Roll Red Roll

2019-07-11T16:52:37+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Roll Red Roll Director/ Nancy Schwartzman Watched on P.O.V. Rating 3/5   Schwartzman’s film examines the rape of a high school girl by two of her classmates, football players from the local Steubenville, Ohio team. It’s a story that gained national headlines after the tweets and texts surrounding the incident–two young men raping their inebriated, passed-out victim, egged on by friends–revealed the rape culture that was prevalent among players and supervisors. There is an enterprising crime blogger who broke the story, the backlash against her, interrogation video of the boys involved, and a surprise intervention by the anarchic hacker group Anonymous, who–to their credit–put the story on the national stage. It’s a searing and disgusting story, and Schwartzman tells it well, with a clear, economical structure that positions her film as both a social justice call-to-action and as a true crime exposé. Yet Roll Red Roll, despite its judicious choices and journalistic integrity, also includes many of the stock elements common in these types of films. There are the banal establishing shots of Steubenville’s streets and neighborhoods, used as background wallpaper for the players’ texts that appear on screen, or as placeholders for the interviews and the VO audio of a local talk jock. There are unnecessary quick cut-ins of the talking heads of the interviews despite the fact that while they’re talking, we already see them on screen driving, walking, working on their laptop, etc. There is the prerequisite portrait of a community gung-ho for the masculine rituals of football. There is the machine-tooled editing [...]

The Edge of Democracy

2019-07-08T01:40:28+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Edge of Democracy Director/ Petra Costa Watched on Amazon Rating 3.5/5   The title of this film is misleading. Brazil isn’t so much on the edge of democracy as the edge of totalitarianism, or better yet, wandering in the abyss of democracy’s wreckage. With the vulgar nativist and racist Jair Bolsonaro (remind you of anyone?) having slipped into the presidency during a judicial coup, even though he was spectacularly less popular than the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), the country is in the throes of an astonishing decline from its progressive heights of the 2000s, which saw Lula win two terms and then handpick a successor, Dilma Rousseff, only for him to be incarcerated on questionable charges, and her to be impeached under flimsy pretenses. Petra Costa’s comprehensive documentary covers the last 20 years of Brazil’s politics with clarity and personal insight. She is the child of radicals who fought for years for Lula’s victory, only to see the nation’s new democracy ransacked by greed, corruption, lies, and extremist propaganda, aided by oil companies, oligarchs and religious fundamentalists. Yes, it is all too close to home for American audiences, which is why we need to see the film. If nothing else, it will help us understand how easy it is for depraved characters like Bolsonaro and Trump to exploit a nation’s weakness or distractions and then, with the help of bottomlessly corrupt politicians and an easily duped section of the public, flip the switch on democracy from light to dark. That is the [...]

No Data Plan

2019-05-24T23:02:40+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

No Data Plan Director/ Miko Revereza Watched on MUBI Rating 1.5/5   As much as I admire the young Miko Revereza’s insistence on his unadorned technique, his one-man band filmmaking strategy, his no-frills three day shoot and his brief five-week editing stint, his diaristic subtitles, his status as a longtime undocumented immigrant from the Philippines here almost by accident, and his affection for experimentation and fuck-rules filmmaking, this documentary, his first feature, is a colossal bore. Shot over a couple of cross-country Amtrak train trips, and filmed entirely on the train and platforms of the route (except for one odd shot that appears to be filmed from a plane), the movie rattles along with semi-shaky handheld out-the-window vistas and cutaways to light shuttering across seats and floors and luggage. The occasional subtitles seem to be made up of both his diary entries and translations of phone calls with his mom. There is little structure to these random insertions, and little meaning as well, unless you read the supplemental material that has accompanied screenings of this film at True/False and Art of the Real, two highbrow festivals that really, I think, should try a little harder to harvest bracing, exciting new work that doesn’t insist a viewer has to either embrace this borderline amateur material or leave the theater. We are meant to be challenged by Revereza’s blatant anti-aesthetic and, I guess, sympathetic to the idea that this is a young man exuberantly tilting and panning his camera towards whatever method grabs his attention, regardless of whether [...]

