7th 04 - 2011 | 5 comments »

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island (1927)

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North is credited with being the first full-length, ethnographic documentary in cinematic history. As we understand the term “documentary” today, this film certainly stands as the most famous of its time, that is, a documentary that is not merely a document impassively recording occurrences in front of the lens, as with the “actualities” from the dawn of filmmaking, but one that preserves cultural artifacts with either implicit or explicit points of view about those artifacts. Flaherty would be one of the first documentarians to fiddle with the truth to preserve things he found valuable. In Nanook and Man of Aran (1934), for example, his aim was to document ways of life that were becoming extinct. Flaherty banished any modern tools or methods used by the Inuit tribe he recorded in favor of filming their traditional way of life; in Aran, the fishermen of Ireland’s Aran Islands literally reenacted traditional practices they had already abandoned.

You might call Flaherty something of a Luddite, despite his use of photographic equipment in filming and editing his material, and someone who may have romanticized traditional societies even as he saw the evidence of their hardships with his own eyes. His bias toward simplicity comes roaring out of The Twenty-Four Dollar Island, a 13-minute documentary in which the city of New York itself is the main character. The film is included in Anthology Film Archive’s nine-hour DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a brilliant attempt to make it and other vital and fascinating films unseen no longer.

The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is another startlingly original work, portraying the mechanical organism that is a robust industrial city through its architecture and machines. While I don’t know what the original score for the film sounded like—or even if it had one—the new score by Donald Sosin provides a strong complement to Flaherty’s point of view that a city is something close to a fascistic overlord that, nonetheless, reflects human civilizations through the centuries.

The film opens with an image on paper: an historic drawing of the 1626 trade Dutchman Peter Minuit supposedly made with Native Americans—boxes of trinkets worth $24 for Manhattan Island. Title cards tell us the Dutch immediately built 30 houses. Next, we learn the new city of New Amsterdam grew to 1,000 residents by 1656. The film then juxtaposes a drawn map of the original New Amsterdam settlement with photos of the metropolis that had spread out on the same site by 1926, the year this film was shot. The next title card introduces Flaherty’s subject proper: “New York, symbol of impressive industry, finance, power, where men are dwarfed by the immensity of that which they have conceived—machines, skyscrapers—mountains of steel and stone.”

A couple of men are glimpsed on the edges of the frame as they maneuver some earth-moving equipment into place. Steel clam shovels dig into the sand and move on threads of chain into the air to deposit their loads in a nearby container. The music, which until now had trafficked in Native American motifs, starts to take on a stronger rhythmic intensity, as though it were imitating the heartbeat of the city, and synthesized tones emphasize the mechanistic nature of the subject. Ships belching black smoke and dwarfing nearby ferries and tugboats fill the frame. The Hudson River, visible on the maps shown at the beginning of the film, seems to be brimming with seafaring traffic, like a bathtub awash in rubber duckies and toy boats. Bridges spanning from the island to the surrounding land cut a swath through the sky; when the river traffic and bridges enter the same frame, the sky is all but obliterated. The total encroachment of the urban human habitat on the natural landscape of the island will fill the frame at the end of the film.

New York seems like some ghastly nightmare to Flaherty. Men building the mighty structures of the city work in deep holes, chipping at bedrock with pick axes and sliding down loose earth and rubble. The rock is loaded into a container and lifted by a crane out of the hole. During the scene, my mind raced to the building of the pyramids, which employed devices and many men working with their hands to erect the pharoahs’ tombs. As if by magic, the next image is of a building whose upper half is shaped like a stepped pyramid.

When the film segues to some of the skyscrapers then standing in Manhattan, a tree limb or two break into the frame. Not all of New York is hard and pushy, the film seems to want to say. The music softens with strains reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” but trending in the direction of his more atonal Third Symphony, and the examples of grace and elegance then in existence are boxy or overly fussy, reflecting a basic bad taste. If only the Chrysler Building had been finished in time to be photographed for this film, this section might have made a better case for New York’s softer side.

Flaherty captures the muscularity of New York, its ugliness, and deliberately eliminates most humans from the frame. It’s hard to believe the title card that says there were 8 million people living in the city in 1926, so completely does the island seem entirely populated by buildings and machines. There is nothing left from 1626 for Flaherty to recreate ethnographically, and without the elemental roots of the city—only its bedrock bones being hacked to pieces by drone workers—Flaherty seems to find little to dignify in his portrait. His point of view is clear; The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is a mesmerizing and amazing achievement for him and for its new scorer, Donald Sosin, who captures the spirit of the film and enhances it significantly.

9th 11 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)

Director: Banksy

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s one genre of film that I just can’t seem to embrace—mockumentary. Unlike documentaries, the mockumentary is a fiction film that purports to be documenting real people and real events, generally to comic effect. Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, a send-up of self-important rock bands premiering in the portentous year of 1984, is generally considered to be cinema’s first mockumentary. Like any other type of film, the mockumentary has evolved from its roots in spoof to become something that blurs reality ever more seamlessly and confusingly. For example, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here (2010) encouraged as much serious speculation about the state of Joaquin Phoenix’s mental health as it did knowing sniggers about this ultimate performance-art piece.

Now we have a true hybrid in Exit through the Gift Shop. This valuable film does indeed document the worldwide street-art movement with one-of-a-kind footage of this illegal activity actually taking place. But as its title indicates, British director/street artist Banksy has bigger fish to fry—namely the art collectors who buy and institutionalize rebellion meant to reach ordinary people on the street and have a very short shelf life. Like most mockumentaries, it doesn’t have a terribly original object of ridicule, and it’s not quite as entertaining as the first edition of Blue Man Group, which managed to be something totally unique while poking fun at the art establishment. But it has an interesting central character whom I choose to believe was sincere in his obsession to film every major street artist working from 1999 to 2007.

The anonymous, yet world-famous street artist Banksy sits in front of a camera, his face nothing more than a black hole inside a hoodie, his voice a scratch of electronic distortion. He tells us what we are about to see—a documentary that was supposed to be about him, but that he took over because the man who was making it was much more interesting that Banksy. That man is Thierry Guetta, a French expatriate to Los Angeles who supports his wife and children from the earnings of a hip, high-end, used-clothing store in a funky part of town and who never goes anywhere without a video camera.

Thierry, it seems, is as addicted to recording every step he takes as junkies are to heroin. He’ll film his friends having dinner, his kids getting food out of the refrigerator, or himself taking a walk down the street. After about 10 years of random recording, Thierry finally finds a focus when he visits his cousin in France, known only as Invader, and accompanies him as he makes street art. His cousin, who like almost all the street artists in the film has his face digitally obscured, makes images of the electronic soldiers in the video game “Space Invaders” and glues them all over town, on walls, on overpasses, on light poles and median strips. Thierry is so excited about this underground world heretofore completely unknown to him, with its whimsical and subversive images and danger from the law, that he decides to dedicate all of his energies to filming as many street artists as possible.

And film them he does. Invader hooks Thierry up with other street artists, whose reluctance to be filmed performing an illegal act is overcome when Thierry says he is making a documentary about their art. One artist we get extended coverage of is Mr. Andre, who tags his long-legged, smiling alien anywhere and everywhere with spray paint. Other artists work with photocopied images of varying sizes affixed billboard-style to walls, telephone poles, and other objects. The most famous of this group is Shepard Fairey—he of the instantly classic tricolor image of Barack Obama underscored with the word “Hope”—who likes to post an image based on a photo of pro wrestler Andre the Giant in sizes ranging from a small cardboard poster to a multipanel billboard stretching across most of the side of a building. For all of these artists, Thierry acts as witness, recorder, and lookout, taking the same physical and legal risks they do while racking up hundreds of hours on his video camera.

Thierry complains that despite his success filming many of the greatest street artists, the legendary Banksy remains frustratingly elusive. Just as Thierry is about to give up, he gets a call from Fairey telling him that Banksy is in town and needs a guide. Thierry drops everything and drives immediately to meet them and offer Banksy anything he wants, buying him a phone so that he can call Thierry on a moment’s notice, showing him the best walls, and driving him all over town. Soon, Banksy’s signature rat, spray-painted on walls using stencils, starts appearing all over Los Angeles. Banksy also places installation art in unexpected places. When he places a dummy depicting an Abu Ghraib prisoner on the course of a train ride in Disneyland, Thierry is apprehended and grilled for four hours. Thierry erases the footage in his camera, denies he was involved in the placement of the dummy, and says he saw no one. He is released, and his cleverness and bravery earn him a friend for life in Banksy.

Alas, this particular incident tips us that what we are watching isn’t quite what it seems to be. Thierry says he erased the camera, much like digital images can be erased in the camera with the press of a button. But we have just seen footage of Banksy placing the dummy in the park, and he says Thierry cleverly slipped the tape cassette into his sock. Things get even funkier when Thierry must finally come up with the documentary he has been promising for so long. Unless we are seeing a recreation of events, Banksy likely sent a camera crew to film Thierry working with a video editor to create Life Remote Control, which Banksy calls completely unwatchable; excerpts of that film inserted into Exit through the Gift Shop show more than the street artists or even Thierry’s home movie footage. It is at this point that we are led to believe that Banksy kept the street-art tapes and sent Thierry home to make art, and that taking this suggestion to his usual extreme, Thierry hired a boatload of artists and craftsmen to help him create more than 200 pieces of street art highly derivative of Andy Warhol’s work. Promoting himself under the moniker Mr. Brainwash (MBW) in a one-man show called “Life Is Beautiful” using quotes from Fairey and Banksy, now well-known artists embraced by the legitimate art world, Thierry supposedly nets sales of nearly $1 million from the two-month-long show.

There’s a sucker born every minute, and Banksy clearly wants audiences for Exit through the Gift Shop to be among them. His agenda for this film is the least interesting part of it, and the so-called bitterness he and Fairey exhibit over the success of faux-artist Thierry Guetta isn’t really very funny. But Banksy is right about one thing—Thierry is a more interesting subject than he is and one whose performance is truly artful in its artlessness.

It’s hard to know exactly how much of Thierry’s life story is real. He apparently does have some kind of film obsession, or it would not have been possible for him to capture so many street artists, including Seizer, Neck Face, Sweet Toof, Cyclops, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, and Buffmonster installing so much art. The explanation for his obsession—that his mother sickened and died without him knowing it was happening, making him want to have evidence of every occurrence around him—seems like an exaggeration, if there is a shred of truth in it at all. But Banksy isn’t a good enough documentarian to allow the reality of his subject to come unfiltered to the foreground. It is Thierry’s personality—his unbridled energy and enthusiasm, his dogged determination, and his vanquishing of all obstacles to his objectives—that helps us appreciate his achievements and even wish that his fake triumph in his one-man show were real. (Or maybe Guetta really is an artist.)

I found the way the artists created their art to be a fascinating process, and the wide variety of styles, from simple cartoons to elaborate stencils and dimensional murals, to be visually intriguing and ingenious evocations of a genuine underground culture. Banksy’s attention-seeking self-mythologizing gets in the way of the real action more than I would have liked, but there’s a whole lot of lively doc triumphing over Banksy’s mock in Exit through the Gift Shop. l

20th 10 - 2010 | 11 comments »

CIFF 2010: Problema (2010)

Producer/Director: Ralf Schmerberg

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I learned a couple of days ago that the venerable Howard University in Washington, D.C., a bastion of learning for African Americans at a time when they were barred entrance to other colleges and universities and still a educator of choice in the African-American community, is dropping its 90-year-old philosophy degree programs. Said Richard A. Jones, professor of philosophy at Howard, in a recent interview in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “The loss of this program—for fiscal considerations—reflects a growing trend: the elimination of humanities and social programs for more ‘practical’ training programs. It is a postmodern reenactment of the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over liberal education versus vocational training.”

This is only the latest example of how educational programs that train the mind are losing ground in the United States. Those lucky enough to go to college these days no longer see value in taking classes that have no “practical” application, and given how expensive higher education is and how difficult it is to get a decent job, even with a college education, it’s hard to fault them.

Nonetheless, when people lose the ability to recognize issues that go beyond their basic concerns and, more important, to grope toward answers, we will truly be lost. It is with urgency over the loss of our intellectual capital at a time when globalism has brought acute problems from around the world to all of our doorsteps that organizers were inspired to create the dropping knowledge project. From their website:

Founded in the summer of 2003, the dropping knowledge project was initially based in Berlin, Germany, and San Francisco, USA.

After the Table of Free Voices, on September 10, 2006, the organization divided into two independent groups. The Berlin-based team became Mindpirates e.V. and the US-based team dropping knowledge International. Today, Mindpirates e.V. remains solely responsible for the curation of the Table of Free Voices and of this website.

It is the Table of Free Voices that forms the substance of the different kind of documentary that is Problema. The film “documents” a real-life circumstance, but it is the opposite of what I usually like in a documentary: it is nothing but talking heads. Problema records what happened when 112 people the organizers wanted to hear—primarily heads of nongovernmental organizations and activists like human-rights champion Bianca Jagger and physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, artists like Wim Wenders, and professional thinkers like Cornel West—talked about the great challenges of our day. The unusual format of the roundtable discussion (and yes, it literally was conducted at a round table in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, where Nazis burned books) was to have moderators Willem Dafoe and Nigerian human-rights advocate Hafsat Abiola alternately read each of the 100 questions culled from the dropping knowledge forums and have each participant give his or her answer simultaneously. A camera set up in front of each seat recorded their messages, and these messages, shots of the event taken by Schmerberg’s cameras, and thousands of images illustrating the various topics under consideration comprise the documentary.

Questions came from people of all ages from all parts of the world. A child’s question “What is God’s religion?” is treated with as much consideration as an adult asking “Is there a modern form of colonialism?” The answers vary. To the question, “Should a person have the right to live anywhere they want?”—a question near and dear to my heart as a person who thinks nationalism has outlived its usefulness—some gave a simple, “Yes, of course.” Others delved into the issue of resources versus need and how the exploding global population has made traditional strategies of nomadism impractical. The reverse question occurred to others—do people have the right to stay where they are?—and cited eminent domain and expulsions, such as what happened to Native Americans, as another population problem. In answer to the colonialism issue, one woman smiled and said, “Yes. It’s called debt.” We’re all concerned about economic policies in the United States, but the problems of smaller debtor nations could soon be ours.

