Fire of Love

2023-06-10T21:53:02+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Fire of Love Director/ Sara Dosa Watched on Hulu Rating 4/5   A tantalizing trove of archival footage anchors this ruminative love story of two French volcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who risked their lives to study and film the way volcanoes evolve from placid dormancy to fiery eruptions. They died in 1991 while recording a Japanese volcano–no spoiler there, since this information is available on the film’s home page–but in their twenty-year partnership and love affair they became that most unique of couples: two people who found each other through the thing they loved the most, and who shared an unspoken pact that they could and quite likely would die pursuing their obsession to the ends of the earth. A passion this singular requires a singular approach, and director Sara Dosa manages to craft a complete and sometimes thrilling film out of archival b-roll and outtakes and old television interviews, inserting a perfectly odd batch of narrative observations from narrator Miranda July to fill in a few blanks, and rounding it out with the rare documentary soundtrack (by Nicolas Godin) that compliments the story rather than irritates the viewer. It’s also the (increasingly) rare documentary that doesn’t attempt to make some world-changing statement nor manufacture a third act surprise. Katia and Maurice were in love, eschewing domesticity and children, and getting closer and closer to hot spewing lava as if the stuff were a third character that they needed to know intimately. That should be enough for any film. It’s perhaps a happy accident that [...]

All The Beauty and the Bloodshed

2023-06-11T17:07:51+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Director/ Laura Poitras Watched on Amazon Rating 3/5   Two compelling story lines compete for the attention of both the audience and the director in Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. One narrative is a straightforward biography of photographer Nan Goldin’s career. The other narrative is a less straightforward, but still rather basic, depiction of the protests Goldin and fellow activists organized to force art institutions to stop taking philanthropic donations from the notorious Oxycontin-pushing Sackler family and to force the removal of the Sackler name from the rooms and galleries within those institutions. Before watching the film, a quick internet check will reveal the success of their activism, which renders any dramatic pay-off from these scenes moot. So, as an audience, we watch the mechanics of that activism in action: casual meetings in living rooms, street protests in front of museums, and flash mob-type ambushes within the museums, with people staging die-ins and throwing empty Oxycontin pill bottles from balconies. These scenes have the intended effect; they are bracing in their immediacy and boldness, and you applaud and identify with the righteous cause. But as cinema, the scenes have little to offer. The same is true of the biography part of the film. Since the film was co-produced and narrated by Goldin (and probably co-directed by her as well), Poitras’ role is one of serviceable collaboration. There is nothing remarkable in the filmmaking, since Goldin’s photographs are remarkable enough: stark documentary portraits of misfit New Yorkers struggling [...]

Taming the Garden

2022-04-07T16:53:20+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Taming the Garden Director/ Salomé Jashi Watched on MUBI Rating 2.5/5   What does a filmmaker owe their audience? Do they owe them the answers to the basic questions, the who-what-why-where-how? No, of course not. They don’t really “owe” their audience anything, but if a filmmaker makes a film they want seen, rather than a film that is a pure expression of personal art that does not seek viewers (but one that viewers may stumble upon in an art gallery), there needs to be some attempt at providing the basics of engagement, if for no other reason than to prevent the viewer from constantly checking their phone or a printed brochure during the film’s running time in order to read the director statement or the critical review that might provide clues to what is happening on screen. Taming the Garden, the frustratingly vague and exceedingly over-praised offering from filmmaker Salomé Jashi, is such a film. Rigorous to the point of monotony, abstruse without being in any way experimental, plodding to the point of inertia, yet with just enough visual information and editorial chicanery to keep a viewer wondering where it’s going, the movie could not exist without the sycophantic support of the film festival post-screening Q&A and the EPK (electronic press kit) critiques that trail in its wake like eager puppy dogs seeking their own claim to relevance. Where would festival grandees and the badge-wearing arthouse press be without films like Taming the Garden to preen on about, to coddle the filmmaker, and to elevate the [...]

The Shape of Things to Come

2022-01-13T02:33:04+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The Shape of Things to Come Director/ Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki Watched on MUBI Rating 4/5   Whenever I ask my adult son the question “How are things going?” he likes to answer with a joke: “I’m livin’, that’s enough for me.” The lone character at the center of The Shape of Things to Come would answer the question the same way, and he’d mean it. Directed by Lisa Malloy and J.P. Sniadecki (El Mar La Mar) the film shares the same title as the H.G. Wells book published in 1933, which Wells wrote as a kind of “future history” depicting a benevolent 22nd century utopia of nations, one that has eradicated war and dictatorships. In this experimental documentary, the utopia is centered in a patch of sand and scrub in the Sonoran Desert, and it is inhabited by one man whom we learn, at film’s end, is named Sundog. Rangy and bearded and weather-beaten, Sundog looks like a crazy off-the-grid hermit, especially as he obsessively wanders the grounds doing his chores or when he is talking to himself in a kind of gibberish, whether he is disemboweling a javelina or collecting the poison of a toad. But he is not that far off-the-grid. He has electricity, a cell phone, and a pick-up; he visits the local library for his nightly reading; he spends a little time at the local bar listening to a live band and engaging is a bit of dancing, and he is remarkably coherent and well-spoken when having to communicate with others. [...]

