Thursday, February 15, 2018

Leila Merat

Leila Merat's short film, Asiyeh, is both an observational character study and a statement about traditional healing methods. A bonesetter in northwestern Iran, Asiyeh Karimi is known around her community as the go-to person to "wrap bones." She sees patients in her home and makes trips on horseback to a teahouse to offer her services. Narration-free scenes with Asiyeh and her patients show her no-nonsense authority. Occasional flinch-making smash cuts emphasize the power of her approach to the healing arts. The film's humor (one of Asiyeh's neighbors estimates that "she is around 40, 50, or 60") and editing choices charmingly suggest female (and elder) empowerment. The filmmaker is heard asking some questions: "You are a bonesetter too?" she mischievously inquires of Asiyeh's rival. A dramatic sequence at the teahouse demonstrates Asiyeh's counseling role: "You didn't fall off the steps," she informs one woman, who is accompanied by her husband. Through persistence and gentleness, Asiyeh find out some uncomfortable truths.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Andreas Koefoed

At Home in the World, by Andreas Koefoed, paints an unsentimental and visually evocative portrait of a  Red Cross school for refugee children in Lynge, Denmark. Koefoed's observational approach renders young refugees from Bosnia, Syria, Afghanistan, and Chechnya as more than victims of war and displacement. The film's quiet close-ups, intimate access, and nuanced editing create a window into the experience of being a refugee, but the action of the story takes place in the classroom and schoolyard. Dorte, one of the teachers at the Red Cross school, works to make asylum seekers feel welcome. She embodies the generosity of—and challenges for—any country that accepts refugees. Eventually her students must transfer to regular Danish public schools, but until then, the Lynge school provides a safe haven for refugee kids and their families. Stories of prolonged escapes from violence, difficulties adapting to a new country, and risks of deportation accompany perceptive sequences of children just being kids.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese directed the first part of the exhaustive documentary series (2003), "The Blues." The program, Feel Like Going Home, is written by Peter Guralnick with a respectful and informed take on the music. The young blues musician Corey Harris, the audience's guide during visits to Mississippi and Mali (top still), is equally respectful and informed -- all of which brings to mind an academic lecture rather than a cinematic watch. Les Blank's film, The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins, has the heart and feel that is underplayed in Scorsese's careful compilation of key archival performances (bottom still) and countryside field trips.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), convincingly conveys the creepiness of Scientology. Former leaders and believers offer somber testimony which is capably edited by Andy Grieve, who was an editor on Manda Bala (2007). The depressing facts about Scientology in the film are deepened by the portrayal of celebrities who wholeheartedly support their cause, such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise (above).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Laura Poitras

Citizenfour (2014), by Laura Poitras, is both a spy thriller and a cautionary warning about the limits of privacy in an age of intrusive surveillance. A glimpse of the filmmaker setting up the camera prior to an interview in a hotel room (top still) parallels the nighttime observation of Edward Snowden and Lindsay Mills at home in an undisclosed location (second still). Journalist Glenn Greenwald (third still), who does most of the interacting with Snowden in the film, is portrayed as a genuine hero. Intriguingly, the credits give a shout out to a set of privacy tools (fourth still).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ben Cotner and Ryan White

The Case Against 8 (2014), by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, tells the story of the two gay couples
at the heart of the legal case to overturn California's ban against the freedom to marry. The filmmakers subtly compare the couples' romantic and domestic relationships to the professional relationship between the two "superlawyers," Ted Olson and David Boies (top still). The documentary's coverage of the case and the eventual win is thorough to the point of apparent omniscience: a camera captures and makes resonant every possible moment (second still: California Attorney General Kamala Harris makes a call to ensure a marriage takes place.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Talal Derki

Talal Derki's Return to Homs (2013) is a harrowing descent into the violence of the military siege of Homs during the Syrian civil war. In the documentary, young men led by Abdul Basset Saroot (above) fight against Bashar al-Assad's army. Basset's men live in a ghostly interconnected labyrinth made up of partially-shelled apartment houses. Basset is shown to be an inspirational leader: a soccer playing, poetry-reciting activist who puts his life on the line against a dictatorial regime. As the film goes on, we can see Basset's increasing fatigue and frustration. Indeed, the rebels seem to be picked off, one by one, by army snipers, tanks, and bombs. The film's relentless focus on one small group in one city sheds light on the overall Syrian conflict.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wim Wenders

