Archive for documentary

Saturday Links

Now that the semester is a little over a week old, things have settled down a bit, and hopefully I’ll have time to blog more consistently.  Here are some of the things I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about over the last few days:

  • Jonathan Gray has been blogging about the job search process for academics in media studies.  Thankfully, I’m not on the market this year, but I think this would have been incredibly useful for me when I was a graduate student.  His most recent post explains the very long and protracted time line for most searches, a process that almost makes electing a president seem efficient.  He introduces the series here.
  • I’m becoming increasingly fascinated and amused by the story about the Academy of Motion Pictures awarding Jean Luc Godard an honorary Oscar, alongside of Francis Ford Coppola (among others).  First, it’s nice to see Hollywood reward the director behind such challenging work, even when that work has often positioned itself in stark opposition to the Hollywood system.  But now that the news is out, the Academy can’t seem to find Godard, who has yet to comment on the recognition.  I can’t really imagine him actually attending the Oscars but will enjoy seeing this story play out.
  • Ralph Macchio (and others, including Molly Ringwald and Micheal Lerner) have fun with Macchio’s nice guy image in this Funny or Die video.  The “intervention” scene at the beginning is especially clever.
  • Cinematical has the latest on YouTube’s experiments with delivery of full length motion pictures.  The latest: it appears they are making more of an effort to enter into the Hulu model of “free” access to ad-supported movies.
  • On a related note, Anthony Kaufman announces a series of articles that will address whether new modes of delivery can save the mid-level indie film.  As Kaufman points out, there are no easy answers here.
  • Via Chris Becker’s indispensable “News for TV Majors,” Judy Shapiro’s discussion of our “six-screen” future, as screens multiply beyond today’s TVs, PCs, and mobile screens.
  • Anne Thompson passes along the very cool announcement of the launch of SnagLearning, a platform of approximately 125 documentaries for classroom use at the middle and high school level.  On a quick scroll through, many of these films are well-tailored to students and worth reviewing for teachers and others interested in education.
  • Thompson also mentions two other links that may be of interest: a short documentary on the future of digital distribution from Game Industry TV and a discussion of the rise (in the visibility of?) of non-profit micro-cinemas.  Hoping to review both of these in the future for a longer post.

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Friday Links

I finally caught Inception last night and may have more to say about it later.  My basic impression of the film was that it was more clever than good.  The dream sequences seemed far too linear and scripted and far too much like 1980s action movies–cue the snow chase scene with explosives–to be convincing as dreams, unless you’re Michael Bay, I guess.  Still, the concept of implanting thoughts in people’s dreams is an interesting one and  plays with some of the tropes of the conspiracy thriller.  More on that soon, but for now, here are some links:

  • Jason Sperb offers an excellent reading of the overuse of the word “maverick” when discussing independent filmmakers.  It echoes one of the beefs I have with defining “independence” as an intangible category, a la the Independent Spirit Awards, but he also points to the strengths of two recent studies of independent film production by James Mottram and Sharon Waxman.
  • Inside Redbox offers an interesting tidbit that actually offers me some encouragement: apparently public libraries lend more movies than either of their major competitors, Redbox or Netflix.  These numbers don’t include Netflix’s streaming service, which would change these overall numbers considerably (and I’m a little skeptical of their methods for counting the number of movie “rentals”), but it’s easy to forget that libraries are a major source of media content.
  • Speaking of Redbox, they are starting to move more assertively toward offering a small selection of Blu-Ray discs in their kiosks at a price of $1.50 per day, rather than the $1.00 price for normal DVDs.  Also related, more information on the cost differences between streaming video and mailing DVDs for Netflix (see also NewTeeVee).
  • Ted Hope has a thoughtful post weighing the “filter problem” that challenges both consumers and producers of independent film.  Hope’s central question is one that has haunted indie filmmakers for a while now: “when we all have over 1000 films on our To Watch list, how do we begin to make a choice?”  See also Hope’s Curator’s Note at In Media Res, which presents a short clip associated with Braden King’s transmedia project, Here.  The YouTube clip accompanying the note is engaging, and as Hope argues, it’s crucial to expand our definition of transmedia storytelling beyond the genre texts (The Matrix, etc), with which its typically associated.  Perhaps one (limited) answer to Hope’s question is that we all contribute to the process of finding, discussing, and curating the stories that interest us whenever possible.
  • Documentary Tech has a series of posts about what promises to be an intriguing documentary, Nathaniel Hansen’s The Elders.  The most recent post offers a flavor of the interviews Hansen has conducted, while an older post traces Hansen’s fund raising efforts through Kickstarter and the audience response to some of the interviews he had posted online.  But like many recent documentaries, Hansen seems to be succeeding in combining online and film content.
  • And in news that has my inner-documentary fanboy grinning, Helvetica and Objectified filmmaker Gary Hustwit has announced the third film in his “design trilogy,” Urbanized, a film focused on issues of urban design.

