Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Eric Daniel Metzgar

Reporter (2009), a documentary about the writer Nicholas Kristof, was directed, shot, and edited by Eric Daniel Metzgar. In the film, Kristof and two observers from his "win a trip" contest visit the Democratic Republic of Congo. Metzgar's narration, done in his own quiet and convincing voice, catapults this adventures-in-journalism story into an entirely different territory: documentary as spiritual and philosophic reflection. The suspense of Kristof's on the ground reporting is the basis for a lively and cinematic case study on the future of journalism and the most effective methods to cover wars and atrocities.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto's Rough Aunties (2008) shows an affection and admiration for progress in post-apartheid South Africa without downplaying the difficulties that continue there. The film follows five women who work for a Durban non-profit organization that tries to protect abused children. Longinotto's portrayal of these "aunties's" day-to-day triumphs, frustrations, and tragedies is convincing and at times spellbinding.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Marina Zenovich

Marina Zenovich's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008) criticizes the mob-like press corps who dog Polanski (top two stills) after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and then a few years later, after he was accused of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year old girl. The film pits two unreliable characters against each other: Roman Polanski vs. Judge Rittenband (who oversaw his case), yet the two men are only seen and heard in archival footage and recollections of other people (Polanski is not interviewed for the movie and Rittenband died years ago). One of Polanski's friends, for example, approvingly if euphemistically tells us about the director's "appetite for life." Zenovich and editor Joe Bini's persuasive use of news footage and clips from Polanski's movies sets up the enduring mystery of whether Polanski is perpetrator or victim. Producer Daniel Melnick (above), among a fascinating assortment of other interviewees, helps to ground the story.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Trinh T. Minh-ha

Trinh T. Minh-ha's Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) is one of the most radically inventive documentaries ever made. The film undermines basic tenets of documentary work (instead of "real" interviews, several Vietnamese women actors living in the United States woodenly recite their assigned parts: transcribed interviews of other women who are never seen on screen) while expertly employing standard features of the documentary form such as first person narration, archival footage, and old photographs. The disruptions stemming from the Vietnam War underlie the documentary, even when the actors begin to talk about their lives and surrealistically reflect on their roles for the film.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ben Niles

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037
(2007) by Ben Niles is a lavish and absorbing tribute to the hands that build and tune pianos at the Steinway factory in Queens, New York. Musicians such as Hank Jones and Helene Grimaud (above) try to communicate the differences they hear among pianos that, to a layman, look exactly alike. Bottom still: a piano-in-progress is placed on a rotating device like a gigantic rotisserie. The film may be a mixture of Steinway infomercial and elaborate process sequence, but its range of characters provide abundant charm and surprise along the way.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

William Ferris

Bill Ferris shot the wonderful documentary film Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen (1975) mostly on location, with the exception of lovely conversation and performance footage of B.B. King in New Haven, Connecticut at Yale University (top two stills). A men's barbershop in Clarksdale was the setting for impromptu music making with guitar and razor-and-leather-strop (Wade Walton: third and fourth stills). Thoughtful single-camera technique reveals Cleveland "Broom Man" Jones (bottom still) as the source of a low percussive sound during a performance by James "Son Ford" Thomas in Leland. Interviews and music from Parchman Penitentiary in Lambert provide additional historical context to this canonical blues document.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gary Hustwit

Objectified, by Gary Hustwit (2009), gives the layman a chance to see the world through the eyes of designers. The interviews and observational footage hold abundant interest, showing the flights of imagination that can accompany the design of everyday objects. The film seems to champion the "less is more" approach, modern materials, no clutter, and pure functionality. The new documentary Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, in contrast, provides an argument for glorious ornamentation applied to a well-engineered form.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Victor A. Turin

Victor Turin's Turksib (1929) is a silent Soviet documentary that glorifies the building of a trans-Asia (Turkestan to Siberia = Turk Sib) railroad to hasten economic development in the vast remote areas of Kazakhstan. One particularly interesting sequence shows local nomadic people on horseback racing a locomotive along the just-opened tracks. A rapid series of shots of riders, the wheels of the train, and the trains-eye view of the landscape creates tremendous excitement.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Steve York

Steve York's Orange Revolution (2007) documents the slimy and lethal politics of Ukraine that culminate in the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko during his run for the presidency in 2004 (the disfiguring effects of dioxin shown in the top two stills, above). Disputed election results gave rise to non-violent protests and a massive tent city in Kiev. Compelling footage, including nose-to-nose confrontations with policemen, from the 17 days (and nights) of this Kiev "Orange Revolution" livens up the news footage/talking heads historical narrative. An end note clarifies that things in Ukraine weren't all rosy despite Yushchenko winning a court-ordered redo of the election.

Monday, April 5, 2010

James Crump

The complexity of a longlasting professional and personal relationship is scrutinized in Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007), directed by photography scholar James Crump. Patti Smith (middle still) plays an important role as storyteller in the documentary. Crump inventively uses photographs as evidence and to propel the narrative. Throughout, Wagstaff (top) is made out to be an unsung genius while Mapplethorpe is portrayed as an opportunist. After a fascinating life of curating, collecting, and rejecting his preppie backstory, Wagstaff left all he had to Mapplethorpe, who then established The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to "maintain Mapplethorpe's artistic legacy." The foundation website curiously fails to mention Wagstaff. Bottom still: a somber tribute to a generation lost to AIDS unspools at the end of the film.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mikhail Kalatozov

The silent documentary Salt for Svanetia (1930), directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, is an ethnographic study of a remote area that is now in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The film seems to have been made to promote the Soviet Union's planned roadbuilding which would bring desperately needed salt to the region. But the film's staged scenes, expressionistic camerawork, and pro-Soviet propaganda undermine its credibility. The Ushkul people are portrayed as primitives; the community exiles a woman about to give birth, for example, because of savage superstitions. The most interesting aspect of the movie is the expert use of cross-cutting to build suspense.
Creative Commons License
Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.