Dernier des injustes, Le (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 (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 (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 (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 (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.
Jihad for Love, A (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 (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.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It is a testament to the documentary’s power that although I have no emotional attachment to Fred Rogers, the host and creator of the beloved “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” or his television show, I was fascinated and grew to care for both the man and the series. Director Morgan Neville understands that it is not enough to talk about the subject’s influence or to simply show clips of him behind the scenes or in front of the camera. No, it is imperative to show Mr. Roger’s raw power. It is most appropriate that it happens early in the film: Mr. Rogers looks to the camera—almost through it, really—and addresses the inner child in all of us. I don’t remember the words he used but I remember the way he looked at me, at us. There is an honesty in those eyes, a warmth, a willingness to listen and impart wisdom.
The film is well-paced as it weaves in and out of Rogers’ childhood, his relationship with religion and God, the various stages of his career, and some of the controversies brought up by people who are unable to define or label him. These are punctuated by interviews with Rogers’ family, friends, and former colleagues. But most intriguing are clips of the man relating to another human being: the way he looks at them, touches them, how he carries himself around them. If the film were merely composed of clips involving Rogers simply connecting with others, it would be a fascinating work regardless. The power of the work, you see, is not in words but in thoughts, feelings, and possibilities.
Rogers’ motivation to create a television series for children is compelling. I admired how the picture highlights the trends of programs aimed at kids from the mid- to late-‘60s and onwards. While cartoons, comedies, and variety shows tend to speed up, Rogers decided to use time in his program as a tool to slow down; to breathe; to ponder, consider, and learn. Instead of showing people’s faces getting smacked by pies, he shows how a turtle crawls across a mat. Instead of showing violent cartoons, he employs sock puppets to express deep thoughts and philosophical musings, not at all unlike ideas and questions that children ask about themselves, of people around them, of current events that are unfolding.
Underneath the relaxed nature of the documentary, there is a sense of urgency that juts out from time to time. It implies that since the show’s bow in 2001, there has been a void when it comes to such programming for kids. And it makes for a compelling case. I grew up with Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network shows and movies—not one of them offers a high level of insight or courage when it comes to tackling questions or subjects that really matter. I was amazed that “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” dared to discuss topics such as racism, divorce, death, and even how it feels like to have crippling self-doubt. It made me want to look into the show—entire episodes, not just clips—and see how they are handled. I caught myself thinking that surely there must be an archive of all the episodes because the show is willing to construct a bridge between parent and child so that they are more able to discuss difficult or controversial subjects.
This captivating documentary is about a creative, hardworking, and passionate man who looked at a television and recognized that it could be used as an empathy machine. Look at the way children are so enthralled when Rogers is in the room even without the puppetry. He never looks down on them, he is not afraid to employ multisyllabic words, he goes by the assumption that the children are smart and engaged. His body language is welcoming and upbeat. Children can read nonverbal signals exceedingly well. It is easy to see why Mr. Rogers became a household name for many Americans.
Ramen Heads (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Koki Shigeno’s directorial debut “Ramen Heads” makes a wonderful double-feature with the great film called “Tampopo” because both works, the former a documentary and the latter a comedy, are able to capture the drama of making and tasting ramen, a food most often associated with the Japanese culture even though it is not its place of origin. Yes, this film even dares to touch upon the food’s history and the nation’s relationship with it, especially during the postwar era between 1945 and 1947, when Japan experienced food shortages.
The energetic documentary focuses on Osamu Tomita, considered to be a master ramen chef whose shop is so popular that customers line up at five o’clock in the morning just so they can secure a spot when the place opens six hours later. The film is given eye-opening access to Tomita’s successful business: we explore behind the kitchen and see how the broth is made, we appreciate the preparation that goes into making his highly acclaimed noodles, and we learn about how Tomita values the “slurpiness” of his creations. There is an openness to the chef that feels warm and inviting, just like the dishes he serves. It is amazing that he is actually willing to disclose and discuss his ingredients, seemingly unperturbed that others might steal or imitate his ramen dishes. Or perhaps he has reason to be confident: When you are the best, and you know you are the best, there is no reason to be insecure.
Perhaps most interesting to me, however, is how Tomita runs his ramen shop. It is important, I think, that the work bothers to catch details that make up the entire establishment, not just what is put on the plate. Highly observant viewers will note that the apprentices are worked so hard, not even the presence of a film crew puts a smile on their faces. At one point, one of them makes the mistake of not being aware of his surroundings so he is sent outside by his boss to take a break. The film, too, makes a note of their long hours and what is expected of them when the last customer walks out the door. We get the impression that a top ramen shop is not just about the right mix of surprising ingredients. A strong work ethic is required.
