Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Documentaries: Feature and Short Subject

I start a serious bout of writing that will optimally conclude with the Best Picture article on Saturday. I'm doubling up the short films with their closest feature length category, so, while I'll still be putting out an article a day, I'll be covering ten films instead of five. I'm also going to combine adapted and original screenplay, and best picture of course has nine nominees. Over the next five days, I should be writing about forty-nine films.

What was I thinking when I wrote this schedule?

I had the pleasure of catching the short films in the theater, but many of them are available as of today online, so you're not too late. Maybe.

The nominees for documentary short subject are

  • CaveDigger
  • Facing Fear
  • Karama Has No Walls
  • The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
  • Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Cavedigger follows Ra Paulette as he digs caves in the sandstone of New Mexico. Hah, caves. The man builds underground cathedrals bordered by the earth and lit by the sun. You get a view of some of his previous works (finished and otherwise) as well a glimpse of his work on his magnum opus. Unlike many documentaries of the exposé sort, CaveDigger leaves you wondering breathlessly about the beauty of the world, the creativity of people, and very nearly saw me booking the next flight to New Mexico to work for free. The journey felt focused and tight, and the payoff a treasure of beauty.

As CaveDigger highlights the better features of humanity, Facing Fear starts with the worst. It tells a tale of a skinhead who participated in a hate murder of a gay kid, only it turned out the victim lived. They met years later volunteering in a tolerance museum, and the story follows their tense personal journeys to understanding and acceptance as they were thrust into co-presenting their story before either had come to terms with their situation. It's a beautiful story, but for all the emotional baggage it carries, it never quite seemed to unpack it and was never as powerful as it might have been.

Karama Has No Walls (Karama translates to "dignity"), details Juma'at El-Karma - Friday of Dignity March 18th 2011 - a turning point in the Yemeni revolution telling the story through the hand held cameras of two protesters and two protesters' fathers. That was a day that people on the side of the government built walls around the square, lit fires, and ultimately shot into the crowd. The hand held camera footage is all unstaged from the event itself and is absolutely brutal to watch as you see humans shot, bleeding out, dying in the dust and their peers rushing in to stem the bloodflow and get them to safety amongst sniper fire. It's an incredibly hard watch, and it's edited together very well. The story is robust and illuminating without being too far reaching. It could have easily been made into a feature length documentary, but at twenty-six minutes it never sprawls too far to dilute the message. It achieves maximum emotional impact and is the sort of story that only with the recent ubiquity of personal cameras can really be told in this way.

As depressing as Karama Has No Walls is, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life is unexpectedly upbeat. The film follows 109 year old pianist Alice Herz-Sommer (who died two days ago at the age of 110), the oldest holocaust survivor as she retells her time surviving and shares her unending joy of how every day - even the bad - is beautiful. When people talk about gleaning wisdom from older generation, this is the pinnacle of what they can share.

As generations of prisoners with life sentences age, the prison system faces new and ever-growing problems such as: what to do with terminally-ill patients in their last days. Iowa State Penitentiary attempts to address this with a prisoner created and operated two-room hospice. Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall tells exactly what you think it might, the dying days of a veteran through the lens of a prison hospice. It was an enlightening look on the emerging issues facing the prison-industrial complex as well as the long ignored problems of training people to problem-solve with murder abroad and then expecting them to turn that off when they return home. It's a heavy and informative film that absolutely deserves a watch.

Watching all of these in one sitting was a brutal and beautiful chore. Facing Fear was the only one that didn't strongly resonate with me, and I have a really hard time narrowing it down because of the incredible diversity of quality themes. Karama Has No Walls was a necessary film of a sort only recently made possible. The Lady in Number 6 was a treasure I'll find great value in watching again to remind me of the beauty of life. CaveDigger seems the most trite of all the films, but at the same time, it's the one that nearly spurred me to action. All three films really illuminated something generally unknown to most, and all had tight editing to craft and pace the story with deft precision. I hate picking between these exquisite films, but I'm personally going to side with CaveDigger simply because of how much the creation of beauty resonated with me. I have no idea how to judge who the actual winner will be, But I think it will be either Karama Has No Walls or The Lady in Number 6 and *flips coin* I'm going to guess Karama Has No Walls.

