2018-10-31T21:52:33+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Directors:  Michael Glawogger, Monika Willi, Watched on:  MUBI and Filmatique, Rating:  5/5.     Michael Glawogger once said that “imagery is the essence of the art of cinema–and language, sound and story are the legs on which this painting-in-motion is standing.” This statement can be used as a corrective to the tendency of documentary filmmakers these days–American documentary filmmakers especially–to turn Glawogger’s stool upside down; squashing imagery under the weight of conventional storytelling, endless talking heads, onscreen text, and wall-to-wall music. Pictures seem to matter less and less in docs, unless they’re shot by in-the-moment smartphones or staged and lighted by a Hollywood crew, and then they matter only in the sense that the vehicle of capture takes center stage, the iPhone7 or the 5K Red Scarlet or the whatever. Don’t get me wrong. The majority of doc films are beautifully, professionally shot, even if the shooter is working alone in a difficult situation. Skilled camerapeople are in high demand (one factor driving up documentary budgets) and you rarely encounter amateur work even in the smaller film festivals. But the images are nearly always merely functional. They please the eye but rarely move the heart. If the late Glawogger will be remembered for anything it will be the beating heart of his films. The glory of the images, the rapt sequences they contained, the sometimes jaw-dropping mysteries of the little-seen corners of the world they revealed. I’m thinking of the sulphur carriers and slaughterhouse hustlers in Workingman’s Death; the neon-bathed Mexican hookers in Whore’s Glory; the Liberian wrestlers, [...]

Minding the Gap

2018-08-30T21:04:37+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director: Bing Lui, Watched at:  Hot Docs 2018, Rating: 3/5.       Minding the Gap opens with an exuberant sequence of skateboarders coasting through vacant parking lots, cruising empty urban streets, and jumping curbs with a youthful and–for a movie that is just getting started–already aching innocence. We meet the main characters, Zack and Keira, on their boards, and also the guy holding the camera, Bing Lui; all childhood friends growing up in the Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinios, and all on the cusp of the bittersweet awareness that these blissful times can certainly never last. Lui started out making skateboard videos with his buddies, and then kept filming as they transitioned from adolescence to their late teens and eventually into early manhood. Zack becomes a father after his girlfriend, Nina, has a baby, and Keira struggles to find work and to keep boarding while also becoming increasingly isolated as the only black man in a circle of white friends. Lui seems to be having the most fun, making the film his friends are starring in, using nothing but a collection of handheld cameras and a kinetic eye for the cinematic movement of bodies careening over concrete. It’s his closeness to the story and his honest interplay that gives the film its sense of real life unfolding before our eyes. This is an element that is remarkably missing from so many high-profile docs these days, concerned as they are with commercial-grade cinematography, glamourized talking heads, social justice agendas, re-enactments, animations, and the imprimatur of do-gooderism. I would [...]

The Sea Stares At Us From Afar

2018-08-21T15:26:20+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Manuel Muńoz Rivas, Watched on:  MUBI, Rating:  4/5.     The aesthetic gulf between American and European documentary cinema becomes more dramatically evident after viewing Manuel Muńoz Rivas' The Sea Stares at Us from Afar, a meditative observation on time, myth, and reluctant progress that settles in with a few desultory inhabitants of an Andalusian beach. The camera pays equal respect to the shifting sands and workaday rituals that exist in an expanse shrouding a buried history, which also offers up tantalizing prospects to tourists and developers. The characters, such as they are, include an elderly man who lives alone in a shack, spending his days in enjoyable indolence; another man who enigmatically shovels sand near his beach house into a wheelbarrow and then dumps it several yards away with no discernible purpose, while at the same time a couple of men with tape measures and clipboards walk around his house marking off boundaries; and a small group of deeply tanned fisherman who we see repairing nets and trolling for shrimp. Meanwhile, families occasionally play on the beach, a group of decorated horse-drawn carriages trot by, and tour buses cruise the scenery. Some of these scenes seem casually scripted, especially the encounters between a young man and woman who appear at first to be lovers but may be brother and sister. These elements flow in and out of languid sequences that are as indefinable as to intent as they are lovely to contemplate. Narration is inserted at three different points in the film, recounting the possibly mythical existence [...]