It took me a while to realize that everyone was speaking at the same time. The din of voices was distracting before I came to this realization, and then it was like a symphony of the world, a perfect illustration of the dialogue the organizers of this event have orchestrated on the Internet and that they wish to encourage in face-to-face meetings. As cinema, the film leaves something to be desired. It seemed that the same faces kept popping up; a Maori woman was shown several times, but we don’t actually hear her speak until nearly the end of the film. The quick-cut images that show everything from the famous look at the earth from outer space and the Chinese student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square to film clips from Wings of Desire and Things to Come provide some visual interest, and one certainly has to credit the production team for tackling the permissions that must have been a nightmare to negotiate. But the montages didn’t add much. I think I would have preferred fewer images, more carefully chosen, and more questions.

The important thing about Problema is that it recognizes that the world needs to relearn how to talk about its common concerns. That does not mean leaving it all up to politicians to take care of for us—we’ve seen the folly of that. Indeed, Schmerberg deliberately left government officials out of the conversation because, he asserted in the Q&A, they have access to all the major media outlets and can have their say all they want. He offered the welcome news that all of the questions and answers will be available for download and recutting, so that communities can tailor presentations to specific issues they might want to address. Thus, the documentary I saw will never be the final documentary; like Sita Sings the Blues, the public is welcome to enter the creative process and use the materials to invent new uses for the footage. I’m planning to join the discussion. I hope you will, too. l

There are no more screenings of Problema, but the free worldwide online premiere of Problema will occur on December 6, 2010, here.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)

Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)

Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

10th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: Circus Kids (2010)

Director: Alexandra Lipsitz

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Growing up in Chicago has given me a great many advantages. I’ve had access to some of the world’s best cultural and scientific institutions, a very ethnically diverse population that exposed me to other languages and cultures, and many clubs and political organizations that bring like-minded people together to work actively for the causes in which they believe.

For all that, one thing I missed out on during my formative years was a trip to the circus. Perhaps as a result, I’ve long had a fascination with this seemingly archaic institution that persists to this day. Therefore, I was eager to attend the world premiere of Circus Kids, a documentary by Alexandra Lipsitz whose maiden directorial outing, Air Guitar Nation (2006), has a boatload of fans. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and I got more than I bargained for.

Jessica Hentoff is a former circus performer who runs the St. Louis Arches, a youth circus group that has performed with a number of professional circuses in the United States. As she puts it, she is the biological mother of three circus kids—Ellianna, Keaton, and Kellin—and the circus mother of 13 members of the Arches. Lipsitz lets a number of these kids introduce themselves, focusing her camera on their still forms, going to their homes, and letting them talk a little about themselves. We’re not terribly surprised when meeting Iking Bateman, a black teenager from a rough neighborhood whose mother is dead and whose father is incarcerated. We expect programs like youth circus to reach out to “at-risk” kids. It is perhaps a bit more surprising to meet middle-class, college-bound Matthew Viverito, who never found a sport he liked until he discovered circus. Both Iking and Matthew are very talented tumblers, and reflect the diversity of the St. Louis metropolitan region that is caught in microcosm in the Arches troupe.

Hentoff hopes to bring social change, a kid at a time, to the world by building fellowship through circus. Thus, it is not surprising that when Rabbi Mark Rosenstein proposed a cultural exchange to Hentoff, she decided to make it happen. Rosenstein started the Galilee Circus following rioting in the Galilee region of Israel in 2002 to bring Arab and Jewish youth together, and he thought it would help move his mission forward to broaden it to include circus youth from other parts of the world. The film deals primarily with the Arches’ trip to Israel and how the mixing of the two troupes changed the lives of all those involved.

The logistics of getting the kids packed and on the plane starts the journey, and we get to experience their jetlag on landing in Tel Aviv and being whisked immediately onto their coach to meet the Galilee Circus members and travel to a kibbutz that will be their first stop on the tour. The groups are disparate in skills, with the Israeli kids more adept at juggling and stilt walking, and the Arches at acrobatics. Trying to put the skill sets together, while dealing with a language barrier and the Arches’ unfamiliarity with and dislike of the food and kibbutz living, is a challenge. Their first joint show, assembled in a day and a half, is sloppy and full of flubs. This bumpy start is exacerbated when two of the Arches get into a nasty fight in which the “n” word is uttered, right in front of the Israeli kids. There are some real concerns about whether the experiment will be a dismal failure.

However, over the two weeks the two circuses travel and perform together, the hoped-for cultural understanding starts to take hold. Ellianna, who seems to be complaining about everything, and Riana, a troubled girl with learning disabilities, watch and then join in when a group of Arab girls at the home of Galilee Circus kids, Manar and Manal, belly dance to some records. Riana especially is enthralled by the way they move, their coin-clad hip belts shimmering and sounding as they dance.

There isn’t much the Arches don’t experience. They sleep in a bedouin tent in the desert (not a happy experience), they ride a camel, they attend a birthday party with a cake, candles, and a song that is not “Happy Birthday.” The feasts they are offered for everyday meals leave the Arches bewildered.

A visit to Jerusalem is a profound experience for the Arches. Matthew talks excitedly about actually being at the Dome on the Mount, which he had only seen in his history book, “and the picture I took is better than the one in my history book!” Michel, whose parents initially were worried about him traveling to a war zone (his mother, not knowing where Israel is, says, “Israel better be in St. Louis!”) is thrilled about being at the Western Wall and inserting a wish into a crack. “I’m so happy!” he enthuses.

When the tour comes to a close, the combined circus is running like a well-oiled machine. Manal is excited that she learned how to do tricks on a stationary trapeze, Keaton got his first kiss from Israeli beauty Shirell, and everyone is crying at the airport.

The film concentrates on the growing bonds that form between the Arches and Galilee troupe members, but there are some disturbing moments. Ali, one of the Arab performers, is unhappy with the way the girls are behaving. “They should be beaten,” he says. Two of the male Arches also talk about punching girls who they imagine are their girlfriends. In the Q&A, we learn about an incident in which one of the Arab kids was thrown out of a shop after being accused of stealing—a bit of this was included in the trailer for the film, but not in the final movie. Keaton said in the Q&A that the presence of the Arches seemed to have broken down barriers between the Arab and Jewish members of the Galilee Circus, and Jessica Hentoff said that change like they hope to bring is a drop in the bucket, but that she expected those drops to accumulate.

I hope she’s right. Some changes have come to some parts of the world with persistent, peaceful efforts such as this one. By planting the idea that the Arches were peace ambassadors to Israel, Hentoff opened their minds to new possibilities, and the continued cultural exchange—both groups continue to travel between each other’s countries—will keep those minds open. I’d like to see some work done on bringing peace and equality not only to Arabs in Israel, but to women in both countries. Circus Kids is a movie that is determined to plant hope. While I think it would have benefited from revealing some of its sharper edges, it is an entertaining and revealing film that deserves a wide audience. l

Circus Kids will screen Sunday, October 10, 1:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns about love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

30th 09 - 2010 | 8 comments »

CIFF 2010: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010)

Director: Craig McCall

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is no cinephile worth his or her salt who doesn’t know the name Jack Cardiff. A true artist with a camera, Cardiff was responsible for some of the most stunning films ever made, including three certified masterpieces from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), and Black Narcissus (1947). Cardiff was also a fine director, as evidenced by the success of his fourth feature, Sons and Lovers (1960), which garnered seven Oscar nominations, and one win for cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Cardiff was 95 when he died in April 2009, and a very worthy subject for a film biography. Sadly, while Cameraman has some interesting tidbits of information and a generous sampling of Cardiff’s reflections on his own work garnered when director McCall followed him around over a 13-year period, the film gives too much time to extraneous interviews with stars who had little to offer but admiration, spends an inadequate amount of time actually delving into his cinematic compositions, and gives almost nothing of the life the film’s title promises.

Cardiff was born in 1914 in Yarmouth, England, and began his career as a child actor in 1918 on a picture called My Son, My Son, following in the showbiz footsteps of his parents. He climbed behind the camera in 1928 as a glorified errand boy on The Informer, in which his father was cast. He worked as a camera operator through the 30s on such films as As You Like It (1936) and Things to Come (1936). A seminal experience he had was working as a camera operator on the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Knight Without Armor (1937). He talks at length about her excellent knowledge and command of lighting, saying she would have made a great cinematographer. In a close-up still photo of her he shot—he photographed many of the actresses he worked with—he shows how she put white on the inside of her bottom eyelid to catch light properly. “It must have been painful,” he supposes.

His work on the second unit of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)—he was responsible for the scene of multiplying animal heads that appear rapid-fire on the walls of Clive Wynn-Candy’s study—brought him to the attention of director Michael Powell and sealed his glorious future as a cinematographer, as Powell hired him to be the cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death.

Working with The Archers unit during this period was excellent training for Cardiff. They were allowed to work independently by their parent studio, Rank, and experimented a great deal. He shot the dance sequences in The Red Shoes as they might have felt for the dancer, tidal waves of emotion becoming a literal wave from the audience onto the stage, and what she might have seen, for example, the audience spinning around as she pirouettes on stage. Martin Scorsese, a perennial interviewee in films of this type, remarks that this POV shooting influenced the way he shot the boxing sequences in Raging Bull (1980).

What many, myself included, consider Cardiff’s masterwork is Black Narcissus. Shot at Pinewood Studios, it’s a miracle how he and production designer Alfred Junge managed to make the convent in which the action takes place appear to actually be on a mountaintop in the Himalayas. Beautifully constructed and painted plaster mountains, lighting Cardiff said was in imitation of the works of Jan Vermeer, and raked camera angles lent dimension to the proceedings. Kathleen Byron, who plays the unhinged Sister Ruth, says Cardiff gave her half her performance by the way he lit her. Unfortunately, J. Arthur Rank thought Black Narcissus was a horrible film, and The Archers’ independent era came to an end.

Cardiff mentions his indebtedness to the American camera crews that came to England to teach the Brits about Technicolor, and Cardiff shows the inside of a Technicolor camera and explains how light is captured on the various strips of film that will be melded to produce a full-color image. The cameras are huge, and one appreciates the difficulty of shooting a location film like The African Queen (1951) in Technicolor. Lauren Bacall gives some insight into the shoot of that picture and how much Cardiff and John Huston admired each other. Other films Cardiff discusses include The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). He said his greatest achievement was shooting Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), a nightmare of logistics to create the continuous shot that Hitchcock was still enamored with from Rope (1948), and he talks extensively about the effects he created for The Vikings (1958). His reminiscences about the stars he worked with aren’t earth-shattering—Marilyn Monroe had a lot of problems, Errol Flynn had the timing of a real stuntman when he did his own stunts, Humphrey Bogart didn’t want the lines in his face erased by lighting—but some of his memorabilia (a photo of himself and Monroe with funny lines written by her and her husband, Arthur Miller) and his own exquisite photos, “home” movies of the shoots, and paintings are delightful.

Unfortunately, his life is kept private and very little about his day-to-day work, aside from how he used his ingenuity to create effects, is explored. He said that modern special effects had taken a lot of the fun out of filming that required creating solutions on the fly, and one senses that despite his admiration for the abilities of today’s cinematographers and his wish to drop dead on the set, the work wasn’t as fulfilling for him at the end. When Cardiff isn’t speaking, the film drops to the ground from the weight of the talking heads with little to say, like Charlton Heston, Raffaella De Laurentiis, and Kirk Douglas. Even Thelma Schoonmaker failed to say anything to make me sit up and take notice. It was lovely to see Moira Shearer interviewed for a brief moment, but she wasn’t more than an aged, beautiful face among the many Cardiff took a lot of time to admire. We learn about Monroe and Dietrich’s upturned noses, Audrey Hepburn’s eyebrows, Sophia Loren’s eyes, all of which, of course, required Cardiff’s magic lights to look their best.

I had a sneaking suspicion while I was watching Cameraman that it had been produced as a tribute, perhaps for BBC-TV or the Cannes Film Festival, after Cardiff’s death. The film is only 86 minutes long and is an expanded version of McCall’s short documentary Painting with Light that is included as an extra on the Criterion DVD of Black Narcissus. That DVD was released in 2001, and it appears McCall dusted off the old footage and didn’t do too much additional shooting, given the large number of interviewees who are dead. While it is a great pleasure to revisit Cardiff’s artistry through clips of some of his greatest works, as well as hear from the man himself, this film was too shallow for my tastes and pleases mainly for its “gossip” value. l

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff screens Friday, October 15, 4 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, 1:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

28th 09 - 2010 | 10 comments »

CIFF 2010: Waste Land (2010)

Director: Lucy Walker

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Going green has become a fad again in the United States. Since we produce 30 percent of the world’s solid waste, making our country the No. 1 garbage generator on the planet, it would be great if this newest marketing scheme could signal sincere progress, but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. One country that isn’t even among the top 30 nations in solid-waste generation, but has a recycling industry that has become much more high profile is Brazil. This heightened interest can be traced directly to Vik Muniz, a fine-art photographer who likes to compose subjects out of mixed materials (for example, covering parts of photos with sugar and then rephotographing them) and who is the guiding force behind the project chronicled in Waste Land. Muniz embarked on a two-year project at Brazil’s Jardim Gramacho dump, the largest landfill in the world, where he chose several “pickers” to photograph and then created his mixed-media photos using materials from the dump itself. In the process, both he and his subjects were changed for the better.

