SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

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Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.

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SIFF 2018: Matangi/Maya/MIA (Stephen Loveridge, 2018)

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Documentary portrait of the Sri Lankan/British pop star and activist MIA, compiled largely out of footage she shot herself over the past twenty years. Telling her own story about her family (radical Tamil separatists) and her art (though how she dropped filmmaking for dance music is tantalizingly untold), she explores but ultimately cannot resolve the inherent contradiction in being a politically-committed pop artist in a culture that simply doesn’t care about meaning, especially when the voice speaking out is female and non-white. Funny, poignant, frustrating, but with some sick dancing.

SIFF 2018: Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary (Brent Hodge, 2018)

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Not much more than a DVD extra, this story of the seminal 1999-2000 TV series is fun but doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. The show had a remarkable collection of talent, almost all of whom were unknown at the time it was made. Director Brent Hodge mixes some great archival material and clips with talking heads of the cast, creators, and executives. The latter interviews are the most heart-breaking, both from the producers who championed the show and the still-clueless executives who buried and then cancelled it.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, 2017)

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Opening Thursday and playing through the weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is Travis Wilkerson’s first-person documentary about the murder of a black man in Alabama. The victim, Bill Spann, was killed in a grocery store in Dothan by Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, who was initially charged with murder for the crime but the charges quickly disappeared. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Wilkerson heads home for the first time in a long while to investigate his ancestor, his victim, the town, and the history and mechanics of white supremacy and its persistence into the present day.

At just about every stop in his investigation, Wilkerson is stymied. The environment of Dothan, along with neighboring towns that may have some connection to the events, has changed over the past 70 years, although not as much one might expect (at least where I’m from, in the West, change is a constant: the parts of Spokane I grew up in are unrecognizable today, let alone how the city would have looked to my grandparents in the 1940s). The physical persistence of the past is captured in black and white static images: old houses, ominous streets, blossoming yet menacing trees, a strip mall city hall, a fateful store counter. These constitute tangible evidence of more spectral ideological hauntings: a great aunt who has become a Southern Nationalist, creepy teens in cars following nosy outsiders, and a conspiracy of silence over a long-forgotten crime: witnesses who refuse to speak, government documents disappeared, the town hospital gone to ruin, a cemetery of unmarked graves. What Wilkerson does find is disturbing in its banality: old home movies of his great-grandfather, looking no more sinister than anyone else and a death certificate horrifying in its stark, uninquisitive language.

Wilkerson narrates with a deep voice hinting at contained rage and only occasionally do any other voices enter the film. His mother and aunts write him letters about his great-granfather, revealing new, undiscovered crimes, but he reads them himself. The current neighbor of the family’s old store (since sold and resold and now a kind of speakeasy) speaks on camera for a bit, and Wilkerson gives over ten minutes or so to a rambling, fascinating monologue by Ed Vaughn, a civil rights leader and resident of Dothan, who nonetheless can provide few details on the crime itself. Instead Vaughn helps bring to life a period of American history the feeling of which we have willfully forgotten in favor of belief in our own (that is to say, White America’s) heroic progress, while the terror of racism, along with the identities of its victims and the activists who worked to upend it, are conveniently shuttered away (there’s an interesting side story about Rosa Parks and her activism long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott with victims of racist and sexual violence in Alabama, work which is usually left out of the standard narrative about Parks). The story is framed by a discussion of Atticus Finch, with clips from To Kill a Mockingbird, standard images int he beginning, describing Harper Lee’s character for what he has become, a “secular saint”. The film ends with red-tinged negatives of that same footage, as Wilkerson describes Lee’s revision of her character in Go Tell a Watchman, the private, racist face of Finch (of America) exposed underneath the public virtue. Punctuating the narrative are names of victims of white brutality: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Bill Spann, accompanied by Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout”. It isn’t as effective as Raoul Peck’s insertion of modern protest footage into his James Baldwin doc I Am Not You Negro, but it makes the point. What Wilkerson discovers, what we probably have always known, but rarely have acknowledged, is that that past hasn’t passed, that the legacy of white supremacy lives on and its effects are still being felt. That the very fact that S.E. Branch has a great grandson and Bill Spann does not is proof.

