Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

“When you perform it is a knife and your blood, when you act it is a fake knife and ketchup.” – Marina A.

The Aritst is Present

I caught a bit of this HBO documentary back in the day and have frequently heard its virtues extolled by friends and fellow artists. I was very pleased to see it come to Netflix, especially as I’ve drifted away from the documentary vibe a bit in the last few months. While I’d be no means call this documentary essential, it’s definitely an intriguing glimpse into an important artist of the last few decades and her unique process.

While the documentary is largely centered on an infamous MoMA performance by Abramovic in which she spent three months in the museum every day face to face with a variety of patrons, there’s also a bit of room for an exploration of her career and identity. Appearances are made by a variety of strange and beguiling visitors including her former lover and artistic partner Ulay and film star James Franco. An intriguing balance is hit between focusing on Abramovic’s work as it relates to the thorny world of contemporary art and finding a balance in which she connects strongly and empathetically with the many guests who visit her exhibition.

To be sure, this documentary is not for everyone. It often relies solely on visuals, gleaning much from the audience studying the eyes of Abramovic and her guests amongst a host of tear-tumbling footage to establish depth and stakes. That written, the footage can sometimes feel a bit migratory in relation to the ideas being expressed. Obviously there’s something to be said for the slow, methodical shooting style reflecting the inherent slowness of the process being undertaken by Abramovic, but about 2/3 of the way in it started to drag rather unnecessarily. Likewise, I appreciated the stripped-down visuals and concentrated visual aesthetics used to introduce different artists and commentators. The music, especially near the end and in scenes surrounding Ulay, tended to be a bit obtrusive and cloying despite itself. Since so much of performance art is about trusting the audience to follow along, I would have appreciated the filmmakers trusting me a bit more to engage emotionally rather than being spoon-fed the drama which the MoMA curator suggested this performance would avoid.

Perhaps its greatest failing, however, lies in the sense of hero worship which surrounds Abramovic and her work. I’ve noticed in my time with character-study documentaries that perhaps their most key weakness is a palpable sense that they refuse to really probe the depths and difficulties of their subject. Rather, this film is so quick to fully exalt and praise Abramovic that the real complexities of her work (i.e. its relationship to self-adulation, fame, and celebrity) are almost completely missed. One wishes the filmmakers had interrogated the notion that Abramovic is anything less than a bullet-proof deity a bit more carefully and thoroughly. Once the glamor settles after the first hour the film frequently falls victim to a lack of stakes and inertia. This lack of vitality and tension threatens to collapse the whole thing and, while it frequently makes for compelling viewing, it rarely rises above the niche which Abramovic herself claims to be working against at a pivotal moment in the film. This is the moment where performance art could go mainstream, she intimates, and yet the film itself seems to be wrestling for a conclusive audience.


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No End in Sight

While sitting at a table with two friends for breakfast recently, we got into a brief discussion of the chronology of the Iraq Conflict. One of the people at the table had penalized a speech competitor, at least in part, for swapping the invasion dates the US chose for Iraq in Afghanistan. My friends correctly identified that we’d invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001, and then our other companion asked: “So when exactly did we invade Iraq?”

I quickly answered, “2003”, and both friends fell silent. If they weren’t sure, they at least trusted me. And I, though happy to have seemingly chosen the correct time-line, wasn’t entirely sure I knew outside of the nebulous data-base that is my brain.

I was right, it turns out, but only correct in identifying a conflict which offered the US and Iraqi people little satisfaction. With all of the current discussion surrounding ISIS (and, yes, Gaza) reigniting limited American interest in our role in Middle-East peace, it’s important to consider the last decade of (in)action as it relates to the Iraqi people. No End In Sight attempts, with a calm and collected demeanor, to elucidate the glaring failures of the US government to properly invade, police, or maintain an occupation of Iraq. Unlike many of the documentaries I’ve watched recently on the subject of global conflict, whether stylish and journalistic like Dirty Wars or deeply personal like 5 Broken Cameras, this film is all big-picture data. It attempts to gain interviews with a majority of individuals involved in capturing and maintaining Iraq, whether as warriors or peace-keepers, and to investigate the ultimately malign shortcomings which hovered over the occupation and the George W. Bush administration.