Buena Vista Social Club (1999), by Wim Wenders, has a lovely stand-alone segment about the musician Eliades Ochoa (above). Wenders weaves together two performances of "El Carretero," one with Ochoa alone and one with the big band in performance. The segment is notable for avoiding a "talking head" interview; instead, Ochoa is heard in voice-over, reminiscing about his growing up and musical influences. Wenders circles Ochoa with a handheld camcorder, and when "El Carretero" begins, he dramatically cuts to the same song on-stage. It's a memorable edit that connects the son tradition to more commercial music as well as establishing Ochoa's range as a musician in his own right.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Laura Poitras

The Oath (2010) by Laura Poitras tells the story of two Yemeni men, Salim Hamdan (top) and his wife's brother-in-law, Nasser al-Bahri (bottom, also known as Abu Jandal), but only al-Bahri appears in the documentary. He had been Osama bin Ladin's bodyguard in the late 1990s, later returning to Yemen and imprisoned at the time of 9/11. Salim Hamdan, once employed as bin Ladin's driver, was detained for years at Guantanamo Bay. His (eventually successful) legal case runs as a parallel story to al-Bahri's mundane existence as a taxi driver in Sana'a. Al-Bahri is framed as a classic "unreliable narrator" with windy explanations, self-justifications, and occasional outright lies. The heroes of the movie are Hamdan's military attorney, Brian Mizer, and al-Bahri's FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan. The soundtrack by Osvaldo Golijov establishes a moody suspense that helps carry the well-edited narrative.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Asif Kapadia

Asif Kapadia's Senna (2010) masterfully edits together archival footage, vacuumed up from apparently every possible source, to tell the story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver. A sense of dread is inherent in the watching of this documentary, because the hazards of Formula One racing are genuinely frightening and the unhappy outcome is well-known. The filmmakers visually tell the story of Senna's career and life, and their use of period close-ups is particularly resonant in showing the effect of time and stress on a well-loved face.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Errol Morris

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) by Errol Morris gives new weight and meaning to the disturbing Abu Ghraib photographs taken by US military personnel documenting prisoner abuse. Morris makes sense of the photographs by emphasizing and re-enacting their creation (top still) and also by visually lining up images taken at the same time and place (second still) on different cameras. Interviews with the men and women working at Abu Ghraib shine additional light on the history and implications of the war in Iraq. Box office figures from Standard Operating Procedure's 2008 theatrical release show that it made under $300,000 in the United States, showing at about 20 movie theaters. American Sniper, in contrast, has made about $250 million dollars so far in the US, at about 3900 movie theaters.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Laura Poitras

My Country, My Country (2006) by Laura Poitras documents the tense months leading up to elections in Iraq in early 2005. Poitras follows the step-by-step process of ballot and polling place preparation with Iraqi and foreign officials. She follows journalists, American military personnel, and contractors who weigh in on events as they happen. But the key to the film is a parallel plot about an Iraqi doctor running for office in Baghdad. Poitras's long-term, sensitive, and profoundly engaging focus on Dr. Riyadh and his family shows the power of observational documentary. Poitras frames Dr. Riyadh as the embodiment of an idealized Iraq and the symbol of a country in chaotic times. The viewer gets to know him as he sees patients in the clinic, visits Abu Ghraib prison (second still), talks to his neighbors, and spends time with his wife and children. Dr. Riyadh represents the wish for self-determination demonstrated by candidates and voters. The film may document events from ten years ago, but it maintains its documentary value and relevance.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Shola Lynch

Shola Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2013) is a legal thriller that uses archival news footage to tell the story of activist and professor Angela Davis from her 1969 arrival to UCLA to her acquittal for murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in 1972. The film's present-day interviews, however, propel the film beyond the facts of the case. Fascinating interviews with Davis (top still), her sister Fania Davis (middle still) and a variety of other observers and supporters, such as one of her defense attorneys, Doris Brin Walker, bring the story to life. The issues that Davis was involved in over 40 years ago resonate at time when Michael Brown and Eric Garner are part of the national discussion on race, police, and justice.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Gillo Pontecorvo