Update: I missed this before, but Cinematical has an article about SnagFilms’ second annual Summer Fest, an online program of new documentaries posted prior to their television or theatrical debuts.  The lead-off film, The Age of Stupid, did have a one-day event screening, a simultaneous premiere in dozens of cities across the US and beyond, but many of the planned films are relatively new, including Videocracy, a documentary I caught at this year’s Full Frame.

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Monday Links

Quick observations about some of the film and media articles that have crossed my radar in the last few days:

  • Everyone is talking about the Jeffrey Rosen article about how the Internet is making us incapable of forgetting and how it is leading to the end of privacy.  The article goes on to suggest that social media are leading to the “end of the fragmented self,” now that all aspects of our lives are visible online.  Although most people seem to buy into Rosen’s arguments, I think Scott Rosenberg offers a much more nuanced reading of how personal reputation “is evolving” in the age of social media.  Rosenberg is correct to point out that much of what is posted online is forgotten or lost.  More crucially, Rosen uses only a small number of cases–one of them several years old–to imply that incriminating photos and Facebook comments are costing people jobs, and as Rosenberg points out, these aren’t ancient comments that come back to haunt someone several years after the fact; they are actually relatively contemporaneous.
  • This week’s In Media Res posts focus on transmedia storytelling, with this week’s curators including Christy Dena, Marc Ruppel, Robert Pratten, Brian Newman, and Ted Hope.  See Ted Hope’s Truly Free Film blog for more details.  Today’s post by Dena takes us back to a 1972 documentary, The Computer Generation, to document just how far we have come with regard to using the computer for artistic purposes.
  • The cinetrix has a near-perfect takedown of the Duplass brothers’ most recent film, Cyrus.  Although I liked the film more than she did, I agree that the film’s conflict between John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill over Marisa Tomei offers a tired rehashing of Eve Sedgwick’s thesis in Between Men. Worse, as she points out, the camerawork is awful, managing to make both Catherine Keener and Tomei look washed out and often out of focus.  Read her post for a beautifully snarky critique and send Tomei and Keener’s agents some better scripts asap.
  • July 24 was the big day for Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald’s YouTube documentary, Day in the Life, though users have until July 31 to submit their footage for the project.  In response, Edward Delaney at Documentary Tech assesses the future of crowdsourced documentary.  I generally agree with Delaney that the planned film shows the strengths and limitations of corwdsourcing, but I’m a little less convinced that the film’s “novelty” will draw out a big audience, especially given similar efforts (The Beastie Boys’ Awesome, I F**** Shot That) in the past.  Worth noting: the Sundance Institute’s marketing efforts that cast the film as “part of history” and to be a part of film that will feature the work of indie filmmakers like Joe Berlinger, Marianna Palka, and Caleb Deschanel.
  • After Andrew Breitbart’s craven attempts to disparage Shirley Sherrod through a heavily-edited video, I’ve found myself thinking about the role of web video in political discourse again.   TPM has an interesting article discussing efforts by the Democratic National Committee to train video trackers to capture conservative campaign missteps on video in search of a new “macaca moment,” as part of their “Accountability Project.” Here is a photo, courteous of TPM, that they were distributing at this year’s Netroots Nation convention.
  • Finally, The Yes Men have leapt into the free distribution game, making their movie, The Yes Men Fix the World, available for download on Bit Torrent and other websites, with the hopes that appreciative fans will circulate the film as widely as possible.

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Sunday Links

I’m still getting my thoughts together for the promised “Part Two” to my “Cinema, Video Games, Art” post.  Some of the questions I addressed there are brushing up against an essay I’m currently writing, but hopefully I will be able to get my thoughts together soon.  For now, here are some film and media links:

