Anthropocene-The Human Epoch

2020-02-01T23:01:09+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Anthropocene-The Human Epoch Directors/ Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky Watched on Amazon Rating 2.5/5 The third film in a trilogy that began with Manufactured Landscapes in 2007 and continued seven years later with Watermark in 2014, Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is perhaps their most potent political work of the three. But it is also their most unsatisfying. They take a scattered approach to their stated subject matter, which is the ways in which human beings have so altered the natural world that we are now the primary determining factor in its continued existence. Skipping around from lithium pools in Chile’s Atacama Desert to a vulture-infested landfill in Kenya to the world’s most polluted city in Russia to phosphate mines in Florida, the filmmakers never stay in one place long enough to probe any of them in depth. They conduct a few brief, unrevealing interviews, intersperse some facts and figures from their narrator, the actor Alicia Vikander, and cause you to ponder–for a moment–the weird new world of technofossils, which are basically plastics that have been around so long they’ve become part of our geological history. The film adopts what is becoming a common style in the new subgenre of ecological essay cinema. Looking very much like Brett Story’s The Hottest August, Viktor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread and Charles Ferguson’s Time to Choose, in which despairing imagery sets an apocalyptic tone, Anthropocene would like the pictures to do all of the talking. But since [...]

Honeyland

2020-01-27T17:28:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Honeyland Directors/ Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov Watched on Hulu Rating 3/5   What begins as an observational portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper evolves into a parable with a universal message: when greed upsets the balance of nature, the very survival of a species is threatened. There is nothing new in that. We’ve read enough stories and seen enough environmentally-themed documentaries to understand what happens when ecological warriors come up against the brute transactional force of capitalism. Capitalism usually wins. But what takes you by surprise in this film is that the protagonist, a woman named Hatidze Muratova, is no warrior. She makes a subsistence living tending a few hives in the countryside, which produce just enough high-quality honey for her to live off of. She takes care of her blind and deaf mother and listens to news of the world on a tiny transistor radio. They live in the crumbling remains of a stone house in an abandoned village. They have lots of cats. Hatidze, it seems, just wants to be left alone. Then a nomadic family of ersatz farmers invades the valley where she lives, bringing in a herd of cattle and sheep and pitching their tents and trailers nearby. Suddenly, Hatidze’s peaceful existence is shattered and her very livelihood threatened. The family, a squabbling couple and their seven children, are urged by a local buyer to start raising bees themselves. Hatidze, wary at first, offers tips on how to ensure the bees keep producing enough honey for all of them: sell half the honey [...]

For Sama

2020-01-26T21:55:34+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

For Sama Directors/ Waad al-Khateab, Edward Watts Watched on Amazon Rating 4.5/5   There is a moment in For Sama which caused me to gasp out loud. This is rare for me. I watch most documentaries alone in my home studio, and usually my reactions are silent scoffs or impatient shakes of the head or a mental “give me a break” when I feel the gears of manipulation working too hard. But in the moment I’m referring to, doctors have just performed an emergency Caesarean on a young woman injured in a bomb blast. The mother is unconscious, the baby is not breathing. Doctors and nurses hold the child upside down and furiously pound and shake it, while the sounds of distant bombs and gunfire ricochet outside the hospital walls. I won’t give away what happens next, but it is perhaps the most remarkable scene in a movie full of remarkable scenes and remarkable people. For Sama is set entirely within the besieged city of Aleppo, ground zero for the battle between Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime forces and the resistance fighters, who continue to wage what looks like a lost cause, with few resources and little assistance from other countries. There have been many documentaries about both Syria and Afghanistan in the last several years, too many in my opinion. The majority of these films look and feel the same, relying exclusively on shaky handheld iPhone or low-grade video camera footage, usually shot by the main protagonist, and artificially pumped-up for maximum shock and [...]