2018-09-14T16:55:06+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Sergei Loznitsa, Watched on:  iTunes, Rating:  4.5/5.   Director Sergei Loznitsa’s methodical observational technique seems to be a clear signal that you shouldn’t come anywhere near Maidan if you’re expecting an action-packed account of Ukraine’s 2014 revolt against the Russian takeover of their country. But it is precisely the slow burn of his static camera that creates the atmosphere of intense and approaching calamity, and the inescapable sense that you are watching a modern history of resistance being written before your eyes. Maidan is both the name of the citizen’s uprising and Kiev’s central square, the primary location of the occupation and the stand-off with government-controlled police. This also serves as the spatial operating theater of Loznitsa’s point-of-view, beginning with a crowd of demonstrators singing the national anthem and ending with the fires, smoke, and detritus of the aftermath of the siege. In between, the film presents the architecture of preparation, protest and confrontation, beginning with quiet wide shots of people entering and exiting halls and cafeterias, doling out food and water and first aid supplies, and then, without fanfare (and decidedly without any emotion-grabbing music), we see palettes and tires being stacked in the maidan. Slowly, inexorably, tensions rise. Gas masks are donned, Molotov cocktails are thrown, snipers take to rooftops, shots are fired, explosions and conflagrations ensue. The camera tries–and fails–to remain fixed on its tripod. Inevitably, it must be picked up and moved, or awkwardly panned, when the events spiral out of Loznitsa’s frame. But it stays confidently in the center of [...]


2018-08-25T20:20:57+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Jonathan Olshefski, Watched on:  Kanopy, Rating:  3.5/5.   A deeply compassionate film set in the neighborhood, home, and work spaces of one North Philadelphia family, Quest is that rare documentary which combines a grounded, unfussy technique behind the camera with an unadorned, lived-in story of real people in front of it. This reminds us that the very best American documentaries have the texture of novels, or memoirs, or observant non-fiction reporting. Filmed over nearly 10 years by one-man band director, cinematographer, and sound recordist Jonathan Olshefski, Quest is named for the lead character, Christopher “Quest” Rainey, the steady, likeable father of his teenage daughter Patricia, and husband to his equally engaging wife, Christina’a, also known as Ma Rainey. Quest runs a scruffy basement recording studio for local rappers, delivers papers on foggy mornings, and seems to also do some construction when he can. Ma works at a halfway house. Nearly everyone in this film is black, yet the film never rests on the specificity of race as the defining aspect of the Rainey’s story, even when street violence directly (and drugs indirectly) take their toll on some of the characters. The film is specific however in how the family is held together by love, mutual respect, an abiding intelligence, and a refusal to cop-out or give up. The Raineys may be the most inspiring family you’ll see in a film, fictional or otherwise, all year. They are a microcosm of life in the United States, a life made up of random joys, bruising tragedies, and [...]

Homo Sapiens

2019-07-18T00:17:13+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Watched on:  MUBI, OVID Rating:  5/5.     This dystopian essay from Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter is a portrait of the world after the last human being has been annihilated. Consisting of wordless, textless scenes of abandoned hospitals, churches, office buildings, roads, nuclear testing sites, military installations, and amusement parks, the pointed visual commentary of Homo Sapiens states, unequivocally, that we are unnecessary and easily forgotten, an infection that Mother Earth has finally eradicated. What’s left behind is the effluvia of a nothing race, our monuments to progress and growth and technology and mindless entertainment crumbling into dust or devoured by plants. We watch, via the director’s locked-down camera, the process of decay, of surrender to nature’s fundamental processes. Vegetation consumes a coke machine; water floods an empty chamber; the wind lazily blows paper around an office. The camera sits motionless and stares, like the eye of a compassionless insect. Without any of the comforting handholds of narration or words or music, we are helpless to argue against the pure folly of our existence. We are mute observers of our oblivion. There is melancholy in these images, as monumental as they are; an unsettling feeling of tragic loss and miscalculation. Yes, the movie confirms, we have no one but ourselves to blame. There is a rhythm to Geyrhalter’s assemblage. Each shot seems to be more decayed than the previous one, each advancing image suggests a longer absence of human presence. One year? Ten years? A hundred? The movie begins and ends in the same location, [...]

Three Sisters

2018-09-05T15:11:14+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Wang Bing, Watched on:  Amazon Prime Video, Rating:  4/5.     I’ve only seen one documentary by the Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing. His movies are difficult to find, and at lengths running several hours long, can be forbidding for even the most committed of viewers. When I attempted to watch Part One of his series, West of the Tracks (more than 10 hours long in its entirety), on Kanopy, I was stymied by a poor streaming signal. But in the few minutes I did see, there was evidence of why his movies run so long: he was reluctant to turn off his camera. This uncompromisingly pure form of cinema verité was not, thankfully, the stylistic anchor of the film I have managed to watch, Three Sisters (2012), which takes place in Yunnan province, in the village of Xiyangtang, and runs a more inviting 2 hours, 33 minutes. The film is about three young girls and their father, who must leave the girls alone, to be cared for by neighbors and an aunt, while he looks for work in the city. The mother long ago abandoned the family. What is most obvious to Western eyes is how poor everyone is. The father and the oldest girl, Yingying, tend the sheep and then, after he leaves, we see Yingying collecting piles of dung, stacking them in a crude backpack, and trundling back to a collection of concrete huts that form the ramshackle center of the village. Her face and clothes seem to be eternally dirty. She and many [...]

