Friday, November 23, 2012

Elliot Caplan

Cage/Cunningham by Elliot Caplan (1991) is a warm portrait of a key 20th century artistic and personal partnership. Composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham (top still) open up for the camera. Dancers, artists, and friends, such as Robert Rauschenberg, speak about collaboration, innovation, and surprise, while beautiful archival footage shows rather than tells. Above: Cunningham in a 1964 recording of his Septet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Agnes Varda

In her short film, Ulysses (1982), filmmaker Agnes Varda analyzes a photograph she took in 1954 on a rocky beach in Calais (top still).  The photo is indeed unsettling and surreal: a boy, a man, and a dead goat in the foreground. Varda sets out to recall the creation of this image and to evaluate her younger days as an aspiring photographer (second still) well on her way to making motion pictures. By 1954, she was already "directing" the composition of still photographs of friends and neighbors. Varda interviews the boy in the photo, named Ulysses, who is now grown up (third still). Varda also seeks to find the photograph's meaning in the current events and pop culture of 1954. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Eugene Jarecki

Why We Fight (2005) by Eugene Jarecki is a strong advocacy document that revisits an insight made by President Eisenhower in  his farewell address on January 17, 1961. In the speech (top still), Eisenhower convincingly warns against the expanding power of a "military-industrial complex." Jarecki adds Congress and think tanks to expand the hungry scope of this "complex," and the film details the decisions that followed 9/11 and led to war. Jarecki assembles a sweeping set of interviews and well-edited archival footage. An appealing "everyman" character is a NYC policeman who lost a son (second still). Another important voice is Chalmers Johnson (third still), formerly of the CIA. Following the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq, Naji Sheeshan, Director of the Baghdad Morgue, keeps the names of the dead (fourth still). The film's historical and analytical material is stronger than sarcastic footage of un-lovely jingoism at Main Street parades.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker

Down From The Mountain (2001), directed by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker, documents a special performance of music from the film, O Brother,Where Art Thou? (2000). T Bone Burnett and Joel Coen (bottom still) produced the concert at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville; John Hartford was the emcee. Interviews and some archival footage (Ralph Stanley plays "Clinch Mountain Backstep" from the "Pete Seeger Show," top still) round out the sensitively shot live show. Second still: Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss in an unaccompanied trio. "(Didn't Leave) Nobody But The Baby."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ben Steinbauer

Winnebago Man (2009) by Ben Steinbauer seeks to solve a mystery: who is the ranting Winnebago salesman from an often-duplicated cult videotape? When the filmmaker stalks, confronts, and interviews his subject, Jack Rebney (above), two versions of the "what happened to" story emerge. The film's detailed and revealing observation of Rebney allows the audience to come to its own conclusions about a true eccentric.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Sweetgrass (2009), by anthropologists Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, documents sheep and herders making their way to summer pasture in Montana. The film shows how composition makes a powerful impact on documentary meaning. Each scene is deliberately framed for artistic, inquisitive, or rhetorical purposes. Small scale intimacy, showing the individuality of one sheep (top still) merges with wide-angle expansiveness (second still) to create a contemplative and visually lavish mood. Humans are part of the story (third still) but Sweetgrass is most memorable as a visual document.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Marcel Ophüls

The Sorrow and the Pity (Le chagrin et la pitié, 1969), the unrivaled documentary masterpiece by Marcel Ophüls, is infused with contempt for French citizens who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. In the film, Pierre Mendès-France nobly represents the French Resistance (second still). Christian de la Mazière (third still) provides an unabashed foil. Ophüls (top still) takes a confrontational approach with former collaborators who have chosen to forget the years 1940 to 1944. Ophüls explores the best, the mediocre, and the worst of France under Nazi occupation by centering his gaze on one city, Clermont-Ferrand.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Robin Hessman

My Perestroika, (2010) by Robin Hessman, documents five Russian adults in mid-life. They are surprisingly open, sharing home movies from their childhoods under Soviet rule and allowing cameras into their imperfect lives in today's Russia. The film gives the viewer an intimately close-in view, as if we're a guest at the kitchen table being offered a vodka. Old Soviet-era propaganda footage deepens Hessman's observation of post-Cold War skepticism. Two of the characters, Borya (top still) and Lyuba, are married; interactions with their young son convey the global commercialism that has perhaps replaced old ideologies.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

James Longley

James Longley's Gaza Strip (2002) puts the viewer on the streets during a tense time in Gaza. Longley's sensitive camerawork relays sequences of violence and weariness. He shows the sadness when one boy dies from a mine, for example, as well as some startling physical reactions to toxic gas. Longley records the results of bulldozing and shelling by Israeli forces, hearing from people in hospitals and homes. Because there's no voice-over narration, the film doesn't feel dated.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Hubert Sauper

Darwin's Nightmare (2004) by Hubert Sauper is like a disaster movie, non-fiction style. Environmental atrocity in Tanzania accompanies hellish work and conditions for laborers in Lake Victoria fisheries, where aggressive non-native Nile perch have taken over the lake's ecosystem. The film shows a bleak future, but it seems to have been made by outsiders: they have a certain fascination with the local prostitutes, for example, and almost go out of their way to establish extra pessimism. Perhaps such beautiful footage of people-as-victims is more disturbing than informative.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cindy Meehl

Cindy Meehl's Buck (2011) portrays a professional "horse whisperer" named Buck Brannaman as the real-life counterpoint to the movie version played by Robert Redford (top still: Brannaman at right). Access and editing are the key to the film's effectiveness, and the story is deepened when Meehl implies the parallels between child abuse and the mistreatment of horses. Third still: one of Buck's assistants in the ring is about to be bitten in an alarming scene in the documentary.

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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.