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Entries in documentaries (103)


Documentary Short Finalists: A Closer Look at This Oscar Crop

You can watch the Kehinde Wiley documentary here from PBSAs you may have heard, the finalist list for the Documentary Short Oscar has been announced. It is 8 films wide from which (presumably) 5 nominees will emerge though remember in the Aughts when it was usually 4 nominees which is so annoying. (Symmetry please, Oscar). Among those 8 films we have a few about illness (The Lions Mouth Opens, Joanna, Our Curse), one about the arts (Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace) one environmental picture (White Earth) one picture Nathaniel will never be able to sit through because it's about slaughterhouses (The Reaper) which means he can't have a perfect Oscar record this year, and one about a natural disaster (One Child) which killed thousands but which focuses on three families.

The complete absence of World War II / Holocaust related docs will make your Oscar pool way harder this year. Sorry about it. Half the films are in English with Spanish, Chinese, and two from Poland filling the other half. You can read more about these films on the animation/documentary page which has been fully updated this morning with links to official sites and trailers.

For comparison's sake here are the trailers to Joanna and Our Curse. Get this: They're both about families dealing with incurable life-threatening illnesses, they're both from Poland, and they're both debut films from their directors Aneta Kopacz and Tomasz Sliwinski respectively

JOANNA by Aneta Kopacz - trailer for the short documentary (40') from Wajda Studio on Vimeo.


You can read more about the individual entries and where to watch the films or purchase them on the updated Animation & Documentary Oscar Chart 


NYFF: Telling Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Our NYFF coverage continues - here is Jason on the serial-killer documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper.

As much as Tales of the Grim Sleeper is about telling the tales of the South Central Los Angeles based serial killer, who killed anywhere from ten to over a hundred women, presumed to be mostly drug addicts and prostitutes, over the course of twenty-plus years, Nick Broomfield's tremendously effective documentary slowly reveals itself to be more than these pieces - really its the very existence of these pieces, and the crew's ability to suss them out one after the other, that forms the true tale, which is one of a police department's indifference to the horrors being visited upon a poor, black community already destroyed by poverty, drugs and violence, and what those blind eyes have helped wreak.

Step back and look at what I just wrote to maybe assess some of the scope of the systemic failure on hand here - anywhere from ten to one hundred women. Over the course of twenty years. When Broomfield allows the doc's score to slide into subtle variations on the Psycho and Halloween theme music it's hard to decide if its the serial murderer or the black-hole absence of law-enforcement that's truly inspiring the horror show here. The wall that goes up from the LAPD is certainly far more frightening than any Michael Myers mask.

That's not to say that the Grim Sleeper himself - 57 year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was arrested in 2010 and is still awaiting trial - is by any means let off the hook here. The film drops itself down into his skeptical community (literally using Google maps to fall right into its tree-less urban endlessness) in the wake of his arrest and picks away at their distrust (distrust of these white documentary film-makers, or of anyone showing concern really) to piece together the picture of a man very clearly capable of much awfulness. His neighbors and friends and eventually his victims, finally given a voice, have, whaddya know, an awful lot to say.

But Franklin's probable guilt (and the horrific details that we come to form that opinion with) is not so much what you walk away from the film with - it's the fact that nobody has been bothering to listen to these voices before now that haunts - the years and the bodies that have been allowed to pile up. The lasting mark that Tales of the Grim Sleeper reveals is that of the erasure of the basic humanity from an entire community, and the vacuum that leaves in its wake. The guardians have ignored their oaths - it is they who sleep, the gates unmanned, allowing these grim nightmares to take root.


NYFF: Debra Granik's 'Stray' Doc

New York Film Festival is in its final week and here is Glenn on Debra Granik's documentary 'Stray Dog'.

Debra Granik’s last film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and catapulted its lead star into super-stardom. Naturally, she hasn’t made a film since. Just like Patty Jenkins, Kimberly Peirce, Courtney Hunt and more, it appears newfound success doesn’t necessarily breed an open door (or open checkbook) to future career possibilities for many female directors. We were recently talking about this in regards to Kimberly Reed, but artists tend to find a way to release their creativity, and so while Granik wasn't able (or at least hasn’t yet managed) to get adaptations of Russell Banks’ novel Rule of the Bone or a signposted HBO series off the ground, she has taken on the reigns of a documentary, a first for the Tennessee native.

Granik and her producing partner Anne Rosellini discovered the title character of Stray Dog, a Missouri-living biker and Vietnam veteran, when filming Winter’s Bone in 2009. Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall looks imposing, but as Granik’s wonderfully quiet and observant documentary shows, he is a man with demons. Much like all the other men who returned from the Vietnam war and others like it, he can’t get the images of death and destruction out of his head. Throughout the film he and his friends all struggle to hold back tears – many unsuccessfully – as they recall the nightmarish visions they witnessed for the sake of their country (a country that shamefully doesn’t do its due diligence in helping them).