Everything For All Reasons

2022-01-26T18:28:51+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Everything For All Reasons Director/Scott Ballew Watched on Amazon Rating 4/5   I'm not going to make the case that there is anything stylistically unique about this documentary profile of grizzled singer-songwriter Terry Allen. It follows the beats of the pro forma music documentary: a sprinkling of talking heads lauding the main character, scenes of him working in his home studio, old photos of the “early days,” several windswept shots of the West Texas landscape where he was born, and seemingly staged-for-the-camera concert footage. But what makes this documentary a refreshing change from the usual music doc banalities is that practically no one outside of the narrow sub-genre of outlaw country has ever heard of Allen, nor do many of those inside that sub-genre know that Allen was and is an accomplished visual artist and sculptor. Nor do they know that he has been married to the same woman for eons and that his two grown sons love him and perform with him and that his favorite band members are also like extended members of his family. And then there are the songs, not a hit among them, that tell miniature Jack London stories–raw and mystical and forgiving–about marginal characters who, like Allen, exist in a world of their own design, content to wrestle with the vagaries of living outside the need for ambition or fame or even recognition. Everything For All Reasons is the first film directed by Scott Ballew, a young fellow musician, and he could care less about seeking out soundbites from famous [...]

All Light, Everywhere

2021-12-30T19:12:40+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

All Light, Everywhere Director/ Theo Anthony Watched on Hulu Rating 3/5   Ambitious, full of ideas, visually mellow, and pungently up-to-the-minute, All Light, Everywhere could be so much better than it is. The movie takes us on a scattershot tour of the surveillance industry, spending time with a high-tech company manufacturing body cameras (that literally roll by on a conveyor belt, industry-on-parade style), a training seminar in the use of the cams for police officers, a crime-fighting spy-drone salesman, a community meeting considering the use of said crime-fighting spyware, a volunteer testing program for something I couldn’t figure out, a gathering of regular folks waiting for an eclipse, the history of the Gatling gun and a biographical sketch of the founder of eugenics, a few other details that seem to be tossed into the mix because, well, why not, and all of it oversaturated with an ominous, too-loud electronic score and/or an intentionally monotonal narrator riffing on cameras, lenses, photography, and trippy essay-like statements that don’t really congeal into an accessible throughline. The director Theo Anthony is like a kid I knew in the sixth-grade in Tacoma who, when it came time to pick a state for our big United States history project, chose the easiest one, our home state, Washington, which meant that instead of doing any research or actual writing of a report he simply threw every tourist brochure and pamphlet and local magazine and piece of government propaganda he could find into a big box and brought it to school on the day [...]


2021-12-30T16:49:16+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Notturno Director/ Gianfranco Rosi Watched on Amazon Rating 3/5 Epicentro Director/ Hubert Sauper Watched on Amazon Rating 3/5   Two observational documentaries. One, Notturno, is so rigorously composed it sort of passes by like a series of naturally lit still photos. The other, Epicentro, is so undisciplined it careens across the screen like a drunken ex-pat. Both films are notable for their access, for their intrepid commitment to immersion, for their romantic allegiance to the image of the globe-trotting cameraperson blending travelogue and inquisition into cinematic essay. But these days this type of filmmaker–whose patron saints could be Werner Herzog, Les Blank, the late Michael Glowagger– is becoming an endangered species. There is a movement afoot within funding and film festival circles to institutionalize the following new requirement (paraphrasing from the Sundance Documentary Fund): All applicants must describe their connection to the story and to the specific communities of their projects, addressing issues of collaboration, authorship and representation. We are mostly interested in projects where the senior filmmaking team reflects the community represented on screen. While I understand and applaud, in general, this attempt by the doc industry to be more aware of where docs are being made and who is making them, to be part of the movement to, I guess, decolonize the documentary, I am concerned that this will result in the creation of yet another double-standard in the doc industry. A double standard where well-known, established, funded and/or trust-funded doc makers (i.e. Rosi and Sauper) will still be allowed to make and be [...]

The First Wave

2021-12-30T16:49:43+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

The First Wave Director/ Matthew Heineman Watched on Hulu Rating 2.5/5   This film is like comfort food for the pandemic-obsessed. There is a quiet serenity to its emergency room scenes, its close-ups on the faces of coronavirus patients, its brief cutaway montages of New York streets and masked inhabitants. The movie stakes out no new territory in the de rigueur of sanctioned doc filmmaking. There is the ensemble storytelling involving four revolving portraits of a nurse, a doctor, two patients and their families; the polished and unremarkable professionalism in image and sound; the upswell of ominous low-volume drone music, waiting in the wings after every transition for a respectable three or four seconds before making its entrance, the music signifying nothing more than the presence of a composer and the hand-holding emotionalism these soundtracks represent; and there is the predictable, satisfying three-act rhythms of each scene within the larger triumvirate arc of the 90-minute film. After the prologue, in which a patient is first brought back to life on the operating table and then dies from sudden cardiac arrest, after all of the film’s forthcoming tropes and beats have been communicated to us, and the music crescendos before dilating to a suspended tonal note of fear and finality, followed by the obligatory drone shot of the Manhattan skyline and the film’s title card, and then the slow fade to black, I said to myself, “The very next shot will be a doctor in their apartment getting ready to go to work the next day.” Which [...]

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 [...]

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