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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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 [...]
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. [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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, [...]
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 [...]
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; [...]
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 [...]