Pickers do what almost no environmentalist would conceive of doing—they wait for dump trucks to deposit their loads, dig through the garbage for recyclable materials, and sell it by weight to recycling plants that send their trucks to the dump to haul the materials away. The job is, obviously, dirty and physically demanding. It can be dangerous—Tiao, a young, idealistic picker, had a dump truck hatch fall on him, breaking three limbs and causing gaping wounds that are now deep scars. The work can also be soul-wrenching—Suelem, a mother of two who has been picking at Gramacho since the age of 7, vomited when she found a dead baby among the garbage. Indeed, dead bodies aren’t all that unusual at Jardim Gramacho, which is surrounded by rival gangs that go to war periodically. The presence of vultures at Jardim Gramacho very graphically emphasizes that pickers work among mortal remains of all kinds. And yet these people prefer this work to the only other choices open to them—selling drugs or becoming prostitutes.

Muniz, who grew up poor in São Paulo, understands the great divide in Brazilian culture. “Some people who live here really do think they’re better than other people,” he says incredulously. For his part, he is looked at askance by the pickers, who can’t understand what he’s up to. He’s not exactly sure himself what possibilities will present themselves, but he grows used to the dump’s stench quickly and begins to make friends with some of the pickers who will become his photographic models.

Valter, the elder statesman of the pickers, has been working at Jardim Gramacho for nearly 28 years. His illiteracy kept him from finding other work, but he’s proud of the fact that he is helping the environment: “If you save just one can, 99 is not 100.” Many of the pickers try to keep this upbeat frame of mind about what they have to do to survive; Zumbi, who went to work at the dump to support his family after he lost his job, says he’d be proud if his son became a picker, but hastens to add that he would rather his son were a doctor who could care for the pickers or a lawyer who could represent their labor demands. Magda exclaims that the people on the bus she takes home sniff at the odor coming off her, but she reminds herself that she’ll shower when she gets home and sleep comfortably knowing she does honest work. Only Isis is frank about how much she hates working in the dump.

The most dynamic of the pickers is Tiao. He can read, and picked Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the garbage, which gave him the idea to organize the pickers union. Muniz, perhaps inspired by Tiao’s activism, decides to photograph him in imitation of David’s painting The Death of Marat, and we watch as Tiao and Zumbi carry a discarded bathtub out of the piles of garbage and Tiao, guided by a picture of the painting, assumes the pose of the slain Marat.

Once Muniz chooses the photos he wants, he projects them many times their original size onto the floor of what looks like an airplane hangar. He purchases recyclable materials from the pickers who he instructs, using a red penlight, where to place the objects to highlight the shadows and objects in each photo. Once they are done, he takes a large-format photo of the finished product. The photos will be auctioned in London, with all proceeds used however the pickers deem fit.

An interesting conversation takes place between Muniz and his wife Janaina Tschape in which she argues that if the pickers are exposed to the good life for the short time they will be in the world spotlight and then left again to their own devices, it would ruin them and leave them worse off than before. It’s an oft-voiced concern in fish-out-of-water scenarios, but such reservations tend to be self-serving and deterministic. The pickers aren’t generally ashamed of the work they do, but they aren’t deluded. They’ve been forced by necessity and lack of skills to do what they must to survive, and some of them are not doing very well at all. Many people like them would make a go of a better opportunity if only they could catch a break (think of where the middle-aged, unemployed, homely songstress Susan Boyle is now after finally getting a chance). After hearing this conversation, it did not surprise me to learn in the “where are they now” wrap at the end of the film that Suelem, the most troubled and vulnerable picker, had dropped off the map; the rest of the pickers had gained enough motivation and self-respect to better their lives through literacy and job-training programs, some made possible by the auction funds; and Muniz and his wife had divorced.

The community Muniz and documentarian Walker focus on is tight-knit because they must be. Their lives are hard, their status close to that of untouchables, and their options very limited. But their humanity is intact, and it is a huge pleasure to see them blossom when they go to an art museum for the first time in their lives to see their photos being displayed. Times are hard in America, too, and we’re likely to see more and more people dumpster-diving for food and recyclables they can sell. Let’s remember that we are all people with the potential to become our best selves if only others will see us and give us a chance. I’m very, very glad I got the chance to meet the pickers of Jardim Gramacho and a gifted and generous artist like Vik Muniz in this uplifting, informative, and humane film. It’s one of the year’s best.

Waste Land screens Sunday, October 10, 4:30 p.m., and Monday, October 11, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

31st 08 - 2010 | 4 comments »

Every Little Step (2008)

Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the great mysteries of life is the act of creation. Many people consider the creation of life a miracle, and teasing out the artistic muses is a delicate and clandestine act of faith. The muse Terpsichore has gotten a lot of attention lately, with the TV series So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars runaway hits, and La Danse (2010), about the Ballet de l’Opera de Paris by renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the latest in a steady line of nonfiction films focusing on dance. When a revival of the landmark musical A Chorus Line was announced in 2005, directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern seized the chance to discover what strange brew must be mixed to recreate the 1975 “singular sensation.”

A Chorus Line was a truly special musical. The first major production to be developed over months using a workshop format, it told the real backstage story of chorines and chorus boys—not overnight fame when called upon to replace an injured star, but rather constant rejection for everything from their actual talent to their physical attributes, career-threatening injuries, and always an overwhelming love of dancing that kept them in the game when prudence would dictate a change in direction. This approach made the smile and frown of the comedy/tragedy masks real, and audiences responded to the human drama in a way perhaps no one but the man who conceived the idea—dancer/choreographer Michael Bennett—expected.

The film begins with a shot of a reel-to-reel tape recorder and the recording of the conversation that took place between Bennett and a group of Broadway show dancers that formed the basis of the show. Various talking heads, mainly Bennett’s longtime friend and collaborator Bob Avian, explained the process. Bennett encouraged the dancers to open up about their lives and their art by sharing his own story. One Asian dancer (Baayork Lee, who became “Connie” in the musical and was part of the production team of the revival) was hampered by her short stature, while another dancer (“Val”) couldn’t get work until she had her breasts enlarged. One young man (“Paul”) faced the shock of coming out as a homosexual to his parents when they unexpectedly attended his performance at a drag club and saw him dressed as a woman. From these and other stories, James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante fashioned a book for the show, and Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban were engaged to write the music and lyrics. Bennett provided the choreography; the part of Cassie, a featured dancer in a career drought, was written especially for Bennett’s longtime muse Donna McKechnie.

The eight-month-long audition process begins with an open call that attracts 3,000 hopefuls. Del Deo and Stern telescope this beginning process by showing whole groups of dancers being dismissed after a brief show of their technique. They also focus on one unknown from New Jersey named Jessica Lee Goldyn who says she doesn’t have a fallback plan if dancing doesn’t work out because “if you do, you’ll fall back.” That determination—and rigorous training and preparation—will get her all the way to the finals.

Del Deo and Stern narrow their focus to only about half a dozen of the characters being cast and those in the running to play them. Auditions for Val, the dancer who got breast augmentation, take up an inordinate amount of screen time, perhaps for not-so-noble reasons. We see one dancer after another shaking and squeezing her ta-tas at the panel, and it does get rather grating. For other characters, the directors seem content with producing short vignettes, most amusingly, the casting of Maggie, the character who must reach a crescendo in the song “At the Ballet” that is beyond the reach of most of the hopefuls. Quick cuts through the missed, shouted, and croaked vocalizing, matched with the winces of the casting panel, add humor to a rather humorless process, and we are left with a final shot of a young woman who hits the high note just right. At the end of the film, we see that our assumption that she got the part is correct, but until then, she vanishes from the screen.

After Cassie, the role of Paul is the most important, with Paul’s monologue about growing up gay an emotional centerpiece. The casting panel flips through cards, rejecting numerous candidates for the role until Jason Tan steps in. The panel is reduced to tears by his rendition of the monologue, and after they compose themselves, Avian simply says “Sign him up.”

Of course, not all the tryouts are with unknowns. Phone calls are made to successful Equity members, like Alisan Porter, auditioning for the part her mother played in the first national touring company of A Chorus Line, and Charlotte d’Amboise, daughter of famed dancer Jacques d’Amboise. Lacking any context from the documentarians and based on how many of them greet each other with hugs and kisses, it appears that these A-list dancers comprise the largest share of those in the finals. I’d really like to believe Charlotte d’Amboise when she says she has suffered the kinds of knocks that qualify her to understand the role of Cassie, but when someone’s very talented AND born into the showbiz elite, it’s hard to believe no one would hire her.

And this is the biggest flaw in Every Little Step—Del Deo and Stern barely scratch the surface of the dancers they showcase. When d’Amboise says she has suffered setbacks, the next questions should be “when?” and “what kinds of setbacks?” Instead, the statement is left to stand alone, and the directors fill the screen with an interview with her father. Now, I’m as big an admirer of Jacques d’Amboise as the next dance fan, but what does he have to do with A Chorus Line? He’s not auditioning for the show or choreographing it. He’s not one of the original dancers on whom the story is based. He was, in fact, a very successful ballet and featured show dancer, not a chorus boy. I have to assume that Del Deo and Stern simply think he’s interesting and able to add some star quality to this tale of a musical about nonstars—a sad betrayal of the aims of the show and its creators.

The musical numbers in A Chorus Line are marvelous, but aside from archival footage of McKechnie dancing part of her solo “The Music and the Mirror,” we barely get to see them. The other strength of the musical is its personal stories, but we learn next to nothing about those auditioning or those who finally get hired. Deidra Goodwin, who wins the part of Sheila, says she almost gave up but learned from a psychic that she was meant to keep entertaining people—and that’s all she wrote about Deidra. Her rival for the part, Rachelle Rak (above), gets comparative mountains of screen time, but it is only through offhand comments she makes that we learn that she was in Fosse for more than two years and that she broke up with her boyfriend during the first round of auditions. How was Jason Tan able to move the casting team so much? We get absolutely nothing about him.

Nonetheless, Every Little Step does have some value. The production history as told by those who made it is very interesting. Hamlisch talks about how he had just won two Oscars and how he had to break the news to his agent that he was turning down the lucrative offers in Hollywood to return to New York for a job paying $100 a week. McKechnie and Avian talk a great deal about Bennett’s background, career, and ambitions. The rigors of casting a show are seen in meticulous detail, though the proliferation of talent competitions on television has removed the novelty of this inside look at the judging process. And if you’re a theatre fan or a lover of Hollywood’s backstage musicals, the documentary has its own inherent appeal.

Ultimately, though, I wonder how much any person can get out of a film about the creative process. There have been many, many films that show individuals in the act of creation, but none of them are really able to articulate the process in any satisfactory way. The discussions the casting team have in this film about what they are looking for or what is needed for a particular role sound clichéd or imprecise. What does it mean to be an organic dancer? What exactly is a tough sweetheart supposed to project? How do they know when they’ve got “it”? We can see the result, but the mystery of creation is something no documentary will ever be able to capture.

26th 08 - 2010 | 8 comments »

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (2006)

Directors: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Barbara Kopple has done it again. The preeminent documentarian of the American experience and Cecilia Peck, her codirector (and daughter of Gregory Peck), have turned their compassionate beam on the three gifted and courageous women whose idea of being patriotic created the greatest crisis of their professional lives. Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing takes us along with this phenomenally successful band from the night in 2003 lead singer Natalie Maines told a British audience that the Chicks were ashamed that the President of the United States was from Texas to the recording of their album, Taking the Long Way, an angry and emotional chronicle of their experiences.

Before 2003, country music fans made the Dallas-based Dixie Chicks the top-selling female group in history. Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were selling out stadiums and living the life of millionaire recording artists and peformers, though they were not yet on the radar screen of most Americans. The film opens with the band getting ready for their concert in Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London to open their Top of the World Tour. A television playing in the background shows then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s WMD dog-and-pony show at the United Nations, and President Bush’s warning to Saddam Hussein to disarm within 48 hours or accept the consequences. Soon thereafter, the Chicks take to the London stage and Maines utters her famous statement to thunderous applause: “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Within hours, the comment has made news in the States. Disappointed fans don’t understand how Maines could be so disrespectful and unpatriotic. Country music stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks on the air. A couple of right-wing organizations organize CD destruction events, and an apology by Maines gets no traction. The mainstream media sit up and take notice. Eventually the Chicks are interviewed by television journalist Diane Sawyer and make the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

The film captures the intense debates between the Chicks and their stalwart manager Simon Renshaw about how to respond to the controversy. Maines, the most vocal of the band members, is adamant about sticking it to country radio, offended that they refuse to play the group’s music—not even their runaway-hit single. The backlash intensifies as country singer Toby Keith exploits their problems by writing a song criticizing them and whipping up his audiences to oppose them. We are in on the Chicks’s bull-session about how to respond. Maines famously hits the stage wearing a T-shirt that has the initials FUTK on the front. Anti-Chicks forces respond with an FUDC T-shirt. We hear Martie quip, “What have they got against Dick Cheney?” Eventually, we share the tension when the Chicks bring their Top of the World tour to Dallas. They have received a death threat, and their fear is palpable. Although Maines tries to lighten the mood with a joke to the camera crew before going onstage (“I’ll see you in four hours, if I’m not shot.”), her black humor conveys just how horrifying the lives of these American successes have become.

All of the film footage up to 2005 was shot by a variety of people. Kopple and Peck meticulously assembled it and added to it with video footage of their own in a film that looks visually coherent and surprisingly crisp. Their own footage concentrates on the private lives of the Chicks and their recording session. We meet Natalie’s father and learn how a tape he made of her for her application to the Berklee College of Music in Boston eventually ended up with Maguire and Robison and landed her the gig with the Chicks. They chronicle Martie’s pregnancy and delivery of twins, and listen as she and Emily talk about their struggles to become pregnant. This struggle will become the song “So Hard.” We watch as the band decamps to Los Angeles to write and record Taking the Long Way with famed producer Rick Rubin. Natalie’s rendition of “Not Ready to Make Nice” shows that the war against the hate of the fans who rejected the Chicks and the government that ignores the wishes of a wide swath of the American electorate rages on:

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go ’round and ’round and ’round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
‘Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Sayin’ that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over.

It is fascinating to see how these women create their lives, make their music, rejoice in their triumphs, and seem to be made stronger in the crucible of public controversy. They are loving parents and spouses, shrewd businesswomen, incredibly funny and warm, and principled in a way that few entertainers with so much to lose could be. And they do take a real hit. Although their CDs continue to break sales records, their concert sales are sluggish, and schedule changes must be made.

