Tag: documentary

The Last of the Unjust


The Last of the Unjust (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

In 1975, director Claude Lanzmann had the chance to interview Benjamin Murmelstein, a rabbi chosen by the Nazis to become one of the Elder of the Jews and lead Theresienstadt, a concentration camp built to house seven thousand soldiers but fifty thousand Jews were sent there to die from various diseases and malnutrition. The place came to be known as a “model ghetto” as the Nazis used it for propaganda—like it was some kind of town ideal for a vacation.

“The Last of the Unjust” offers a wealth of information from a primary source. Hearing from someone who was actually there and survived the horrors is an unreal experience. But the way the material is presented at times is very dry. There are plenty of long takes, from Murmelstein attempting to recollect the events that happened thirty years prior to the interview to long intervals of the camera scanning the place from left to right. It tests the patience but those who stick with it will take away something valuable. Though a necessary viewing, it is not for everyone.

Away from the interview, the camera is utilized in such a way that we are inspired to ponder about the holocaust. We visit various places like a crematorium, a Jewish cemetery in Prague, and what is now known as the Old New Synagogue. It takes its time to look at works of art. We even see areas that were once places of death but are now establishments where people go to drink and dance. The camera is used to place an emphasis in history and our role in preventing something like the holocaust from happening again.

We watch videos of Nazi propaganda. I felt as though I was transported back in time. Observing the dejected faces, I felt disgust and anger that a systematic extermination of human beings could be conceived—let alone be executed. We are then shown, in present time, of the train tracks that lead to Auschwitz. I imagined thousands of people boarding the trains, packed like sardines.

The documentary is most powerful when Lanzmann asks Murmelstein the difficult questions. The subject talks about his important role in embellishing Theresienstadt, the power he had there, and his relationship with Adolf Eichmann, one of the men responsible for organizing the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. “Were you acting to save the ghetto or yourself? Do you consider yourself a hero?” These are two questions I also wanted to ask Murmelstein.

After World War II, he was accused of being a collaborator. And for good reasons, I think. Notice the manner in which he speaks and the changes in his body language when delving into the details of his role in the “model ghetto.” Was he proud of what he had done? If so, which aspects of his actions? He spoke very confidently, as if he held a very prominent position there. He might have been a leader but certainly the Nazis were always in charge. He discloses enough details—he is an undoubtedly engaging storyteller—and yet we suspect that certain secrets went to the grave with him.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening


Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” will likely challenge most people’s idea of what a documentary can be. Instead of tackling its subject head-on, it employs a lyrical and ponderous approach—certain to test the patience of those possessing a strict definition of “documentary,” so much so that one might claim that the film is simply a collection of random images that could have been captured with a camera phone.

So then what is a documentary, at least in my eyes? To me, it is an act of capturing reality from a specific perspective. In this case, the picture’s goal is to provide a portrait of how a number of black people live in Hale County, Alabama, specifically those who reside in impoverished neighborhoods, from the perspective of an insider, RaMell Ross, who wrote, produced, and directed the film. An open and seemingly desultory approach is most appropriate because to provide only one portrait of a poor neighborhood could be considered a lie—and an act of further marginalizing an already marginalized community. It is clear that Ross is interested in showing the entire canvas instead of focusing only on a particular cloth of that canvas.

It subverts expectations from a storytelling point of view. The opening minutes show two young men, Quincy and Daniel, who dream of reaching their goals through school and sports. By the end of the film, an argument can be made that only one of them is closer to his goal. The other’s focus turns on his growing family. There is no wrong choice because it is their choice to make.

Notice that every time the two subjects are front and center, the images are shot in a matter-of-fact way. No shots of starry skies, no time lapse photography of highways, not one extended look of an open field. Victories, failures, life, death, and moments in-between are raw and unflinching. I found it fresh that the passage of time is not shown using subtitles or title cards. Instead, we are asked to look at the children and observe how much they’ve grown from one scenario to the next. The documentary spans five years.

Constantly we are reminded, however, that this is not just Quincy and Daniel’s stories. It is about a community: how it celebrates, how it fights, how it mourns, how it copes, how it moves on. We watch children play, tease, laugh, and scream. We see grandmothers get challenged by teenagers—and how these elders snap back. We listen to an old man playing the blues on his guitar. Teenage girls sing despite not knowing a song’s lyrics entirely. A father and son waiting for rain. Blink and miss an insect landing on a fingertip. Churchgoers singing, cheering, yelling, crying. A boy at a barbershop. An infant being buried in a cemetery.