The Paris Opera (Jean-Stéphane Bron, 2017)

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It’s apparently impossible to make a film about an institution and not fall into comparison with Frederick Wiseman. Especially if that institution is a creative one and doubly so if Wiseman already made a film about it, one of the best documentaries of the last ten years, La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet. Yet Jean-Stéphane Bron has done it, with this film about The Paris Opera, and while it isn’t Wiseman, lacking both his exact sense of rhythm and his patience, it’s not bad. Skipping along among the massive company over a season as it puts on nine operas and eight ballets, from high level meetings with the company director involving everything from fundraising to the size of the programs to where Natalie Portman should sit during a performance (she is married to Benjamin Millipied, who was director of the ballet during filming: we’ll catch a glimpse of the fallout from his resignation in 2016). There are interstitial shots, as in Wiseman, of the craftspeople at work: preparing costumes and wigs, wrangling an enormous bull for the opera Moses und Aron, cleaning up the stage and the auditorium after the show. And of course we see the performers in rehearsal: opera singers, dancers, and a young group of violinists in an outreach program. It packs so much into less than two hours, you begin to understand why Wiseman needs four or more for his films: there’s not enough of any one thing, just as you begin to understand a performers struggle with a line, or a step, we’ve moved on to something else.

Jody Lee Lipes’s documentary Ballet 422 solved the Wiseman problem by focusing intently on a single artist, a choreographer prepping his first ballet. We follow him throughout the process and see it begin to take shape, while learning about the backstage aspects of the company in breaks between rehearsals and other dramatic high points. Bron attempts something like that with the story of a mop-haired young Russian opera singer, who joins the company with evident talent, yet has to learn both how to speak French (he already manages pretty well in English and German) and sing to the company’s lofty standards at the same time. But he largely disappears through the second half of the film, which is true to life (not everyone’s life is always dramatically interesting) but makes for a disjointed through-line for a feature film. The film suffers from a lack of performance footage as well: we catch only peeks from the wings of the final productions, it’s almost like they didn’t have permission to properly film the shows and so had to content themselves with stolen sidelong glances. What performances we do see are very good, though heavily weighted toward the opera side (perhaps because Wiseman covered the ballet already). The film is at its best in small, intimate moments: a singer stands just behind the curtain, her body drenched with sweat which she dries with handfuls of Kleenex; a moment of silence on-stage and for the audience for the victims of a terrorist attack, which extends backstage, to the security office and even to the kitchens; a ballerina dances beautifully offstage then collapses to the ground, heavily panting with the effort, catching her breath just in time to dance some more.

Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017)

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Opening today and running for (most of) the next week at the Northwest Film Forum is the latest film from Frederick Wiseman, the 87 year old documentarian who may very well be the best director of the last ten years. Coming to prominence at the height of the cinema-verité trend, debuting with Titicut Follies fifty years ago, Wiseman has spent his career examining institutions and the ways in which they do and do not serve their public. The verité label doesn’t quite apply to him (and he’s often rejected it), his films are too carefully organized, his images too artfully designed. There’s a fly on the wall element to be sure, along side his disdain for direct interviews (though he’s not above filming one of his subject being filmed by a journalist, as he did in Ballet for example). But his movies are too patient, too precise to be lumped together with the Pennebakers or Maysleses. His last decade of work has been mostly films about artistic organizations (La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym, National Gallery), along side profiles of communities both urban (In Jackson Heights) and academic (At Berkeley). Ex Libris, combines both elements into an examination of the interactions between the organization and its community. Alternating, as he has in all these recent films, between scenes of the institution being used with those of it being run, with interstitial shots establishing the various branches of the library system in their neighborhood, Wiseman makes an engrossing argument for the fundamental necessity of the public library, a space anyone can use for any number of reasons, from reading for pleasure to doing research to after school programs to expanding internet access to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. While at the same time the contrasting images of the wealthy donors who help fund the library and the desperately poor people who depend on it for everyday life points to the fundamental inadequacy of the library itself, of “education” alone as a means for creating a just society.  This library is the ultimate neo-liberal institution, the well-meaning bureaucrats who run it working as best they can to ameliorate the conditions of poverty just enough to hold back real change, while the philanthropic set pat themselves on the back for going to see Ta-Nahesi Coates get interviewed.