While moments of happiness can be seen when the apprentices are interviewed, their honesty is most informative. It is apparent that their boss is tough, strict, and has very high standards. And yet—these apprentices choose to hold onto their jobs. The reason, I think, is not because of the shop’s success. Or that they just need the money. From their body language, at least with most of them, I think that they feel as though it is a place where they can learn a lot, not just in terms of being of service to customers but also in how to run a business, the balance of discipline and openness that one must learn to master.
“Ramen Heads” is not just about watching people make or eat ramen. It offers a look into a specific lifestyle—surprisingly educational for an amusing premise. I enjoyed, too, that the picture takes a few minutes to visit other ramen shops so we can have an appreciation of what type of ramen they specialize in, the personalities that run them, and the type of customers they attract. Sometimes it is about the flavor. But there are times when location matters more or how many seats a shop offers. (For instance, Tomita Ramen can seat only ten customers at a time.) Those who appreciate details are certain to be entertained by this most colorful portrait.
Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those familiar with Michael Moore’s hilarious, razor-sharp, educational, and occasionally sensationalistic approaches when it comes to framing and tackling topics that all Americans should care about are certain to be entertained, fascinated, and maddened by the documentarian’s recent work. This time, however, instead of focusing his critiques on, for example, guns and violence in the United States (“Bowling for Columbine”) or the American health care system (“Sicko”), we are presented an amalgamation of social issues, particularly the choices made by those with power in politics and the media, that led up to the presidency of Donald Trump.
There is plenty to admire in “Fahrenheit 11/9,” but utilizing clips in most effective ways is not one of them. For example, while it is appropriate to draw comparisons between the way Donald Trump addresses his rabid supporters with that of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, I found it unnecessary, even distracting, to use archival footages of the latter making a speech while dubbing in the former’s voice. It cheapens Moore’s point because the resulting the partnership of image and sound comes across cartoonish, almost like a joke—when the critique is anything but. Another weakness, although to a lesser extent because Moore does it only once, is reminding the viewers of the creepy way Trump sexualizes his daughter Ivanka. I failed to appreciate how this angle is relevant to the film’s thesis.
Yet despite these weaknesses, the documentary is thoroughly eye-opening. It is well-paced, readily able to create a sudden surge of urgency in a matter of seconds, and capable of playing the audience like a piano—especially those not especially informed when it comes to American politics, those who still believe that there is a clear demarcation between Democrats and Republicans. Being aware of these parties’ ties with corporate money, I could see some of Moore’s punchlines coming from a mile away. Still, the film almost plays out like a darkly comic satire, filled with valleys and mountains, of despair and hope.
While there is plenty of entertainment to be had—backed by sound effects designed to dig the dagger a little deeper… and then twisting it—in revisiting the results of 2016’s Election Night, especially in how the mood changed in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s respective camps as later electoral votes poured in, most captivating to me is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Many of us have heard of the city’s residents—a large percentage of them being African-Americans, which is no coincidence—not getting clean drinking water. The water was so poisoned with lead that more than ten thousand children had been poisoned by the time of filming. Many of these kids have been permanently damaged—the proof can be found in their genes and will remain in the genes of generations after them.
Moore is an ace documentarian when he is with his people, simply sitting back, asking questions, and allowing the people of Flint, Michigan to speak. There is no need for archival footages, no need for musical cues, no need for humorous dramatizations. Because when a person being poisoned by the water coming out of the faucet or shower head, everybody can empathize and relate with her. Regardless of the viewer’s socioeconomic status, race, or politics, it is only natural to be able to identify with anyone who just wishes to have clean water for his or her community, especially for the children. Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, should be in prison. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
There is plenty to be angry about—this review does not scratch the surface. I could go on about, for instance, how the so-called Democratic Party had blatantly cheated Bernie Sanders of the presidency, but I won’t. I admired Moore for introducing hope in a seemingly hopeless quagmire that is the American politics today: the grassroots movement, regular teenagers and school shooting survivors who organize record-setting national rallies using social media, and everyone else who is willing to take action for the changes he or she wishes to make. Based on the film’s thesis, the real enemy is not Donald Trump, or Rick Snyder, or racist white America. These are echoes, byproducts of American complacency and inaction.
Devil’s Playground (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lucy Walker’s eye-opening documentary “Devil’s Playground” follows about a half a dozen young adults who consider (or considered) themselves to be a part of the Amish community. Her subjects are participating (or participated) in rumspringa (“running around”), a time in their lives when they are allowed to leave home and break away from their strict upbringing, from changing the way they dress to partying and experimenting with drugs. It is a fascinating work, certainly educational, because it strives to pull back the curtains, even just a bit, so we can have an appreciation of a lifestyle that we may or may not agree with.