These are impressions—which some may find moving while others are left cold. It all depends on life experiences, I think. I belong in the former group because I grew up in a time and place where neighbors are like second family. People talked to each other, gossiped with one another, and sometimes fought against each other. Neighbors were more than strangers you felt obligated to greet when you cross paths. The documentary is, in a way, about the collective African-American family living in the Deep South.

Somewhere Between


Somewhere Between (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having just adopted a baby from China, Linda Goldstein Knowlton is aware that her daughter will come to ask questions about her roots eventually. In order to help and guide her child in creating a strong sense of identity, Knowlton feels she needs to further her understanding when it comes to the struggles of being adopted. So, the director turns her camera on four teenage girls who are raised by white American parents.

One of the subjects is Jenni, living in Berkeley, California, who, as a child, was found roaming the streets and later sent to an orphanage. Out of the four girls, she is perhaps the most relatable or accessible because she has a way of explaining how she is feeling or what she is thinking in a way that is beyond her age. At one point, she tells the camera that no matter where she is—whether it be visiting China or living in the Bay Area—everyone knows she is foreign.

She delivers this in such a matter-of-fact way that in about a minute or so I realized that there are times when I feel exactly the same about being an immigrant: that no matter how much I’ve assimilated in the “American” culture, characteristics that are ingrained in me—whether it be how I look, how I’ve been raised, how I perceive and process information—can never really be ignored or erased.

Jenna of Murburyport, Massachusetts is an interesting case as well. Being one of the very few Chinese people in her town, she tends to describe herself as being “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” to her friends and to the camera. I dislike descriptions like that but, admittedly, that was exactly how I—and a few friends—described myself during the early years of high school. I think that deep down the commonality is the need to belong. Like Jenni, Jenna—even though she may not admit to it—does not feel good enough in her own skin sometimes. This explains why she feels she has to be best or be in control of whatever task she is given. I know that feeling, too.

The final two girls are Ann from Pennsylvania and Haley from Tennessee. They meet through a program that gives Chinese adoptees a chance to be able to connect with one another. The two are almost complete opposites: the former has little interest in wanting to meet her biological parents while the latter embraces the idea. The film does not judge whether one course of action is better than another. What we do see is how the girls deal with excitement, wrestle with disappointments, and what it is they hope to accomplish in the future with respect to their roots.

I hope to adopt a child one day. Whether or not he or she will come from the same culture as me, I believe the documentary does a good job in raising questions I would not have considered otherwise. The picture makes a point that the answers that each of the subjects comes to terms with are specific to every one of their stories.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory


Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., teenagers at the time, were convicted by the state of Arkansas of killing three eight-year-olds: Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers—whose bodies were found naked and mutilated in West Memphis’ Robin Hood Hills. Despite overwhelming reasonable doubt that the trio, eventually known as the West Memphis 3, did not commit the murders, they were nevertheless sent to prison by the jury—Echols to receive the death penalty—because it was rumored that they were devil worshippers.

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” does an excellent job in summarizing the events and key information presented in the first two films and introducing a great injustice to a new generation. Equally compelling is the way it introduces new evidence, mainly DNA evidence, and the renowned specialists who go on record stating that they have found no physical evidence that linked the West Memphis 3 to Branch, Moore, and Byers.

It proves difficult not to feel angry toward the incompetence of various people supposedly responsible for protecting the rights of the innocent, from the cops who failed to perform their jobs the right way to the judges who continued to look the other way for almost two decades because they were, essentially, worried about their reputation being tarnished. Mind-boggling as the new evidence are, watching the aged faces and bodies of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley Jr. felt like an invisible hand reaching into my gut and twisting it. Picturing them being in jail for half of their lives is like looking inside a dark dream, a reminder that our justice system, despite its positive qualities, is still very much flawed. And if silly things such as rumors about worshipping the devil could send innocent people to jail, just about anybody could meet the same fate and for equally silly reasons.

I could not help but feel sad for everybody involved. First, justice has not been served for the murdered kids. The killer, or killers, is still out there. Second, the West Memphis 3 have been robbed not only of their reputation but also their youth. Instead of serving time, they could have done plenty with their lives. Echols, especially, has an eloquence and insight about him that at times I pictured him as a counselor or a psychologist in another life. Third, it seems obvious that the families of those directly involved will never completely recover from what happened.