While I’m sure Cecelia Peck contributed a lot to this film (she and Kopple previously collaborated on A Conversation with Gregory Peck, with Peck producing and Kopple directing), it is veteran director Barbara Kopple who must have led the way. The film has the kind of intimacy she is always able to achieve, and the perfect pacing and judicious editing of hundreds of hours of footage to find exactly the right images and tone to tell the story.

While Kopple’s subject matter usually has a liberal bent, if you did not know her body of work, you would not be sure of her politics. Her genius is in letting her subjects tell their own story. Even the actions of the “villains” are simply presented. A consultant from the Lipton Tea Company, which sponsored the Top of the World Tour, is shown frankly explaining the company’s discomfort with their political stand. Maines tries to explain that it was just a comment in the heat of the moment designed to rouse the crowd, but over time, her own simple faux pas seems to radicalize her.

Maines, with the support of her bandmates, let out the dirty little secret that some all-American girls from the South are liberal and can distrust and dislike a right-wing government. This revelation is educational for both the super-patriots from country music’s stronghold states and liberals in other parts of the country who look at the South as a land of rednecks. Let’s not forget that the original American protest singer, Woody Guthrie, was from Oklahoma; it appears that the Chicks from neighboring Texas, who are still stumping for basic human rights as they continue to make music, are following in a tradition much older than the radical right claims to represent. l

20th 06 - 2010 | 9 comments »

Murder on a Sunday Morning (Un coupable idéal, 2001)

Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One Sunday morning in May 2000, the Stephenses, a Georgia couple in their 60s who were vacationing in Jacksonville, Florida, left their room at a Ramada Inn for some coffee. They were confronted by a man who demanded money and, tragically, Mrs. Stephens was shot and killed. With little to go on besides a description of the killer—young, skinny, black, wearing dark shorts and a t-shirt, and carrying a Derringer-type weapon—police stalked the neighborhood near the motel for someone who fit the bill. Patrol officers spotted 15-year-old Brenton Butler, skinny and black, walking on the street and decided to stop him. They asked him if he lived in the area (yes) and if he would mind talking to the investigating officers to offer any information about the neighborhood he might have (no). Butler got into the squad car and was driven to the motel. Mr. Stephens took one look at Butler seated in the back of the squad parked 50 feet away and identified Butler as the killer. Police brought Butler closer to Stephens and asked him if he was sure. “Yes. I wouldn’t send an innocent man to jail.” That ended the police investigation. Butler signed a confession and was put on trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery.

When news of the arrest was broadcast, Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuinness was driving to his office. He recalls thinking that this young man had thrown his life away and the life of his victim. But McGuinness would soon have a change of heart: “As I learned more, I became increasingly angry.” He and Ann Finnell, a 23-year veteran of the Jacksonville public defenders office, made righteous use of their anger to defend Brenton Butler to prevent a travesty of justice from taking place.

Murder on a Sunday Morning, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best feature documentary, poses the kind of story that must have had a natural attraction for French director De Lestrade, sharing as it does similarities with Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic tale of criminal justice run amok. Of course, the fictional Jean Valjean, who is hunted relentlessly by police inspector Javert when he escapes from prison, did commit a crime. But, his crime (stealing bread for his starving family) and his punishment (eventually, a death sentence when his escape attempts were taken into consideration) reflected a repressive society that was willing to condemn a man just for being poor and trying to take care of his family. In the Stephens case, Brenton Butler was brought into the criminal justice system for the crime of being black near the scene of a crime, thus, the more ironically apt French title, The Ideal Culprit.

As Finnell eloquently puts it near the beginning of the film:

Officer Martin came in and candidly admitted that the only reason Brenton Butler was even stopped that morning was because he happened to be a black male walking in the neighborhood. Now think about that. That means for every African American in Jacksonville, Florida, if they happen to be walking down the street lawfully going about their own business, not doing anything wrong, that they are subject to being stopped and asked to get into a police car, and driven away from what they’re doing, and subject to being shown to the victim of a crime with the possibility that that victim would identify them under the most suggestive of circumstances, that being that they happen to be sitting in the back seat of a police car and most victims would think that they wouldn’t be sitting in the back seat of a police car unless they had done something wrong, right? So that’s where we are today in Jacksonville Florida, and I personally find that to be disgusting and reprehensible.

The film offers straightforward coverage of the pretrial preparations and trial itself from the point of view of the defense. McGuinness and Finnell are shown examining evidence collected at the scene of the crime, questioning the man who found Mrs. Stephens’ purse in a dumpster on his daily rounds of collecting aluminum cans for recycling, marking the time it would take for Butler to get to the crime scene from his home based on when his family saw him in the morning, and so forth—in other words, conducting their own investigation. The police didn’t check the purse for fingerprints, and they never recovered the murder weapon. Butler’s attorneys also tore into the confession, wondering why a young man on his way to fill out a job application at a local Blockbuster would bother after just making off with $1,200 of the Stephenses’ vacation money. Nothing added up.

De Lestrade takes us seamlessly through the knowledge and logic the defense attorneys used to reconstruct what happened after Mrs. Stephens died. Tourist killings in Florida were making the news domestically and internationally (no doubt, this is why De Lestrade learned of the case), and the police needed to put people in jail to protect the tourism industry. With a witness ID, the system could move swiftly to conviction and incarceration. Lazy, more inclined to believe a white witness than a black defendant, and skilled at getting confessions through intimidation from black defendants through a black enforcer, Det. Michael Glover, the police acted with impunity to railroad Brenton Butler. Their shoddy work and cruelty—including a beatdown by Glover of Butler—make McGuinness’ disrespectful attacks on their professionalism and character a pleasure to watch.

Particularly satisfying is McGuinness’ cross-examination of Det. James Williams, who wrote the confession that Butler signed, one that he claimed was in Butler’s own words but finally was forced to admit was his own creation. McGuinness relates in one of his typically interesting and caustic comments to the filmmakers that he and Williams talked before the testimony in the hallway. Williams, no fan of the public defender, sarcastically remarked on McGuinness’ smoking “another one of your cancer sticks.” McGuinness replied, “I always like a cigarette before sex,” accurately predicting that he was going to screw Williams in the courtroom.

It’s sad and sobering to see the Butler family deal with their ordeal. Brenton is stoic until his mother takes the stand to testify to his whereabouts on the morning of the murder. As she starts to cry, the camera moves to her son, his face wet and streaming with tears. His father prays with him from across the thick glass in the prison visitors room and says, “God don’t make mistakes,” a belief that many people, including me, would find hard to take given the circumstances of this trial. Frighteningly, the indifferent police work meant a real killer was still out on the streets able to kill again. Again, McGuinness makes this point for us. I admit, I’ve gotten so used to documentary directors narrating and inserting themselves into their films (the curse of Michael Moore), that I was jarred—in a good way—by De Lestade’s decision to let his subjects do all the talking for themselves.

Since Brenton Butler was tried and exonerated in less than an hour, we’ve seen some big changes in race relations in the United States. But the pushback has been hard, and this case is sadly echoed in the recently passed Arizona law that could see a lot of innocent people stopped, like Butler, for walking while Latino. The question of police torture and forced confessions is alive, if being given a low profile in the cowed media, in Chicago, as the trial of former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge for allegedly torturing more than 200 criminal suspects (many of them black) between 1972 and 1991, to force confessions is underway. The judge in Butler’s case, when thanking the jury for its service, called the U.S. criminal justice system the best in the world. That may be true on paper, and the judiciary worked in this case, but we’ve got quite a ways to go before we can truly claim that reputation.

4th 05 - 2010 | 5 comments »

Windfall (2009)

Director: Laura Israel

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Just a few days ago, The Daily Beast and the Transparency International (TI), a global anti-corruption research organization, examined 500 global companies to determine how corrupt they might be based on their ethics and anti-corruption policies. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that utility companies had the fewest protections against corruption of any industry they examined, including the investment sector.

In case you think The Daily Beast and TI might be mistaken, consider how you feel about wind energy. You’ll certainly never have to clean up an oil spill from it. Or might you, indirectly? Industrial-size windmills are the only form of energy that uses energy from the grid—which runs on natural gas and fossil fuels—and there are no data on whether they return more energy than they use. It’s safe for people, of course. Except that numerous health effects have been noted, including ringing in the ears, interrupted sleep, and headaches that have driven people from their homes. The turbines also throw ice from their blades that can injure and kill, and they have been known to fall over or catch fire from lightning strikes and shed debris. It’s good for the environment—except for birds who fly too close to the 7-ton blades of the 400-foot-tall towers and bats, whose lungs literally explode because of an air vacuum that the blades leave in their wake.

Wind energy on an industrial scale is hazardous, unsightly, a noise polluter, and probably consumes more energy than it generates. But most people don’t know that, and that’s by design. The citizens of the tiny, impoverished town of Meredith, New York, certainly didn’t when the wind energy salespeople came to town to offer financial relief in exchange for leases to build wind turbines there. The people of Meredith went from naïve nature lovers to big-time skeptics, and from neighborliness to bitter division. Windfall is a cautionary tale of underhanded business dealings, small-town corruption, and laissez-faire citizenship that had to give way under the imminent threat of an irreversible intrusion into their rural idyll.

Meredith is a community in upstate New York that has seen its thriving dairy farms go from more than 1,000 to less than 10. When the energy companies came to town, they made offers to lease land, primarily to the largest landowners because of the need for at least 15–30 miles for a profitable siting. They offered a profit split to the town. A few people got on board, but had to sign confidentiality agreements that they would not discuss the deal with anyone but their attorney.

Nonetheless, word leaked out that wind turbines would be coming to Meredith when a test tower went up on John Hamilton’s property; Hamilton, one of the few dairy farmers still left, felt villified by the wind energy skeptics, who organized The Alliance for Meredith to do fact-finding on the commercial proposals and consider a town-owned commercial wind project by which all the benefits from a single turbine would accrue to the citizens of Meredith.

As this film shows through interviews, footage of planning board and town board meetings, a visit to a neighboring town that rejected wind energy and one that accepted it and saw the project balloon from a planned 50 turbines to 195 with none of the benefits to the town they expected, the fight over wind power is a painful and difficult process. Because of tax credits for alternative energy offered by the national and state governments, and a complete lack of regulation, wind energy is incredibly profitable for investors and energy companies. Lessors get about $5,000 and neighbor agreements go for $500. Municipalities get about 1–2% of the profits—when all is said and done, local governments might get enough money to buy a single fire truck.

We also see how Meredith’s town board, comprised of the largest landowners, could pass laws that would personally benefit them financially. Instead of accepting the findings of the planning board, per usual, that wind turbines should not be sited in Meredith, the town board chose to establish a Wind Energy Review Board appointed by and answerable to them alone. This show of arrogance inflamed the citizens of Meredith and set up an election season that for the first time in a long time, was a real horse race.

Windfall is a comprehensive look at a largely misunderstood technology. It is must-viewing for environmentalists and for small towns who might find an energy worm burrowing into their midst. Clean, safe energy is everyone’s wish. Let’s just make sure we don’t jump at the first carnival barker with a miracle solution. l

The May 7 screening of Windfall is sold out. A second screening has been added on May 8 at 11:00 a.m. at Next Theatre at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, Illinois.

2nd 05 - 2010 | 2 comments »

The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (2009)

Directors: Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, and Peter Kinoy

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Crimes against humanity are nothing new among the peoples of the Earth. It was in the 20th century, however, that the scale and rapidity of such crimes seemed to concentrate. The 1915 genocide of 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks was dwarfed by the Nazi slaughter of perhaps as many as 20 million Jews, Romy, homosexuals, Slavs, and other “undesirables.” The scale of the massacre caused the world community to establish a court at Nuremburg to try these masterminds of crimes against humanity. They not only hoped to bring a measure of justice to the victims, but also to demonstrate that the world will stand together and hold even heads of state accountable for the evil they do, thereby preventing such evil from taking place.

It didn’t work. Millions more would suffer and die in the Soviet Union, Guatemala, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Bosnia, and on and on through the hyper-lethal mixture of human depravity and modern weaponry. In 1998, the heads of state of 140 countries and leaders of nongovernmental organizations interested in human rights decided they had to act. They met in Rome to consider setting up a permanent international criminal court to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity. After much discussion and negotiation, a treaty was overwhelmingly ratified to establish the ICC and allow it to step in, investigate, and prosecute cases that member nations cannot or will not bring on their own. In 2002, the ICC building in The Hague was finished and opened for business.

Directors Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, and Peter Kinoy follow Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosector, and his team as they go about their work of bringing those most responsible for unspeakable atrocities around the world to their day of reckoning. Ocampo, who thought his prosecutions of the military leaders responsible for killing 20,000 civilians in his native Argentina was the highlight of his career, said that case was training for his work at the ICC.

The film covers four different cases the ICC has taken on. The first, and most important in terms of showing the ICC can make a difference, is in Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Christian militant group led by self-appointed messiah Joseph Kony, has been waging war against the Ugandan goverment for more than 20 years. The LRA abducts children to act as soldiers; part of their training is that they are made to kill someone in their own village—perhaps their own mother or father—to separate them from the community. ICC investigators moved rapidly, conducting 50 missions over 9 months, documenting 2,200 killings and 850 attacks. On July 8, 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Josephy Kony, Vincent Otti, and other top LRA commanders.

The ICC has no police force to bring in the suspects. It is up to the member states to reach consensus on trying a case and then to execute the warrants. The LRA, showing some nervousness about the power of the ICC, went on a village-to-village campaign, promising peace in return for a lifting of the warrants; Ocampo had to return to Uganda to make a case for keeping them in place. None of the suspects has been arrested, though at least two of the five wanted LRA leaders, including Otti, have since been killed.