Two subjects stand out. The first is Faron, a teenager who is both a drug dealer and has an addiction to methamphetamine. He neither considers himself to be Amish nor someone who is not Amish. He makes no qualms that he is still in the process of figuring it all out. In the meantime, we look at his face, a facade that looks more like a boy than a man, and wonder about his future. Even his friend whom he lives with admits that Faron may not live for very long given his occupation. When the director allows the camera to rest on a subject’s face and captures confessionals that are direct and heartbreaking, the film is at its most effective.
The second intriguing subject is Velda, a twenty-three-year-old who admits that at the time of her rumspringa, she was suffering from major depression. She admits that she decided to partake in this tradition because she thought that by breaking the Amish rules and experiencing what the world had to offer, it would cure her depression. It did not. However, she enjoyed the freedom of being able to live her life the way she wanted to. We learn later that she has been excommunicated and shunned by her community.
Deeply humanist, the film is not interested in casting judgment. I admired that is interested in providing the audiences with facts of the curious Amish lifestyle and specific individuals’ circumstances. As for my personal feelings, I thought it was shocking, horrific even, that Amish children stop going to school after the eighth grade. They are expected to get a job.
Even adult Amish individuals admit on camera that a thorough education can lead to pride, that is encouraged that young people be satisfied with what is, not bothering to ask the reasons why, for example, things work a certain way or how. This is critical, at least in my eyes, because it puts the whole “running around” tradition into perspective.
It inspires the audience to ask: Is rumspringa really a choice or an illusion of choice? Think about it. If a community fails to provide a strong enough education so that its young people would be able to land on his or her feet after the fact, would it be fair to consider that a community was setting up a member to fail? Statistics show that the percentage remains high regarding teenagers who “choose” to go back home and become Amish via baptism. Devastating interviews here show that it is precisely because they feel they have no other choice but to revert to the comfortable, to what they already know. This is why Faron and Velda’s stories, particularly latter, are worth telling.
“Devil’s Playground” is at its most powerful when the subjects address the camera for extended periods. Velda takes us to her closet and shows us a dress. She made this dress for her wedding day and she describes how the clothing made her feel when she had put it on at the time—back when she was convinced she was going to be Amish. She puts it on for us… and she proceeds to tell us how it makes her feel now. Her confession will stay with me for a long time. It made me wish that she is out there somewhere—happy, healthy, and thriving.
Devil and Father Amorth, The (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Regardless of whether one believes in God, the Devil, demonic possessions and the like, there is no question that William Friedkin’s “The Devil and Father Amorth” is a documentary that lacks an excellent reason to exist. Its opening sequences are telling: the director, who helmed the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist,” revisits locations of various scenes from that film as if the viewers were interested in sightseeing. One gets the impression he is grasping for straws in order to inspire curiosity in us—which is redundant given that his subject is already interesting. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch an actual exorcism?
The woman named “Cristina” is to be exorcised for the ninth time by Father Amorth, a beloved and respected priest in Rome. The exorcism is nothing like the movies we are all familiar with—which I found to be interesting for about three minutes. For instance, the person to be exorcised manages to retain how they look like, nobody is tied up to the bed, holy water does not penetrate the skin like acid. (Holy water isn’t even used.)
Most amusing, at least from my perspective, is the fact that the room is actually filled with loved ones, observing every second of the exorcism, praying along with the main priest and his assistant. They do not seem bothered by the woman’s paroxysms, trance-like demeanor, and guttural voice. The entire showcase lasts about twenty minutes and I felt every second of it. It is repetitive, shot in a flat manner, and rather boring. Mayhap it is because I have been around an exorcism when I was a child.
The picture gets slightly intriguing after the exorcism as Friedkin turns his camera on physicians and asks what they think of Cristina’s exorcism. Friedkin’s goal is painfully obvious: to get a quote that runs along the lines of science not having all the answers. Of course it doesn’t. But it does not automatically mean that the Devil exists and it has in fact possessed Cristina. The way Friedkin manipulates the interview is quite insidious and it left me with an uneasy feeling. I had to remind myself that he is a better filmmaker than this.
It cannot be denied that “The Devil and Father Amorth” offers access into a subject that is mostly kept secret. It is beneficial to capture an actual exorcism on film, regardless of whether or not one believes in its effectiveness as treatment when it comes to spiritual diseases, because it provides us information of what it is, how it is executed, and what it entails. But the way the documentary is put together is quite amateurish at best and overreaching at its worst. There are stretches here when I felt I was watching propaganda.
★★★ / ★★★★
Without the crutch of narration, dialogue, or subtitles, “Samsara” parades wave after wave of beautiful and curious images from across continents, cultures, and lifestyles. Yet although it ensnares us visually, it creates a spiritual experience in that it inspires the viewer to look within and question why specific images invoke certain emotions.