Material like this is rife with the possibility of condescension. The idea that highbrow audiences will be watching this film and marveling at how they never knew those motorbike-riding hicks from the flyover states could be so gosh-darn nice, entertaining and feel good. Luckily Granik’s film swerves away from that, never letting the material approach caricature or colorfully adding mocking stylistic affectations or local music to make a point that, lol, they have such adorable small town attitudes (another NYFF doc, Red Army about a Russian hockey team, does just that).

One of the film’s most interesting passages comes late in the runtime as Alicia, Ronnie’s Mexico-born wife, goes back home to fetch her two children to come back and live with them. The boys with the lack of English and expectations of California sun and palm trees as seen in the movies makes for a fascinating transition and I almost wish it hadn’t have arisen so late in the production and had allowed Granik to follow it further. However, the story of the boys is nicely juxtaposed to that of Stray Dog himself. All of them are grabbing at the American dream, but Ronnie has been doing it for decades, hoping to stop the horrors of war from squandering the life he’s been able to make for himself. B+


NYFF: Syria Plays Itself in 'Self-Portrait'

New York Film Festival is going strong and here is Glenn on one of the finest works of non-fiction at the fest.

A young boy named Omar walks through the rubble-strewn streets of Syria followed by a woman with a camera. He picks flowers, his eyes pop and at something as simple as the size of a plant’s leaves, and giggles as his inquisitive mind asks questions to his unseen follower. The boy then tells the woman with the camera that they shouldn’t go down a certain street because there are snipers down there. It is spoken with such nonchalance by the child that one might assume he’s just re-enacting dialogue from a computer game or perhaps a movie. Rather it's just an average day in the life of this child as he navigates his way through his hometown of Homs.

This is a moment, a very confronting one, from Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait and the woman with the camera is Wiam Bedirxan. She is a young Kurdish activist and school teacher trapped in her home-country under heavy fire and also the co-director of this rather exceptional documentary who worked in collaboration via Facebook, Gchat and Skype with the politically exiled Ossama Mohammed who had previously fled to France and made this movie by compiling video from a reported 1001 Syrians who filmed the deadly revolution of their country on mobile phones and with photographs, uploaded to the internet platforms like YouTube, effectively creating a patchwork of a self-portrait of this nation under siege.

The conceit is a brave one especially given the quality of many of the images – footage, especially early on, is taken by Syrian men and women on the run from bullets, shelling and blood-loss; in one scene somebody gives chase after their phone, constantly filming, is nabbed by a passerby only to turn a corner and discover the thief has been shot and killed – and yet it is one that entirely works. It’s perhaps crude and the boxy, mis-shapen, heavily pixilated footage is rough around the edges, but it’s that very personal take from the frontlines that makes the documentary work. The assemblage is captivating and paints a picture that feels both broad and intimate at the same time.

Punctuated by somewhat cryptic title-cards and interspersed with even-harder-to-watch footage of maimed felines and youths being tortured that should wrench tears even out of audiences who feel desensitized by the onslaught of grim Syrian news. I could have done without the familiar bubbling sound of Skype that appears increasingly in the film’s tail-end, but the way it presents a country at a terrible crossroads is fresh and unique, penetrating through the glut of war documentaries in much the same way as The Square (albeit less accessible – Netflix won’t be acquiring this one). B+

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait screens on Wednesday Oct 8 (6.15pm)


NYFF: From Russia with Love and 'Pomegranates'

New York Film Festival isn't just about the new. Here is Glenn on the restoration of Sergei Parajanov's 1968 avant-garde classic 'The Color of Pomegranates'.

Conversing at a bar last Friday night after the premiere NYFF screening of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, I mentioned to Nathaniel that I knew what shot I would choose for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. I’m not sure about you, but I frequently find myself attempting to work out what my selection would be when I watch a movie. As I’ve mentioned previously, I am very much into the visual and formal aspects of a film so whether it’s a cheap horror movie or a prestige epic my eyes attempt to scope these things out.

Which brings me to the restoration of Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates (also known as Sayat Nova). This, quite frankly, is a film in which it would be impossible to find just one single piece of imagery to label the best.

Click to read more ...


NYFF: The Look of Silence

The New York Film Festival begins this Friday, and here our pre-coverage continues with Jason taking on Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Look of Silence.

It was Winston Churchill who said that, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." And so it's gone for as long as there has been war, or even just one caveman bonking another caveman on the head with a bone fragment a la the opening scenes of 2001 - to the winner goes the watering hole, the bragging rights, the spoils. Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer smells those spoils, and they stink.