The Human Flow

2018-08-24T20:22:15+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Ai Weiwei, Watched on:  iTunes, Rating:  4.5/5.     I was initially skeptical of The Human Flow, the Chinese artist Weiwei’s documentary about the global refugee crisis. The soaring drone footage I’d seen in a trailer looked too impressive, as if this was another superficial celebrity art piece capitalizing on human tragedy. At a running time of 2 hours and 25 minutes, it also sounded self-indulgent and unnecessary. How many more stories do we need about this epic tragedy, covered in countless articles and photo essays, before we become comfortably numb? After finishing this doc, I came to the conclusion that we certainly don’t need another film about the subject matter. The Human Flow is the definitive document of one of mankind’s most abysmal failures. Weiwei relies on drone cinematography in a way most films don’t. It captures the sweep and sheer numbers of the refugee crisis, a massive migration of human bodies driven from their homes by terrorism, war, climate change, and impending starvation. The aerial sequences form the squares of a vivid checkerboard of misery, with people scurrying like ants through drought-scarred deserts or flooded deltas. The scale is breathtaking, and the desperation is enhanced by this God’s eye point-of-view. Where most drones are used as gimmicks, unmotivated by any narrative integrity, dropped into sequences because they simply look cool, the drone in The Human Flow is a character, an astonished witness to calamity. When we come down to earth, Weiwei makes another important visual decision. His on-the-ground subjects–in Bangladesh, Italy, Mexico and 20 [...]

The Departure

2018-08-25T00:32:40+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Lana Wilson, Watched on:  Kanopy, Rating:  2.5/5.    In this portrait of an altruistic Japanese priest who counsels lost souls contemplating suicide, director Lana Wilson identifies her two key storylines early and then superficially drifts back and forth between them. The repetition is wearying, the insights thin. For such weighty subject matter, The Departure is a film curiously lacking in substance. Ittetsu Nemoto conducts rituals in which he asks participants to write down the things they treasure most and then asks them to start throwing these slips of paper away until they are left with only one; one final precious reminder of why their life is worth living. They then crumple up the last slip of paper. This is death, Nemoto says. The absence of everything. The ritual concludes with a quiet simulation of rebirth. It’s a remarkably simple and powerful expression of what makes life worth living. Afterwards, Nemeto remarks on how irrational life is. None of us has a say in being born, yet we are asked to deal with the challenges of living. Beyond these seminars, the priest visits individuals and responds to their calls, emails, and texts when they feel they are at the end of their ropes. This work takes an obvious toll. He is distracted when at home with his wife, mother, and young son. His health is deteriorating, as seen in visits to a doctor who tells him his arteries are clogged. He drinks too much, smokes, and sometimes parties late into the night with friends (his wife, [...]

Two Years At Sea

2018-08-23T21:27:23+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Ben Rivers, Watched on:  MUBI, Rating:  4/5.     The British film artist Ben Rivers worked with only one other crew member, a soundperson, to capture the real-life rhythms of a hermit “played” by the not entirely hermit-like Jake Williams in Rivers’ 2011 film, Two Years At Sea, which I finally was able to see in 2017 on MUBI, the streaming site every cinephile should bookmark.   Williams does indeed live in the cluttered wooden house in the forest that functions as the central location in the movie. He sometimes sleeps in a caravan (trailer) that, in the film, strangely levitates twenty feet to become a treehouse. His shower is a Rube Goldberg system of hoses and spouts connected to his kitchen sink. In fact, everything including the kitchen sink can be found in the nooks and crannies of his redoubt, a fortress of solitude that suits Williams most of the time, although–off camera–he apparently has friends and a grown child and a bit of an amateur music career at the local pubs. Williams is a reclusive man playing a fantasy version of himself in a fictional film that feels like a documentary. I preferred to think of it as the latter, albeit one with an essayist’s eye. Two Years At Sea is a riff on solitude, on daily toil, on the perfect life to be found in a succession of wasted days. Rivers, who shot the film on 16mm black-and-white film with a wind-up Bolex camera, was quoted as saying that "too much exposition is [...]

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