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Doc Corner: Awards Hopefuls 'Abacus' and 'Last Men in Aleppo'

by Glenn Dunks

First off, apologies for the sporadic columns over the last two months. My day job for this time period has been behind the scenes of a film festival and there’s something about working 14 hours a day that just makes coming home and doing more writing somewhat less alluring? As a soft apology, here is a look at two films. They have next to nothing in common other than that we may see their names pop up here or there come award season.

The first is Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a film about an institution – the Abacus Federal Savings Bank of Chinatown, not even one of the top 2000 banks in the country if I saw the stats correctly – that became the only American bank to be criminally indicted in the wake of the financial sector crisis of 2008. The modesty of its subjects, both corporate and human, clearly rubbed off on James who has crafted a standardly assembled yet no less enthralling documentary about what is now a particularly peculiar footnote in the history of American law...

James’ presence here is minimal, both as a filmmaker (unlike Hoop Dreams) and definitely not personally (like it was in Life Itself). Instead he has chosen to let this story unfold as it happens with a somewhat refreshingly laid back ease. At a rather chilled 90 minutes, James’ film could easily come across as too minor (or at least minor-key), but I felt it worked a sort of simple quiet magic. I particularly enjoyed the way he let his interviewees view the words of the other talking heads and respond, often with a dose of humour. I liked how he would often focus on one person during a family argument, allowing us to be amused by their attempts at having their say. I found its treatment of the audience refreshing, relishing at the lack of bombardment of facts and figures from statisticians and experts attempting to explain a very large problem in a very small amount of it; Inside Job this is not. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail may lack directorial flair, but it has a modesty befitting its subjects and I found that just right.

Next is Firas Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo, the latest in a long line of documentaries about Syria. Fayyad is credited as co-directing alongside eight others who helped tell this story. It’s a story that many may feel they have already seen – and certainly, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short, The White Helmets featured footage that is re-contextualised here – but which nonetheless still feels vitally important.

This is a film that is at its best when following the old chestnut of wisdom that is show don’t tell. The sight of jets flying overhead and the camera slowly following bombs as they fall towards the earth below, the joy that quickly dissipates as a picnic is interrupted by more jets, market scenes as greengrocers attempt to continue making a living, and a superbly haunting dream sequence that is the only moment in the movie that attempts to more deliberately and carefully frame the devastation into something still and artistic with the aid of droid cameras.

The rescue sequences, of course, are likely what people will remember the most and where the majority of its greatest impact comes from. And they are often tragic as when lifeless babies and young children are pulled out of the rubble to the sounds of devastating mourning and political cursing fills the air. Other times there is joy, like when Khaled Harah, the most recognisable leader of this branch of the Helmets, shows his young children footage on his phone of his rescue of a child.

Rightfully so, Last Men in Aleppo works ultimately as a tribute to the white helmet heroes and a requiem of sorts to the Syria that they remain dedicated to helping and preserving in the face of great danger. Surprisingly, no legwork is made to educate audiences about who these men are beyond their names, thankfully and wisely choosing to not waste the time on something that should be prevalent quick enough no matter your knowledge of the situation in Syria. The camerawork is particular worthy of recognition given the fast-paced conditions. The footage captured by Mojahed Abo Aljood and Thaer Mohammed is always fluid and remarkably smooth, edited by Michael Bauer and co-director Steen Johannessen into a handsome final product that nevertheless knows when to deliver its audience a startling shock. Its repetitious, sure, but that’s part of the point.

I said at the top that neither of these films had much in common at all, but perhaps their greatest similarity is that they both get down to the matter at hand relatively quickly. Considering they are dealing with subjects that fans of non-fiction will have surely crossed paths with already, this busy bee was most appreciative.

Release: Both are in limited release right now, spreading nationally as success dictates.
Oscar Chances: Last Men in Aleppo should be a good early bet for a nomination considering we had three documentary shorts about Syria nominated last year! This one will surely remain the most high profile of the lot, even if its director is an unknown quantity to the branch. Alternatively, Steve James’ name might be enough to at least push Abacus into the pre-nomination shortlist, but the film is likely too small – modest even (yes, that’s still the perfect word for it) – to go futher.

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