Friday, December 5, 2014

Shola Lynch

Shola Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2013) is a legal thriller that uses archival news footage to tell the story of activist and professor Angela Davis from her 1969 arrival to UCLA to her acquittal for murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in 1972. The film's present-day interviews, however, propel the film beyond the facts of the case. Fascinating interviews with Davis (top still), her sister Fania Davis (middle still) and a variety of other observers and supporters, such as one of her defense attorneys, Doris Brin Walker, bring the story to life. The issues that Davis was involved in over 40 years ago resonate at time when Michael Brown and Eric Garner are part of the national discussion on race, police, and justice.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Gillo Pontecorvo

The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo is not a documentary. It's entirely scripted and acted (top still: some of the characters trapped by security forces behind an apartment wall), relating events in the war for Algerian independence against the French in the 1950s. But its verite-style black-and-white footage gives it a certain realism; re-enacted scenes of crowded demonstrations are some of the most powerful in the film. Echoes of contemporary events also prevent the film from seeming dated. The scene of the bombing of a house on a residential street in the middle of the city, for example, recalled news images of homes shelled in Gaza during the summer of 2014. The film's plot depends on building suspense, such as the sequence of local women activists in Western clothes (second still) getting ready to carry out violent attacks. The film gives characters representing the French colonial government and military the opportunity to make their case for colonialism (bottom still), allowing viewers draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's portrayal of Klaus Kinski (top still: Herzog's film Woyzeck) in his character study My Best Fiend (1999) is funny and horrifying. Kinski comes across as a madman, but there must have been something behind his antagonistic behavior. Indeed, for all his dysfunction, Kinski made so many films (second still: at left), including five with Herzog: Aguirre, Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde. Herzog relishes the chance to tell his tales about his star, who, having died in 1991, can't retaliate. Footage from Les Blank's documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams, corroborates Herzog's creepiest rants.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Greg "Freddy" Camalier

Muscle Shoals (2013) by Greg "Freddy" Camalier elaborates on a cold war between two recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama: Rick Hall's FAME Studios (top) and that of his former session musicians (bottom). The conflict between a tough-guy founder and his mild-mannered minions gives emotional heft to an otherwise standard "behind-the-scenes" music documentary. Although Muscle Shoals touts the harmony of the town's music scene, with racially diverse musicians recalling how they recorded together, some of the imagery contradicts that harmony: the film uncomfortably lingers on archival footage of a huge Confederate flag on stage at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Morgan Neville

Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet from Stardom's best sequence features Merry Clayton (above) listening to a recording of her vocal accompaniment to the Rollings Stones song, "Gimme Shelter" and reflecting on how she came to be in the studio with the band. Her close-up is intercut with Mick Jagger's reaction to hearing the same isolated vocal track. Clayton's singing is strained, revelatory, and inimitable; Clayton's and Jagger's faces, in close-up, are particularly expressive.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Wim Wenders

Pina (2011) by Wim Wenders has a wealth of beautifully filmed dance sequences showing the range and intensity of Pina Bausch's choreography with her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. Sadly, Pina died in 2009 during the film's pre-production stage, yet the film's collaborative feel suggests that Wenders was still influenced by his unseen muse. Wenders beautifully shows individual dancers, all remarkable masters of their art, with voice-only interviews heard over static close-up portrait shots (top still). Choreography meets theatrical expression in the most natural and engaging way, both on-stage and in non-traditional settings.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Zachary Heinzerling

Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer (2013) is a resonant all-access portrait of two New York artists, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, at work and in their marriage. Their 21-year age difference and their seemingly incompatible temperaments make for dramatic observational footage. The drama deepens with skillful editing of archival videos from their their younger days (Noriko, middle still) and animations from Noriko's autobiographical drawings (bottom still). Heinzerling boldly creates an unequal representation of the two protagonists: Ushio comes across as a self-centered bully, verifying the cartoon renderings of "Cutie" (Noriko) and "Bullie" (Ushio).

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Deborah Stratman

Deborah Stratman's witty and mesmerizing short film, Hacked Circuit, shows the painstaking work that goes into creating sounds that match up with filmed activity. Stratman documents an audio engineer and a Foley artist as they recreate the audio from a kinetic scene in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman's character wrenches apart his apartment's walls and floors while fruitlessly looking for a hidden recording device. The inherent fascination with the Foley process, with its home-made and unpredictable tools and techniques, is emphasized by the fluidity of the camera's single take. Stratman's visuals do conjure up "Big Brother" and surveillance, but the film also simply pays homage to professionals doing their jobs well.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Maciej Drygas

Violated Letters (2011) uses extraordinary archival footage of twentieth century Poland to explore daily life under the strictures of an authoritarian society. Intercepted letters, never delivered and recovered decades later, are read aloud in the film, providing a vernacular history of decades of Cold War history and culture from the perspective of ordinary people. The fate of millions of letters is an unsettling example of repression at its most efficient and impersonal. In Poland, a special office stole, opened, and scrutinized personal mail from 1945 to 1989. Carefully chosen excerpts from this correspondence, accompanied by evocative period footage, reflect a time of would-be state control over personal expression.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mohammad Bakri

Mohammad Bakri's Jenin Jenin (2002) documents the West Bank town of Jenin after a violent clash with the Israeli Defense Forces in April 2002. Bakri spoke to residents about the fighting and its aftermath, assembling the interview footage into a statement against Israel's military actions in Palestinian refugee camps in general. Bakri weaves individual stories with scenes of damaged and demolished areas in Jenin; conversations with children (top still) are treated with the same respect given to the adults. The film ends with an unexpected comic moment as a man (second still) surrounded by a growing crowd of onlookers pretends (holding a shoe) to make a phone call to the UN to ask for more international attention to the situation in Jenin.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.