Friday, May 28, 2010

Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009), by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, tells the story of how Ellsberg came to his decision to leak secret documentation of the Vietnam War to the public in 1971. Under the talking-heads-and-archival-footage surface of this riveting film is a scathing commentary on current events. Daniel Ellsberg (top still, at left) narrates the film; Howard Zinn, among many other fascinating people, brings a sense of immediacy and relevance to the story (second still). President Nixon's audio recordings (third still, for example) add a darkly humorous element that does not minimize the damage done during the decades of US involvement in Vietnam. Tony Russo, who worked with Ellsberg to make copies of the Pentagon Papers, is also shown as a hero (bottom still).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Christie Herring

Christie Herring was a student at Stanford's film school when she made Bodies and Souls (2005). The film is a gentle day-in-the-life portrait of a nun, Sister Manette Durand, whose small health clinic serves the rural community of Jonestown, Mississippi. Herring touches on race, poverty, and religion while exploring the problems of delivering health care in underserved areas. A filmmaker statement and links to other resources can be found at the online journal, Southern Spaces.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo's À Propos de Nice (1930) is a silent documentary, with some surrealistic touches (as in the sequence of the woman in the chair, above), about seeing and being seen at the beach in the south of France. The cameraman, Boris Kaufman, was Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman's younger brother. The camera takes in the scene in both touristy and working class Nice, and includes vacationers at leisure, a lively carnival parade, and architectural studies. Bottom still: a 1937 Lisette Model photo, "Gambler, French Riviera" shows the same location, attitude, and chairs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Loren Mendell

Loren Mendell
's Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene (2008) fondly brings to life a Washington, D.C. local television personality, Petey Greene, whose talk show ran from 1967 to 1983 (he died of cancer that year). Glorious period footage from his shows, rescued from oblivion by the filmmakers, demonstrates Greene's man-of-words expertise and charisma. Interviews with a variety of friends and associates serve to amplify and memorialize Greene's legacy.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Luis Buñuel

Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan) by Luis Buñuel (1933) is a strange survey of rural poverty in Spain. Buñuel portrays people living in a mountainous region, Las Hurdes, that parallels Appalachia in its remoteness (and attendant negative stereotyping). Buñuel's images of Hurdano dwellings and families call to mind documentary photographs from the Great Depression in the homes of sharecroppers, migrants, and miners in the United States. Buñuel emphatically shows children to be poorly cared-for: barefoot, hungry, and ignorant. Moreover, a scene with deformed men (second and third stills) suggests that they were the product of inbreeding. Their depiction as over-the-top as the "dueling banjos" scene in John Boorman's feature film, Deliverance.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

John Grierson

John Grierson's Drifters (1929) is a silent documentary about herring fishermen in Scotland and how they take their fleet 40 miles offshore in the North Sea to seek a good catch. Grierson tells a purely visual story, with very few title cards, about the gathering, processing, marketing, and global distribution of the fish. The film celebrates the brawn and endurance of the fishermen, particularly in a memorable sequence of men hauling seemingly endless nets filled with fish into their trawler. Grierson's cross-cutting contrasts a sense of timelessness (with images of seagulls and fish, for example) with an evocation of modernity, speed, industry, and efficiency.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Walter Ruttmann

The magnificent 1927 silent film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt ("Symphony of a Great City"), by Walter Ruttman, documents Berlin's people and places, streets and shop windows, factories and offices, nightclubs and theaters (fourth still, above, shows an audience watching a Charlie Chaplin movie). The film is edited to represent a single day amid the frenzy of modernity, starting with deserted streets coming to life first thing in the morning. Some of the film's quiet, uncrowded, and nostalgic images remind me of Eugène Atget's Paris photographs, which were virtually unknown at the time Ruttman was making his Berlin film.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Jason Kohn

Director Jason Kohn and producer Jared Goldman's Manda Bala (2007), translated as "send a bullet," explores the connections between political corruption and kidnapping in Brazil using expressive and at times sardonic visuals. The film particularly showcases the phenomenal cinematography of Heloisa Passos. Scenes of a frog farm, bullet-proofed cars, São Paolo rooftops, and an ear-reconstruction surgery, among many others, rock to captivating Brazilian music. (Kohn said he has "a large collection of Brazilian music and did about as much music research as anything else.") Even talking heads footage delivers a lot more than exposition. The filmmakers place both interviewee and translator in the same frame (above), to amplify conversational interactions and meanings.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Joshua Waletzky

Joshua Waletzky
directed Partisans of Vilna (1986) as a comprehensive, multi-voiced oral history of Jewish resistance in one city in Lithuania during World War II. With producer Aviva Kempner, Waletzky interviewed survivors (such as these four, above) from the Vilna ghetto, many of whom joined anti-Nazi partisan groups in the surrounding forests. Waletzky, who also edited the film, weaves together a flood of stories and memories with arresting archival footage, photographs, and partisan songs. The film takes special care with issues of morality and survival, allowing a full picture of the complexity and dangers of the times.

Monday, May 3, 2010

David and Judith MacDougall

Photo Wallahs: An Encounter with Photography in Mussoorie, a North Indian Hill Station (1992), by Judith and David MacDougall, is an ethnographic film about professional photographers just a few years prior to the digital age. Old school studio photographers are rightly celebrated in the film, which not only explores traditional portraiture but also observes the modern-day commercialism of tourists donning costumes for souvenir pictures (middle still). Echoes of British colonialism alternate with foretastes of two future vulgarities: color photography and wedding videography. This visually complex and beautiful film is notable for its total avoidance of subtitles (during hard-to-hear English language conversations) or narration.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.