Thursday, December 26, 2013

Philip Widmann and Karsten Krause

The Photographer's Wife (2011), by Philip Widmann and Karsten Krause, celebrates the anonymous achievements of an amateur photographer, Eugen Gerbert, whose primary subject was his wife, Gerti. Now widowed, Gerti looks through boxes of photographs and recalls both faraway vacations and homey domesticity. The decades of seemingly commonplace marriage fly by; all the while, Eugen had meticulously photographed his beloved's body, dressed and undressed. Through a photographer's eyes, however, an ordinary woman becomes a goddess of femininity. Charmingly, Eugen's appreciation for his muse seems to have increased as she aged. Ultimately, Gerti's nakedness turns the pictures into aesthetic objects on the theme of womanhood. The photographer's notes and diaries, read aloud, have a deadpan quality, in contrast to the sensuality of the images.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Omar Amiralay

Omar Amiralay's beautiful short film, A Plate of Sardines (1997), relates his story of how he came to hear of the state of Israel as a boy in 1950. Amiralay, a Syrian documentary filmmaker who died in 2011, narrates the film, which mixes footage of ruins of Quneitra, a Syrian town in the Golan Heights, with dreamscape images from Amiralay's memories. Amiralay's aunt (second still) at once confirms and confounds his memories of a plate of sardines representing the expulsion of his relatives from Israel. Amiralay records pensive images of the empty streets of Quneitra through the eyes of his filmmaker friend Mohammed Malas, who says that "sometimes reality doesn't solve things, but cinema protects them." Watching A Plate of Sardines led me to wonder about future independent films documenting the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi

In Five Broken Cameras (2011), five years of footage was shot by Palestinian Emad Burnat, a resident of Bil'in in the occupied West Bank, and edited by Guy Davidi, an Israeli. Both men are credited as directors, and Davidi wrote the narration which is spoken by Burnat. Although the film is riveting and serious, the shooting and editing choices leave room for character, community and humor. Above: the perils of wielding a camera in one's day to day life under occupation: Burnat's wife Soraya questions his constant filming (top still); Israeli soldiers also don't like the camera (second still, during a raid at Burnat's home); nearby Jewish settlers express a similar sentiment (third still).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Robb Moss

Robb Moss revisits the Grand Canyon's rapids and scenery seen in his 1982 short, Riverdogs (top still), in the full length The Same River Twice (2003). Moss investigates the lives of five people he knew as Colorado River guides: three men and two women. Of these characters, the women (past and present Cathy, second and third stills, and Danny, fourth and fifth stills) emerge as the most watchable and likable. The film intimately connects with its five principals, whose takeaway from their river guide years is a natural tendency toward leadership in their present lives (two became mayors of their towns). Haunting footage from twenty years earlier creates a visual and visceral portrayal of the process of moving from youth to maturity.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dror Moreh

Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers (2012) weaves together interviews with a hard-boiled set of secret service professionals in a gripping and well-paced film. The men offer the audience their stark realism and perhaps even a leftward inclination while airing their reflections on Israel's approach to using violence as a means to security. Avraham Shalom, Yaacov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin (above) were respectively in charge of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, from the years 1980 to 2011. They discuss the limits of surveillance, interrogation, recruitment of double agents, and violent retaliation in the name of counter-terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza. Their assessment of the history of the occupation since 1967 also includes Shin Bet's dealings with Israeli right-wing extremists. Moreh allows the personalities of his interviewees to emerge, with touches of humor and hopefulness accompanying their cloak-and-dagger pragmatism.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Michael Apted

Michael Apted's 56 Up (2012) documents the mellow maturity of a group of people who have endured the camera's pry since the age of 7. In interviews, they don't always accept Apted's questions and indeed challenge the premise of the entire series. These moments of conflict provide the only real dramatic tension in the film. Tony, for example, rejects Apted's suggestion that he is a racist. Yet the overall mood, despite Apted's occasional goads, is one of satisfaction. Images of growing families invade most of the character's segments. Above: Paul with grandchildren, Jackie with son and granddaughter, Symon (right) with some of his former foster kids, and Lynn (left) with daughters and grands. Neil's continued solitude is a welcome contrast.