VIFF 2017: Maison du bonheur (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2017)

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Maison du bonheur celebrates a very French epicureanism—that old Gallic fondness for fromage, pastries, and Aperol spritzes—that seems to animate the daydreams of drab North Americans more than it does to the soul of La République in the era of Macronisme. But as with any ancient philosophy there are holdout practitioners who keep the flame alive. Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s second feature zeroes in on one such philosopher, Juliane, a sixtyish astrologer and casual gourmand who lives in the Hausmannian maison of the title. Maison du bonheur’s offhand genesis (Bohdanowicz was asked by a friend if she might consider documenting her mother, a woman that the director had never met and knew nothing about) profoundly informs its approach. Rather than cross-examining Juliane about the details of her personal history, which would be très gauche, Bohdanowicz simply observes the objects, from astrological ephemera to a well-loved KitchenAid, and the routines, largely centered on food, that comprise her everyday life. Conceived as a series of grainy 16mm insert shots, Maison du bonheur glows with Juliane’s anachronistic spirit and shares with her a deeply considered approach to things.

Luxe generosity, on the part of both filmmaker and subject, defines the project; a mid-film toast to the offscreen filmmaker by Juliane and friends typifies the constant magnanimity on display. But as one mysterious detour to Deauville suggests, Bohdanowicz’s prior stay in France was significantly more troubled. Bohdanowicz’s role in the film mostly goes unspoken, save this detour and an amusing anecdote about Paris’s worst eclair, though the way that her camera watches Juliane’s hands—which are omnipresent—mold a Shabbat challah or caress an astrological chart reveal a subtle master/student relationship. During the post-film Q&A Bohdanowicz revealed that she shot the film without sync sound and crafted the film’s lush foley track entirely on her own by following Juliane’s design for living at home: recreating the challah recipe or recording a friend savoring a pastry at Juliane’s deliberate pace. Image and sound thus become a teacher’s instruction and the student’s recital, so that Maison du bonheur begins as a mere document of Juliane’s way of life and ends up as true, delectable praxis. Bohdanowicz need not say more about herself to communicate what this gourmandine education means to her, though she does make one final gesture of gratitude at the conclusion: she returns Juliane’s toast, dedicating Maison du bonheur to all those who live in this house of happiness. And with her film, she kindly opens the door for the rest of us.

SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan (Robin Lung, 2016)

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Finding Kukan, a feature film debut from Robin Lung, is a documentary that tells the story of one of the first documentaries to win an Academy Award, Kukan: The Battle Cry of China (1941). Positioned in China and operating from a Chinese perspective, a perspective unknown to most white Americans at the time, Kukan aimed at documenting the Chinese experience of World War II and was noted on its initial release for its stunning ground level footage of the devastating bombing of Chungking (now Chongqing). Photojournalist Rey Scott received the Oscar for the film -“For his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions” – but Lung, as she tells us in her documentary, discovered another person central to the creation of Kukan, a person who had gone essentially overlooked: a Chinese-American woman named Li Ling-Ai.

Li Ling-Ai is credited only as “technical advisor” to Kukan, but, as Lung discovers from a 1993 TV interview, Li Ling-Ai seemed to regard the film as her own, a story she herself, not Rey Scott, needed to tell: “I wanted to tell the story of China, the battle cry of the people of China, heroic under suffering.” It’s a curious way to speak about a film for which one is only “technical advisor.” Was she, in fact, more than the technical advisor?

For Lung, the mystery of Li Ling-Ai’s involvement demanded solving, and it set her on what would be a seven year journey. The content of Kukan, Lung quickly found, too, promised to be, in itself, extraordinary, and its print history made the content all the more tantalizing, for, as documentary curator Ed Carter notes, it is the only academy award winning documentary without an extant print. Consequently, Lung’s film and the search her film documents is guided by two questions: 1) who is Li Ling-Ai and why is she so little known, and 2) is there, in fact, some surviving print of Kukan yet to be discovered that might be restored and shown to the world?   Continue reading

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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