooke (who is also the editor of Comic Book Artist). Eisner is a name you have likely increasingly heard in recent weeks, as he is the creator of The Spirit (a character who stars in the new Frank Miller film opening this week). In comic book circles, Eisner is far more than just the creator of one character, as this documentary (and Eisner’s career) effectively proves.

I am pleased and relieved to say, just as films like Iron Man and Dark Knight did well in the box office in 2008, seemingly in parallel the chance for graphic novelist documentaries to get attention and respect increased substantially.  I’ve seen my fair share of sequential art documentary, some of it laughably bad. In one particular example, years ago, for dramatic effect a documentarian filmed his discussion with a subject on the roof of a New York skyscraper. Visually it was a stunning success, but in terms of audio quality every single word was lost in the wind that blew through that interview. Fortunately, the production values on this Eisner documentary are a prime example of how to do a documentary right.

The Eisner documentary showed earlier this year (in May) at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. But when it is shown at Lefont Sandy Springs on Monday, Jan. 19, 2009 (4:40 PM) this will mark its Atlanta premiere. As part of the premiere, fellow industry legend Jerry Robinson, who was interviewed extensively for the documentary, will be on hand.

As detailed at the festival’s website: “Much of his [Eisner’s] work incorporated the Jewish experience and struggle against anti-Semitism. This accomplished documentary features a wealth of artwork, as well as interviews with comic luminaries Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller, novelists Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and others.”

I was impressed at the number of folks that the Cooke brothers interviewed, as well as the archival footage (such as Eisner’s personal home movies) that the documentary was able to utilize. In the instances where the person interviewed was appearing via archival audio tape, a black and white photo of the person appeared (sans background) overlaying some of their own work. In addition, an overlayed, zoomed graphic of an audio cassette appears, giving the date of the interview. This was one of the minor quibbles I had about the documentary, the graphic element employed here was pleasing to the eye to a certain extent. But on another level, it was hard to read the date of the interview frequently and I wished it had been part of the static ID (traditional method).

This is a minor quibble on my part. The documentary is worth watching, if for nothing else, the discussion of A Contract with God, Eisner’s 1978 graphic novel. It is described at his own site as a semi-autobiographical work capturing “with pen and ink the drama of the city and its all-too-human inhabitants. Set in the same Bronx neighborhood as later works Dropsie Avenue and A Life Force, the four stories that comprise the book — “A Contract With God”, “The Street Singer”, “The Super” and “Cookalein” — examine the world of immigrant life in New York City in the 1930s with a unique look at the emotion and character of its denizens.” In the documentary, Eisner opens up in reflection about the personal tragedy that fueled A Contract with God.

You don’t need to be a reader of Eisner’s work to enjoy the documentary. And while it may get bogged down in minutiae a few times (something that many documentaries do in an effort to fully cover a subject), for the most part the 98-minute project is effectively structured and balanced to speak and appeal to mainstream festival attendees.