  • This story has begun to receive quite a bit of national attention, but it sounds fascinating: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Kevin McDonald (Last King of Scotland) are teaming up to make a crowdsourced documentary using footage recorded on July 24 and uploaded to YouTube.  It’s an attempt to create a day-in-the-life snapshot of global culture via the global center of user-generated video, one that is very much in keeping with utopian characterizations of the site as a networked community of everyday people (such as the Where is Matt phenomenon).  People who contribute footage will be credited as co-directors, and the filmmakers are working with Against All Odds Prods, an organization focused on delivering cameras to remote locations.  You can submit your footage at the documentary’s YouTube page starting on July 24.  Mashable also has an interesting write-up on the film.
  • The Documentary Tech blog has an interesting discussion of how to crowdfund your documentary.  It’s a pretty solid assessment, one that addresses the possibilities and limitations of using a resource such as Kickstarter.
  • Documentary Tech is also discussing another intriguing YouTube project, this one spearheaded by the Guggenheim, which is calling for submissions of videos that demonstrate the creativity of user-generated video.  The Guggenheim will post approximately 200 videos to their channel on YouTube, which will then be reviewed by a panel of experts who will choose a selection of 20 for display in the Guggenheim Museum in New York alongside of simultaneous presentations at other Guggenheim Museums in Berlin, Bilbao, and Venice.  You can submit a video at their YouTube Play channel.
  • David Poland responds to half of Ted Hope’s “38 Reasons the Film Industry is Failing Today” list.  Poland is obviously far more skeptical about the “truly free” model that Hope has been championing.  There are some points I’d like to discuss in detail, especially point #8, where Poland takes Hope to task for suggesting that film’s greatest strength is its ability to function as a “community organizing tool” (Poland’s phrase), with Poland instead arguing that film’s greatest strength is its ability to “make people feel things.”

Hoping to revisit some of these ideas later this week.


William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Given the ongoing debates about high school history curricula, it’s often difficult to know how(or even if) some key historical actors will be remembered for their contributions to public discourse, to debates of issues over race and racism, civil rights and human rights.  During the 1960s and ’70s (and beyond), William Kunstler was at the center of many of these debates.  He represented many of the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement, defended the Chicago Seven, and fought on behalf of the Native Americans in the Wounded Knee standoff and on behalf of the prisoners in Attica, NY.  Later in his life, however, he fought for alleged rapists, for mafia boss John Gotti, and for the men accused of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993.

Kunstler’s story is told in a new documentary written and directed by his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (IMDB), which attempts to address an essential tension: was Kunstler a champion of the underdog who fought for the basic rights of an individual, a David-figure ready to stand up against the Goliaths of the world, whether institutionalized racism or unjust warfare?  Or was he a showman, someone who craved attention and loved the media spotlight?  To some extent, as Ella Taylor points out, the answer is obvious: a little bit of both.  But I think the question itself is a little reductive.  Although the Kunstler daughters emphasize their father’s guilt about racism–and his belief that all whites are essentially guilty of racism–his overriding political beliefs seemed a little obscure to me.  To some extent, this seems like a result of the film’s “anguished dance around hagiography” (Taylor’s phrase).  It’s as if the daughters feel compelled to present a “warts-and-all” biography of their father and felt obligated to include some of the unsavory people he defended.  This approach to Kunstler’s story takes on a narrative of decline, with much of his work in the 1980s and ’90s (including his fight to protect flag burning as political speech) pushed to the side in order to fulfill that larger “theory” (to use their term).

There are some powerful moments that I felt deserved further emphasis.  During the Chicago Eight trial, one of the jurors, Jean Fritz, recalls that the judge in the case ordered that defendant Bobby Seale be bound and gagged and recalled feeling at that moment that she began to lose faith in her government.  But in many ways, the film seems to temper Kunstler’s conviction that the judicial system was balanced in favor of the rich and powerful and sometimes seems to force Kunstler’s story into a slightly reductive narrative from a radical awakening in the 1960s (after practicing “bread-and-butter” law for a decade or so) into decline during the 1980s and ’90s.  Still, it’s an important reminder of the important (and ongoing) fight for human rights and lawyer who played such an important role in many of those battles.

William Kunstler: Defending the Universe will be broadcast as part of PBS’s POV series on June 22.


The Kids Grow Up [Full Frame 2010]

If you’ve been following me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll likely know that I recently gave The Best Girlfriend Ever a Flip Camera for her birthday.  We’d talked about buying one for a while, in particular so that we can document an upcoming trip to Spain, but once I had a chance to play with the camera (here’s one recent effort), I found myself increasingly drawn to filming, recording even the most banal moments of everyday life.  But even though I enjoy playing with the camera, I’m conscious of how it shapes my experience these events, simultaneously saving their representation for later while also potentially distancing me from participating in the event itself, in real time, as it’s happening.  The Flip Camera, which is about the size of a cell phone, helps diminish that sense of distanciation, but no matter what, the camera’s presence shapes my interaction with the people I’m filming.

Playing with the camera in recent days has left me thinking about the genre of personal documentary, in particular Doug Block’s most recent film, The Kids Grow Up, a follow-up to his prior film, 51 Birch Street.  In The Kids Grow Up, Block traces the evolution of his relationship with his daughter (and only child), Lucy, as she finishes high school and prepares for college.  During an opening scene, Block comments that “nothing prepares you for letting go,” and The Kids Grow Up serves as his cinematic testament to that sentiment.  In conversations with his wife and Lucy, Block is forced to confront his own ambivalence about his daughter leaving home.  At the same time, although Lucy complies with his requests to appear on camera, she is also, quite often, a recalcitrant subject, demanding privacy during certain key conversations, both out of a sense of privacy and out of a desire for an unmediated relationship with her father.  The film traces a number of important coming-of-age moments: looking for colleges, meeting a new boyfriend, meeting a college roommate.  Throughout the film, we are made conscious that Block is filming, and the camera becomes the subject of many of the film’s conversations (and, sometimes, arguments), but at the same time, we often see Lucy making choices about self-presentation because of her awareness that she will later be watched.