This is a concise film, ribbed with intention and fury. It’s shot in fairly standard form, mostly talking heads and occasional footage from Iraqi protestors or civilians. There are even some moving maps and things and, given that the film is about seven years old, these small touches actually reveal it as more robust than many of its contemporaries. Mostly, this is a film that gives you the tools to understand how exactly the US went wrong in Iraq. I can still recall learning the basics on Bill Maher during the mid-2000s, mainly things like a lack of infrastructure, or the De-Baathing process. Here, though, I was shocked to find out how little of this process was overseen by Bush, how the soldiers were incorrectly prepared for combat, how few people commanding the Conflict were versed in any kind of Middle-Eastern culture or even spoke some kind of Arabic. UN intermediaries were wasted (and killed), the Green Zone was erected to keep us from engaging the people we were ruling over, and a lack of communication on the ground impeded us from stopping the wide-spread looting our own forces/process ultimately encouraged. I could go on, but the film does a far better job of simply reiterating the madness than I can.

This is precisely what I seek in good documentary filmmaking. An incendiary story and the follow-through to document the ways in the principal players acted. Likewise, it documents in broad strokes with evidence and thoughtful pacing. When I argue with people about policy and conflict I want/NEED to be able to cite more specific evidence. Since I don’t have anyone to teach me about the Iraq Conflict at this point, watching older films as a way of understanding the world I grew up in is absolutely vital. Much like this film, a much needed primer for those of us old enough to remember but too young to have ever fully understood.

(9.6 / 10)

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“What I have to film demands a strong camera. Not a fragile one.” – Ermad

5 Broken Cameras

Embedded documentaries, whether in international crises or international conflict, are all the rage at the moment. At places like Sundance and the Oscars they’re grabbing awards left and right largely because they challenge the idea of received information and, importantly, give us a more earth-bound perspective of what’s going on in the world around us. At their best, they’re revelatory. At worst, incoherent.

This film is both. Sometimes neither. It follows the life of a Palestinian farmer as he navigates years in a border-town under frequent threat from Israeli forces. We watch him grapple with the loss of friends, family, and even his own livelihood in an effort to document the fleeting world around him. The filmmaker, Ermad Burnat (along with director Guy Davidi) utilizes a variety of hand-held recorders to document his changing world. The film breaks down into sections addressing political protest, life at home, and Ermad’s explorations of his past via the camera and narration. In that regard it’s a deeply simple film, though one which attempts to transmute complex circumstances surrounding geo-political strife into a personal and human story. It’s often effective, as when one of his children begins learning his first words. Words like “shell”, reflective of the troubling world these children are growing into. This film is unabashedly pro-Palestinian, and given the contemporary fighting in Gaza the movie may benefit from increased attention once again. The Palestinian plight is receiving renewed attention in light of the Gaza bombings, but it’s worth remembering while watching this that we only get one side, Ermad’s view as a Palestinian. This is a perfect reflection of contemporary truncated documentary. It’s all personal vision, no context. That’s good for emotions but quite ineffective in educating viewers on the context which produced these circumstances in 2012. Or just the past few weeks.

VERDICT: Incredibly brave film with bold and innovative approach to storytelling. Troubling lack of context, though. Extra points for timeliness. As the death toll ticks above 500 we should be seizing opportunities like this one to learn more. Moderate recommendation.

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App Trail

Let’s dispense with this part quickly. National Geographic did a documentary about the Appalachian Trail. I tried to watch it about a year ago on Netflix and the sound wasn’t working! This is an occasional problem with the streaming portion of the site, but usually gets resolved eventually. Upon watching it I was treated to a hodge-podge documentary which, at a run time of only 50 minutes, tries to stuff in the culture of the hikers, the history of the trail, some dangerous critters, and even the dangers of things like acid rain! It’s clearly overstuffed and unsure exactly which story it wants to tell. Nevertheless, it’s really earnest. Not a bad primer altogether, either. Watch out for ticks.