Most fascinating is the transformation of John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the murdered children, from wanting to kill the convicted teens, now men, to supporting their release. Those who have not seen the previous films would probably not completely understand or appreciate the extent of Byers’ ravenous appetite for vengeance back when he was utterly convinced that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley Jr. killed his stepson. Watching him previously compared to this film likens that of a rabid dog that had been miraculously cured. I was amazed; I had to blink twice to make sure that he is the same man who created a fire in the forest and pretended that he’d killed the West Memphis 3.

While “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” eventually introduces a potential suspect, I almost wished it had not. Although very interesting, what if this person, despite major gaps in his statements, is actually innocent? I don’t know. Let’s see if time will tell.

There is one certainty: We do not need another witch hunt.

Three Identical Strangers


Three Identical Strangers (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During the opening minutes of this fascinating documentary I thought, “So what? It is not unique for adopted identical twins, separated at birth and having no knowledge of each other’s existence, to cross paths despite the improbability of it.” But patience proves to offer big rewards as director Tim Wardle threads together numerous compelling reasons why his subjects are special: they are pieces of a bigger puzzle filled with curious implications about the age old debate of nature versus nurture. But that it is not all. The work is also a look at the darker side of acquiring knowledge, when ethics and morality are taken out of the equation in the name of science.

The material’s jagged edges can easily be overlooked at times because of how entertaining it is. Learning about the triplets when they met at nineteen years of age is highly amusing: they all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, they were a part of the wrestling team in high school, and they had the same taste in women. Robert, Eddy, and David—raised in a wealthy family, a middle-class family, and a blue-collar family, respectively, look so identical, it is a big challenge to tell them apart in home videos and photographs. Their collective energy was so infectious, I caught myself smiling because of how happy they were to have found one another. It is interesting to learn about them through one-on-one interviews in addition to those who know them most.

At times it is capable of offering great insights regarding its subjects. An immediate standout involves a fallout among the brothers after they established a successful business post-fame and celebrity. An interviewee makes a point that because the siblings met as adults, they did not have a chance to be around and learn about each other as children—which includes how to weigh each other’s personalities, temperaments, and point of views as siblings who grew up together would have. And so despite their many similarities in likes, dislikes, and mannerisms, they are, essentially, strangers when there is considerable conflict.

The manner in which the material is put together likens that of a subtle thriller. It is always evolving, its pace full of zeal, and it commands a constant forward momentum. Later surprising revelations underline seemingly throwaway information encountered earlier on. Notice the way in which the second half is edited. Intercutting among aging faces, potentially crucial documents, and foreboding city skylines are more prevalent. Frantic. And yet—it is not afraid to slow down to a halt, to be patient when a person being interviewed is recalling a painful memory or trauma. It never loses track that despite the big picture no longer solely being about the triplets, it remains to be a humanistic piece.

This is just the surface. Yes, it touches upon parenting, heritage, and identity. Still, so little can be said about “The Identical Strangers” without revealing its more sinister and chilling themes. I refuse to delve into them because discovering these elements is most engrossing. The documentary’s premise is feel-good, but once the layers have been peeled off, it is a challenge not to feel angry at the many injustices, for the lives lost and scarred forever. As the end credits start to roll, one gets the impression there are more secrets to be revealed at a later time. I hope to be around in 2066.

A Jihad for Love


A Jihad for Love (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

“A Jihad for Love,” directed by Parvez Sharma, gives us a peek into the lives of Muslims who happen to be homosexuals. Since it widely believed, from the common people to high scholars, that the Quran forbids homosexuality, Muslims who love and are devoted to their religion, Islam, who also consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ community are marginalized, punished, and condemned. Others are put to death.

I do not know much about Islam or what is or is not stated in the Quran, but what I do know is that the Muslims that I have met are kind people. So when I learn about acts of violence toward homosexuals and other minorities related to the Islamic culture in the news, I cannot help but wonder and ask questions. How is life really like for LGBTQ people on the other side of the world? When confronted with questions about homosexuality, how will people who have studied the Quran for many years respond to them?

The documentary lays out the essence of the religion and its followers but only to an extent. Its main focus is on the struggle of those who are treated as outcasts as well as their personal endeavors when it comes to reconciling their theology and being gay.