A River Below

2019-05-24T16:59:48+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

A River Below Director/Mark Grieco Watched on Kanopy Rating 3.5/5   This documentary distinguishes itself from the environmental sub-genre by enhancing its twisty complexity. Not only does the story keep offering up surprises, but it also avoids the trap so many enviro-docs fall into: a prologue that ticks off the boxes of progressive outrage, and then spends the rest of the film repeating these same points with an inspirational call-to-action rounding off the epilogue. Although A River Below suffers from some of the tics of too many docs these days, it is both trenchant and engrossing, the documentary equivalent of journalistic, literary non-fiction. Director Mark Grieco drops us into Brazil’s Amazon, literally into the river, to get a close-up look at the endangered pink dolphin, hunted by the indigenous locals who use the dolphin as bait to harvest the piracatinga, an abundant bottom-feeder that sustains their local economy. We are introduced first to a scientific biologist working to protect the dolphin, and then to a reality TV biologist (or so he says), who also takes up the dolphin cause. These early scenes follow the endangered species script, accentuating the creatures’ human-like qualities and elevating the two conservationists to the level of humane saviors. Then things get sticky. Secret video surfaces showing the dolphins being slaughtered. The Brazilian government, instead of finding another source of bait for the fishermen, bans both the killing of dolphins and the fishing of the piracatinga, devastating the livelihood of the locals. Environmental organizations claim victory. The biologist is relieved; the reality [...]

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

2019-04-25T16:46:31+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? Director/Travis Wilkerson Watched on iTunes Rating 3.5/5   Travis Wilkerson’s first-person investigatory essay is his attempt to understand the racist roots of his family’s past. Although his great-grandfather killed an innocent black man in Alabama long before the director was born, there exists a single picture of the director as a baby sitting next to the old man, now with the cheerful countenance of a white supremacist who got away with murder. As Wilkerson speculates, he may have killed other black men as well. Such was the moral order of things in the American South of the 1940s. Wilkerson narrates the tale in a subdued monotone, as if delivering testimony at an inquest. The flat, dry intonation bespeaks a suppressed expression of outrage and of long-buried guilt. His self-reflexive journey is an expiation, a forced reckoning with culpability, that excavates the political divides among his older surviving family members, reminding us that the rhetorical civil war of the Trump era is merely the latest spore emanating from the deep rot that has infested our country since its beginnings. The challenges for Wilkerson in telling this story are demanding. Beyond that one picture of he and his grandfather, there is little evidence that links the ensuing generations. A few scraps of home movie film, some memories from surviving relatives, the remaining buildings in the forgotten town where the murder occurred; these are the meager visuals the director can access. He records folks who recall some of the details of the [...]

El Mar La Mar

2019-04-23T15:42:28+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

El Mar La Mar Directors/Joshua Bonnetta, J.P. Sniadecki Watched on You Tube Rating 2.5/5   A murky experiment in abstract impressionism, El Mar La Mar is determined to avoid engaging the viewer with any emotional or narrative hooks, distancing itself from accessibility with nearly every scene. While cinematically audacious–its old-school use of film grain provides textural interest and its wandering soundscape a welcome unpredictability–its overall design is aloof, even dull, despite the politically tense atmosphere of the subject matter. Shot in the Sonoran Desert by co-directors Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki, the film is a pastiche of gnarly nature shots, remnants of human detritus (discarded clothing, plastic water jugs) and even a few humans, unidentified and unexplained, who appear as totems of the ongoing migrant border issues. We hear the voices of those who live or work in this treacherous area, describing encounters with lost asylum seekers, dead bodies and, in one odd instance, a ravine-dwelling monster. These incidents are recounted at length, with few details left out, as the camera stares at a non-descript mountain ridge or patch of sand. As I watched, I experienced a sustained undercurrent of annoyance, at myself for rushing to judge the film, and at the filmmakers for hewing so relentlessly to their technique of detachment. In one locked-down shot, a naked woman–seen from behind–gradually submerges into a small pool of water tucked under some boulders. Eventually she disappears, and then we hear a smattering of voices echoing as if off the walls of an underground cavern. It’s mysterious and [...]

Harvest Season

2019-04-03T17:49:31+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Harvest Season Director/Bernardo Ruiz Watched at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival Rating 2.5/5   This ITVS-funded, made-for-Independent Lens documentary should be commended for its timely and much-needed positive portrait of Latino entrepreneurs and laborers. While Trump froths and throws fits, the families presented in Bernardo Ruiz’s compassionate film are evidence of how deeply entwined Mexican-American culture is in the fabric of our country, as if those of us in the reality-based world need that kind of reminder. We go inside two family-run winemaking operations; we meet a man who operates a humane, clean, affordable ranch to house immigrant workers; and we travel back to Mexico with one of these workers to see how his earnings are spent, not only on American products he gives as gifts to his children, but on bringing a better standard of living home to his family. The movie is sincere, earnest, endearing, and harmlessly satisfying. And that’s the problem. With a title straight out of an autumn edition of Wine Spectator magazine, Harvest Season goes down like a drinkable but forgettable Cabernet. For long stretches of its soporific running time it feels like you’re watching an industry ad video. It’s pretty and it’s pretty dull. In fact, the glossy cinematography is both the film’s only real draw and its major drawback. Since there is very little in these stories that is gritty or unpredictable or emotionally raw, all we really have to sustain us are the gleaming sun-kissed visuals. And boy are they sun-kissed! This kind of coffee-table-book shooting is becoming a [...]