Black Mother

2020-01-30T20:22:38+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Black Mother Director/ Khalik Allah Watched on Criterion Channel Rating 4/5   Director Khalik Allah is working at the edge of documentary, not quite avant-garde but experimental enough to be ignored by the commercial film festivals and embraced by streaming platforms such as MUBI and the Criterion Channel. I doubt many will search out or stumble upon his films (his first feature was Field Niggas), and also doubt many will be able to endure his demanding, staccato approach to editing and sound. Owing to his background as a still photographer, he doesn’t shoot scenes or sequences, he doesn’t follow characters in action, he steers far clear of traditional talking heads, he doesn’t pretend to care about observational tropes such as natural sound or belabored long takes. His movies are a cacophony of images and audio, mostly straight-on portraits of black faces, some who look directly in the lens, others who are happy to allow Allah’s camera to swirl around them, intimately probing their skin, scars, jewelry, and hair. He films prostitutes, gangstas, cops, kids, and–in this film–family members, creating a dense, textural scrapbook that is alive with a kind of visceral grit of experience. Black Mother is a memoir in montage. Allah filmed exclusively in his Jamaican homeland (while Field Niggas was shot in Harlem), attempting to say something about the enduring power of the women who raised him, but also to honor the vast, vibrant tapestry of the culture. Music, ganja, politics, and the reclaiming of identity all flavor this heady brew, cued to a [...]

The Hottest August

2020-01-18T20:25:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Hottest August Director/ Brett Story Watched at Tacoma Film Festival Rating 2.5/5  Canadian director Brett Story’s approach to documentary is refreshingly offbeat.  Formally challenging but not impenetrable, socially relevant in spite of her disinterest in the usual ticked-box approach to agenda filmmaking, and not beholden to the imperatives of strong central characters or third act resolutions. In her 2016 film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes and in her latest, The Hottest August, she takes a becalmed survey approach to her subject matter: the stranglehold of the prison-industrial complex on the lives of current and former prisoners in the earlier film, and the subtle politics of climate change in her latest. She moves from place to place without a map–a factory, a park, a sidewalk, a town–and interviews a few people on site, maybe just observes the action for a few minutes, and usually lets the ambient sound and natural light and weather fill in the atmosphere. What you take away from her films depends on your degree of attentiveness to the quiet cues she embeds in the scenes. As I wrote in an earlier review of Prison, “the succession of these scenes, sparse in abject information but saturated with a pall of unease, builds to an overpowering sense of futility.” But the elements in that film that worked in its favor–a firm grip on the thematic through-line, a steady pace that kept one’s outrage on a slow boil, and its several scenes of both beauty and appalling injustice–are almost entirely missing from The Hottest August. [...]

Midnight Traveler

2019-12-11T16:20:57+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Midnight Traveler Director/ Hassan Fazili Watched on Amazon Rating 2/5   Hassan Fazili’s first-person home movie comes with the usual patchwork of funders’ logos displayed in the credits, signaling that the film has been blessed and packaged and delivered with the documentary industry’s collective stamp of approval; its importance and relevance and quality-controlled bona fides are meant to shield it from critical challenge. It comes to a viewer as a received work, not as an act of artistic expression; to discuss it as art is a pointless exercise. It is not meant to be criticized or debated. It is simply a commodity to be traded within the finite array of prestigious film festivals and assigned to fill the desirable slots of the second tier festivals. It had its run through these rarified venues before being purchased and then distributed to a handful of streaming sites. In sum, Midnight Traveler is like any of the other handpicked pre-loaded and pre-lauded documentaries that make the rounds of the non-fiction film universe: Small stories adrenalized for maximum dramatic punch; thin and recognizable narratives dressed up in faux-profundity through tricks of editing and sound design; characters shorn of complexity for easy digestibility. And all bearing the imprimatur of an industry that drains the blood out of messy, real-life stories and distrusts unfiltered points-of-view, that cloaks any hint of personalized cinematic verve in formulas conceived in expensive post-production suites. None of this is the fault of Hassan Fazili, or his family–which includes a wife and two young daughters–or the journey that [...]

Island

2019-11-15T21:03:17+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Island Director/ Steven Eastwood Watched on MUBI Rating 4/5   Director Steven Eastwood spent one year filming in and near a hospice on the Isle of Wight, chronicling the deaths of four people facing terminal illnesses. The movie begins with a point-of-view shot from the bow of the fog-bound ferry bringing us to the island. Immediately I thought of Charon, the ferryman of Hades, carrying the souls of the recently deceased across the river Styx, dividing the living from dead. It’s in no way meant to be ghoulish, but the symbolism seems in keeping with the film’s unblinking invitation to watch, sit with, contemplate, and assess death’s implacable approach. People cross the water to die, but in reality they are already dead. The trip is a mere formality. Island avoids all the tropes of disease porn documentary. The four main subjects of the film–an elderly woman, two middle-to-late age men, and a younger man with a small daughter–aren’t joyously living life to the fullest despite their impending deaths. Mary Chessell, Alan Hardy, Roy Howard, and Jamie Gunnell don’t dispense tear-dripped epithets or profoundly knowing nuggets of wisdom. They don’t sit for lengthy on-camera interviews about fears, regrets, or remorse. Rather, Eastwood’s camera records the mundane details of day-to-day normalcy; the eating and sleeping and visiting that goes on during what essentially is a long act of waiting. Waiting for death, the inevitable. An argument could be made that Eastwood’s camera functions as death’s presence. We don’t learn the names of the disease or illness killing these people. [...]

