2021-07-15T23:34:17+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

  Documentary in Review will be on hiatus for awhile. For how long, I’m not sure. I’ve lost interest in writing about documentaries, simply because I’ve lost interest in watching them. I haven’t lost interest in making them, not yet at least, but the documentary field is in a disturbing state of decline. The problems are many: rote storytelling, predictable pacing, a numbing homogeneity in subject matter, production value, style, music, narrative, and a surrender to the overbudgeted, the overfunded, the tried-and-true. A recent article in POV Magazine summed up the current condition of documentary. I refer you to that piece. Even when I stumble across a documentary that is attempting a formal rigor in its style or a unique point-of-view, I am forced to admit that these types of documentaries–the essay films, the immersion docs–are an increasingly endangered species. And, in fact, some of these risk-taking films also share a sameness that, after seeing two or three in a row, becomes more tedious rather than engaging. Part of my decision is related to my own work. I’ve attempted, through my book and my last two films, to make good on my hope that there is an audience among the gatekeepers for personal, deeply felt work that is as visually rich and idiosyncratic as the story being told, and that story need not have a social justice issue–or at least not an obvious one–to make it a viable, worthwhile work. It has been nothing but disappointing to have that hope dashed again and again. See my [...]

Doc Filmmaking During a Pandemic: Go Small, Go Lean

2021-02-15T18:58:26+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Nina Davenport filming Hello Photo (1994)   The Pandemic Future: Time for a Radical Return to Documentary's First Golden Age I recently wrote a book with a title that is now comically ironic. Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking, published in February 2019 by Oxford University Press, was intended as a refreshing cri de cœur for beginning and veteran filmmakers to commit to a stripped down, low-budget, one or two-person team approach to documentary filmmaking. I emphasized personal creative expression, encouraging filmmakers to become the author of their own work from start-to-finish: directing, shooting, recording sound, writing, and editing. This, I emphasized, could only be achieved by eliminating the financial, physical and emotional barriers between the cameraperson and their characters, and by embracing an intimate storytelling style. “Get close” is the mantra the book is based on. Absurd, right? That’s what I thought, too. But with all of the teeth-gnashing going on in the documentary world about the tenuous future of forums, markets, festivals, and productions in either limbo or purgatory, I believe the timing is perfect for a new strategy, one that is actually grounded in the roots of the early days of the digital documentary filmmaking revolution, when cheap cameras and laptop editing software were intentionally designed for the homemade filmmaker. “We may now be passing through a short golden age of documentary production without even being aware of it,” wrote director Chuck Braverman on the IDA website, “when the stars have aligned to allow documentaries to be produced for relatively modest budgets. If you [...]


2020-12-23T18:29:46+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Collective Director/ Alexander Nanau Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   If you happen to watch the trailer of Collective before watching the film, you’ll think you’re in store for a breathless political thriller with nothing but the fate of democracy at stake, an edge-of-your-seat experience replete with double-crosses, deep throats, and diabolical villains, set to a pounding score and edited with machine gun pacing. Um, hardly. Collective does indeed feature dark secrets, whistle blowers, villains, corrupt bureaucrats and fearless journalists, but the style of the actual film, if you decide to watch it, is much more sedate and quiet and even plodding than you’d expect. Well, more plodding than you’d expect from an American film, but since this film is Romanian, and it revolves around an incident that few people outside Romania will have heard of, and Romanian filmmakers have a way of doggedly adhering to the veracity of their situations and environments with a kind of compulsive miserablism, than the plodding is par for the course. This is not in any way to say the film should be skipped. I respected director Alexander Nanau’s composed and unflappable approach, his attention to accuracy and details and chronology, his total commitment to a direct cinema style of documenting the unfolding events, the absence of music and cliffhanging plot turns and idealized crusaders. But the story–of a hospital cover-up of infected solvents used to treat the burn victims of a horrendous nightclub fire–despite its basis in real tragedy, despite the utter rot of the systems being exposed, is [...]