Congo, the next, more dangerous focus, has been plagued with mass atrocities by different warring factions with shifting alliances. Alice Zago, an ICC investigator, said “Danger is part of our work.” The UPC Militia, specifically Thomas Lubango Dyilo, the leader of this most dangerous militia in Congo’s Ituri Province, was the first focus. Because of the danger inside the country, investigators built a case with documents and videotaped eyewitness accounts and evidence. “We can’t be at peace until they stand trial,” said one Congolese civilian. Thankfully, the government of Congo cooperated with the ICC and handed Dyilo over for prosecution.

Six decades of war in Colombia have made it one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Paramilitaries working with the Colombian army have killed thousands of civilians, and 30 members of the Congress are connected with paramilitaries. The ICC is keeping the case at the intensive analysis level—the step before investigation—to provide some pressure (“a looking- over-the-shoulder function”) on Colombia’s attorney general to do more. Unfortunately, the extradition to the United States of 14 paramilitary leaders on drug-trafficking charges has complicated the investigation.

American viewers of this documentary may not be very surprised to learn that Russia and China have not joined the ICC, but they may be more surprised to learn that the United States is also a holdout. In fact, the administration of George W. Bush actively worked against the ICC. John R. Bolton, briefly the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who was not confirmed for permanent appointment, said he made it his special mission to get the court to wither and collapse. “Tangible American interests are at risk. Our main concern should be for the President,” he said, and to protect American citizens from being investigated by an international body. Bolton, speaking in the violently aggressive language for which Americans neocons have become known, obviously believes that might makes right.

According to David Scheffer, head of the U.S. delegation to Rome, the active hostility to the ICC, as well as calls to investigate American atrocities in Iraq that the ICC does not have the authority to investigate, have sounded “a death knell to our leadership in human rights.” The Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals were things the United States was proudly part of. Ocampo says dismissively, “We represent interests that are much broader than the United States.” Good for him.

Darfur is the final conflict the film covers. Although Sudan is not a signer of the ICC treaty, the case was referred by the United Nations to the ICC. The court investigators easily established a pattern of genocide against non-Arabs by the Sudanese government and a paramilitary organization called Janjaweed. The ICC named the Minister of the Sudan, Ahmad Harun, and Janjaweed militia leader Ali-Kushayb as the most responsible for the genocide and issued arrest warrants in 2007. Sudan’s president Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir defied the warrants, and he was slapped with one, too. This left it up to the UN Security Council to enforce them. With the United States, Russia, and China on the UN Security Council, what are the odds anything will be done? How scary a precedent must it be for these powerful nations to recognize that they might have limits imposed upon them, too?

Ben Ferencz, the prosecutor at Nuremburg, believes justice will prevail. By ending impunity—a word that comes up over and over in this film—he and the people who do this righteous work believe they can contribute to ending the violence. There are more than 120 ICC member countries that agree with them and that look to the ICC for justice in an unjust world. Although this is a very painful film to watch, it provides a well-organized lesson and wake-up call to audiences—particularly Americans—to open their hearts to the desperate plight of people around the world and hold the monsters who kill and subjugate them accountable. l

The Reckoning will be screened on May 9 at 12:30 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


30th 04 - 2010 | no comment »

The Liquid of Life (2008)

Director: Pini Schatz

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Liquid of Life is a 50-minute Israeli documentary with a subtitle: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Blood. Quoting from one of the most mordantly funny films ever made is both audacious and a signal that we’re not in for a boring Red Cross lecture—or should I say Red Star of David, which is the more appropriate symbol the Israeli bloodsucker organization uses. I learned that and a few things more from this jittery survey of what blood means to director and narrator Schatz, the Jewish people, and, of course, to horror movie fans.

Shatz lets us know at the outset that he’s a filmmaker who hasn’t made a film in eight years. Becoming a father has taken most of his time and interest away from his craft. Shatz’s lifelong attraction to horror movies—particularly vampire movies—seems to have prompted his choice of subject for breaking his cinematic fast. We are liberally treated to snatches of vampire movies, starting with the most famous—Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Shatz points out something I never noticed before: Lugosi wears something that looks like a Star of David on his chest in some scenes. This revelation takes us into a historical exploration of one aspect of anti-Semitism: that Jews use Christian children as blood sacrifices for their rituals, a medieval urban legend that arose from stories about one cultish Jew who killed children. Leavening this unappetizing matzo of a fact, Shatz offers a sarcastic scene from Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers: when faced with a crucifix brandished by his next meal, Shagal the Vampire snickers, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”

Shatz grows more serious when he discusses the death of his father of leukemia at the age of 53. We observe a series of blood donations in progress—including the wince-inducing insertion of needles into veins—and an explanation of the components of blood narrated by a physician and illustrated with some crudely funny cartoons. The horrors the sister of one of the donors went through to try to cure her cancer—a travesty of healing that ended up killing her anyway—are wrenching. On the absurd end of the spectrum, some wacko theologian/psychologist offers that more men than women donate blood because they fear and envy a woman’s ability to give birth, and enact their own bloodletting as a symbolic usurpation of the menstrual cycle. At least, I think that’s what she said.

Another wince-inducing moment—be forewarned, gentlemen—is when Shatz recounts his own underground circumcision when he was a baby in his native Estonia, which was then part of the officially atheistic Soviet Union. He talks about the clandestine smuggling of a mohel from a neighboring country, and shows us an actual circumcision—one of several bloodlettings in his own life. The final scene shows how he reenacted the execution of his grandfather by a single gunshot to the head. The packing of the blood package and the way the concussion of the blank in the prop gun actually explodes the package was really very interesting.

The festival blurb characterizes The Liquid of Life as “a rapid fire ‘essay’ film that prompted Canadian auteur Guy Maddin to state: ‘A fantastic idea for a film, maybe the best idea I’ve ever heard.’” It is a good idea, but calling it “rapid fire” is a nice way of saying it’s kind of a random mess; like any essay, it needs an editor’s hand to shape it into a logical whole. Nonetheless, The Liquid of Life is an enjoyable mess created by a genuinely funny director I’d be happy to spend time with again. l

The Liquid of Life will be screened on May 8 at 9:15 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


20th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

The Five Obstructions (De fem benspænd, 2003)

Directors: Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth released a seminal experimental short called The Perfect Human (Det perfekte menneske) that became something of a fetish film for another Danish director—Lars Von Trier. Leth’s film examines physical characteristics and capabilities of a representative man and woman (Claus Nissen and Majken Algren Nielsen), providing labels (“This is an ear. This is another ear.”) and descriptions of actions (“This is how the woman lays down.”) as though the film were a nature documentary for a bunch of anthropologists from another planet. Von Trier, one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement, seemed both fascinated and cheesed off by the word “perfect” in the title of Leth’s film, as well as its artistry and unemotionalism. He set out with The Five Obstructions to save Leth from himself.

A statement I’ve quoted before from the Dogme manifesto is the driving objective behind The Five Obstructions:

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

It is Von Trier’s contention that Leth would be a more complete and truthful filmmaker if he could let go of imposing a vision on his material. To “help” Leth overcome this shortcoming, Von Trier devised an exercise to break Leth’s normal creative rhythms. Von Trier compels Leth to remake The Perfect Human five times, adhering to strict rules Von Trier devises. Brief moments from the original film are shown as the two directors discuss what obstructions will be put in place. After each film is finished, we and Von Trier view it in its entirety.

The first set of obstructions Von Trier devises includes sending Leth to a country he has never visited (Cuba), no built sets, and edits in post-production that can be no longer than 12 frames in length. Alas for Von Trier, these obstructions, particularly the 12-frame restriction, prove to be a gift to Leth. The staccato rhythm of Obstruction #1: Cuba adds a comic objectivity to Leth’s regard of his perfect humans, and the lush use of color creates a vibrant, tropical milieu that enlivens the repetitive moments and conveys the sensuality of the surroundings that seem to have inspired him.

Von Trier decides that Leth must have an encounter that will strike fear and loathing in him, reasoning that it will be difficult for Leth to be artistic if he is shaken up. Leth confesses that a previous trip to Bombay was very disagreeable; therefore, Von Trier sends him to Bombay and further requires that he film next to something very disturbing, but must not include the disturbance in the film. Leth decides to take the role of the perfect man himself, and the resulting film shows him acting out the dining and jumping scenes from the original film in the red light district of the city. Von Trier chastises him for placing the Indian residents behind a semi-opaque screen behind him, thereby violating the rule that they must remain off-camera. Once again, the film is intriguing and tasteful—the exact opposite of what Von Trier wants.

The next two Obstructions don’t go very well for Von Trier either, as Leth proves over and over how creative he can be—indeed, the obstructions seem to heighten his ingenuity. During his filming in a Brussels hotel, in which is he charged with answering the questions posed in The Perfect Human, he overhears a couple having loud sex. With this inspiration and the French-speaking actors he has cast, the film becomes something of a French noir. Obstruction #4: Cartoon results from Leth and Von Trier’s mutual hatred of cartoons. But again, employing Bob Sabiston, the animator of Waking Life, and sending him footage from the Bombay shoot results in the most artistic and interpretive film of the series.

The final obstruction, filmed at Leth’s home in the Dominican Republic, requires Leth to read a script that Von Trier has written—a script that admits defeat. Leth’s apparent perfection as a filmmaker precludes him from letting go and becoming a mere recorder of events. I, for one, was thrilled with his victory. I really enjoyed this fascinating experiment in boundary-testing, and confirm the pleasure I get from the creative output of a director like Leth. Each of his reimaginings of The Perfect Human is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking.

Von Trier hasn’t always lived up to his ideals, for example, allowing the expressionism of music to communicate his characters’ truth in Dancer in the Dark. Because Dancer came out in 2000, it seems rather disingenuous for Von Trier to insist that his friend Leth eschew a similar artistry. While The Five Obstructions is something of a game between the two friends, it’s not without a philosophical purpose for Von Trier. Any filmmaker who has the nerve to issue a manifesto about the direction of cinema obviously has more than a mercenary or creative interest in his work.

Von Trier is interested in human truth, thus making Jørgen Leth and The Perfect Human ideal specimens for his “nature documentary” on “The Perfect Director.” Von Trier does not seem to want to give up creative narrative entirely, thus pushing filmmaking back to its “actuality” beginnings. But he is suspicious of the manipulations of narrative, and many cinephiles join him in a distaste for having their buttons pushed. Apparently, he does not consider the approach Robert Bresson took—of filming nonactors performing the same scene countless times until all inauthentic mannerisms and inflections were bored out of them—to have been successful. Or maybe he just wants to find another way that is not so time-consuming and precise.

Since Von Trier can’t seem to tame the creative impulse in himself, I would hazard a guess that his work now seems to be pushing audiences past their boundaries, refusing to let them tuck comfortably into a story, to arrive at this truth he keeps seeking. Maybe he’ll eventually have his breakthrough. In the meantime, successful or not, his works will continue to evolve, and that’s something that should excite any true film fan. l

12th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

Prisoner of Her Past (2010)

Director: Gordon Quinn

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It has been a Kartemquin week for me. First, I saw No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. Then, Kartemquin’s cofounder Gordon Quinn opened his film Prisoner of Her Past at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Both films are very personal—the first, a chance for director Steve James to learn more about his home town through the lens of what appeared to be a racial incident, the second, a son’s investigation into his mother’s tragic past. Both films range beyond the immediacy of these personal stories to explore their larger implications—that’s the Kartemquin way. Prisoner of Her Past raises awareness of a phenomenon that many thousands of people are or will suffer from during their lifetimes, thus offering hope that a correct diagnosis and follow-up treatment will help them.

During the night of February 15, 2001, a petite, elderly woman named Sonia Sys Reich bolted from her modest home in Skokie, Illinois (where I make my home), and went screaming down the streets that someone had threatened to put a bullet in her head. The police picked her up and brought her to a hospital emergency room, from which her son, Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, retrieved her and eventually had her admitted to a nursing facility. Mrs. Reich’s delusions mixed her lifelong paranoia with strange rituals and thought fragments that seemed purposeful. For example, Mrs. Reich would take a loaf of pumpernickel bread Howard would bring to her each visit and divide it into exactly 10 baggies; she would keep half the baggies and give the other half to Howard. She also constantly complained that no one was going to turn her into a whore, and that books she was given to read had swastikas in them. What could these actions and thoughts mean?

It took about a year for Reich to receive a definitive diagnosis of what was afflicting his mother. Her psychiatrist, Dr. David Rosenberg, said Mrs. Reich was not suffering from dementia, that she was well aware of the world around her and could interact with it. Rosenberg, who has 40 years worth of experience with Holocaust survivors, said, “Your mother has late-onset PTSD with bells and whistles.” Posttraumatic stress disorder, of course. Both of Reich’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Reich put on his journalist’s cap to uncover exactly what had happened to his mother during World War II in hopes that the truth might help restore her to something of a normal life.

Because Reich’s parents had told them almost nothing about their wartime lives, all he had to go on was his mother’s mutterings, that is, until he opened a letter his mother had received from Irene Tannen, the aunt who had adopted her after the war. Irene had written a letter of concern when phone calls to Sonia’s home went unanswered. Reich barely knew of Irene’s existence. Reich, Quinn, and his crew traveled to New York to interview Irene, another survivor who remained tight-lipped, repeating what many survivors say, that there are no words to describe what they went through. She does, however, come through with a photo of Sonia and Sonia’s grandfather and cousin Leon.

Reich follows the trail to Poland, where he connects with Leon and Leon’s son Peter. They all travel to Dubno, formerly part of Poland but now in Ukraine, where Sonia’s childhood home, the old synagogue, and Leon’s old home are still standing. The people living in the homes are gracious; the pleasant owner of Leon’s home gives him a huge armful of Ukrainian apples, which Leon praises.

Of course, the return to Dubno reveals many of the horrors that Reich traveled to find. A woman takes Reich to a large field which she says holds two mass graves. She witnessed Ukrainian soldiers round up Jews and machine-gun them into pits. A soft snow falls like cold tears on this killing ground. Leon, Peter, and Howard go to a Dubno museum dedicated to the memory of the town’s Jews. Leon and Howard note the complete absence of bystanders in the dioramas showing how German troops rounded up the Jews.

