Docs in Review
Reviews of documentaries from my perspective as a filmmaker working outside the industry echo chamber.
1/poor 2/nothing remarkable 3/worth noting 4/memorable 5/excellent
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Angels Are Made of Light Director/ James Longley Watched in theaters Rating 2.5/5 Three school-age brothers are the main characters in James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light, but you wouldn’t know they are brothers from watching the film. You also wouldn’t know that one of the teachers in the school they attend is their mother. Even though one of the kids calls the teacher “Mother” it comes across as a way of referring to all female teachers, or at least that’s the impression I got. I also got the impression that one of the kids works at a [...]
The Distant Barking of Dogs Director/ Simon Lereng Wilmont Watched on P.O.V. Rating 2.5/5 This tender, quiet film about two young boys’ day-to-day experiences in a rural slice of Ukraine during wartime, is both beautiful and aimless. The Dutch director and cameraman Simon Lereng Wilmont apparently spent 3 years filming the boys, cousins Oleg and Yarick, and their grandmother as they wait out Vladimir Putin’s military assault on their independent country. Wilmont’s eye is sensitive, his distance intimate. His direction is unhurried and respectful. He’s obviously gained the trust of his subjects; the boys nor their grandmother ever seem [...]
Streetwise Director/ Martin Bell Watched at Beacon Cinema (Seattle) Rating 5/5 Streetwise, a discreet classic of American documentary cinema, is a relentless portrait of clashing sensations: vulnerability and bravado, tenderness and confrontation, immaturity and mortality. It presents us with teenagers, some of them very young teenagers, playacting the roles of grownups in a drama of their own design. Yes, they are street kids, victims of abuse, neglect, alcoholism and the many other fucked up things unworthy parents do to their young, but they embrace their circumstances with theatrical gusto. They talk like world-weary drifters, ex-cons who’ve seen it all, [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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, [...]
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 [...]