The Look of Silence follows up on the promise of Oppenheimer's brilliant 2012 documentary The Act of Killing with devastating precision - where that first film took a long strange trip past some surreal dance routines slash murder reenactments performed by those on the "winning" side of history after the 1965 Indonesian genocide, Silence trains its eye on those left devastated in the wake of that original horror, those who continue to live under the thumb - much is made of how these people are neighbors, seeing each other every day - of those in power who now gleefully recount the atrocities, ones which viewed backwards through the lens of rose-colored self-righteousness and propaganda seem, to them, to be patriotism, heroism.

Oppenheimer picks at the scab of scarcely buried history - a "wound" is continually referred to, and he makes you feel as if the muddy floor of the jungle might flood open with gore at any moment. These villages seem wet with it - brown rivers run buoyed with invisible bodies, ghosts heavy and thick in the air like electrical storms. The victors can sense it too; they swat at the camera's insinuations like there's a cloud of gnats too small for us to see, their lips tremble, and as the rumbling in their bellies uneases them they try to squirm their way free - they're proud of their accomplishments until the script flips and they suddenly feel looked upon, and after that it's a torrent of equivocations: "I wasn't the one in charge," "I was just doing my duty," and on.

As with The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence feels extraordinary to even exist, especially in a day and age such as this where we can't really wrap our minds around people (especially politicians) not ten sentences and head-nods ahead of how they're coming off - but then, why should these men care? They won, at whatever cost - like mankind in God's image, like a rib torn from Adam to craft Eve, the past was molded and built by the beat of their bloodied knuckles. It is written.

At one point the daughter of one of the murderers illustrates this generational gap - the way the reality of the past has been sanded down with willful and precise misrepresentation - and as we watch her resolve shake upon hearing the truth what he father's heroism really consisted of it's as potent as a tidal wave. These people are neighbors alright, but only some of them seem to know their houses are build upon fields of blood and bones and unaccounted-for barbarism. And those who know, they watch and they wait, hoping someone - an Old Testament God seems as if not more likely than an American documentary filmmaker - will give voice, and vision, to their pain.


The Look of Silence screens at NYFF on Tuesday September 30th at 6:30pm and on Wednesday October 1st at 9pm.


NYFF: Ethan Hawke Introduces 'Seymour'

The New York Film Festival begins this Friday and Glenn continues our pre-fest coverage by looking at 'Seymour: An Introduction'.

It’s curious that Ethan Hawke has appeared on screen this year with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and now returns behind the camera (after Chelsea Walls and The Hottest State) to direct Seymour: An Introduction. Curious because both films get their life-source from demographics at opposite ends of the age spectrum that are both treated somewhat like lepers of cinema. Teenage boys in Boyhood and kindly old senior citizens aren’t usually treated with such respect and humility as these two Hawke projects. I have not seen Hawke's two previous directorial efforts, but this first foray into documentary is a nice step for this Hollywood stay who has clearly wrestled with being an artist in an industry that doesn't necessary encourage it.

Having said that, this “introduction” to the 86-year-old (I hope I am remembering the age correctly as information about it appears non-existent online) suffers from, perhaps, too much of a need to be charming, rarely digging deep enough into this man’s life to eke out a portrait of lasting relevance. Seymour: An Introduction is nice and lovely and 80 minutes spent with delightful company, but while Hawke flirts with finding something deeper within the renowned pianist’s history to delve into – a brief snipped mentions he has lived alone in the same apartment for 57 years; he begins to tear up at recalling his days performing for troops in Korea – they are shortlived.

Hawke instead prefers to keep his film predominantly observational to his life as it stands today. He tutors students of various ages, performs open-to-the-public masterclasses (which are the film’s highlights), goes for tea at Tipsy Parson café on 9th Avenue, and extols wisdom with bonmots such as “without craft there is no artistry” and “if you feel inadequate as a musician, then you’ll feel inadequate as a person.” His observations about classical music, particularly as it pertains to one’s own personality including the masculinity of Pollock, Brando and Beethoven, are enlightening. So, too, are the occasional memory lane throwbacks to other famed pianists like Glenn Gould and Sir Clifford Curzon.

Bernstein and Hawke after the screening

Hawke does appear on screen, briefly early on and then again towards the end where he introduces Bernstein’s return to public performance (he had given it up many decades ago after a well-reviewed performance at Alice Tully Hall nearly crippled him with nerves and doubt about the industry’s integrity) to a small group of pupils and recognizable faces (Mark Ruffalo can be seen in the crowd, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it). In another way that it plays as an opposite of Boyhood, Seymour: An Introduction settles for telling the story of one man rather than hoping to tell a story of more wider-reaching grasp and I think the film certainly could have benefited perhaps from more exploration of the Upper West Side's role in the forming of these prodigal talents as well more insight into Bernstein's place amongst modern musicians from people who aren't his friends or students. I just wish the film had a bit more meat on its bones to make it a more memorable introduction. B-


Seymour: An Introduction screens on Saturday Sep 27 (12pm) and Monday Sep 29 (9pm). NYFF will also host "An Evening with Ethan Hawke" on Tuesday Sep 30 (6pm).