Watching the film, quite naturally, reminded me of my own relationship with my girlfriend’s kids, who are both teenagers and will soon be leaving home, and although Block depicts an experience that might be familiar to many of us–the excitement (and difficulty) of watching a child grow up–he presents it in an honest and refreshing way. Like Anthony Kaufman, I appreciated Block’s approach to his subject.  As he points out, “Even though the film is ostensibly autobiographical, he focuses his lens on his daughter, his wife, and everyone else around him, which saves the project from navel-gazing.”  Because of the care Block uses in depicting his subject, The Kids Grow Up is a subtle, personal meditation, not only on the experiences of parenting but also on our contemporary habits of documenting those experiences, whether to hold onto them–and relish them forever–or simply to make sense of them.


How to Fold a Flag [Full Frame 2010]

Reviews of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (my response) tended to address the film’s hyperrealist aesthetic, its use of handheld camera and its visceral treatment of a squad of soldiers whose primary purpose is to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  In particular, reviewers latched onto the thematic hook proposed by the film that, as Chris Hedges puts it, “war is a drug.”  And although I found The Hurt Locker to be masterfully directed, the film seems to totalize the experiences of U.S. soldiers, reducing them to types.  When Jeremy Renner’s SFC William James stares blankly at an aisle of cereals, Muzak playing menacingly in the background, he seems to stand in for all of the soldiers unable to adjust to life after combat.

In that context, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s latest Iraq War documentary, How to Fold a Flag (IMDB), offers a welcome corrective by depicting the diverse ways in which soldiers adjust to life after combat.  This is Tucker and Epperlein’s fourth film documenting aspects of the Iraq War, and most of the subjects of How to Fold a Flag appeared in their first film together, Gunner Palace (my review), which portrayed a unit of soldiers stationed in a bombed-out palace belonging to one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.  Now, seven years after Gunner Palace helped to shape the genre of the Iraq War documentary, Tucker and Epperlein offer a complex portait of what it means to come home.

The film follows four soldiers, Javorn Drummond, a college student (who happens to attend Fayetteville State University, where I teach), and who also worked at a nearby hog processing plant; Stuart Wilf, the “class clown” of Gunner Palace, who now works as a convenience store clerk; Michael Goss, who is a professional cage fighter; and Jon Powers, who runs for Congress in his hometown community near Buffalo, NY.  Tucker also visits the family of Ben Colgan, a soldier who died during the time that Tucker was filming Gunner Palace, meeting with Colgan’s parents, who are active in the peace movement.

In weaving these stories together, Flag raises a number of questions about how veterans are welcomed back into the community, as well as the difficulty of communicating that adjustment to people who haven’t gone to war.  Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of returning home is how little things seem to change.  As Javorn describes it while giving a tour of house, a small shack north of Fayetteville, “when you come back from war, you come back to what you left behind.”  In Javorn’s case, that includes a somewhat distant relationship with his mom, a Brooklyn-based poet who is dying of cancer, as well as the struggles of paying the bills while working your way through college.

Michael Goss, on the other hand, seems utterly haunted by his experience of the war.  Before his cage-fighting matches, he wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the names of soldiers he served with who died during the war.  At the bottom of his list is his own name, with Goss saying that “the real Michael Goss died out there.”  The cage fights themselves offer a distorted, borderline surreal twist on patriotism, with Miss Louisiana singing the National Anthem, the riled up audience singing an off-key version of “Proud to be an American,” and even an ceremony of a group of soldiers joining the army.  When Goss fights, he seems to be fighting for his very soul, admitting at one point (after posting a violent war video on the web) that after being kicked out of the army he “lost his sense of home.”

All of the soldiers’ stories take place against a backdrop of American politics, a pageant that seems completely alien to the everyday challenges faced by Goss, Drummond, and others.  Wilf, somewhat ambivalently, attends Barack Obama’s DNC speech in Denver, remaining reflective while the crowds around him cheer at nearly every moment.  Wilf’s cynicism–he makes several humorous jokes about politicians–prevents us from fully embracing the electoral process as genuinely transformative, even while Jon Powers, running in a Democratic Congressional primary in New York, holds out hope for political campaigning.  We see Powers giving speeches, walking door-to-door, and marching parades, a sea of American flags waving along the side of the road while high school bands play.

