I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

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Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary about the great American author and essayist James Baldwin is neither a biographical film nor a typical talking head documentary, with various experts and narrators explaining to us, the regular people, the importance of the people and events depicted on screen. It’s an essay film, built around notes Baldwin compiled for a project he ultimately abandoned, a personal history of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, African-American activists who were murdered in the few years between 1963 and 1968. Samuel L. Jackson, in a hushed, yet determined voice, narrates Baldwin’s notes, and Peck freely cuts between them, recited over archival footage both past and present, and images of Baldwin himself lecturing, participating in panel discussions, chatting with Dick Cavett and generally just being himself (the fear in his eyes as he drives around Mississippi street with Evers is palpable, as is his anger at being condescended to by an aged white professor on Cavett’s show). The result is a rambling, discursive film that captures the essential genius of Baldwin’s work, the uniqueness of his mind and the eloquence and power of its expression.

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VIFF 2016: Notes on Ta’ang (Wang Bing, 2016)

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The cinema of Wang Bing is one that seems, even if a documentary, one where the physical body of a director has been removed, and the camera is guided solely by compassion. With this in mind, there is very little one can analyze or really write about – as my colleague Andy Rector stated quite astutely regarding this new work: “You’re with real people now – Essential cinema.” Wang shares an affinity with the Portuguese director Pedro Costa – both have found themselves making representational films but with the complete awareness and understanding of the potential pitfalls of such an approach. (Costa is even on record stating that Wang is his favorite contemporary filmmaker) Firstly, this appears to stem from the desire to document what otherwise would go undocumented. If there is another serious similarity – it’s that they both have found a way to remove a subject from any point of representational stasis; they have found ways to film with making those in-front of them subjects to their cameras. But while Costa seems to have moved in another direction since, Wang seems to be capable of doing this in a form that is impossibly natural. And while Costa aestheticizes and blurs (if not make entirely unnecessary) the lines between fiction and nonfiction, Wang gives us solely the world as is, more importantly the faces in it, and most importantly makes no attempt towards dialecticism within filmed reality and moreover makes no attempt to reconstitute it either. (Not that Costa necessarily does these things, but to discuss that would drift too far from the work at hand.)

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VIFF 2016: Yellowing (Chan Tze-woon, 2016)

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As a documentary about the 2014 Umbrella Movement, in which thousands of young Hong Kongers gathered to Occupy districts throughout the city in protest of the PRC’s decision to not allow the former colony to directly choose its candidates for high office, Yellowing is something remarkable in our time: an honest direct cinema film, with nary a hint of meta-commentary about film theory or storytelling. Not that there’s anything wrong with the doc/fiction hybrids that have become so ubiquitous lately, there’s just something refreshing about the open earnestness of the filmmaking here, mirroring a little bit the idealism of the young people at its center. Shortly after the Hong Kong police attacked protesters with tear gas on September 27, 2014, Chan began filming the students as they set-up in and occupied the Admiralty and Mongkok neighborhoods. He focuses on a few young people through the run of the 67 day occupation: a man nicknamed Lucky Egg who gives impromptu lectures in English and political philosophy; a young man who works in construction who wanders in and out of the protests–something big always seems to happen when he’s there; a law and literature student named Rachel who makes announcements in three languages and provides the film’s eloquent final statement, an open letter to a professor who had infuriatingly denounced the students’ idealism.

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In focusing on the details of the occupation, recording the quotidian requirements of activism (building rain-proof shelters, finding a mattress to sleep on, distributing water, masks and umbrellas to counter gas attacks), as well as the ideological arguments the protestors are making (they want to be able to vote for their leaders, this is anathema to a paranoid one-party state), Chan’s film resembles no less than Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871), one of the great films of this century. The similarities between the protestors then and now is striking, but Watkins’s film, being nearly six hours long, takes a couple of meta-fictional turns in its historical reenactments (for instance: the film’s actors discuss the issues the Communards raised in character, and also as themselves, expressing how the process of playing 150 year old activists affected the way they see politics in their own time). Chan has no need of such artifice: his movie isn’t a reenactment, and we see the impact the process has on his subjects unfolding as it actually happened. Beyond that, we get a feel for both the city itself and the young people not leading, but forming the heart of the movement. Whether discussing the nuts and bolts of activism and its limits (most of them know very well they cannot succeed, but they’re there anyway; Rachel distributes yellow wristbands sporting the slogan “They Can’t Kill Us All”), or just hanging around trying (and failing) to meet girls (“you need guts and brains to get a girl”). In its ground-floor, first-person perspective, it finds more honesty and wisdom and life than a hundred Hollywood issue-advocacy films.