The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo is not a documentary. It's entirely scripted and acted (top still: some of the characters trapped by security forces behind an apartment wall), relating events in the war for Algerian independence against the French in the 1950s. But its verite-style black-and-white footage gives it a certain realism; re-enacted scenes of crowded demonstrations are some of the most powerful in the film. Echoes of contemporary events also prevent the film from seeming dated. The scene of the bombing of a house on a residential street in the middle of the city, for example, recalled news images of homes shelled in Gaza during the summer of 2014. The film's plot depends on building suspense, such as the sequence of local women activists in Western clothes (second still) getting ready to carry out violent attacks. The film gives characters representing the French colonial government and military the opportunity to make their case for colonialism (bottom still), allowing viewers draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's portrayal of Klaus Kinski (top still: Herzog's film Woyzeck) in his character study My Best Fiend (1999) is funny and horrifying. Kinski comes across as a madman, but there must have been something behind his antagonistic behavior. Indeed, for all his dysfunction, Kinski made so many films (second still: at left), including five with Herzog: Aguirre, Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde. Herzog relishes the chance to tell his tales about his star, who, having died in 1991, can't retaliate. Footage from Les Blank's documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams, corroborates Herzog's creepiest rants.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Greg "Freddy" Camalier

Muscle Shoals (2013) by Greg "Freddy" Camalier elaborates on a cold war between two recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama: Rick Hall's FAME Studios (top) and that of his former session musicians (bottom). The conflict between a tough-guy founder and his mild-mannered minions gives emotional heft to an otherwise standard "behind-the-scenes" music documentary. Although Muscle Shoals touts the harmony of the town's music scene, with racially diverse musicians recalling how they recorded together, some of the imagery contradicts that harmony: the film uncomfortably lingers on archival footage of a huge Confederate flag on stage at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Morgan Neville

Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet from Stardom's best sequence features Merry Clayton (above) listening to a recording of her vocal accompaniment to the Rollings Stones song, "Gimme Shelter" and reflecting on how she came to be in the studio with the band. Her close-up is intercut with Mick Jagger's reaction to hearing the same isolated vocal track. Clayton's singing is strained, revelatory, and inimitable; Clayton's and Jagger's faces, in close-up, are particularly expressive.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Wim Wenders

Pina (2011) by Wim Wenders has a wealth of beautifully filmed dance sequences showing the range and intensity of Pina Bausch's choreography with her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. Sadly, Pina died in 2009 during the film's pre-production stage, yet the film's collaborative feel suggests that Wenders was still influenced by his unseen muse. Wenders beautifully shows individual dancers, all remarkable masters of their art, with voice-only interviews heard over static close-up portrait shots (top still). Choreography meets theatrical expression in the most natural and engaging way, both on-stage and in non-traditional settings.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Zachary Heinzerling

Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer (2013) is a resonant all-access portrait of two New York artists, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, at work and in their marriage. Their 21-year age difference and their seemingly incompatible temperaments make for dramatic observational footage. The drama deepens with skillful editing of archival videos from their their younger days (Noriko, middle still) and animations from Noriko's autobiographical drawings (bottom still). Heinzerling boldly creates an unequal representation of the two protagonists: Ushio comes across as a self-centered bully, verifying the cartoon renderings of "Cutie" (Noriko) and "Bullie" (Ushio).

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Deborah Stratman

Deborah Stratman's witty and mesmerizing short film, Hacked Circuit, shows the painstaking work that goes into creating sounds that match up with filmed activity. Stratman documents an audio engineer and a Foley artist as they recreate the audio from a kinetic scene in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman's character wrenches apart his apartment's walls and floors while fruitlessly looking for a hidden recording device. The inherent fascination with the Foley process, with its home-made and unpredictable tools and techniques, is emphasized by the fluidity of the camera's single take. Stratman's visuals do conjure up "Big Brother" and surveillance, but the film also simply pays homage to professionals doing their jobs well.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.