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« Tribeca 2019: "White as Snow" | Main | Soundtracking: Funny Games »
Wednesday
May152019

Doc Corner: Global Politics with AOC, Herzog, and Gorbachev

By Glenn Dunks

Two new documentaries cover politics in very different ways. One pounds the pavement on the trail of a brewing political movement from a relative newcomer, while the other examines the legacy of a presidential icon as directed by a man with nearly 40 documentary credits (and dozens more dramas) to his name.

Knock Down the House and Meeting Gorbachev are a fascinating pair; the scrappy underdog and the classic image of government. Although they have almost nothing in common beyond the surface, they offset one another, their strengths highlighting the others’ weaknesses in a particular way. One stands above the other in quality and in the sly way that they interrogate the long shadow of history...

In Knock Down the House, director Rachel Lears follows four women across America as they enter politics for the first time as progressive candidates challenging powerful, entrenched Congress incumbents in the primaries. One of her subjects is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and of the four she is favoured throughout the narrative for obvious reasons. She’s not only a very dynamic person, but she’s also the one who would go on to represent this particular movement in the actual House of Representatives.


It makes sense and she is a compelling focus that Lears wisely gets the most possible mileage out of without sacrificing her larger project. Whether Lears was extremely lucky or just very smart in her casting process, it only helps the film to have a subject who was since gone on to become one of the most prolific politicians in American politics seemingly both famous and infamous in equal measure.

Nevertheless, Lears gains great drama out of all the women, their stories reflecting a changing image of the American electorate often even in extremely trying circumstances. The film catches the grassroots groundswell that has not necessarily been able to truly usurp the status quo, but which we see has a fiercely devoted base from which to pull from.


The film is well-served by Lears’ own camera work that, while not flashy with theatrics, echoes the energy and the buoyancy of their campaigns with an appropriate efficiency. It calls back to Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary Street Fight that dug into the then political upstart Cory Booker’s campaign against ingrained New Jersey mayor Sharpe James. I also thought of Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s Rats in the Ranks from 1996, far and away the best political campaign documentary I can recall. Even if the political success of its subjects varies wildly, it ultimately says a lot about the need for this sort of radical political upheaval, the power it can muster and the far-reaching scope of its necessity.

Then there is Meeting Gorbachev where Werner Herzog shares directing credit for the first time with long-time producing partner Andre Singer (the pair go back to 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly). The film is built around several filmed conversations between Herzog and Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union. Throughout, Herzog attempts to reconcile the two nationalities; Germans and Russians have a history of conflict, after all. Most significantly, he also tries to get to the bottom of the legacy of the man who was once a wildly popular leader both at home and abroad, but whom now has the reputation of dirt in his home due to his part in the dismantling of the USSR and the diminishing of Russia’s international power.


Through their talks as well as archival footage, Herzog and Singer detail his life from his time in law school, his rise through the ranks of the Communist Party and the enacting of Perestroika that effectively ended the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Throughout all of this, Herzog appears far more interested in apologising for of his home country’s crimes than interrogating Gorbachev over his, something that somewhat robs the film of tension.

This is Herzog, however, and so traditional isn’t necessarily what one always gets. Within the more standard form of Meeting Gorbachev are many of the idiosyncrasies and directorial infections that popular Herzog’s work. Whether that be something as simple as a drone shot taking a sharp detour to follow a flock of birds in mid-flight, a presentation to Gorbachev of a chocolate plaque, or his famous poetic narration told through his thick German accent. They enliven an otherwise genteel picture. One that sees Herzog and Singer only allude to contemporary politics with an unnamed reference to Trump and footage of Putin lurking over the casket of one of the USSR’s deceased leaders as if counting down the corpses he will eventually need to take leadership (although at the time he likely never foresaw that he would be presiding over Russia and not the Soviet Union).

Sitting somewhere in the middle is a Guardian short documentary I wanted to mention called Marielle and Monica. A 25-minute look at Brazil’s political landscape through the prism of queer and racial civil rights. Primarily about the openly gay, dark-skinned political mover and shaker Marielle Franco, Fabio Erdos’ film also covers the race for President that found some success in the voting-in of minorities while at the same time floundering with an opening homophobic man into the largest office. Sound familiar? An eye-opening portrait of queer rebelion in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and a tribute to the same sort of political empowerment that gives Knock Down the House its power.


Release: Knock Down the House is currently streaming on Netflix, while Marielle and Monica is on The Guardian. Meeting Gorbachev is in limited release in America and touring the festival circuit elsewhere.

Oscar Chances: Netflix always has viable options for documentary categories, and Knock Down the House will probably rank a close second to the upcoming American Factory as the most viable. It'll be popular and the precence of AOC will only keep it in the public eye on through Oscar/primary season. Herzog has never been an Oscar favourite for whatever reason, and I don't see this one changing that. Marielle and Monica would make a fine addition to the documentary short subject shortlist, too (last year's nominee Black Sheep was also streaming on Guardian).

 

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Reader Comments (4)

I liked Knock Down the House. I admit, I was kind of irritated that AOC was monopolizing so much of the conversation. I agree with her politics, but I feel the media over-promote any politician from the Acela corridor with a pulse. However, I am totally over that after seeing the documentary, because she seemed like the real deal.

Cori Bush, who is also featured in the documentary (photo above), is really talented and is having another go at a run in the District that represents Ferguson in 2020.

That said, I am very interested in American Factory.

May 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I cried at the end of Knock the House Down when she talked about her dad.

May 15, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

I watched "Knock down the House" with an avid interest since I have worked on a few political campaigns at federal and local levels. I was impressed with the documentary itself, and extremely impressed with all of the candidates. I hope that Cori Bush and the other 2 candidates get some recognition and opportunities in the future. They all come across well. I understand that the travel budget was pretty meager so that was a factor in terms of there being more footage of AOC. (aside from the fact that she won).

AOC has a couple of stand out moments. There is the rather famous/infamous debate where Crowley sends a surrogate. He didn't even bother to show up. AOC made him pay - her speech at his expense is a classic.
Also, I was equally impressed at her dissection of a piece of Crowley's campaign literature, she lists of ways that it's over-produced, too glossy, and doesn't give the necessary details to a potential voter. This is not hype, she is truly a very sharp person, and a force to be reckoned with.

May 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Yes, I imagine many were hoping a movie about AOC would prove she's all smoke and mirrors and an ultra left wing socialist puppet, but she comes off as remarkably smart and effective and efficient.

I too hope the other women featured do not give up. They all have great stories that the film shows.

May 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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