Particularly memorable is Muhsin Hendricks. He is out of the closet in a very public way and we listen to the radio broadcast of people calling in and expressing their outrage. Some say he, an embarrassment, has no right to be calling himself a follower of Allah. Others demand that he receive physical punishment or be put to death. When he asks his daughters, aware of their father’s homosexuality, if they think gay people should be put to death, the way they answered, not necessarily the content of their responses, is heartbreaking. They are torn from having to choose between their inherent feelings for their father and what they are taught to believe is right or true. A lot of us are not required to make a choice.

Maryam is a lesbian who, in my opinion, clings onto semantics and contradictions in order to be able to live with her sexuality. According to the sacred writing, sexual relations between people of the same gender, specifically between men (never mind the intended context from when it was written), is forbidden. She says she allows herself to love another woman without the physical act—sex—that comes with the relationship. In essence, because she abides by the technicality, she is not committing a sin in the eyes of God.

We may not understand or agree with her point of view completely, but the film does a good job capturing her sadness. We are allowed to sympathize with her. We recognize that she is trapped and perhaps will remain that way for the rest of her life.

The film stays away from showing physical violence committed against homosexuals. The daggers are embedded in the words, the intonations, and the looks given by a respected elder to the homosexual sitting a couple of feet from him. Gay Muslims having to find refuge in other countries out of concern for their safety, as well as their families’, and then later talking about how they miss home and their loved ones via telephone pack a sting, too.

One of the subjects asks, “Why do [people] think the sky has to be the same color for everyone?” It is an excellent question. But I think the reason is this: a lot of people define their lives by following the “right” thing even if a part of them feels that a longstanding rule or belief might be wrong. It is more convenient to overlook or to ignore or to lash out than to consider a challenge, to think about it critically, and to engage in a calm and fair evaluation. Such is the dark side of blind faith.

Generation Wealth


Generation Wealth (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield looks back on her twenty-five career in order to examine the potential elements that have contributed to our wealth-obsessed society. On the outside, it has the makings of a truly fascinating documentary, especially given Greenfield’s level of access with past subjects that range from children of rock stars, pornographic performers, to former hedge fund managers. However, looking more closely, it is a work that lacks balance, focus, and, perhaps most importantly, subjects who are more relatable: the every day people, those who consume the media on a daily basis, those who choose to swipe their credit cards despite the fact they are low on funds, those who allow celebrities or personalities to define one’s worth or value.

Despite the director’s access to a handful of individuals with interesting stories to tell, it is most frustrating that some of them are introduced early in the picture but are not seen again until about an hour or so. Because the project attempts to tackle so much, it veers off in so many directions to the point where at times we end up forgetting its thesis. Its approach feels scattered, desultory, failing to build intrigue or even suspense. At its worst, notice we are simply provided a parade of clips from Greenfield’s oeuvre. “Thin” and “The Queen of Versailles” are films that are so focused, it is impossible to look away.

As for the subjects we do see often, notice they are not given enough time to speak. Either that or the editing is so omnipresent that cuts are made for no good reason. I wondered if it was meant to modernize the work, to provide it a sense of urgency. But great documentaries have the patience to keep the camera on the subjects and stare. No decorations, no blinking, no cuts, no apologies. The camera is there to capture to truths, lies, and everything in between. The audience is left, challenged, to sift through the said and the unsaid—sometimes even the subjects, in a way, function as mirrors to those watching. Thus, watching the film becomes an experience of sitting through critiques of ourselves.

Shouldn’t this be the point of the documentary: To look at the subjects and recognize ourselves? After all, each and every one of us, to a degree, is a part of the global capitalist machine. Sometimes we confuse wants for needs. We allow ourselves to be manipulated by the media and this impacts what we buy, how we see our bodies in the mirror, how we define success or being successful. I felt the work lacks self-awareness and a grounded nature or feeling that makes viewers relate to it even though it is a critique on our society.

There are few instances, however, when it exercises raw power. Greenfield makes the correct decision to put her family in front of the camera. In roundabout ways, she asks her children, for example, how they think her obsession with her career have impacted their relationship. There is no question that Greenfield’s intelligent sons are closer to their father. And it’s funny because not once does the father appear in front of the camera. His story is told through voicemails, pictures, and the children’s memories of him.

It is without question that “Generation Wealth” is a work with ambition, but it does not deliver on the level beyond a career retrospective. It lacks the necessary depth to be able to pierce the heart of what makes our modern society so pathologically obsessed with excess and vanity. For such a rich subject, it offers no eye-opening or surprising insight.