For instance, images that resonated with me most are those of dead bodies: mummified, fragile, empty. They are not scary, disgusting, or deformed, as they so often tend to look in horror films, but peaceful. There is a silent elegance and grace about them. As I stared at the former vessels on screen, I looked down at my own arms and hands. I noticed their color, where hairs are placed, the veins underneath the skin. It moved me because I was reminded of my own mortality—that eventually this body I inhabit will degrade and wither.
This is one of many examples that Ron Frickle’s documentary offers. “Samsara” is a Tibetan word for “the wheel of life,” and it is the theme that runs across the veins of its disparate but rich portraits. Notably, the middle section veers away from shots of nature and tribes who live in isolation. Instead, the focus is shifted toward our increasingly industrialized world, how impersonal and automated it has become, both the tools we employ to get the job done and how we are with one another. Still, however, the director is not interested in judgment. He simply captures the images, the truth regarding what is and where we might be heading as a society, and it is up to the viewer to extract an interpretation.
Visiting numerous exotic locales triggers a sense of wonder, from deep orange deserts to jagged icy mountains with streams slashing through them. Even if a person just so happens to have seen such places in person, the use of time lapse photography provides a new way to marvel at these wonders. For example, a statue of a giant face looks entirely different during the night than it does during daytime. When the sun sets, shadows thicken the statue’s brows and it creates an ominous feeling. When the sun rises, its countenance is welcoming, full of wisdom. We note its subtle colors, textures, crevices. Notice, too, that when time lapse is used when the focus is on majestic landscapes, shadows are slowly pulled back like blankets, revealing hidden details to admire and appreciate.
Some might note an apparent lack of flow as it jumps from one set of images to another. For instance, a few seconds in the sulfur mines of Indonesia is immediately followed by a marketplace in Africa. I enjoyed that at times it requires work to find the connective tissues. In this case, note how the camera focuses on the back of the sulfur carriers, some of them sporting wounds and callouses. Jumping to the marketplace, notice how women are carrying children on their backs. To me, the connecting idea is that the work being done, even or especially in dangerous conditions, is for the sake of supporting life, a family, the next generation. While it may take a bit of getting used to, it is not difficult to make these connections when the viewer adapts to the rhythm of this beguiling documentary.
Swell Season, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Upon the success of their film “Once” and winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová go on tour across the globe. While they are happy and excited to share their music and become a part of something big, “The Swell Season,” directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, shows how fame takes a toll on the couple’s personal and professional relationship. Though not a sequel to “Once,” the documentary works as one, in a way, because the films share a knack for looking into the souls of their subjects with honesty, embracing the pain in small but important revelations.
To show the documentary in black and white is a wise decision. It creates a dream-like quality, us having to look into the realities of the singer-songwriters and discovering that maybe going on tours is not as glamorous or fantastic as one might assume. Yes, we see them celebrate through small gatherings and drinks, but these are occasional. I enjoyed watching the hard work put into preparing prior to a show, the stresses that may occur when a venue fails to acquire the proper instruments requested by the performers, and the inner struggles specific to Hansard and Irglová, the former having to come to terms with the pressures and expectations of his family and the latter questioning whether fame is right for her. When the two clash, there is no yelling or screaming matches in front of the camera. Instead, the silences and pauses are the ones making deep cuts.
In addition, shooting the film in monochrome tends to highlight the emotions during and outside of stage performances. The reason why I loved listening to the songs is because there is a contradiction. The lyrics are often sad and aching, but there is undeniable power in the voices and the delivery of the words. In that way, it is an uplifting experience—empowering even.
But the picture is not without sense of humor. Especially memorable is the point when Irglová and Hansard look at the poster for “Once” (I believe two versions have been released) and pick out the details that have been Photoshopped. For example, in the actual shoot, Hansard claims that he wore a hat and that his clothes had been changed by the computer in order to make him “look handsome.” But what really bug them about the poster is that the image was manipulated in such a way that it looks like they held hands during the photoshoot. In fact, they never did. The duo may be the ones we recognize in front of the camera, but we are reminded that those in control at times are people we never see.
The one person I wanted to know more about is Catherine Hansard, Glen’s mother. She is just so proud of her son winning that Oscar, but Glen tells her that he does not like the attention. There is a sort of argument between them at some point that really touched me. I was moved because it reminded me of times when I would argue with my mom or dad and sometimes it easier to just walk away and try to let it go. Sometimes it is most frustrating because it feels like the more you put in the effort of explaining something, it seems like the farther both parties are in reaching a common ground.
While “The Swell Season” touches upon the topic of celebrity and what it means to its subjects, it remains to be a highly personal work. Hansard and Irglová are Academy Award winners, but we relate to them because it is made clear that the things they consider important are what we value, too: family, friendships, personal happiness, being and remaining enthusiastic to our passions.