Friday, February 26, 2016

Documentary Feature Film

Foreign film isn't happening. At least not before the Oscars air. I'm probably not even getting to snubs. Blame my dating life and my inability to learn how to use an alarm clock.

Documentary (Feature):

  • Amy
  • Cartel Land
  • Senyap (The Look of Silence)
  • What Happened, Miss Simone?
  • Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Amy is an interesting documentary in a number of ways, particularly due to the period Amy Winehouse lived in. Nearly the same age as myself, it is interesting to look at a career retrospective of someone that in a way, at least through my adulthood, I grew up with. The proximity of the film to her death gives it a unique feel partially in that there isn't the temporal separation that we might associate with, say, the Nina Simone documentary which deals in large part with events that happened years before Winehouse was even born. Too, the period that Amy Winehouse grew up in was a period of media saturation, so there is a plethora of documentation on her from her parents' home videos, friends' cell phone videos, and news coverage. With all of these pieces at their disposal, the creators of Amy were able to make not just a retrospective of the artist's popular career, or even her total career, but of her entire life. In that respect, Amy is incredibly novel and a major product of its time. We might not see another posthumous documentary of this sort for some time, but the ubiquity of life-long documentation will only allow more films to look like this. Stylistically, Amy had its pitfalls, to be sure. Perhaps the biggest amongst them was the overlaying of Winehouse's song lyrics which reminded me of the tragic parts of MySpace and LiveJournal that we'd all rather leave behind. The script playing across the screen came off as distracting more than informative, and, while helpful, served to undermine the film's and Amy's own artistry. Throughout, there were incredibly morbid clips of Amy prophesying her own tragedy with haunting lines like "I don't think I could handle it if I was famous. I think I'd go mad." It is through this morbid lens of Amy Winehouse, though, that we are able to contextualize and humanize her struggles, and, in doing so, Amy Winehouse becomes a human lens through which we are able to understand her alcoholism and bulimia rather than the other way. Amy herself always knew that fame would ruin her, and so, it is her fame that is her Achilles' heel, not the addictions that we might seek to use in understanding her as a person. And that might be the most interesting thing about Amy: while being an artful documentary, it humanizes Winehouse's fame and pitfalls and therefore carries all the depth and pathos of a tragedy unfolding before us.

Cartel Land has a premise to begin with that I had a lot of concern with going in to viewing it. Centering itself around two different groups fighting to save their countries from Mexican drug cartels, one on the Usonian side and one on the Mexican side, Cartel Land at least sounds like it has potential. Unfortunately, it is produced by Kathryn Bigelow whom I am growing to view more strictly as an ethnic nationalist. Where her fictional features Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker were propagandist drivel, the documentary she has helped create centers around the terror of the brown person. Where Cartel Land attempts to portray two sides to the same story, the gaze of the creators instead casts both sides in the same shade as it fearmongers against Mexico and disparages it of its ability to govern itself. The Americans are racists who claim they aren't racists and are given a platform to make fun of the Southern Poverty Law Center in its designation of them as a hate group. Meanwhile, the most honorable Mexicans in all the land are inadequate, corrupt men who are simply a proto-cartel waiting for public and governmental support to mature into a full-fledged oppressor. Cartel Land is a sad excuse for a documentary in exactly the same way Donald Trump is a sad excuse for a politician - emotionally persuasive and clever at playing the game perhaps, but ultimately dangerous.

Following up on 2012's The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer brings together in The Look of Silence an optometrist Adi Rukun and the men that killed his brother Ramli during the Indonesian genocide of "communists" in the '60s. Again, the candidness of the perpetrators of the genocide is disturbing, but it is on account that they believe that they are untouchable, perhaps rightly so as they now hold the governmental offices. In one particularly horrifying scene, one of them tells Adi that the only way to not go crazy in those times was to follow the standard practice and drink the blood of one's victims. It is salty and sweet, he tells us. Another time, the killers who were bribed to spare Ramli's life describe and reinact in detail his murder. They go on to say that he was probably a good man but "what could we do? It was a revolution." On the murder of a million people, the head of the legislature since 1971 disgruntedly clarifies "That's politics. Politics is the process of achieving one's ideals... in various ways" before breaking into a contemptuous chuckle. Despite being much the same subject matter as The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence differs in its lens. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer, the western documentarian, comes to Indonesia and captures terrifying but rather surface level responses from his subjects. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer shows Adi the footage regarding his brother's murder. From there, instead of Oppenheimer making the murderers comfortable in their exposition, Adi sought to bring them accountability in asking much more uncomfortably pointed, political questions. The Look of Silence loses much of the surrealism of its predecessor, but in doing so, it gains a necessary humanity.

Like Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone? largely follows the descent of its superstar. Instead of an inability to stop drinking, however, Simone is ground down by family and racial injustice. Where Amy gave us a complex life that invites compassion, Simone gives us a superficial view of a woman that the film works to minimize - not that it has to work hard at times as her own daughter recounts her mother's abusiveness. Instead of a musical genius, tortured as she may be by patriarchal abuse and racially motivated blacklisting, her character is spun into a stereotypically loud, angry, violent black woman. Is that why What Happened, Miss Simone? is so beloved? Because it fits into our preconceived racist stereotypes? Because it tears down a beloved black woman? When it comes down to it, I'm not sure how much I can speak on Simone lacking the cultural upbringing that would allow me to relate, but the film doesn't make any effort to bridge that ignorance. It can't. Director Liz Garbus doesn't have that education, either. And, so, Simone fails in being misunderstood in the same way, perhaps, that Simone herself is misunderstood. Both are irresponsible, but one is human while the other is an intentioned creation.

Winter on Fire follows a recent surge in protest films from 2012's 5 Broken Cameras to 2013's The Square and Karama Has No Walls. Again, we're given a hundred minutes of hopeful youth and oppressive governments. Starting when Ukraine's president broke a promise he was elected on and moved to merge Ukraine with Russia instead of the European Union, a student protest sought to reverse the decision and fight for a better future for themselves and their children. Like so many other populist movements that originate with loud crowds and passionate slogans, the real success of the Maidan revolution is suspect. While they succeeded in the ousting of Yanukovych, they lost a portion of their country when Russia annexed Crimea. For all of their fighting to preserve Ukraine as a European Union state and all of Yanukovych's fighting to preserve Ukraine as a Russian pawn, the two parties ultimately tore their beloved in half. It was that annexation that then garnered headlines and wiped from Western consciousness all that the Maidan revolution fought for. Like the social pattern of the other revolution documentaries, Winter on Fire, too, lacks much in the way of objectivity, but instead it channels both the violence as well as the hope and pride that the Ukrainians were fighting their oppressors with. Informative and passionate, Winter on Fire follows in important footsteps, but ultimately one has to wonder just how productive it is.

This is going to come down to Amy and The Look of Silence. Like in 2014, I suspect that Oppenheimer will fall to a film on pop music (with a film on student revolution falling by the wayside just for synchronicity's sake). Amy has a lot going for it, to be certain, and my guess is that it will be of a form that will be imitated as career retrospectives in the digital age become more and more normative. Does that make it groundbreaking and influential or simply the benefactor of its time? My leaning is toward the latter. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer should have been recognized for The Act of Killing, but The Look of Silence I don't think is the film that is going to accomplish that.

Should win: Amy
Will win: Amy

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