Ya Me Voy (I’m Leaving Now)

2019-04-03T16:40:06+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Ya Me Voy (I’m Leaving Now) Director/Lindsey Cordero, Armando Croda Watched at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival Rating 4/5   Felipe has been working and saving money for the last 17 years, much of which he sends back to his family, a wife and four sons, in Mexico. He wants to finally make good on his promise to leave Brooklyn and return to them in time for the birthday of his youngest, who he’s never seen. But financial problems and a sneaking suspicion that his family may be more interested in his money and less in seeing him forces him to postpone his trip. So, he keeps working his odd jobs: collecting cans, mopping floors at the local bodega, hauling bags of cement for the construction crew. Even while working, Felipe wears an extravagant black sombrero, a mark of his sly sense of humor and his individuality. His family may be disinterested and frittering away his hard-earned cash, but Felipe retains an enthusiasm for his dreams. Directors Lindsey Cordero and Armando Croda keep their camera close to Felipe throughout the film. They’ve set their camera’s shutter on a faster speed, which enhances their close-ups with a jittery, homemade aesthetic, as if an unseen presence exists mere inches from his face. The intimacy is stark, even uncomfortable at times, suggesting an affinity with the Mexican master Carlos Reygadas, but there is no escaping the revealing authenticity of Felipe’s humanity. He works hard, doesn’t drink or do drugs, and lives in a tiny spare room where the stovetop doubles [...]

306 Hollywood

2019-04-03T19:55:51+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

306 Hollywood Director/Elan Bogarín, Jonathan Bogarín Watched on P.O.V. Rating 1.5/5   Insufferably twee and annoyingly impressed with itself, 306 Hollywood is an excruciating experience to sit through. I knew this when I walked out after watching the first ten minutes of it in a theater at Hot Docs in 2018, and my feelings were confirmed when I suffered through another hour of viewing on PBS’s P.O.V. series. So, I’ll make this brief. Directed by a brother and sister, and ostensibly about the eccentric but not extraordinary charms and vicissitudes of their late grandmother, the movie bills itself as an archeological excavation of her home, her obsessions, her possessions, her memory. I’m all for stories about unremarkable people made remarkable by patient, heartfelt, authentic storytelling. I think documentaries could use more of these kinds of stories and less, way less, of the issue-of-the-moment advocacy films and celebrity profiles that take up most of the air in the room of top tier film festivals. The problem here is that the Bogaríns spend most of their screen time constructing the cloying scaffold of their archeological dig and far too little time allowing us to get to know their beloved grandmother. It’s as if they’re afraid she’ll bore us, so they bore us instead with specious reenactments and unmotivated tangents, meticulously lacquered and polished into a magic realist stage show that is as tedious as it is unnecessary. Funders and film festivals and distributors and, apparently, PBS, love these kinds of expensive shiny-object movies. They can pat themselves on [...]

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

2019-02-19T23:21:56+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Hale County This Morning, This Evening Director/RaMell Ross Watched on Independent Lens Rating  4/5   Hale County This Morning, This Evening is composed of the fleeting, random moments that most other documentaries employ either as brief cutaways during the primary action, or as connective B-roll between narrative plot points. Out of 1300 hours of footage, RaMell Ross, the writer, director, cinematographer and editor, chose relatively few images to complete his 78-minute film, but they reveal a quality of black life that usually exists only on the margins in most other films about the black experience in America, films about prejudice, poverty, injustice, crime, incarceration, and racism. Ross has made a film in which those issues are on the periphery. His interest, as a photographer, teacher, coach and mentor to the young men and women in this movie, is to refocus the quotidian details of their lives to the center of the frame. He was an outsider, in a sense, when he first moved to this Alabama county, a role which suggests he embedded himself into the landscape of everyday life and compiled a scrapbook made up of the rhythms of this self-contained world. He finds two or three characters he stays close to, but he does so almost shyly, obliquely, as if he is afraid to conventionalize his documentary. He is most interested in texture. Drops of sweat hitting the basketball court cuts to raindrops on pavement. Popcorn popping at a concession stand cuts to bugs flitting in the magic hour light. Cheerleaders’ bodies sway in [...]