2020-12-23T17:13:14+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Time Director/ Garrett Bradley Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   Fragments of home video shot over the past twenty years are interspersed throughout this fractured chronicle of a woman named Fox Rich and her relentless campaign to secure the early release of her husband, Rob, from prison. Both he and his wife were convicted of armed robbery when desperation over the loss of their clothing business led them to attempt an ill-fated and illegal self-rescue. She did a few years before her release; he was sentenced to sixty years without the possibility of parole. The film spends surprisingly little time on the details of the crime, and also doesn’t seem to be an all-out manifesto on the criminal justice system. Yes, Fox and her husband are Black, but they aren’t denying they were guilty. Instead, the movie seems to be making the point that once in prison, the efforts made by loved ones to plead, appeal, cajole, and interrogate the bureaucracy of incarceration can be a lonely and frustrating crusade. All Fox wants is for her husband to come home and be a father to the children he was unable to watch grow-up. The children, especially twin boys, are the background characters in this black-and-white film, directed by Garrett Bradley with an eye toward poetic mosaics and screen-engulfing close-ups. The young men show up in the home videos their mother began making when Rob went to jail, and they appear in the contemporary footage as now handsome, studious teens on the cusp of adulthood. Despite their [...]

Marshawn Lynch: A History

2020-10-24T15:58:49+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Marshawn Lynch: A History Director/ David Shields Watched on Kanopy Rating 4.5/5   I initially had no interest in watching a film about the life of the Seattle Seahawks running back. And I still don’t. But as it turned out, this film is about a very specific part of the life of Marshawn Lynch, his life of words and silence, and in that singular focus it ends up being a film about the very recent history of Black Lives Matter, the endemic prevalence of media racism, and the ways in which Black athletes are expected to fit the stereotypes and the behavioral modes assigned to them by a sports industrial complex that believes they own them. The film, by the author, essayist and editor David Shields, is not so much directed as compiled. Shields constructed the entire film from video snippets gleaned from the Internet, including movies, TV series, talk shows, highlight packages, and early local broadcasts of Lynch as a promising young football star in Oakland. It’s an act of biographical bricolage, fast-paced and dynamic, in which we watch an outgoing, thoughtful, fun-loving, self-confident young man continually admonished by an establishment that expected him to play by their rules. Which of course he did, on the field. But it is off the field, living his celebrity-built lifestyle, with his penchant for glitz and girls and fashion and freewheeling commentary, where the rules couldn’t touch him. Yet, he became such a target for criticism and insults by White and Black sportswriters and talk show hosts that [...]

24 Frames

2020-10-19T23:23:19+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

24 Frames Director/ Abbas Kairostami Watched on Criterion Rating 3/5   Abbas Kairostami didn’t know that 24 Frames would be his last film. After making it, he died of an unexpected and sudden illness. His death lends 24 Frames a spectral significance. The quietly haunting and luminous black-and-white and color images offer a restful vantage point from which to contemplate the themes, ideas, images and sounds which made up his canon of work. Admittedly, I was never a devotee. His naturalism seemed rudimentary, and his repetitions often veered to dullness. Yet, his images and stories were tightly controlled, and from the surface simplicity of his plots–which were more like situations, or reactions to encounters–one could easily get drawn into the growing and confounding complexities. Matters of class and envy collided with intellectualism, and he playfully but rigorously combined metaphysical questions with meta-narrative devices. He refused to be hurried, and if you stuck with his films, their ambiguous endings often left you with tantalizing questions. In this way, 24 Frames functions as a coda. Twenty-three still photos the director shot, and one famous painting, Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, occupy the running time. Each frame is on screen for 4-5 minutes. Kairostami wanted to explore what may have happened before or after he snapped his pictures, so he employed CGI to animate the frames, inserting birds and animals, snow and rain, natural sounds and music. It’s unclear why he included the Bruegel, but the other pictures function the way the director’s films sometimes [...]

Dick Johnson is Dead

2020-10-22T18:42:19+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Dick Johnson is Dead Director/ Kirsten Johnson Watched on Netflix Rating 2/5   Johnson’s tonally jarring film contains moments of sweet, affecting intimacy between the filmmaker and her father, interrupted by bizarre and outlandish dream sequences that are, I think, meant to represent her dad’s visions of the afterlife. Or perhaps they are merely self-indulgent directorial flourishes. The film, a Netflix-funded extravagance, is another example of a curious new trend in some documentary circles. Filmmakers lucky enough to get excessive amounts of money budgeted for their productions try to imagine new ways to re-fashion the viewers’ subjective experience of the genre, to move documentary into a realm where make-believe and fiction can intertwine with real-life, creating hybrids intended to amplify or illuminate the non-fictional elements which, these filmmakers are quick to emphasize, are still the main reasons for making the film in the first place. I’m thinking here of Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenét, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, Jonathan and Elan Bogarín’s 306 Hollywood, and any number of the true crime documentaries streaming on all the top platforms. These films seem to be most concerned with enhanced visual opulence at the expense of narrative cohesion. As I’ve written before, I’m fervently supportive of new ways to invigorate documentary filmmaking, but when filmmakers rely on artificial constructs to boost the entertainment quotient of their films, rather than risk trying out inventive new approaches to point-of-view or character examination or ways to employ the tools of audio, narration or camera placement, I find the effects wearying and distracting. In [...]