VIFF 2016: Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)

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Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly. She does, she thinks, and writes the man a letter. He’s living on the other end of the country, in a small town where he lives alone and teaches a choir. Audrey writes the man a letter, asking him to call, but he never manages to connect with the women in Toronto (he’s played by George Radovics, Bohdanowicz’s producer’s grandfather). The bulk of the film cuts between the three principals, usually as they’re eating, alone. The television episode is interspersed throughout, and there’s a digressive slideshow of the grandmother’s trip to the Bahamas, both of which are actual artifacts. But wholly fictionalized scenes abound as well, such as one where Audrey tries on a bunch of old clothes her grandmother is trying to get rid of while the two delicately balance familial niceness with the desire not to give or receive these gifts. It’s a found-footage film, using bits and pieces of the past to build a collage of a fictionalized history, an alternate reality version of her family’s history. It bears a kind of inverse relationship to Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films, which use a highly structured script and compositional style to document her family’s life, their work and routines and relationships as they go about various tasks: cleaning the house, making leather goods, cooking dumplings. Bohdanowicz in contrast films with an off-hand directness, emotionally straightforward compositions chronicling wholly improvised interactions (both Campbell and Benac receive screenplay credits).

Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

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Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson provides an extraordinary experience for viewers—those already familiar with her body of work and those new to it alike. Johnson is a documentary cinematographer best known to most for her work on Fahrenheit 9/11 (dir. Michael Moore, 2004), Pray the Devil Back to Hell (dir. Gini Reticker, 2008), and the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras, 2014). Those who have seen these films will know to expect bracing, sometimes unsettling, sometimes even devastating images, but they might not be as aware of Johnson’s eye for scenes of almost unbearable beauty and joy. The images Johnson assembles in Cameraperson reveal the full range of her remarkable gifts, in all their weight and force and radiance.

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Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

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When I first heard about the significant buzz surrounding Cameraperson, it seemed heavily reminiscent of Sans soleil, Chris Marker’s 1983 magnum opus that I regard as the greatest film I’ve ever seen. The description, detailing how it was comprised of outtakes from various documentaries all shot by the same cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson, was intriguing, only slightly removed from the other film’s freewheeling examination of the human condition and memory using footage shot mostly in Tokyo, Guinea-Bissau, and San Francisco. But it took me more than half the runtime to realize that the film is not Sans soleil, and that it was just one of the many, many aspects that makes Cameraperson the stunning, quietly revolutionary work that it is.

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De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015)

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Coinciding with the release of a new documentary about the director from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, the SIFF Film Center is playing a mini-retrospective of Brian De Palma’s films this weekend, June 24-26. Certified Classics Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Obsession, Blow Out, Body Double, Scarface and Carlito’s Way present a neat cross-section of some of his Best Work, and they’re all playing digitally at a discounted ticket price (and free for members).

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SIFF 2016: Under the Sun (Vitaly Mansky, 2015)

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“My father says Korea is the most beautiful country in the eastern part of the globe. Korea is the land of the Rising Sun.”

Granted rare access to North Korea, documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky follows the story of a young girl who joins the Children’s Union and prepares for the Day of the Sun, birthday of Kim Il-Sung, conqueror of the “American scoundrels.” Working around Korean handlers by filming before “Action!” is called or by lingering on drooping eyelids and fidgeting fingers, the camera captures extraordinary, unscripted moments. Such spontaneity, juxtaposed with the official Korean script that demands its subjects act “with joy” and “patriotism,” offers a complex, poignant portrait of life in a rigid regime.

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Under the Sun screened at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.

The Frances Farmer Show #7: SIFF 2016 Midpoint Report

Almost halfway through the marathon that is the Seattle International Film Festival, we take a break to talk about some of the films we’ve seen so far. Movies discussed include: Chimes at Midnight, Sunset Song, Love & Friendship, Long Way North, Our Little Sister, Alone, The Island Funeral, Concerto, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Cameraperson, Women He’s Undressed, In a Valley of Violence, The Final Master, Lo and Behold, The Lure, Tiny, The Seasons in Quincy and Scandal in Paris.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.

Some corrections:

The woman in The Island Funeral takes a trip with her brother, not her sister.
The Seasons in Quincy starts in the winter and ends in the autumn, not summer, because that’s how seasons work.

SIFF 2016: Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (Martin Bell, 2016)

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Not quite sure what the purpose is of this 30-year return to one of the subjects from Streetwise, the essential documentary on homeless youth. Turns out life sucks when you have ten kids, some born from prostitution and raised by the state, and are on methadone. Feels like more of a supplement than its own standalone feature, especially since much of it consists of Erin watching and commenting on moments from Streetwise but hey, if it gets Streetwise back into circulation, I’m for it.