VERDICT: Only for potential thru-hikers I think. They should definitely watch it! Everyone should just read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

SIDE (Really MAIN) NOTE: My friend Corey and I are planning our AT hike for next March. This will involve a very long, very weird break from conventional media. But also an incredibly exciting and difficult adventure for me! I’ll likely be updating more about this business as I go, but it seems pertinent to write about. I’m definitely the sort of creature who is searching for the next horizon. I’ve been planning this one for a while, but it’s exciting to think that it’s finally in sight.

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The Invisible War

As I came of age in the cauldron of feminism that is the Ball State Speech Team, I became aware of just how important it is to engage with topics surrounding sexuality, gender, and minority rights. This was a big part of my intellectual education at college, and I’m still very thankful for it. This film deals with the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. Sadly, I was aware of this enormous problem before even watching the film (another by-product of having the sort of intellectual acquaintances who find understanding such things a priority), and was heartened to have it reinforced and to take the chance to give it a more thorough look.

I’ve watched a lot of documentaries lately and this is probably the most “conventional” one in terms of construction and content. Like Blackfish, this film utilizes a lot of talking-heads and doesn’t push the envelope too much in terms of form. Where it does excel and tell a courageous and very difficult story is by profiling several women and men who recount their experiences with the culture of sexual assault which frequently pervades the military. It attempts to not only tell the stories of women, though the closest thing it has to a protagonist is in Coast Guard veteran Kori Cioca, but leverages these stories with instances of male assault and indicts a hyper-masculine military culture for failing to create a culture in which individuals can disclose their assault for fear of reprimand, violence, or even instances in which their commanding officer (in charge of dictating the course of the prosecution) is the themselves the abuser. These sort of power abuses and hypocrisies are the primary focus of the film, and it’s frequently intercut with (bland, IMO) title-cards which offer facts, figures, and often horrifying/frustrating data to reflect how our armed forces are often brutalized not by our enemies, but by their own peers. A silver lining in the film is the effect it has already had on changing the policy allowing commanding officers the power to dictate judicial proceedings and how prominently it has been shown throughout the military in the past two years.

VERDICT: This isn’t revolutionary filmmaking, and at times suffers a sort of tedium for lack of compelling cutting/editing, but it’s an enormously important topic. This gets a strong recommendation on the tone and content of the piece, but be prepared for a challenging and necessarily graphic film.

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“The world is a battlefield and we’re at war.” – Anonymous JSOC source

Dirty Wars

I remember watching a clip from this film, the one in which narrator/star/superman Jeremy Scahill appears on Bill Maher to discuss his Blackwater book, as a mid-teenager. It’s impressive that his image, and his commitment to telling uncompromising stories, sticks with me even today.

This is a messy, thoughtful film about messy, thoughtless things. On a careening course which carries us through Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, Scahill explores the power and reach of JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, and the (potentially) unlawful killing of various citizens of other nations as well as our own at the hands of our government. It’s a quick, bracing film which is definitely a product of the VICE style of slick, extremist filmmaking. Everything here is maximilized and instagrammy, not unlike HELL AND BACK AGAIN, really. However in that film the poetics of contemporary aesthetics are used to move us spiritually beyond the world of facts, figures, data, and compel us to look inward. Here the effect is marred because Scahill’s game is to get us to stare into the abyss of our fractured American foreign-policy. A gussied up set of filters and Scahill’s insistent interjection of himself into the narrative as protagonist, information warrior, and general badass mucks up our genuine view of the perpetrators and victims in these countries. The Afghanistan chapter is overlong and tedious, but the Yemen chapter is thoroughly engrossing. Somalia, sadly, feels bluntly tacked on for the purposes of scope and reach. Scahill is underwhelming in his attempts to draw the breadth of this narrative in a way which most viewers will be able to follow, and like VICE, it fails to conjure up astute context or connections for lay-viewers to follow. This is bold, courageous journalism. It’s also needlessly self-indulgent and lacking in verifiable content. Modern journalism, in other words.

VERDICT: Mostly for foreign-policy junkies (like me). This won’t offer much to the already converted and even less to those who would label it propaganda. An eerie and unsettling reminder of the guiding hand of politics behind the curtain. Light recommendation.

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