I was completely transfixed by Best of Luck With the Wall, a recent offering from Field of Vision. Technically impressive and buoyed by a sharp original score, the only words you'll find in the film are in the title; the rest is a sweeping visual assertion unlike anything I've seen this whole election season.
What would it mean to try to “see” the entire southwest border at once? To travel the whole 1,954 miles in, say, six minutes?
* thanks to a dear mentor Manfred Becker for sharing this with me.
I'm blown away by the recent piece Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart, a chronicle years in the making, presented as an entire issue of NYTimes Magazine. In terms of form I am reminded of a documentary approach, i.e. following different people in different locations for years (reminiscent of 'Iraq in Fragments'). Beyond observation, the piece provides an illuminating roadmap for those like me who need to be reminded of certain 5 Ws e.g. an overview of the Kurds, of the Arab Spring, of US involvement... I learned more about conflicts in the Middle East from this single piece than I have from traditional reporting. The whole functions as a constellation of sorts, where lines between events become more clear while ultimately pointing to the overwhelming scale of things. I got my hands on the print version and wish it had been bound into a solid book. It deserves to be.
Flashback to one of my favorite films from Hot Docs 2014. Wonderfully edited, it is a poignant window into the lives of three teenage boys and the town in which they live: Rich Hill, Missouri. Each grapples with severe socioeconomic disadvantages of one shape or form, and thankfully the filmmakers go beyond the surfaces and allow us to know them, learn from them, feel for them, and care that much more about them. Though most reviews are positive I was surprised to find a number of writers criticizing the film's visual splendor and aesthetic grace. Here's a passage from Roger Ebert's review that addresses these criticisms. Couldn't say it better:
One of the first things that deserve to be noted about “Rich Hill”—and that may make it controversial in some quarters—is its beauty. Any description of the film that only describes its people and events would largely miss what it feels like to experience it. From its first moments, when several jump-cut shots of a teenage boy getting ready for school give way to lyrical views of Rich Hill as it comes to life in the morning, the combination of editing rhythms, Nathan Halpern’s music and Palermo’s strikingly luminous images conjure a world that seems to pulse with its own inner warmth and radiance.
I was lucky to catch the documentary Salero, one of my favorites from the SFIFF. It presents a stunning salt flat in Bolivia as a character, not simply a backdrop for human stories. Thanks to exquisite cinematography and sound, open-minded direction, and generous participants, it transcends any particular issue and allows us to feel first, and think later... and there is lots to think about too.
I love that there is nothing flashy going on here, stylistically speaking. The simple scenes that revolve around the piano suffice to fly.
I can see something true through the camera that is not immediately visible. If I start from you and your expectation as a participant of what cinema should be, you will start staging yourself, you’ll start acting out an idealized image of yourself, you’ll start acting out the fantasies that you hold of yourself. And I’ll be able to know how you dream of yourself, how you imagine the world. And that’s also how I tried to use the camera, especially in The Act of Killing. And I think that’s the state of nature for the non-fiction camera. If I put a camera on anybody, they start to perform. And from that performance we can see how people want to be seen. And we can infer how they really see themselves. In short, we can see the role of fiction storytelling and fantasy in constituting our apparently factual reality.
I was lucky to catch a discussion with Joshua Oppenheimer in Vancouver before a screening of The Look of Silence. Along with its precursor The Act of Killing, these two films are staggering companion pieces, must-sees that are having very real impacts on filmmakers, politicians, societies, etc. For in-depth pieces, try this one from The Atlantic, or this one from The Independent.
Since most who attended the talk are involved in filmmaking, he indulged our curiosity about the particulars of his process and techniques. Here are a few highlights :
When a public luminary leaves us suddenly, it hits hard because they never withdrew from their vital role in present-day humanity. Today I thank: David Bowie, Oliver Sacks and Karen Schmeer. Their stars will never dim.
"Anyone who agrees to be interviewed must decide where to draw the line between what is public and what is private," Gross says. "But the line can shift, depending on who is asking the questions. What puts someone on guard isn't necessarily the fear of being 'found out.' It sometimes is just the fear of being misunderstood."
I didn't realize (but am not so surprised) it took 5 years to build and finesse this masterpiece of overlapping patterns that span highly distinctive lifestyles and life forms.