By telling us these stories, Flag seems to be making two arguments: First, we need a more robust effort to help soldiers adjust to “normal” life after spending time in combat.  But second (and perhaps more crucial) is the point that we should not totalize (or universalize) the soldiers’ experiences.   For this reason, I found Peter Brunette’s review a little mystifying.  While Brunette faults the film for offering little more than post-Iraq War “hand-wringing,” I found little of that. Although several soldiers, including Courtney Massey, who participates in the flag-folding detail at many soldiers’ funerals, acknowledge the disillusionment about the war, the film is far more interested in telling us the personal stories of several soldiers who fought and reminding us that each one of them has his own story, and that they each face different challenges once they come home.


Waste Land [Full Frame 2010]

During the introduction to her documentary Waste Land, Lucy Walker modestly remarked, “this is a film about garbage.”  And, to some extent, it is about waste, garbage, dumps, refuse, and the people who patiently pick through the Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, in order to dig out the recyclable materials that have been tossed aside.  The dump and the workers who toil there become the subject of a massive and ambitious art project undertaken by Vik Muniz, an affable New York-based artist who grew up in a  working-class neighborhood in the city.

The workers who comb through massive mountains of garbage, many of which appear to be 30-40 feet high, are known as catadores, and although the work forces them to dig through smelly garbage, often for low wages, they are also able to recognize the value of what they do.  One older gentleman, Victor, reflects that every plastic bottle they find is one less that will clog up a landfill.  Many of the young women reason that the work is better than prostitution, and some of the young men have ambitions to organize a union or worker’s organization that will provide various forms of assistance.  One of the pickers, Tiao, enthusiastically discusses Nietzsche and Machiavelli with a colleague.

After learning about the dump and the workers, Vik Muniz embarks on a fascinating project: he wants to work with the catadores on creating a series of portraits that will depict not only the workers themselves but that will also incorporate the recyclable materials they pull out of the dump.  Initially, Vik takes photographs of several of the workers, many of them posing in imitation of famous works of art.  Some pose dramatically, relishing the attention given by Muniz and his crew.  Others gaze shyly toward the camera.  From there, Muniz rents out an art studio in Rio where he works with the catadores to arrange bottles, glass, and paper in the shape of the photographs he had taken previously.  This manufactured portrait is then photographed and presented as the object of art.  As the pictures begin to attract attention within the art world, the pickers relish the attention drawn to themselves and the work they do, with one of them remarking, “I never thought I would become a work of art.”

It would be easy for a film with this subject to feel exploitative, but Walker and Muniz demonstrate a remarkable self-consciousness about their engagement with the catadores.  Muniz seeks out the advice of the workers, while also ensuring that all proceeds from sales of this art go back into the community.  The sale of Tiao’s portrait at a London auction nets thousands of dollars to support the community center.  Others, though not all of them, see their lives improve in material–and sometimes immaterial–ways, thanks to their ability to se themselves differently after being transformed into art.

On an emotional level, the film is incredibly powerful.  It won the Audience Award at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.  But, like Peter Debruge of Variety, I was engaged, in large part, because of its meditation on art and the role of the artist in society (and like him, I was also reminded of Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and Me, a documentary that compares documentary filmmaking to the act of scavenging). As Arthur Ryel-Lindsey notes, both Muniz and Walker are attentive to questions about “the responsibility of the artist to his subjects.”  At the same time, the film offers a subtle environmental message about the value of recycling.  The sheer amount of garbage is almost breathtaking.  Finally, the film seems to offer art–the high art of galleries and museums in particular–as a means of redeeming waste and transforming it into something meaningful.


My Perestroika [Full Frame 2010]

Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika (IMDB), which won the Center for Documentary Studies Award at this year’s Full Frame, offers an engaging, subtle meditation on the profound changes that many Russian citizens felt during the last stages of Communism and the jarring transition into a capitalist economy.  Hessman, who lived for many years in Russia, tells this story through the lens of five Muscovites, including two teachers, a clothing retailer, a former punk rocker, and a billiards table repairwoman, who attended the same school during the late 1980s and early ’90s when Gorbachev introduced many of the principles of perestroika, and their stories offer a complex lens through we can view these broader historical changes.

As the film illustrates, the euphoric celebrations of the 1990s often obscured far more complicated realities.  Many of the film’s subject express nostalgia for the “simpler times” of the old USSR and acknowledge that they were rarely preoccupied with what happened in the West and had little desire to live there.  Of course, that lack of interest may have been fueled by anti-capitalist propaganda, which showed only the worst excesses of American life–crimes, protests, and poverty.  Hessman makes liberal use of this propaganda, often to humorous effect, but most of them recall that they rarely felt deprived, an attitude that may be changing in an era of iPods and other cultural commodities.  Others note the (unnecessary) competitiveness of capitalism, with Olga joking that her job title is manager, but “that’s what everyone is called,” while Ruslan, a former anti-bourgeois punk rocker, now busks for money on the subway rather than conforming to the new value system.