Nonetheless, although Reich never finds out the particulars of his mother’s experience, he walks the streets where she walked, sees the window from which she and her brother escaped the ghetto into which Dubno’s 12,000 Jews were herded by the Germans, and learns a bit about the family from Leon. Sonia Sys’ home had been occupied by members of the Red Army when she was 8, and her family of four shoved into a back room. The Germans invaded when she was 10. Extrapolating from statements Sonia has made, she and her brother spent the next four years hiding and surviving as best they could, working on farms, carefully splitting whatever food they had. Was Sonia forced to prostitute herself? Reich probably will never know. When Leon makes the trek to Chicago to see Sonia, she refuses to speak with him, though both he and Howard believe she knows who he is. Her survival depends on maintaining her denial of the past, just as Dr. Rosenberg warned Howard and Leon to expect.

Quinn and Reich answered questions after the screening. Reich revealed that his mother is still in the nursing facility, and until a recent surgery weakened her, she spent every night sleeping fully clothed in a chair next to her bed. He said his sister discovered what might have triggered her PTSD—the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death. Reich said his father was outgoing, Sonia’s bridge to the world; he couldn’t point to a single friend his mother had made during her 40 years in Skokie. He said that his mother spent every night at the window in their front room, looking out into the street through a small opening between the drapes.

Interestingly, though Reich’s parents settled in the epicenter for Holocaust survivors—Skokie had as many as 8,000 survivor-residents at its height—it took a year for anyone to recognize what was wrong with his mother. Even in Israel, the disorder was not recognized; now, two large centers to help Holocaust survivors with PTSD have been opened. And Reich and Quinn traveled to New Orleans and filmed mental health workers interview girls who survived Hurricane Katrina, recognizing one girl with a flat affect as someone who might be vulnerable to delayed PTSD because she is distancing herself from her experience.

Prisoner of Her Past is under an hour long, and a number of the details revealed in this review I learned from the after-film discussion. While I admire the odyssey Reich undertook with Quinn in tow, the seven years spent on Sonia’s trail don’t come across as completely as they could on screen. I was confused about various relationships, particularly Irene’s. Reich wrote a long article about his mother for the Tribune and used the article as the basis for a book, and I filled in blanks with these two documents. Nonetheless, Prisoner of Her Past presents a touching portrait of Sonia Reich, horribly victimized and horribly haunted. It’s a great place to start learning about PTSD and the need for healing in all the scarred regions of the world. l

8th 04 - 2010 | 8 comments »

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Steve James

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As a person who lived through the melee of the 1994 O. J. Simpson murder trial, I knew I had never seen anything like it—particularly the way blacks and whites lined up on either side of the guilty/not guilty divide—and thought that certainly there never was or would be a trial like it again.

I was wrong.

Just a year before this trial of the century, a less sensational, but no less divisive trial took place in the historic community of Hampton, Virginia. The phenomenally gifted star of the Bethel High School basketball team and future NBA great Allen Iverson and three other boys (Michael Simmons, Samuel Wynn, and Melvin Stephens) were arrested for throwing punches and chairs in a Hampton bowling alley that injured three whites, including a pregnant woman. Stephens severed his trial from the other three defendants and ended up walking with a misdemeanor conviction. Simmons, Wynn, and Iverson took a bench trial presided over by a “hanging” judge and were convicted of three counts of “maiming by mob”—a felony crime put in place to allow lynch mobs to be prosecuted—and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The town of Hampton was instantly split in two. A concerted effort by a citizens group called S.W.I.S. (the initials of the four defendants) and the fortuitous ability of Virginia’s first black governor to grant clemency because he was retiring and unconcerned about facing voters the next year enabled the three boys to win their freedom after serving about four months.

Steve James, one of the world’s most gifted documentarians, hails from Hampton, and like everyone else on “The Peninsula” on which Hampton rests, was well aware of Allen Iverson. James’ father Bill, though an alumnus of Hampton High, was a huge fan of Iverson’s. After James moved to Chicago, his father used to send him clippings from the local papers about Iverson’s accomplishments on the gridiron and the basketball court—and of course, stories about the trial. When ESPN approached James to take part in its “30 for 30” documentary series, he chose to return to Hampton to try to make sense out of what happened there in 1993.

As a Hampton insider and a natural storyteller with complete command of the cinematic form, James gives viewers the lay of the land quickly and indelibly. We feast on footage of Iverson, just barely brushing past 6 feet tall, running like liquid mercury down the football field and hanging off hoop rims after authoritative slam dunk after slam dunk. We see him sink 30-foot jump shots and celebrate his touchdowns with fancy endzone moves. We also hear about his temper, his cockiness, his fatherless home, his drug-addicted mother, the neighborhood black men who stepped in to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. And we see a narrow footpath to the shore of Chesapeake Bay as James reminds us that Hampton, the oldest, continuous, English-speaking settlement in North America, also was one of the earliest centers for the slave trade. Thus, tidily, we are prepared for a discussion of race.

And, indeed, race may have caused the brawl at the bowling alley. Most of the witnesses and the defendants contend that some white bowlers had bandied about the “n” word to incite a fight. A fragment of video footage of the brawl was taken, and the chairs flying from black hands onto white bodies looks pretty savage. Iverson supposedly had been led out of the bowling alley, away from the fight, to protect his future as a top recruit for elite college athletic programs.

Jim Spencer, a Hampton Daily Press columnist and reporter in 1993, did not think Iverson was the kind of person to walk out on a fight. He ran a blunt opinion piece at the time that said Iverson and the others needed to be accountable for their actions, denying race had anything to do with the arrests. Nonetheless, no whites were arrested and considerations about the possible verbal incitements dismissed as a “sticks and stones” situation.

James had trouble getting people—including his own mother—to agree to be interviewed for the film. Iverson did not cooperate, but James skillfully blends interviews of him while he was in a minimum-security farm-prison and other archival footage, for example, holding one of his Crossover camps in Hampton (following criticism that he had avoided coming there), talking about his devoted white tutor who used to cry when he would show up at her home late for a lesson, and graduating from high school months after his classmates had already matriculated. It is through all his triumphs and trials that we get the complicated picture that is Allen Iverson.

James also talks to some of the S.W.I.S. members, who called the incident the most blatant example of racism they had ever seen in the Virginia judicial system. There is some intimation that prosecutor Colleen Killilea had political aspirations, and indeed, she is now a judge who refused to be interviewed. Regardless of whether one feels the boys deserved some kind of punishment for their part in the brawl, one has to conclude that 15-year sentences for first-time offenders who were not unequivocally tied to the crime (Killilea told Sports Illustrated at the time, “While we couldn’t link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred,” which put the maiming by mob charge into play) was a miscarriage of justice. James says that Iverson’s fame undoubtedly worked against him at trial, but for him in winning release. Amusingly, right after James shows a scene of jubilation about Iverson’s release, he cuts to Michael Simmons remembering his reaction with a laugh: “What about me?”

James’ skilled editing provides many such laughs and evenhandedly juxtaposes the outrage of black Peninsula residents with the law-and-order uprightness of its white population. He also makes it clear that black residents who had moved on up in the world were also against Iverson and his codefendents. James shoots scenes of the well-to-do blacks watering their lawns in fashionable neighborhoods, though the suggestion of one interviewee that they simply didn’t want to lose ground in the racial divide seems a little too simple. It was, as another interviewee put it, an issue of class more than race.

James went in search of his roots in such a way as to find out more about a community he only half knew. When asked about race relations today, one of the S.W.I.S. members said it’s a tiny bit better. A middle-aged black man says it’s like watching a duck. You see the duck glide smoothly on top of the water, but you never see its legs paddling furiously underneath. James ends this superb film with a group of geese moving across a pond in Hampton.

27th 02 - 2010 | no comment »

The September Issue (2009)

Director: R. J. Cutler

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2007, veteran documentary producer and director R. J. Cutler, who previously explored the subcultures of politics (A Perfect Candidate) and high school (American High) turned his gaze to fashion publishing. He followed the staff of Condé Nast’s influential U.S. Vogue magazine as they prepared the September issue, which because of its timing with the new fashion season and New York’s Fashion Week, is the largest issue of each year. In particular, Cutler focused his gaze on U.S. Vogue’s legendary editor, Anna Wintour, said to be the model for Meryl Streep’s scary, autocratic character in The Devil Wears Prada, and its longtime creative director Grace Coddington. Wintour, from a family of distinguished British journalists, and Coddington, a former model from a humble village in Wales, came of age in the 60s, when England was a center of cutting-edge, youthful fashion. It is their vision that has shaped not only U.S. Vogue, but general trends in consumer magazine publishing as well.

A magazine the size and scope of Vogue—the final page count of this September issue will be around 840—requires months of planning, large staffs, and massive budgets to pull off the photo shoots and first-class production that make Vogue the art catalog of fashion it is. Coddington, assigned to create photo editorial features on the 20s, couture fashion, and color blocking, is something of a styling genius. She is actually an artist, creating nostalgic looks with gauzy, sepia-toned spreads for the 20s feature that are breathtaking. In a paste-up room where thumbnails of the photo spreads are fit together like puzzle pieces, Wintour removes half the spreads Coddington oversaw, much to her displeasure.

Wintour herself gives instructions to Mario Testino, the photographer who will shoot the cover image and spread in Rome using actress Sienna Miller. Miller’s hair is a wreck, but plans to put her in a wig don’t pan out either. They settle for slicking her hair up into a tight topknot. Then Testino is unhappy with the conditions around the Coliseum and decides not to shoot there at all, giving Wintour little to choose from. We witness the assembly of various pictures to create the cover image—giving Miller the face of one image and the neck of another. Such photo manipulation has sometimes gone awry in the fashion industry, causing ridicule of the results by readers and the photographic subjects themselves. I’m not aware of Vogue making such an obvious error, but make no mistake—Vogue isn’t really about reality. The fantasies evoked by fashion are what Vogue sells.

When Coddington is the one selling the fantasy, I want to buy. Her creativity is inspired, such as when she decides to cast Bob Richman, the documentary’s cinematographer, in her color-blocking feature. She dresses very plainly, usually wearing all black and flat, comfortable shoes, her wild shock of red hair flying loosely around her make-up free face. She’s the artist/hippie at Vogue.

Wintour represents the business and prestige of Vogue. As editor, she is responsible for the evolution and direction of the magazine, and was early in recognizing the ascendency of celebrity culture, which Coddington dislikes but respectfully admits was a good call. Wintour has a “signature” look, too, wearing print dresses that are Laura Ashley prim and short necklaces of chunky crystals in various colors. Her importance is unspoken, though she is rueful in saying that her family is “amused” by what she does. Fashion may be frivolous when compared with news journalism, and women do spend obscene amounts of money on it, but it is a legitimate art form as well as a business juggernaut. Without couture designers, the rare handcrafting that goes into high fashion would become a lost art. Wintour showcases this craftsmanship and uses her money and clout to mentor young designers, one of whom, Thakoon, gets a featured part in the film as he prepares a ready-to-wear collection.

The extras on the new DVD offer outtakes from the film that help us to see Wintour, Coddington, and others featured in the film, including Thakoon and editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, in other settings. I was happy to see the outtakes of Wintour, which I feel correct somewhat the icy demeanor that the documentary settles into. She is shown with her daughter Bee visiting various couture houses in Paris, and she actually smiles, something that wasn’t shown in the entire documentary. She delivers a eulogy for one of her staff; even though she had someone else write it based on her reminiscences, it does convey that she cares about the people she works with.

In the documentary, the deleted spreads from Coddington’s 20s shoot end up back in the magazine. How that happened isn’t easy to understand. In an interview with Cutler, he said that the Vogue staff communicate with looks and subtle gestures developed over the years. They seem to do more than that, judging by the outtakes, but Cutler seems to have decided to abet the Vogue mystique.

The 2007 September issue came out just before the economy went belly up. Austerity has made a big comeback, and Condé Nast shuttered several of its high-end publications last year. Vogue certainly can’t expect to have ad page sales like the record number they had in the documentary’s year. The fashion industry has changed dramatically, concentrating more on merchandising than clothes for profits. Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, and Vogue represent one of the last bastions of old-style glamor. I’m glad we have this documentary to record how it was.

8th 01 - 2010 | 27 comments »

Cinerama Adventure (2002)

Director: David Strohmaier


By Marilyn Ferdinand

If ever I had any doubts that I am a true film geek, my own Cinerama adventure has dispelled them. A week or so ago, I posted my 25 essential documentaries of the 2000s, and listed Cinerama Adventure, a film I saw only once nearly eight years ago, among them. I’m a bit of a science and technology geek, and I have a passion for widescreen formats that rarely gets sated these days. This documentary was made, I’ve convinced myself, specifically for me.


Well, as luck would have it, the director’s RSS feed picked up on my brief description of the film, and his wife and the executive producer of the film, Carin-Anne Strohmaier, wrote in the comments section that the doc was now available on DVD as an extra for How the West Was Won (1962). Indeed, this feature film and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) are the only two feature films to have been shot in true Cinerama, that is, with three cameras. Strohmaier informed me that HTWWW was available in the Smilebox format developed for the documentary to simulate the look of Cinerama, but only for the Blu-ray format. Such is my hunger for a Cinerama experience, which I have never had, and more importantly, for a chance to see the documentary again, that I went out and purchased a Blu-ray player along with the two-disc HTWWW set. Yesterday was the happy day when I got to revisit this very enjoyable and informative documentary.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and with Cinerama, the necessity arose from another invention that was supplanting the motion picture industry. In 1948, 1 million televisions sets were sold in the United States; by 1951, that number had grown to 12 million. Moviegoing audiences had dropped by about 40 million. Film exhibitors, no longer tied to Hollywood studios, had the need and the necessary freedom to try something new to attract audiences away from their home entertainment.


Inventor Fred Waller had developed a multi-camera projection technology called Vitarama that created a form of virtual reality by expanding the images to take in what one would see with one’s peripheral vision to give the whole field of vision and projecting them onto a curved screen. Adapting Vitarama for military purposes, the Vitarama Corporation won a lucrative government contract to produce 75 Waller Flexible Gunnery Training Simulators to train gunnery aircraft personnel. With the coming of peace and television, the timing was perfect for developing a commercial use for Vitarama. (Strohmaier interviews two men who trained on the Waller Trainer; one of them, Frank Foulkes, said that when he and other gunnery airmen saw Cinerama, they realized it was a civilian version of the trainer they used.)


