Monday, December 21, 2015

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese directed the first part of the exhaustive documentary series (2003), "The Blues." The program, Feel Like Going Home, is written by Peter Guralnick with a respectful and informed take on the music. The young blues musician Corey Harris, the audience's guide during visits to Mississippi and Mali (top still), is equally respectful and informed -- all of which brings to mind an academic lecture rather than a cinematic watch. Les Blank's film, The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins, has the heart and feel that is underplayed in Scorsese's careful compilation of key archival performances (bottom still) and countryside field trips.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), convincingly conveys the creepiness of Scientology. Former leaders and believers offer somber testimony which is capably edited by Andy Grieve, who was an editor on Manda Bala (2007). The depressing facts about Scientology in the film are deepened by the portrayal of celebrities who wholeheartedly support their cause, such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise (above).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Laura Poitras

Citizenfour (2014), by Laura Poitras, is both a spy thriller and a cautionary warning about the limits of privacy in an age of intrusive surveillance. A glimpse of the filmmaker setting up the camera prior to an interview in a hotel room (top still) parallels the nighttime observation of Edward Snowden and Lindsay Mills at home in an undisclosed location (second still). Journalist Glenn Greenwald (third still), who does most of the interacting with Snowden in the film, is portrayed as a genuine hero. Intriguingly, the credits give a shout out to a set of privacy tools (fourth still).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ben Cotner and Ryan White

The Case Against 8 (2014), by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, tells the story of the two gay couples
at the heart of the legal case to overturn California's ban against the freedom to marry. The filmmakers subtly compare the couples' romantic and domestic relationships to the professional relationship between the two "superlawyers," Ted Olson and David Boies (top still). The documentary's coverage of the case and the eventual win is thorough to the point of apparent omniscience: a camera captures and makes resonant every possible moment (second still: California Attorney General Kamala Harris makes a call to ensure a marriage takes place.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Talal Derki

Talal Derki's Return to Homs (2013) is a harrowing descent into the violence of the military siege of Homs during the Syrian civil war. In the documentary, young men led by Abdul Basset Saroot (above) fight against Bashar al-Assad's army. Basset's men live in a ghostly interconnected labyrinth made up of partially-shelled apartment houses. Basset is shown to be an inspirational leader: a soccer playing, poetry-reciting activist who puts his life on the line against a dictatorial regime. As the film goes on, we can see Basset's increasing fatigue and frustration. Indeed, the rebels seem to be picked off, one by one, by army snipers, tanks, and bombs. The film's relentless focus on one small group in one city sheds light on the overall Syrian conflict.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wim Wenders

Buena Vista Social Club (1999), by Wim Wenders, has a lovely stand-alone segment about the musician Eliades Ochoa (above). Wenders weaves together two performances of "El Carretero," one with Ochoa alone and one with the big band in performance. The segment is notable for avoiding a "talking head" interview; instead, Ochoa is heard in voice-over, reminiscing about his growing up and musical influences. Wenders circles Ochoa with a handheld camcorder, and when "El Carretero" begins, he dramatically cuts to the same song on-stage. It's a memorable edit that connects the son tradition to more commercial music as well as establishing Ochoa's range as a musician in his own right.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Laura Poitras

The Oath (2010) by Laura Poitras tells the story of two Yemeni men, Salim Hamdan (top) and his wife's brother-in-law, Nasser al-Bahri (bottom, also known as Abu Jandal), but only al-Bahri appears in the documentary. He had been Osama bin Ladin's bodyguard in the late 1990s, later returning to Yemen and imprisoned at the time of 9/11. Salim Hamdan, once employed as bin Ladin's driver, was detained for years at Guantanamo Bay. His (eventually successful) legal case runs as a parallel story to al-Bahri's mundane existence as a taxi driver in Sana'a. Al-Bahri is framed as a classic "unreliable narrator" with windy explanations, self-justifications, and occasional outright lies. The heroes of the movie are Hamdan's military attorney, Brian Mizer, and al-Bahri's FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan. The soundtrack by Osvaldo Golijov establishes a moody suspense that helps carry the well-edited narrative.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Asif Kapadia

Asif Kapadia's Senna (2010) masterfully edits together archival footage, vacuumed up from apparently every possible source, to tell the story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver. A sense of dread is inherent in the watching of this documentary, because the hazards of Formula One racing are genuinely frightening and the unhappy outcome is well-known. The filmmakers visually tell the story of Senna's career and life, and their use of period close-ups is particularly resonant in showing the effect of time and stress on a well-loved face.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Errol Morris

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) by Errol Morris gives new weight and meaning to the disturbing Abu Ghraib photographs taken by US military personnel documenting prisoner abuse. Morris makes sense of the photographs by emphasizing and re-enacting their creation (top still) and also by visually lining up images taken at the same time and place (second still) on different cameras. Interviews with the men and women working at Abu Ghraib shine additional light on the history and implications of the war in Iraq. Box office figures from Standard Operating Procedure's 2008 theatrical release show that it made under $300,000 in the United States, showing at about 20 movie theaters. American Sniper, in contrast, has made about $250 million dollars so far in the US, at about 3900 movie theaters.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Laura Poitras

My Country, My Country (2006) by Laura Poitras documents the tense months leading up to elections in Iraq in early 2005. Poitras follows the step-by-step process of ballot and polling place preparation with Iraqi and foreign officials. She follows journalists, American military personnel, and contractors who weigh in on events as they happen. But the key to the film is a parallel plot about an Iraqi doctor running for office in Baghdad. Poitras's long-term, sensitive, and profoundly engaging focus on Dr. Riyadh and his family shows the power of observational documentary. Poitras frames Dr. Riyadh as the embodiment of an idealized Iraq and the symbol of a country in chaotic times. The viewer gets to know him as he sees patients in the clinic, visits Abu Ghraib prison (second still), talks to his neighbors, and spends time with his wife and children. Dr. Riyadh represents the wish for self-determination demonstrated by candidates and voters. The film may document events from ten years ago, but it maintains its documentary value and relevance.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.