I've had slightly more experience with the documentary features than the short subjects. I haven't seen all of these, but I'm surprised that film likes Blackfish, The Stories We Tell, After Tiller, God Loves Uganda, and Leviathan didn't get nominated. There were a lot of really solid documentaries this year, and I should be kept busy through the dry - cinematically speaking - spring season with them. Blackfish was certainly hurt as the trainers in the film came out against it just before votes for nominations were cast. Leviathan, a film seemingly devoid of script, plot, or dialogue hinging entirely on theme and the intimacy of filming perspective was one of the more original (I'm sure it's not) concepts I've seen in a while. I'm really looking forward to getting to the other three as well as the full slate of other highly regarded documentaries from this year. I did, however, get to all the nominees which are

  • The Act of Killing
  • Cutie and the Boxer
  • Dirty Wars
  • The Square
  • 20 Feet from Stardom

Good gravy, The Act of Killing; is this movie serious? Joshua Oppenheimer goes into Indonesia and gets death squad leaders to reenact their murders as though for feature films. There was significantly less of the dramatic reenactment and more behind the scenes footage and interviews which led to a heavy and deep look at these men. There are lines about killing happily and declarations that "We can make [a film] more sadistic than what you see in movies about Nazis. Sure I can!" that are mind-numbing. Listening to mass-murderers go on about how they basically have to distort reality and truth to live with what they've done, to watch broken faces say that they don't feel guilt, to hearing about these men waking up screaming from nightmares over their atrocities is a truly rare and eye-opening experience. In the end there's a sense of remorse which is quickly washed away with an ease that comes only from ignoring years of war crimes one has committed. The film is punctuated with gracious surreal moments just as it's getting entirely too real. It finishes with a long pause begging you to think, reflect, and discuss.

Cutie and the Boxer follows two struggling artists Ushiro Shinohara who paints on roughly 12'x8' canvas with sponge-soaked boxing gloves and his wife Noriko AKA Cutie. It's a beautiful and tragic story of Ushiro's recklessness and alcoholism and Noriko's naivete and faithfulness. It was a pleasure to watch, but never quite connected* as viscerally as I would have hoped. It's also, like their careers, a bit sprawling, disconnected, and perhaps never entirely redeeming.

Dirty Wars takes us right back to Yemen as the journalist who lifted the veil on Blackwater tries to delve deeper into US covert military operations, covered-up murders, and the then-shadowy organization JSOC (the group ultimately responsible for the death of Osama bin Laden). This is as necessary a film as there is in the group and Jeremy Scahill takes us on a winding investigative thriller that begs you to take a second look at the US government's dealings from the President on down. Unfortunately, at the end of this thriller, Scahill himself says "I realize now the story has no end." Dirty Wars is a necessary watch, but the obvious and unfortunate lack of resolution leaves a distasteful openendedness which can truly only be addressed outside of the film theater and instead in the military and political theaters.

Where Karama Has No Walls is a look at violence in a revolution, The Square looks at the mostly peaceful revolutions in Egypt's Tahrir Square. There is a lot of really intimate footage here, but like the revolutions, the film felt like it wanted to gain a voice but wasn't quite sure what to do once it had. As the revolutions continued and evolved replacing figureheads from Mubarak to Morsi, so the film felt like it continued to evolve and replace one artistic focus with another. While an important look at an important moment in history, The Square felt like message given a voice and unable to focus itself into something powerful enough to last.

Where the previous three films felt a little unfocused, 20 Feet From Stardom knew exactly where it wanted to start and finish and the precise story it wanted to tell. I'd gone in expecting something much more banal having been used to the inanity of backup eyecandy which the film addresses as having come into existence in the last two or three decades. The voices and stories here are of vocalists lending power on records by artists from David Bowie to Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson and including stars the likes of Sheryl Crow that had moved on to solo work. It was an illuminating look into the real talent in those backup vocalists' voices, why they might prefer backup work and why they might never have succeeded in their solo careers. It was a wonderful and unexpected exposition.

Again, these all have really important stories to tell. They're all valuable watches in their own respect. The real standout is The Act of Killing which is a film as truly harrowing as it is surreal. A part of me wants to watch it over and over again to begin to understand just what happened there, and a part of me wants to try as hard a possible to forget it. I find myself in a much less significant analogue to the death squad leaders of enjoying the relived experiences and wanting to lie to myself as deeply as necessary so that I never have to feel the pain that's been presented.

*I didn't even make a boxing pun!

No comments:

Post a Comment