Thursday, December 31, 2009
Lady Kul El Arab (2008) by Ibtisam Mara'ana seems like a conventional beauty pageant doc, until the protagonist (a Druze girl who takes the stage name "Angelina") decides to leave the confines of the "Lady of the Arabs" contest to try for the more prestigious Miss Israel. The film follows the fraught complications of family, tradition, and ambition.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
La Corona (2008) by Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega documents a beauty contest in a women's prison in Bogota, Colombia. A sweet-and-sour duality throughout the short film makes for some complex characterizations and a good sense for life in the prison. Performances, competition, suspense, and tragedy unfold.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
Miss India Georgia (1997), by Daniel Friedman and Sharon Grimberg, tells the story of four beauty pageant contestants in the Indian-American community in Atlanta. The filmmakers captured many insightful moments and interactions, with a running subtext about tradition and change. I wonder what has happened to the young women and their families, more than ten years later.
Monday, December 21, 2009
The Store (1983) by Frederick Wiseman (his first color documentary) is an all-access portrait of the Neiman-Marcus department store in downtown Dallas. Retailer Stanley Marcus (top still) sets the ambition to be the best; his customer-is-always-right philosophy is carried out by motivated employees from the boardroom to the backrooms. Marvelous observational sequences, alarming 1980s hairstyles and clothing, and now-almost-quaint old-school conspicuous consumption make the film a delight.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Flow: For Love of Water (2008), by Irena Salina, comprehensively covers water wars, water conservation, water bottles, and water theft (also known as "privatization") around the globe. Activists (such as Oscar Olivera, middle still) and the famous (Penn Jillette, bottom still) move the story along.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Thirst (2004), by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, documents water rights activism in the United States, Bolivia, and India. Effective interviews (community leaders/activists Oscar Olivera and Rajendra Singh, above) and scenes from a variety of meetings and forums give a voice to those opposed to water privatization, with the most dramatic action from the water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia (top still).
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The 16 mm film documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005), by Judy Irving (bottom still), is both a nature doc and an intimate biography of Mark Bittner, who observes and befriends the birds. Parallels between man and bird run throughout the film, with Bittner (middle) sometimes seeming to be describing himself when he's talking about the parrot flock. Spectacular close-ups of birds, multi-layered insights into human and animal behavior, and a kick-ass surprise ending make the film a fun watch.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Man With A Movie Camera (Человек с Киноаппаратом) by Dziga Vertov is a silent documentary from 1929. The film develops its ideas purely visually, without a conventional story. City scenes, people, and machinery are elements in a tour-de-force of pre-talkies cinematic language and editing. Vertov's brother Mikhail Kaufman plays the part of the cameraman (above); Vertov's wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, was the editor.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Tom Davenport's The Shakers (1974), available at Folkstreams.net, is a 30 minute marvel. The film sensitively documents a distinctive religious sect at a time when few Shakers remained to carry on their traditions. Folklorist Dan Patterson, who had extensively researched Shaker song, collaborated on the film, which includes fine examples of several Shaker spirituals (Sister Mildred Barker, above).
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Les Blank's Chulas Fronteras (1976) is an enduring and timeless document of Tex-Mex border music. The film was made with the guidance of record producer Chris Strachwitz, who also advised Les Blank on A Well Spent Life. Chulas Fronteras's record-pressing sequence with Flaco Jimenez (above) is a terrific example of cutting together a process with music performance.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2001), by Mimi Pickering, portrays a pioneering individualist in American music. The film's music and interviews establish the roots of Dickens's career in bluegrass, as well as her strong pro-worker and pro-women musical activism. Mike Seeger (1933 - 2009) is a wonderful presence in the film (see stills, above).
Posted by Nancy Kalow at 7:57 AM
Monday, December 7, 2009
John Cohen's The End of an Old Song (1972) is clearly a movie made by a musician. The visuals in the film fit perfectly with the unaccompanied ballads heard throughout. Cohen never simplifies the singers, instead investing time to depict Dillard Chander, for example (above) as a three-dimensional person in a modernizing and complex Appalachian community.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
The recent death of folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes brings to mind her documentary films, such as Pizza Pizza Daddy-O (1968). This short 16 mm film is a straightforward documentation of 4th grade girls on a school playground and their repertory of singing games. The film is available to watch at Folkstreams.net, accompanied by notes and a transcript.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Andreas Koefoed's 12 Notes Down (2008) is a charming short film about the inevitable: a singer in a boy's choir who has to come to terms with his voice changing. The filmmaker was a past singer in the same choir in Denmark, and his empathy comes through in every frame. A trailer is here.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
An American Family ran weekly on public television in 1973 and made the Loud family into celebrities. I had a chance to see the excellent first two episodes preserved on a blurry VHS copy-of-a-copy and would love to see the rest. But the twelve original episodes of An American Family are officially unavailable, as if they are radioactive and buried in some sort of Fort Knox of closely guarded state secrets. (update: rebroadcasts and web availability)
The producer behind the project, Craig Gilbert, wrote about this granddaddy of all reality shows in two essays. One essay (excerpted here) is in the 2005 edition of Alan Rosenthal's New Challenges for Documentary. The second essay is much harder to find because it's in the now out-of-print 1988 edition of the same book (try your local university library). Both pieces are deeply interesting, with a personal take on the ins and outs of pitching, researching, shooting, and editing a long-form documentary. Gilbert's account of the volatile characters in front of and behind the camera rings true for anyone who has worked on documentary projects. The still image (above) is taken from a "ten years later" TV show which has some clips from the original series.
An alert reader gave me the ISBN number for the first edition of Alan Rosenthal's book, which has BOTH of the Craig Gilbert essays: 0-520-05725-2. Below: the cover of the first edition; the photograph is labeled "Shooting AN AMERICAN FAMILY."