"That's the big joke. It wasn't fast at all, and it wasn't cheap, but it was out of control." (Karen Schmeer)
... because the notion of 'truth' is open to excellent, necessary debate/conversation, of which the previous post is but one hint. I turn to Errol Morris for more depth:
First on Radiolab, discussing the truth/untruth of an 1855 photograph taken during the Crimean War:
And in conversation with The Believer. I pulled a few excerpts (below) but the whole article is worth a read!
... to me these are really, really, really important issues.
Diana Vreeland's fashion-forward ideas are currently cruising at breakneck speeds in the form of in-flight entertainment. Something tells me she would approve. The 'entertainment' in question is a biographical documentary about her called Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. The film appeals on many fronts, not just the fashion/art perspective. One of my favorite parts - in her later career with the Met's Costume Institute - recounts her insistence on exaggerating the wig of a mannequin for the exhibit 'The Eighteenth-Century Woman' (pictured below). In reasoning with designer Harold Koda (who happens to be stepping down this month from heading the Costume Institute), she says, and I'm paraphrasing, 'it is not about showing the whole complete truth, but the integrity of the idea' .
See 'read more' for another example from the film Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
I love this film. It is a spirited, unconventional search for concrete connections to Man Ray's 1926 film Emak Bakia. At first it seems all about the journey, as filmmaker Oskar Alegria follows the slightest whims to faraway tangents, but then we actually do arrive at real destinations and they are delightful. Such a fine balancing act of interior and exterior worlds. A highlight for me was the sound design, which at one point breaks the fourth wall and reveals its surprising origins. It is a documentary (played at Vancouver's DOXA Festival) but beyond that it defies categorization.
brilliant documentary, impressive editing. Great conversation piece. So much to think about and feel. Heartbreaking and haunting but ultimately uplifting because creativity/ imagination / love win in the end. Most importantly there's a joyous dance scene to Baltimora's Tarzan Boy.
Just got a flashback of this understated documentary I caught back in 2012. It's about 80-year-old Sayyed el-Dawwy, the last living interpreter of the Sira, the most significant Arabian epic poem. He knows all its 5 million verses by heart and performs it around Egypt like a rockstar. The shows he puts on are dazzling to my foreign ears. I wonder if he will succeed in passing on the tradition to his grandson and what it will sound like coming from a generation more influenced by Pop music and soap operas. Sequel please!
Saw Pawn Sacrifice and wish I could have the time back. It was formulaic and two-dimensional. I'd suggest sticking with Liz Garbus' Bobby Fischer Against the World, a far more nuanced and respectful take on the chess sensation who fell from grace due to a toxic combo of worsening mental health and ravenous media . Aside from exploring the external events/influences in Fischer's life it also manages to convey the enchantment of chess itself, e.g. more possible chess games than atoms in the universe., allowing a better understanding of chess fanaticism. Another scene that stands out reveals a historic pattern of mental illness in chess prodigies. I didn't know about this but at a base level I am not surprised. Some of my earliest memories of rage and frustration are from losing chess games. All that tension building up inside the body as the mind tries to reduce infinity.
I caught the doc 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution' this past weekend, by director of 'Freedom Riders' Stanley Nelson. The film provides excellent grounds for thinking about ongoing abuses of power on the one hand, and models of empowerment on the other. It features a comprehensive collection of archival material and beautiful profiles of the women and men at the helm of the movement. Days later I'm still thinking about it and looking up names and words such as the insidious FBI program COINTELPRO, which was behind the worst attacks on the Panthers. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Stanley Nelson and a former Panther, which could have gone on for days. As Stanley reminded us, you could make a whole documentary series on the Panthers.
One opinion piece about the state of the documentary form leads to another. I have to mostly agree with the second and thank these writers for the thought food
Even from the privileged vantage point of a Golden Age, it’s possible to see a medium in need of freshening up, as nonfiction filmmakers fall into the trap of relying on their charismatic, timely subjects to engage viewers, rather than bold, daring or artful filmmaking itself.
I don’t shy away from talking about the current era as a golden age of documentaries. I believe it. And I’m not just talking about box office. I am specifically talking about the sort of innovations in artistry that Ms. Hornaday is somehow missing. They’re everywhere. That’s a fact.
I'm looking forward to Patricio Guzman's latest filmThe Pearl Button because of his previous film Nostalgia for the Light.
Sparse highlights from the great spinning sphere of publication.