At the same time, the disillusionment with the electoral process runs through the film as an important theme.  Vladimir Putin casts a heavy shadow on all Russian elections, and many of the people who grew up under the old Soviet system no longer feel the need to vote or participate in the electoral process.  More than anything, I found myself thinking about how much their lives had become similar to my own: (American) chain stores dominate the urban landscape.  Parents worry about their children’s education and about paying the bills.  The biggest difference, perhaps, is the amount of vodka that is consumed on a daily basis.  But, overall, My Perestroika offers a quiet, subtle meditation on historical change and how that change is felt in individual lives.  Although it would be easy to see the subjects of the film as types, Hessman managed to draw each of them out as multi-faceted subjects with unique experiences. In all cases, the film helps to show that the political changes that took place in the old USSR under perestroika, which translates to restructuring, also served as a personal restructuring (“my perestroika”).


Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Even with all of the enthusiasm displayed during the 2008 presidential election, in which record numbers of voters turned out to cast a ballot, there remains a fundamental sense of cynicism about the ability to influence the political process.  Lobbyists on K Street seem to have far more power than individuals on Main Street, a feeling that was only reinforced when the Supreme Court recently ruled that the government may not restrict corporate spending in candidate elections.  This cynicism can, in some part, be tied to the actions of Jack Abramoff, a conservative lobbyist who built a massive lobbying business, often by playing multiple parties against each other (especially Native American tribes campaigning for the right to build casinos).  Abramoff profited immensely from these endeavors, even while he was able to build a massive political war chest, issues explored in Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

Gibney plays the Abramoff story with the right amount of humor and popular culture savvy, especially given Abramoff past history as a producer of highly conservative action films such as Red Scorpion, not to mention the sheer unreality behind Abramoff’s manipulations of the public trust, recalling Gibney’s earlier film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Like the Enron documentary, Gibney uses emails and phone calls that illustrate the sheer audacity of Abramoff’s behavior, with one email blithely remarking that “stupid people get wiped out,” in order to justify his actions.  This sense of entitlement is carefully rooted in Abramoff’s collegiate experiences as a member and leader of Republican organizations, where he met people like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed, who all sought to make Republicans cool and even rebellious (in an Alex P. Keaton kind of way, I suppose).  But in all cases, Abramoff and his band of Republican crusaders show a sharp-eyed understanding of political theater (illustrated in part by Tom Delay cutting red tape from a Statue of Liberty) and a willingness to do virtually anything to win a campaign.

Although it is entertaining to point up these absurdities, especially when Abramoff is behind bars and Republicans are in the minority in Congress, Gibney is also careful to show the consequences of Abramoff’s actions, especially his work in campaigning for sweatshop owners in the Mariana Islands, where workers making well below minimum wage work to manufacture clothing, much of which bears a Made in the USA label because of the location’s status as a commonwealth in political union with the United States.  Because the workers, many of which were brought in from other countries, often couldn’t make a living wage, many turned to prostitution.  Others were forced to pay expensive fees to be relocated to the Mariana Islands, which were deducted from their paychecks, essentially making them indentured servants.

The film is a little ambiguous on what Abramoff represents.  Although Gibney shows clips of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in order to ask whether we were hopelessly naive back then or whether our political system itself is now rooted in a money-driven cynicism, the film stops short of investigating whether Abramoff was an exception or whether he is the most visible system of a more corrupt system.  A brief clip of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald calling campaign financing “legalized bribery” offers us one answer.  But the most explicit answer is tied to the film’s relationship with Participant Productions, which is using the film to promote activism around the issue of electoral reform. Casino Jack helps to spell out a confusing page in recent political history by looking at the Abramoff trial and by looking at the implications of lobbyists.  In places, however, the film seems too focused on tracing out individual pathology rather than looking at the issue of corruption more systemically.


War Don Don [Full Frame 2010]

in focusing on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, one of the leaders of the Sierra Leone rebel forces, Rebecca Richman Cohen’s War Don Don asks a difficult and thought-provoking question: what role do war crimes trials serve? Do they offer the “justice” that citizens and survivors of the war want? Do they provide us with unambiguous answers about culpability or agency?  What happens when the enormous expense of the trials is measured against a country’s extreme poverty and need to rebuild after a brutal civil war.  To Cohen’s great credit, War Don Don (which translates to “war is over”) never offers simple answers, making the film one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I saw at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The film focuses on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, which lasted over five years and cost millions of dollars to conduct.  Sesay was the second in command of the RUF, under Fuday Sankoh, who is described by at least one observer as apuppet of Liberian President Charles Taylor.  The war itself is characterized by its extreme brutality.  RUF soldiers raped women, or “bush wives,” as they are euphemistically called, and took on underaged soldiers. But soon after Sesay took command from Sankoh, he quickly and unilaterally disarmed, bringing an end to the conflict, as his defense attorneys, led by Wayne Jordash, are quick to point out.  Prosecutors, including David Crane, complicate this defense by comparing the conditions in Sierra Leone to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and describing initiatives such as “Operation No Living Thing.”