2020-09-13T00:15:41+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Suspension Director/ Simón Uribe Watched on Vimeo Rating 2.5/5   Suspension is a road movie about an actual road, the notorious “Springboard of Death” in the Columbian Amazon. It’s a long and perpetually winding one-lane asphalt and dirt track connecting a midsize town to villages in the jungle mountains, and it is prone to landslides, accidents, and gridlock. Despite its size and length, delivery trucks, buses and passenger cars depend on it day in and day out. The road has been around since 1944, and it seems like the government has been talking about replacing it for just as long. A few years ago, crews began work on a sleek new modern highway, advertising it with a high-tech computer model that townspeople could watch as if contemplating a dream. It’s a dream that apparently will never be fulfilled. It’s difficult to understand what exactly tempted director Simón Uribe to make a documentary about this out-of-the-way engineering project. He spends some time with the folks who live in the area, all of whom lament that they’ll never see the road completed in their lifetime, and none of whom make much of an impression. There is a short sequence of a modern expanse being built across a gorge, which gives us an idea of the scope and difficulty of the project. But when a rainstorm sends the construction crew under cover, it also seems to signal the end of the road-building when the funding runs out. The half-finished bridge then becomes a sightseeing destination and a playground for [...]

The Fight

2020-09-07T14:29:53+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Fight Directors/ Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli B. Despres Watched on Amazon Rating 4.5/5    The Fight is a greatest hits mix tape of President Donald Trump’s assault on the United States Constitution. It is also a stirring portrait of the American Civil Liberties Union which, despite their protests to the contrary, is probably the only organization standing between Trump and tyranny. The ACLU lawyers profiled in the film are tireless defenders of our civil rights, but they will be the first to say that they will not save us from dictatorship, that they are merely working the justice system to protect and defend our right to organize, protest, engage, and vote. Yet, at this perilous moment–September 2020–in Trump’s four-years’ long slaughter of democratic norms, The Fight assures us that the ACLU is in democracy’s corner. The Fight is a ceaselessly stirring, inspiring, gritty, and enraging account of five key cases during Trump’s reign of terror. Let’s capitalize them for maximum effect: The Muslim Ban, the Separation of Children at the Border, the Census Citizenship Question, the Military Transgender Ban, and the complicated case of Denying Abortion Rights to an Undocumented Immigrant. That’s quite a list, and a viewer may avoid the film thinking it is nothing more than a montage of tedious courtroom melodramas. It is anything but. A trio of directors, Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli B. Despres, a platoon of camerapeople, a squad of editors, and even an animator, deftly avoid wonky and arcane legal theories in favor of a humanizing and intimate focus on the [...]

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?

2020-06-14T22:14:45+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? Director/ Roberto Minervini Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   Roberto Minervini, an Italian filmmaker fascinated by an America that most of us never see in other documentaries, brings a cinema verité intimacy to What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? An immersive, even casual snapshot of black lives in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, the film is concerned with existence, and with how black people discuss and navigate the chances of their survival in a preternaturally racist country like the United States. We are introduced, in media res, to two brothers, 14 and 9 years old, who are spending their summer days in a kind of Huck Finn idyll, playing hide-n-seek, taking walks, watching trains roll by. At home, their mother makes them constantly aware that the white world is coming for them. You can see the fear in her; a fear that white audiences will have trouble fathoming. In the Mississippi sections, we gather with a small but committed chapter of the New Black Panthers, who protest a local man's shooting and conduct a citizen’s investigation of a recent murder, the horrific (and so far, unsolved) decapitation of a Jackson black man. The group engages in forceful, eloquent discussions about enacting change in their community, but when they protest outside the local courthouse, few people pay attention and the cops, annoyed when the group simply doesn’t go away, resort to pepper spray, handcuffs and arrests. We also meet the ostensible star of the film, [...]

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