Strohmaier introduces the dramatis personae who gave Cinerama life. Aside from Waller, they included adventurer and commentator Lowell Thomas, who conceived the travelogue films that put Cinerama on the map; Michael Todd, the entrepreneurial movie mogul who handled the business end; Harry Squire, Cinerama cinematographer; and Hazard Reeves, the sound engineer who developed Cinerama’s unique seven-microphone recording system that created such discrete and rich sound (mixed by hand at each performance to customize it to the size and wearing apparel—winter or summer clothing—of the audience) that people who have heard it say it is far superior to today’s advanced Dolby digital sound.


Arthur Manson, who handled the marketing and publicity for Cinerama, said he and his team had a crusading spirit about format, making showings events at which no concessions were sold, people dressed up as though they were going to the opera, programs were sold, and seats were assigned. The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther of the premiere of This Is Cinerama heralded the new technology that “puts you in the picture” and is, at seems, the only film review that ever made the front page of the paper. Cinerama mania was off and running, with “rama” this and “rama” that popping up in every product and service you can imagine and spurring competitors to develop other widescreen formats.

paulmantz.jpgThe most astonishing of the many stories about Cinerama, naturally, came from the movie shoots themselves. The crew spanned out across the globe, often going into unexplored regions of the world and taking very serious risks just to give audiences a vicarious experience. The pilot who took the camera crews over the world’s great vistas, under its bridges, and into the very bowels of such places as the Grand Canyon was Paul Mantz. Mantz, a legend among flyers who, sadly, is as forgotten as his colleague Amelia Earhart is famous, flew a WWII bomber like it was a Spitfire. Camera crewman Jim Morrison tells of a visit to a Belgian restaurant in Africa at which the crew got drunk as a resident of the area talked about several active volcanoes nearby. An enthusiastic Mantz said, “We have to shoot that!” Early the next morning, the hungover crew boarded the bomber and set off for the volcano. The glowing, smoke-belching cone appeared in the distance, and Mantz started to descend, finally entering the crater. The plane heated up, the toxic fumes started to choke the crew and the plane engines, until one and then both engines quit. Fortunately, Mantz had enough air speed to just pull the plane out of the crater, and the engines restarted. The images from inside the crater are utterly spectacular; ironically, Mantz died in what was his last scheduled film stunt, crash-landing the plane in 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix (a depressing and gory film I hated when I saw it on its release; now I have another reason to loathe it).


Sadly, Cinerama’s days were numbered. It was expensive to convert theatres to accommodate the wide, curved screen of beveled horizontal strips and the three projectors needed to create the panoramic scenes. Shooting, too, was expensive, and when studios tried to expand into feature films, they hit up against the limitations of the technology. Close-ups were not possible, and actors had to look at a certain point at the camera, not each other, to appear as though they were interacting. Putting something interesting into the other two screens challenged directors; John Ford, one of several directors on HTWWW, couldn’t stand next to the camera to check the framing, as was his habit, because he would be caught in the lens of one of the other cameras. Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, and Russ Tamblyn, all of whom appeared in HTWWW, said it was very difficult to create their characters without directly relating to the other actors. Eventually, the studios devised a way to get widescreen shots with a single camera using 70mm film. While this and other widescreen formats were advertised as being in Cinerama, they did not achieve the depth made possible by the peripheral shots of true Cinerama.

Strohmaier chooses knowledgeable individuals to relate this history of Cinerama, giving us as close to a “you are there” experience as Cinerama did for its many patrons. He is judicious about illustrating the film with more than talking heads, using archival photos and footage, examples of the wonderful films adapted for flat screen with Smilebox, and providing so many interesting facts and anecdotes that I have barely scratched the surface of them in this review.


At a time when the film world is all abuzz about Avatar, with its CGI and 3-D, and declaring James Cameron a visual genius, it is important to temper the enthusiasm with the knowledge that 3-D originally arose as an answer to Cinerama and is far inferior to it. Nothing really new here, folks. Catch up with Cinerama Adventure, and learn about these and other explorers and technological giants like Merien C. Cooper (above, with Lowell Thomas), Abel Gance of the triple-screen finale of Napoleon (1927) and his collaborator Henri Chrétien, who invented the anamorphic lens, and be truly dazzled! l

21st 12 - 2009 | 27 comments »

Twenty-Five Essential Documentaries of the 2000s


Begging Naked, 2007

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As anyone who has read my blog partner’s 25 Essential Films of the 2000s knows, Rod concentrated on feature films in compiling his list. It’s my turn as the self-assigned documentary maven at Ferdy on Films to choose a list of notable documentaries of the 2000s. This category of filmmaking is a particular favorite of mine and one that rarely receives the kind of attention that feature films do, unless, of course, it’s a piece of docusnark by some yo-yo from Michigan who is given to channeling Mike Wallace, Geraldo Rivera, and Ub Iwerks all at the same time. Nonetheless, documentaries were on the ascent in the 2000s as a way many people could get the information and education that corporatized, downsized, and increasingly partisan media would or could no longer deliver. Consider the success of the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s traveling show on global warming, as the official acknowledgment of the documentary as an alternative, legitimate, trusted source of news and analysis.

Yet, documentaries are also films, and the form has developed and changed over time, eschewing a strict talking-heads format for more interpretive methods of relating factual material, including the controversial reenactments that always seem to get Errol Morris in trouble but that caused no one a moment’s worry about James Marsh’s Man on Wire, though they were far more dubiously used. What once would have been considered merely “home movie” footage is now the raw material and finished product of such documentaries as Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, and one of my favorites listed below, Trouble the Water. This innovative use of primary-source—particularly self-referential—material has spilled into features such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, and strongly influenced the “queasicam” features that have become de rigueur.

There were many worthy documentaries in the 2000s—this list could have extended much further and included the entertaining and enlightening March of the Penguins, Murderball, My Architect, Grizzly Man, The Nomi Song, and Bright Leaves, not to mention those I didn’t have the chance or the stomach to catch up with, like Taxi to the Dark Side, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, and No Direction Home. Ultimately, I chose films that took me places I couldn’t go myself, taught me things, and moved me with their commitment, honesty, and beauty. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)
This film has yet to find a distributor, but it did find a champion in Roger Ebert, who showed it at the 2009 Ebertfest. Exploring Times Square both before and after Giuliani’s “clean up,” what comes through most movingly about this film is the meaning of friendship, as director Karen Gehres films the life and times of her troubled friend, artist Elise Hill.


Beyond Ipanema (Guto Barra and Béco Dranoff, 2009)
I can’t remember when I’ve learned so much in such a short span of time. Barra and Dranoff’s pulsing exploration of Brazilian music since the 1940s is like a musical composition itself—driving, expressive, and filled with the enthusiasm to stuff as much great music into its horn of plenty as possible.

Born into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004)
The red-light district of Calcutta is never captured on film, so this documentary is valuable for that feat alone. But it would be nothing more without the children who did—and did not—find a way out of the cycle of poverty and prostitution through photography. Moving, memorable, and a worthy winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.


Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, a Life in Animation (Margaret Selby, 2000)
As a big Chuck Jones fan, just about any documentary about this great animator and director would have made my day. But Margaret Selby’s documentary doesn’t leave any aspect of his career on the cutting room floor, while moving with the verve and humor of the animated world the great man himself brought to life.

Cinerama Adventure (David Strohmaier, 2002)
Another film without a distributor, this film represents the most enjoyable documentary movie experience I’ve ever had. My curious obsession with movie technology—particularly widescreen formats—was more than sated on this history of Cinerama and the technology Strohmaier created to simulate a Cinerama experience—Smilebox.


Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004)
You may not like it, but Al-Jazeera is the voice of news and information for the Arab Middle East. Control Room offers a unique look at this misunderstood organization and the way that American public information workers come to see the world in a different light by watching it, and then watching what their bosses tell them to report. Essential viewing, in my opinion, with real-life drama that will stop your heart.


DAM/AGE (Aranhada Seth, 2002)
Indian writer Arundati Roy is the focus of this documentary about the proposed construction of a dam in the Narmada valley. Roy, a native of this area, protests the construction and visits communities along the river, so her odyssey is a very personal one, the nuances of which Seth captures beautifully. This affecting profile of a famous person and her fabled country can be viewed for free at the invaluable Snag Films.


Excellent Cadavers (Marco Turco, 2005)
Despite a slightly awkward framing device, Excellent Cadavers exposes and explains the complicated history of the Sicilian Mafia and two crusading lawmen who paid the ultimate price to try to bring them down. Sad, infuriating, urgent, this is a look at justice and its cost that will have you rethinking your devotion to the Sopranos.


The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
Master filmmaker Varda premiered a great autobiographical documentary this year, Beaches of Agnès. But it is this minutely observed documentary on those dedicated to saving what others discard that, to me, provides the best portrait into her life and work. A beautiful exploration of aging and the mystery of life, filmed as only Varda can.


How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) (Joe Angio, 2005)
Melvin Van Peebles is the most important African-American filmmaker alive today, and perhaps of all time, but I didn’t know the half of it until I saw this energetic, humorous, and sharp documentary. I felt the kind of rush watching it that I had on viewing Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for the first time. Irreverent, caustic, and vitally important.


Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)
Terry Gilliam’s loss in failing to film Man of La Mancha is our gain, as Fulton and Pepe use bits and pieces of footage of the failing production to show a train wreck in slow motion. It’s funny, horrifying, and ultimately sad when one considers the film that might have been.


Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (Chris Metzler and Jeff Singer, 2004)
I’d never heard of the Salton Sea before viewing this documentary, and now I’ll never forget it. Archival footage of this California resort community’s heyday juxtaposes with dead fish and welfare communities that have sprung up in this real estate fiasco some still remember fondly.


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, 2003)
It doesn’t get any better than this—real footage of the attempted coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez shot by an Irish film crew that happened to be filming a profile of the leader at the time. A lucky break for Bartley and O’Briain and, ultimately, for us, in helping to make sense of a fast-moving event and providing a filmed record of an historic event.


Riding Giants (Stacy Peralta, 2004)
Step into Liquid is perhaps the better known of modern surfing films, but Riding Giants is the more awe-inspiring. The footage is beautiful and masterfully cut for suspense and visual impact, and the score is hypnotic and inspiring. I can’t think of a better sports or nature documentary of the 2000s.


A State of Mind (Daniel Gordon, 2004)
Director Daniel Gordon was given unprecedented access to film in North Korea, chronicling school girls spending all of their spare time rehearsing for the yearly Mass Games, an enormous and lavish demonstration to honor dictator Kim Jong-il. An extremely rare look at a truly awesome event, and the mindset of North Korean youth dedicated to pleasing their leader.


Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
This is the hardest film you might ever try to watch. Hoop Dreams director Steve James looks up the man who was his charge when James was in the Big Brother program. Stevie, a difficult boy James backed away from, has become a sad, lost, and dangerous fringe dweller. James wonders if Stevie ever had a chance, and if he himself failed Stevie. Honest, brutal, unforgettable.


Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler, 2004)
What’s it like to be the son of a famous director/cinematographer? Mark Wexler demonstrates as he attempts to document his father, Haskell Wexler, for posterity. It’s a fractious ride that will make you wonder why Wexler didn’t become an accountant instead of trying to follow in his father’s footsteps.


This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)
We’ve all wondered about the secret workings of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating board. Kirby Dick takes us inside the process by recording this documentary’s ratings odyssey, and by cracking the veil of secrecy by interviewing a couple of former raters who have broken their contracted silence. Dick connects the dots and helps us reach some disturbing conclusions about the agenda of censors in the film industry.


Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, 2008)
Go inside New Orleans’ Ninth Ward as Katrina approaches, hits, and recedes. Watching the waters rise higher, higher, higher through the live footage of a family of survivors, cut with follow-up footage and news reports by Lessin and Deal, brings the tragedy of Katrina and the shame of our nation vividly to life.


The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (Jennifer Baichwal, 2002)
Exploiter. Artist. Appalachian insider and friend. Photographer Shelby Lee Adams is, perhaps, all of these things. But respected Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal allows everyone to have their say. What you ultimately decide is up to you.


War Photographer (Christian Frei, 2001)
James Nachtwey is one of the world’s preeminent war photographers. Why does he do it? How does he get so close to danger, grief, and anger? Why do his subjects trust him with their rawest emotions and experiences? Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei combines fly-on-wall experiences with interviews to paint a portrait of a complicated man.


The War Tapes (Deborah Scranton, 2006)
Three American soldiers in Iraq filmed their experiences. Deborah Scranton edited their footage and interviewed them and their families. Together, they created a record of the passage from civilian to survivor for two of the men, as well as the viewpoint of a career soldier. I haven’t seen all the Iraq-related docs that are out there, but I feel I understand so much more about this war than I did before because I got it right from the horse’s mouth.


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)
Spike Lee’s documentaries are as renowned as his feature films, and with When the Levees Broke, he has created his most ambitious and meaningful film to date. The four-part, 255-minute opus gives a thorough, impassioned, 360-degree view of the weather event known as Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy that followed.


Whose Song Is This? (Adela Peeva, 2003)
An exploration that rose out of a lighthearted curiosity about the origins of a popular song turns dark and deadly as Bulgarian filmmaker Adela Peeva makes her way around the Balkan countries that claim the song as their original creation. A shrewder illustration of the term “balkanization” you’ll never find.


Why the Towers Fell (Garfield Kennedy and Larry Klein, 2002)
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were huge blocks of steel and concrete, built to withstand the impact of weather and aircraft collisions. They should have withstood the impact of the jetliners that crashed into them, bruised but unbowed. But they didn’t. This fascinating documentary shows schematics and offers penetrating analysis about the design flaws that brought them crashing to the ground. It’s not easy to watch, but it is an important look at the very heart of why this tragedy was not better contained. The documentary can be viewed here.