Friday, June 21, 2013


The Law in These Parts (2012), by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, burns with a deliberate and reasoned outrage at the separate and decidedly unequal legal system in Israel's Occupied Territories. In the years since 1967, the military has set up its own rule of law that appears to operate without major interference from the Israeli judiciary or government. Alexandrowicz's interviews are intense interrogations, and the various military legal experts and judges in the hot seat respond with various combinations of irony, suave self-assurance, and irritation. Alexandrowicz occasionally uses voice-over to muse on the nature of documentary truth (top still, with Oded Pesensson, a former military judge), and the green screen behind his interviewees comes alive with powerful footage of Palestinian residents, Intifada stone-throwers, and detainees. Second still: Justice Amnon Strashnov sums up the the film's key point about the primacy of security over justice.                                                                                                                                                                             

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lucy Walker

Lucy Walker's poetic short film, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011), begins with footage of destruction during Japan's March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. As the film develops, Walker combines powerful imagery with redemptive stories of death, endurance, and rebuilding. The cherry tree as a metaphor for rebirth and impermanence is reinforced by dazzling cinematography and well-edited commentary from survivors.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fernand Melgar

Special Flight (Vol spécial, 2011) by Fernand Melgar documents the inside of the Frambois detention center near Geneva, Switzerland. Frambois is a prison for refugees who are being sent back to their home countries against their wills. Observational footage shows the interactions between staff and would-be asylum seekers. The question of who is a "legitimate" refugee fleeing persecution and danger, and who is an immigrant living illegally in Switzerland is beside the point in Melgar's tightly focused and carefully edited approach. Both the detainees and their keepers are portrayed sympathetically, but the unresolvable bureaucratic randomness create a fluorescent-lit nightmare within the orderly walls of the Frambois facility.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Malik Bendjelloul



Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugarman (2012) plays on the contrasts between the voices and streetscapes of Detroit and South Africa. The film creates a sense of place as it tells the story of a singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriguez. His unpopularity as a musician in the United States is echoed in his spartan surroundings in wintry Detroit. A world away, beauty shots of the South African landscape and legions of admiring Rodriguez fans deepen the emotional impact of the narrative. Above, Rodriguez and his three daughters, whose interviews are intercut with the those of the determined South Africans who rediscovered him.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Kevin MacDonald

Kevin MacDonald's entirely satisfying film, Marley (2012) uses many elements of the documentary toolkit to explore and comment on Marley's origins and rise to superstardom. An elegant flyover, for example, brings us to Marley's rural childhood home in Jamaica. Fascinating interviews pool together the individual strands of Marley's story into a comprehensive whole (third still: Bunny Wailer). Well-chosen archival footage gives a sense of immediacy to events decades past. The personal, the commercial, the romantic, and the political mesh in the film as they did in Marley's life. Well-chosen archival footage seems to place us right in the middle of events as they happen.

Georgia Gruzen

Georgia Gruzen's short documentary Fanuzzi's Gold (2011) tells the story of Ed Fanuzzi, a Staten Island NY collector, whose hoard of items is almost overwhelming. Excerpts from thousands of home movies are edited into the film to deepen Fanuzzi's character beyond that of an eccentric tinkerer. Fanuzzi's approach to the many heavy burdens in his life offers both disquiet and inspiration.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Michael Almereyda

Michael Almereyda's William Eggleston in the Real World (2005) documents the working methods of photographer Eggleston, whose approach to snapping pictures here is refreshingly non-digital. Indeed, he appears to be using a Mamiya medium format camera (third still). Eggleston gazes at a light meter like people everywhere have an eyelock with their handheld devices (fourth still). The film respectfully observes  Eggleston pacing back and forth, looking intently at things we would probably never notice, and choosing his shots. Almereyda includes some of his earlier images that still set a standard for color photography (top two stills).
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.