Residents of Sierra Leone themselves seem ambivalent about the war crimes trial.  Many are unconcerned about whether Sesay is tried for his crimes.  Others point out that both sides used brutal techniques and add that the money invested in trying Sesay could be spent on rebuilding the country.  These questions are especially pertinent when we consider whether the trials are meant to arrive at the “truth” of what happened in Sierra Leone or whether they serve some greater purpose, such as national healing or legal justice.  Many, including Eldred Collins, question the reductive narrative about the RUF itself and see the rebellion as symptomatic of the nation’s problems with poverty and inequality, while adding that it’s unclear how much control Sesay might have had over individual soldiers.

Shot primarily in a talking-heads style, but supplemented with courtroom and news footage, War Don Don moves at a brisk pace while allowing the complexity of the issues at stake to unfold carefully.  It is an intelligent and engaging film that forces us to ask what happens after a war when a people tries to make sense of a national trauma.


12th and Delaware [Full Frame 2010]

One of the more compelling documentaries examining the Bush-era evangelical culture was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp.  The film obviously touched a nerve for me.  I wrote about it several times, and updated my main review multiple times, reflecting my own ambivalence about how the movie represented the politics of Christian fundamentalism.  Now Grady and Ewing have returned with another culture-war exploration, 12th and Delaware, which looks at the intersection between pro-choice and pro-life groups by looking, quite literally, at a Florida intersection where an abortion clinic and a pro-life pregnancy center are situated.  Grady and Ewing’s film is unapologetically pro-choice and often explicitly undermines pro-life misinformation, but it treats its subjects, especially the women seeking abortions or counseling, with a great deal of care and sympathy.

The film’s pro-choice politics are certainly clear.  The film challenges some of the pro-choice misinformation, such as the fabricated link between abortions and breast cancer.  At the same time, they use patients to challenge some of these false claims.  When a counselor tries to suggest that condoms aren’t especially effective, one patient retorts, “If I used the condom I wouldn’t be pregnant.”

Although such a project might seem to be redundant–most people have relatively clear positions on the issue of abortion–12th and Delaware seems less focused on persuading people to hold a specific political position than it is about the difficult choices that many women face when it comes to abortion, as well as the physical and emotional risks that abortion providers face on a daily basis.  As the film illustrates, the pro-life “Pregnancy Care Center” thrives on confusing women who are emotionally vulnerable, through the name of the clinic, choosing locations near abortion providers, and through props and other forms of “counseling” meant to make women reconsider their decision to have an abortion.  Due to incredibly active anti-choice activists, the abortion providers often fear for their physical safety. Doctors are driven out of the clinic undercover, and in one unsettling scene, a protester actually follows and seems to stalk the doctor.

Most powerful for me is the depiction of the patients who seek out abortions or even advice about what choice they should make.  Many of them, rather bravely in my opinion, appear on camera, absorbing the counseling from the pro-life clinic, and often challenging the primary counselor when she attempts to bribe patients with food and promises of care for the baby after its born.  The most powerful tactic of the pro-lifers is to take the women in for ultrasounds, with the hope that the image of the fetus will make the women reconsider.  Many listen patiently, others become fascinated by the image, and most find their way to the clinic across the street.  Similarly fascinating is the different rhetoric used by both sides.  The pro-lifers are immersed in the language of spiritual warfare and often use highly confrontational and graphic images in order to persuade women to chose not to terminate their pregnancy, while the clinic itself seems besieged and mostly saddened that they are unable to perform their work without facing almost daily threats.

Given the nature of this material, 12th and Delaware will no doubt polarize audiences.  More than anything, it is a window into a very complicated issue and a powerful portrait of the women who are often unwilling participants in this highly emotional conflict.

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The Mirror [Full Frame 2010]

David Christensen’s The Mirror has a quiet charm, offering what The Columbia Missourian describes as a “modern fairy tale” about a small Italian village, Viganella, nestled deeply in the Alps.  In fact, the village is so deeply nestled, a nearby mountain blocks the sun for 83 days every winter.  Most of the people in the village seem to welcome this seclusion and the simplicity that life in this remote community provides.  In fact, the Italy from Videocracy, another film I caught at Full Frame, seems to exist on another planet compared to the farmers who spend their spare time playing games in the local pub, attending mass, or quietly meditating at home.  Many of them, like Thomas, a forty-something farmer, seem content to have found a place to escape from the noise of the rest of the world.