15th 12 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders (2008)

Director: Mark N. Hopkins


By Marilyn Ferdinand

I don’t know who Manny the Movie Guy is, but he had this to say at a link on the IMDb page for Living in Emergency:

How could this be? Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story was snubbed by the Academy Awards! Moore’s new documentary was largely favored by critics, including me, but apparently, it’s not good enough for the Academy. It’s this year’s highest-grossing documentary (it has made $10 million so far), and Overture Films even opened it on Sept. 23, in time for the Academy’s Sept. 30 cutoff date. Moore won an Oscar before in 2002 for Bowling for Columbine.

I must say that I’m a little flummoxed, too. I didn’t realize that winning an Oscar (and for an undeserving film at that), having a film company smart enough to follow a simple AMPAS rule, and being popular with the public were sufficient to guarantee an Oscar nomination. Although this is, in fact, often the case, there does still seem to be a minimum threshold of quality involved. Moore’s film about a system that has benefited him heartily and that he could have scripted by cribbing a few blog posts from Firedoglake, represents everything that is wrong with the state of documentary inquiry—the docusnark. Living in Emergency, which had Moore made it would have looked like the pandering, pathetic human relief commercials (with laugh track) that pepper late-night television, represents everything that’s right with documentaries. It presents in intimate and unflinching detail the compelling story of the humanitarian efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors Without Borders, an international organization that provides emergency medical care to people afflicted by armed conflict, epidemics, healthcare exclusion, and natural or manmade disasters. I’m deeply pleased that it was singled out for Oscar consideration over the popular choice.


I’ve long been a supporter of MSF, which acts as a small oasis in a desert of misery. Doctors are deployed on six-month missions to serve under some of the worst conditions human beings have to endure. In MSF aid zones, diseases that have long been eradicated in developed countries, such as cholera and tetanus, are commonplace, and driving down a road to deliver aid might mean negotiating with a dozen different warring factions—indeed, where driving down a road could cost an aid worker his or her life, as it did two aid workers in Pakistan early this year. As a supporter, I was keen to view Living in Emergency for an unprecedented chance to see MSF in action. The documentary follows four doctors—three in Liberia and one in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


In the desperately poor country of Liberia, 27-year-old Australian doctor Davinder Gill is on his first mission in the rural town of Foya. He is a one-man clinic, frustrated to breaking by a lack of supplies and by his local workers who do not operate like a well-oiled hospital staff. He has almost no time for sleep or recreation—we first see him at night, tending to a patient with an enormous hernia with only a miner’s helmet light by which to work in the electricity-free village—and he constantly doubts his decisions and working style. In the Liberian capital of Monrovia, Tom Krueger, a seasoned surgeon from Kentucky also on his first mission, tends to the sick and hurt at MSF’s Mamba Point Hospital, the only free and functioning hospital in the entire country. Chiara Lepora, an Italian national who is the head of the Liberian operation, not only tends to patients at Mamba Point, but also travels to other missions in the country, including Gill’s, to troubleshoot, manage problems, and lend a brief helping hand. After a 15-year presence during the ravaging Liberian civil war, MSF must decide whether to pull out now that the war has ceased and a Ministry of Health has been established to restore the country’s collapsed healthcare system.


War continues in Congo, and most of the patients MSF treats have been attacked or caught in the crossfire. Christopher Brasher, an Aussie doctor now on staff with MSF, is compensating for the shortage of volunteer doctors that always occurs in summer by deploying to Congo. He’s surprised to find himself in another war zone after being so traumatized by the Liberian civil war in 2003 that he almost quit. After nine years with MSF—he jokes that he has managed to have a career being homeless—he is thinking about moving on so that he can finally settle down. Brasher seems matter-of-fact about walking near the MSF facility among armed soldiers and frightened, scurrying civilians, but we’ll see that he’s anything but blasé to the traumas he has witnessed as the film progresses.


Hopkins and his camera crew do an excellent job of taking us close to the doctors and their staff as they go about their work, which at times requires them to improvise as best they can. For example, a man has been brought into Brasher’s facility by his family. Soldiers came to their home to rob them and shot the man in the head. Brasher points to the entry wound above the eye and the exit wound at the side of his head—his ear has been blown off. His coma is deepening, but as there are no CT or MRI machines around, there is no way to know what’s going on in his skull. The team finally decides to drill in and take a look, but they don’t have the right-size drill bit. They take a large chance of killing him if they use what they have, but he’ll probably die anyway if they don’t. Luckily for him, the drilling relieves the pressure on his brain, and in a few hours he is alert, with his memory intact. The operation is wince-inducing to watch, but how he got onto the surgical table in the first place is even more unsettling. “Some of them (soldiers) just like to kill people,” Brasher says.

At Mamba Point, Krueger examines a man with a seriously infected foot, a typical case of a treatable problem left to go until it becomes life-threatening. Krueger is forced to use a ligature saw—basically piano wire—to saw the man’s foot off. He comments that he is practicing the kind of medicine his father would have been comfortable performing in Depression-era Kentucky. This kind of medicine, he says, is hard for modern physicians to adapt to.


All of the doctors voice their concerns about their psychological health, the relative futility of the good they can accomplish in the face of severely overwhelming need, the absolute necessity of making hard choices about who to treat and who to let go. Brasher examines a teenage boy in cardiac arrest. He does CPR to get the boy’s heart going and then says he’ll let his aide force air into his lungs with a blue balloon for an hour. If the boy doesn’t start breathing on his own, they’ll let him go. Fortunately, the boy does revive and tells Brasher he’s feeling ok. Later that day, Brasher and we are crushed to learn the boy has died after all. At a wild party where Gill and other MSF field staff are dancing and getting drunk, Lepora says in voiceover that MSF workers have a lot of sex: “We’re faced with so much death. Sex is life.”


In the end, MSF staff in Paris decide it is time to close Mamba Point and leave Liberia. Lepora’s going-away party is sweet but also bitter, as one of her nurses complains that they will be left behind without MSF resources. This is always the case, and in fact, only 10 percent of MSF’s work is done by foreign recruits. Still, MSF is designed for emergency assistance. When the emergency has passed, each country must come to rely on its own resources. Liberia’s health system is still in critical condition, but they have managed to reopen John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, and Mamba Point staff are needed there. Brasher returns to Monrovia at the end of his mission in Congo and testifies that things are better: “It’s nice to see people going about their business, no guns on the streets.” He and Gill won’t be back. Lepora and Krueger continue the work. And Hopkins and crew have helped us to bear witness in a clear, compelling way that, though difficult to watch and contemplate, I could have kept watching for hours.

A live panel discussion moderated by TV personality Elizabeth Vargas was shown after the film in theaters across the country. Vargas, schooled in the “how do you feel” brand of “journalism,” was fine on the intimate questions she posed to Krueger and Brasher, who attended along with MSF-USA executive director Sophie Delaunay, Liberian Minister of Health Walter Gwenigale, MD, and American journalist and war correspondent Sebastian Junger. Vargas avoided speaking with Dr. Gwenigale as much as possible, to the point where Delaunay actually had to ask him a question and defer questions from Vargas to him. It was an embarrassing performance to say the least, which ended for me and the hubby when she asked where the beautiful beach scene that ends the film was shot, in deference, I suppose, to the adventure travelers in the audience.


Nonetheless, the panelists managed to be eloquent, informative, and real. When Vargas wondered about whether Dr. Gill should have been given the mission he was, Delaunay could only say that MSF is needs driven, and that they choose an available doctor with the most appropriate skills and background. Only about 2 percent of applicants are accepted into the program in the first place, and there is a high attrition rate, so many doctors simply don’t have a choice of mission. The highlight of the discussion for me came when Brasher called the current healthcare reform debate in the United States “pathetic.” Indeed it is, and given the criteria of natural disaster and healthcare exclusion that MSF applies to its work, parts of the United States could qualify.


Krueger, quiet and reflective, mature enough to process a lot of what he has seen, seemed to stumble when he ruminated on witnessing what cruelty human beings can inflict on each other. MSF wouldn’t have to exist if we could just cure that disease.

6th 12 - 2009 | no comment »

Defamation (Hashmasta, 2009)

Director: Yoav Shamir


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Handcuffed to the Holocaust. Shackled to the Shoah. Those of you who read me know these are phrases I’ve used before to express my dismay and disgust at how I’ve felt forced to wear an invisible Star of David on my invisible, threadbare schmattes, forever linked to a history of victimhood that saw its peak in Nazi Germany. It has long been a sore spot with me that Jewish stereotypes include meek lamb to the slaughter among them, and that because of our recent tragedy, we are held to a higher standard of humanity than the people who actually perpetrated the Shoah. When Jews act “out of character” with aggressiveness, it’s somehow worse—we should know better. Yet, as Shakespeare’s Shylock said:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.

Yet, while I strain at the anti-Semitism inherent in singling out Jews as both victims and mandatory moral arbiters, many Jews, especially in America, cling to our past victimhood with all their might. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the largest organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism in the world, feels every pinprick, no matter how insignificant, and adheres to the broken window theory: let just one incident slide and you’re halfway down the slippery slope that leads to another Holocaust.

Israel is the one place on earth where Jews are just people, living in their customary way, unburdened by the feeling that to declare oneself a Jew is to risk a range of kneejerk reactions among neighbors, coworkers, friends, and strangers—though perhaps the only real reaction is one’s own paranoia. As a young Israeli, Defamation director Yoav Shamir acknowledges at the outset that he has never known anti-Semitism, even though the newspapers, magazines, and TV broadcasts he consumes shout of its existence with disturbing regularity. He doesn’t understand what anti-Semitism is, how it relates to anti-Zionism, or even if an anti-Zionist is automatically an anti-Semite. His film seeks answers in Israel, Auschwitz, and the United States, as he questions his 90-year-old Zionist grandmother, an early emigré to Palestine; Abraham Foxman, a concentration camp survivor and head of the ADL; American scholars critical of the American lobby for Israel, including the reviled Dr. Norman Finkelstein, a son of Holocaust survivors who was fired from Chicago’s DePaul University, he claims, because he is an outspoken critic of Israel and the ADL’s peddling of the Holocaust; and Israeli high school students who take a field trip to Auschwitz.


Each thread Shamir follows reveals a different set of assumptions about how Jews can, should, and do look at the world. The high schoolers are shown the by-now-prescribed footage of mounds of dead Jews being bulldozed; they wrinkle their noses in disgust, but say they can’t feel the anger and sorrow they are “supposed” to feel. Already we are seeing that the “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz is meant to indoctrinate these young Israelis, who have never felt the sting of anti-Semitism, to feel angry, tortured, and seek vengeance on Jew haters everywhere. One of the girls says what I and other Jews have thought in the context of our religion—that she would be killed just because of her nationality (note she didn’t say religion), not because she personally did anything to anyone.


When we move to Shamir’s adventures in America, we are in what for me is more familiar territory. Foxman’s numerical Auschwitz tattoo is incontrovertible proof of his legitimacy as a victim and moral arbiter. His self-confessed obsession with anti-Semitism has propelled his work. When Shamir asks for a case he can follow up, an ADL worker who records reports of anti-Semitism can’t find much beyond employers who won’t give Jewish employees the Jewish holidays off. Foxman reads a letter he received from a woman who was incensed when she overheard a cop providing protection at a Jewish funeral in Crown Heights, New York, tell someone on his cellphone that he would be over after he was done with the “Jew shit.” Anti-Semitic? Well, I don’t know—regardless, the cop’s immediate apology ended the ADL’s role in the matter.


Shamir finds a more suitable case—black teens have thrown rocks at a bus taking Jewish students to a yeshiva in Crown Heights, where tensions between blacks and Jews have flared through the years. His interviews with several black men and women on the street sound both anti-Semitic and a bit incoherent. But no moreso than his interview with his grandmother who says any Jew who isn’t a Zionist is anti-Semitic, though whether that means pro-Israel, making aliyah, or backing Israel 100% in everything wasn’t clear; she left me thoroughly confused.

finkelstein_01.jpgThe most interesting part of the documentary for me was to hear from Jews who feel much as I do about Israel—supportive of its existence but concerned about the power of the Jewish lobby to influence American foreign policy and condemnatory of Israeli abuses against Palestinians. Finkelstein, a very unique Jew to merit ejection from Israel as a security risk, is savage in his opinion of Foxman, whom he sees as a profiteer of the Holocaust; the ADL has a yearly budget of $13 million, and Foxman regularly takes lavish junkets, Finkelstein says, to hobnob with world leaders. When Finkelstein gives the Nazi salute at the mention of Foxman’s name, Shamir reacts badly. “Why are you all of a sudden so politically correct? You Israelis call each other Nazis all the time” and then ticks off the names of Israeli leaders who have done so in the past. In another case, this time at a conference on anti-Semitism in Israel, a British Jew calls out Israel for its human rights abuses in the West Bank, only to be met with vehement attacks afterwards by other lecturers. He is nonplussed: “Back home, I’m considered radically pro-Israel. There were some very right-wing elements at this conference today.”


Shamir scores his documentary with strangely childish music that suggested to me he saw himself as Alice in Wonderland; to many piously self-righteous Jews and humanists, this might have seemed irreverent, but I thought it hit just the right note myself. For what else must it be like for a Jew who has never experienced life outside of Israel to suddenly be thrust into a world that plays by different rules—surely it must be a through-the-lookinglass experience. On the other hand, Shamir isn’t a naive babe; he knew to tell the black New Yorkers quoting from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that the book was a proven fraud written by Jew haters.

This documentary, while touching on politics, stays within its scope of exploring the meaning of anti-Semitism. I don’t know if Shamir felt the sting of it, but he surely can’t deny (as others did in the film) that it doesn’t exist. Yet, how much of Jewish wariness and vigilance is hype and actually counterproductive to Israeli and Jewish interests? Anyone who sees this thoughtful and, yes, often enjoyable documentary will be better equipped to answer that question.

Michael Guillen has a terrific interview with Yoav Shamir at The Evening Class.

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