The Rest I Make Up

2019-11-18T00:06:53+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Rest I Make Up  Director/ Michelle Memran Watched on Kanopy Rating 2.5/5   I was disappointed to discover that the Wikipedia entry about Maria Irene Fornes contained far more detail about her art, life, and career than The Rest I Make Up, Michelle Memran’s affectionate but limited love letter to the avant-garde playwright. Known by theater insiders for her freewheeling spontaneity and intense belief in how physical expression leads to creative release, Fornes lived the type of artistic life that few of us are able to manage any longer. She was beloved by famous playwrights and discerning critics, and she influenced younger actors and writers. The absence of recognizable titles during her Obie-award winning, prolific career only adds to her bona fides as an outsider living the life she wanted. It also didn’t hurt that she was Susan Sontag’s lover of many years. According to Wikipedia, “Sontag voiced frustration about a novel she wanted to write, (so) Fornes insisted that they give up their evening plans, go back to the apartment they shared, sit down at the kitchen table, and just set to work. When they got home, as if to prove how simple it was, Fornes sat down to write, as well. With no experience and no idea how to start, she opened up a cookbook at random and started a short story using the first word of each sentence on the page. 'I might never have thought of writing if I hadn't pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.'" [...]

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins

2019-11-08T00:36:09+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins Director/ Janice Engel Watched in Theater Rating 2.5/5   After seeing this documentary with my wife and daughter in the arthouse Roxy Cinemas in Missoula, Montana, my daughter remarked that it should have been titled Molly Ivins on C-Span. Without the copious interview footage from the cable channel this movie wouldn’t exist. Or, more to the point, it could exist, but only by relying solely on the standard features of the hagiographic biopic craze: endless, repetitive testimonials from friends and family; fraudulent mini-reenactments of filler B-roll; faked voice-over; animated news clippings; and generalized archival footage of epochal events substituting for the personal home movies that no one bothers to film or save anymore. Such is the condition of this trendy, tiresome sub-genre of documentary. Hal, Marley, Montage of Heck, Gonzo, Life Itself, and any number of the docs coming out weekly about musicians, chefs, architects and fashion designers, all deliver up unimaginative treatments of lives celebrated precisely because they were lived with a fierce commitment to imagination and unconventionality. I always find myself wondering how the subjects of these films would react to these banal depictions of their own lives. With lacerating wit? Withering criticism? Unbounded crankiness? Ivins would no doubt have employed each of these verbal weapons to excoriate this film; its glib soundbites, its sanitization of intimate details, its perfunctory backslapping, its egregious sprinkling of phony moments (a black-and-white snippet of a man, meant to be her father, mixing a drink; a stock-footage like scene [...]

Monrovia, Indiana

2019-10-22T16:27:46+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Monrovia, Indiana Director/ Frederick Wiseman Watched on Kanopy Rating 1/5   Monrovia, Indiana is either the most boring film Frederick Wiseman has ever made or it is the most subversive. This chronicle of the day-to-day life of a small midwestern town (population about one thousand, according to a 2010 census) is so devoid of visual interest, color, or even the most modest of dramatic material, I wondered if the director may have asked himself at some point why he was even bothering to continue to film. Or did he discern something in the enervating footage that commented on the divisiveness of our country, a willingness of small-town people to embrace the ho-hum pattern of their daily rituals as a kind of stubborn stand against the coastal elites? It’s hard to tell. I once sat through a 90-minute workshop Wiseman conducted at a documentary film conference in which he showed a lengthy clip from his early film Welfare and then proceeded to describe–in head-scratching detail–the clip we all just watched, without any insight, reflection, or behind-the-scenes revelations. It was as if we were all blind and deaf and hadn’t just viewed the clip he then laboriously described. It was weird. And it confirmed for me my problem with Wiseman and the adoring critics who elaborately praise his unvarnished, marathon-length films of the past couple decades: there isn’t a scrap of subtext to his movies; no subtle allusions or metaphorical conclusions to be inferred. Wiseman might be the least captivating living legend working today. Professionally, he is the [...]