But the village’s mayor, Piefranco Midali, develops an inspired idea: install a giant mirror in one of the nearby mountains that could reflect sunlight into Viganella during the winter.  Midali comes across as a cross between a showman and a dreamer.  We meet him during his full-time occupation as a coach driver, which he compares to his job as a mayor: you’re out among the public, meeting people and helping them.  And Midali’s main purpose for building the mirror initially seems to be to make it easier for people to socialize.  More light in the city square will make stopping and chatting in the winter afternoons a little more inviting.

And so Midali commissions a local contractor to build and install the giant mirror, a task that takes on almost mock epic qualities, especially when they learn that the mirror must be dropped into place by a helicopter, the mirror itself hanging precariously from a cable dangling below.  At first, Midali and the crew did not factor in the force of the wind created by the helicopter’s blades, and the mirror is badly dented.  Meanwhile, as the story builds, Midali and the village of Viganela become an international news story, with Midali cheerfully giving interviews over his cell phone or to the news crews who arrive to watch what happens.

As the Missourian review points out, The Mirror revels in the play of light and darkness, and the sheer excitement of watching the village of Viganella suddenly illuminated for the first time by the winter sun (even if it’s a reflected sunlight) is pretty contagious.  It’s difficult not to be charmed by Midali and the town’s inhabitants, and Chistensen’s camerawork helps you to become conscious of the play of light and shadows in our daily lives.


Videocracy [Full Frame 2010]

Note: This is the first in a series of reviews of films that played at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.

Many web surfers have probably stumbled across clips from Italian television on YouTube.  Studio hosts joke with laughing and cheering audiences during inane “talent” competitions while half-naked young women dance or pose beside the host in an absurd demonstration that the “vast wasteland” thesis about television may not be far from the truth.  Much like their American compatriots in the world of  reality TV, celebrity is seen by these competitors as a form of escape, whether from their boring workaday lives as mechanics or office workers or from the anonymity that makes them feel as if their lives lack purpose.  This fascination with celebrity may seem harmless, but when the Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi owns most of the country’s major TV stations and is, in some sense, the county’s biggest celebrity, these questions become a little more troubling.  Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini explores this phenomenon in his documentary, Videocracy, which he made, according to the Onion reviewer, out of a desire to explain Italy’s absurdities to his friends back in Sweden.

Gandini traces these absurdities by following three primary subjects: a soft-spoken mechanic who dreams of becoming a reality TV star, imagining himself to be a cross between Ricky Martin and Jean-Claude Van Damme; a famous talent agent who is introduced reclining in a pure white house and who demonstrates his admiration for fascism by playing his ringtone, which is a Mussolini “hymn;” and a papparazzo who attempts to use a prison stint to make himself into a celebrity, eventually to the point that he seems to lose touch with reality.

This exploration of the ways in which the fascination with celebrity might occlude political thinking is a worthwhile project, but like the Italian TV Videocracy sets about to criticize, the film gets lost in the funhouse of opulence and eye candy.  Shots of half-naked young women auditioning to appear on Italian TV are filmed in a gauzy, dreamlike fashion that only seems to reinforce–or even heighten–their prurience, as Ella Taylor points out in her Village Voice review.  Further, the film does little to convey the shallowness of political thinking.  There is no real guide through the Italian political scene, other than Gandini’s halting, impressionistic voice-over.  More striking, we never (or rarely) hear from any of the women striving to appear on these shows, much less anyone who is critical of them or of Berlusconi’s degree of control over Italian TV and politics.  Although the film has some strikingly funny and absurd moments, the film seems to enjoy much of what it is ostensibly criticizing.

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Wednesday Links

Just a few quick links while I procrastinate on grading some papers:

  • For the fourth year in a row I will be blogging from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, held annually in downtown Durham.  As always, I look forward to Full Frame not just because it presents some of the best documentaries out there but also because it coincides with the end of the academic year. My one beef with Full Frame is that they only screen each film once, often requiring guests to make difficult choices about what they’ll see and what they can skip.  The cinetrix has the lowdown on what’s playing and on some of the competing films.  Hoping to write a longer preview later this week.
  • Anne Thompson addresses some of the recent debates about the (over)use of 3-D, specifically for those films, such as Clash and Alice, that were “retrofitted” for 3-D after the success of Avatar and comes to a simple, logical conclusion: “it’s about greed.”
  • Ted Hope has a thorough report on a talk given by Peter Dekom (see also Dekom’s website), who expresses more than a little skepticism about some of the classic long-tail arguments.  I haven’t had a chance to play the entire lecture, but Hope’s summary suggests that it’s well worth a listen.