Docs in Review2018-08-22T22:48:38+00:00

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


Directors:  Michael Glawogger, Monika Willi, Watched on:  MUBI and Filmatique, Rating:  5/5.     Michael Glawogger once said that “imagery is the essence of the art of cinema–and language, sound and story are the legs on which this painting-in-motion is standing.” This statement can be used as a corrective to the tendency of documentary filmmakers these days–American documentary filmmakers especially–to turn Glawogger’s stool upside down; squashing imagery under the weight of conventional storytelling, endless talking heads, onscreen text, and wall-to-wall music. Pictures seem to matter less and less in docs, unless they’re shot by in-the-moment smartphones or staged and lighted by a [...]

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Minding the Gap

Director: Bing Lui, Watched at:  Hot Docs 2018, Rating: 3/5.       Minding the Gap opens with an exuberant sequence of skateboarders coasting through vacant parking lots, cruising empty urban streets, and jumping curbs with a youthful and–for a movie that is just getting started–already aching innocence. We meet the main characters, Zack and Keira, on their boards, and also the guy holding the camera, Bing Lui; all childhood friends growing up in the Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinios, and all on the cusp of the bittersweet awareness that these blissful times can certainly never last. Lui started out making skateboard [...]

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The Sea Stares At Us From Afar

Director:  Manuel Muńoz Rivas, Watched on:  MUBI, Rating:  4/5.     The aesthetic gulf between American and European documentary cinema becomes more dramatically evident after viewing Manuel Muńoz Rivas' The Sea Stares at Us from Afar, a meditative observation on time, myth, and reluctant progress that settles in with a few desultory inhabitants of an Andalusian beach. The camera pays equal respect to the shifting sands and workaday rituals that exist in an expanse shrouding a buried history, which also offers up tantalizing prospects to tourists and developers. The characters, such as they are, include an elderly man who lives alone in a [...]

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Director:  Sergei Loznitsa, Watched on:  iTunes, Rating:  4.5/5.   Director Sergei Loznitsa’s methodical observational technique seems to be a clear signal that you shouldn’t come anywhere near Maidan if you’re expecting an action-packed account of Ukraine’s 2014 revolt against the Russian takeover of their country. But it is precisely the slow burn of his static camera that creates the atmosphere of intense and approaching calamity, and the inescapable sense that you are watching a modern history of resistance being written before your eyes. Maidan is both the name of the citizen’s uprising and Kiev’s central square, the primary location of [...]

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Director:  Jonathan Olshefski, Watched on:  Kanopy, Rating:  3.5/5.   A deeply compassionate film set in the neighborhood, home, and work spaces of one North Philadelphia family, Quest is that rare documentary which combines a grounded, unfussy technique behind the camera with an unadorned, lived-in story of real people in front of it. This reminds us that the very best American documentaries have the texture of novels, or memoirs, or observant non-fiction reporting. Filmed over nearly 10 years by one-man band director, cinematographer, and sound recordist Jonathan Olshefski, Quest is named for the lead character, Christopher “Quest” Rainey, the steady, likeable [...]

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Homo Sapiens

Director:  Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Watched on:  MUBI, Rating:  5/5.     This dystopian essay from Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter is a portrait of the world after the last human being has been annihilated. Consisting of wordless, textless scenes of abandoned hospitals, churches, office buildings, roads, nuclear testing sites, military installations, and amusement parks, the pointed visual commentary of Homo Sapiens states, unequivocally, that we are unnecessary and easily forgotten, an infection that Mother Earth has finally eradicated. What’s left behind is the effluvia of a nothing race, our monuments to progress and growth and technology and mindless entertainment crumbling into dust or devoured [...]

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Three Sisters

Director:  Wang Bing, Watched on:  Amazon Prime Video, Rating:  4/5.     I’ve only seen one documentary by the Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing. His movies are difficult to find, and at lengths running several hours long, can be forbidding for even the most committed of viewers. When I attempted to watch Part One of his series, West of the Tracks (more than 10 hours long in its entirety), on Kanopy, I was stymied by a poor streaming signal. But in the few minutes I did see, there was evidence of why his movies run so long: he was reluctant to turn [...]

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The Human Flow

Director:  Ai Weiwei, Watched on:  iTunes, Rating:  4.5/5.     I was initially skeptical of The Human Flow, the Chinese artist Weiwei’s documentary about the global refugee crisis. The soaring drone footage I’d seen in a trailer looked too impressive, as if this was another superficial celebrity art piece capitalizing on human tragedy. At a running time of 2 hours and 25 minutes, it also sounded self-indulgent and unnecessary. How many more stories do we need about this epic tragedy, covered in countless articles and photo essays, before we become comfortably numb? After finishing this doc, I came to the conclusion [...]

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The Departure

Director:  Lana Wilson, Watched on:  Kanopy, Rating:  2.5/5.    In this portrait of an altruistic Japanese priest who counsels lost souls contemplating suicide, director Lana Wilson identifies her two key storylines early and then superficially drifts back and forth between them. The repetition is wearying, the insights thin. For such weighty subject matter, The Departure is a film curiously lacking in substance. Ittetsu Nemoto conducts rituals in which he asks participants to write down the things they treasure most and then asks them to start throwing these slips of paper away until they are left with only one; one final [...]

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Two Years At Sea

Director:  Ben Rivers, Watched on:  MUBI, Rating:  4/5.     The British film artist Ben Rivers worked with only one other crew member, a soundperson, to capture the real-life rhythms of a hermit “played” by the not entirely hermit-like Jake Williams in Rivers’ 2011 film, Two Years At Sea, which I finally was able to see in 2017 on MUBI, the streaming site every cinephile should bookmark.   Williams does indeed live in the cluttered wooden house in the forest that functions as the central location in the movie. He sometimes sleeps in a caravan (trailer) that, in the film, strangely [...]

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