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


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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Recovery Boys

Director:   Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Watched at:  Hot Docs 2018, Rating:  3/5.     It’s impossible to fault this documentary for its sensitive approach to telling the stories of four young men struggling to escape the shackles of heroin addiction. Set in director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s home state of West Virginia, the movie concentrates its focus on a rehabilitation house which provides shelter, food, therapy, and brotherhood. It’s an admirable mission to be sure, but one that often results in failure. If nothing else, this film resolutely shows us that addiction is a disease without a cure. The best someone could hope for [...]

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The Devil We Know

Director:  Stephanie Soechtig, Jeremy Seifert, Watched at:  Hot Docs 2018, Rating:  2.5/5.     The Devil We Know, a paint-by-numbers eco-doc, is set in West Virginia, where a group of residents in Parkersburg discovered that the chemical giant Dupont had been dumping the toxic chemicals used in Teflon and other products into the local water supply. Cancer and birth defects followed, as well as the usual tensions between profits and employment.  Dupont is the region’s largest employer, and it took most of the residents awhile to come around to the idea that the company putting food on their tables was also [...]

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The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

Director: Brett Story, Watched on: iTunes, Rating:  5/5.   For a film composed of luminous images and becalmed scenes of waiting, watching, and talking, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes will likely leave you outraged. It will be a quiet outrage, in keeping with the mesmerizing resignation and stillness of the people and places featured in the film, but the anger will be there nevertheless, on a constant low boil. Director Brett Story’s accomplishment here is in taking an unwieldy documentary trope–the survey film, in which situational vignettes and character-driven profiles follow one another without resolve or dramatic mini-climaxes–and turning it into a [...]

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Faces Places

Directors:  Agnès Varda, JR, Watched on:  Netflix, Rating:  2/5.     I loved Agnès Varda’s documentaries, The Beaches of Agnès and The Gleaners and I,for their unabashed reflexivity and casual wonder. She is an artist of the people, intertwining her off-hand interviews with melancholic asides on memory and the ever-shifting nature of relationships. Her best film, Vagabond, is a fictional narrative with documentary-like soundbites, set-up to look like the work of a reporter investigating the unsolved death of the titular young woman whose body is found in a ditch. The movie is uncompromising, even brutal, without the playfulness and wink she [...]

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