Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Documentary Roundup I: THE SQUARE and THE ACT OF KILLING

Film Independent announced their Spirit Award nominees today, including their nominees for Best Documentary. Two of these were also nominated for Independent Documentary Association Awards: The Square and The Act of Killing.

The Square is an excellent documentary about the recent history of the uprising in Egypt, as seen mostly through a single location, Cairo's Tahrir Square, where many of the important events occurred.

If you think you learned anything about the uprising from the American media, you probably didn't, even if you watched some of the interviews Jon Stewart did. This film carefully documents the ups and downs of an uprising that took more than a year. The director, Jehane Noujaim, was repeatedly arrested and mistreated for attempting to cover the events. The fact that the film was made at all is an amazing act of courage. The film is only 95 minutes long, I actually wish they had given the US the longer release, as sometimes it is a bit confusing, since we know so little about the situation.

If you have more than a passing interest in this important event in world history, I strongly recommend you watch the film.

The Act of Killing is one of the strangest films I have ever seen in my life.

It's almost impossible to describe this film, and in many ways it is better to know very little about it before seeing it. If you do not know much about what is going on in Egypt, you probably know almost nothing about Indonesia, where this film was shot. In the film, director Joshua Oppenheimer's subject is a man, Anwar Congo, who single-handedly killed hundreds of Indonesian Communists during a purge almost forty years ago. Today he is considered a hero by many in his own country, which is proudly run by self-described "gangsters."

There are many layers to this film. There is the influence of American film on this gangsters, who grew up watching and worshipping gangsters in American films. Seeing this, the director offers them the opportunity to reenact their killings for the camera. Yes, you read that right, the director of the documentary asked his subject, a  mass murderer, to reenact his killings for the camera. As the film-within-the-film progresses, things become increasingly surreal. They shoot one scene like a 1930s film. Another becomes a lavish musical sequence. One of his cohorts dresses as a woman for much of the shooting.

This would be comical if it were not so darkly disturbing. I do think the film has one nearly-fatal flaw, the middle third of the film bogs down by showing too much of the same subject. In fact, I almost stopped watching, as Anwar seemed almost impossible to crack as a subject. Yet, the film redeems itself in the last 20 minutes with some of the best documentary footage I have ever seen. A huge portion of the filmmakers are credited as Anonymous, including a co-director, as their lives are in danger for releasing the footage in this manner.

I highly recommend the film.

Also nominated for the Spirit Award is Gideon's Army, reviewed here. Also nominated for the IDA award is Blackfish, reviewed here. Next week, the Academy will announce the "shortlist" of fifteen films still under consideration for the Oscar (out of 151 documentaries submitted).

Monday, November 25, 2013

American Masters: Jimi Hendrix

American Masters recently ran a two-hour documentary about the genius guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Hear My Train A Comin'.

The full video can be seen here:


I'm not the perfect audience for this film. I worked on an unauthorized TV movie a while back so I know quite a bit about him. That movie was fatally flawed from conception (unauthorized meant we couldn't use any of his music), but nonetheless I had to learn a lot about his playing to try and make it look like an actor who could not read music, sing, or play the guitar (and who was not left-handed) was Jimi Hendrix. 

This documentary suffers from some of the same problems we had. Hendrix's family is fractured and very litigious. As a result, many aspects of his life are completely ignored in the film, probably for fear of legal action. Virtually nothing about his life prior to the Experience, and surprisingly little about his last few months. Very little mention of drug use. 

I do suppose that for people who knew very little about him that this film is a nice way to get introduced to his life, but for me, there was very little new information. Some of the interviews were a little awkward and may not have deserved the screen time that they got, where other important people seemed left out of the film entirely. 

Nonetheless, I'm sure many people will enjoy this film. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


BLACKFISH is an extremely important documentary about the animal abuse occurring at SeaWorld and other marine mammal parks. It is the vein of THE COVE, which I reviewed here. Like that film, this one is extremely difficult to watch as an animal lover, but it is important to see what is going on. Be aware that there are multiple scenes involving animals in physical pain. The film is available on DVD/Bluray.

I remember going to SeaWorld when I was very young, again as a teenager, and a third time as an adult. It never occurred to me how badly these animals were being treated, or how inappropriate it is for animals this large to be kept in such small tanks. They are great propagandists at making the animals look like they are enjoying themselves. But the truth is much more horrific; three trainers have been killed by whales, and almost certainly because they cannot maintain healthy behaviour in the parks.

The film ends with a statement that SeaWorld is appealing a decision against it which has forced them to limit interactions between the trainers and the whales. Ironically, this was forced on them to protect the humans. It does nothing to protect the whales. Yesterday that appeal went to the court. There is a strong possibility that the court will overturn the ruling, which had given OSHA the authority to protect the trainers. That authority is a huge precedent, meaning that OSHA could attempt to protect other workers in entertainment fields (such as the NFL) if the ruling stands.

Regardless of whether that ruling stands, the country needs stronger laws to protect animal rights. If you can watch this film without crying multiple times, you are completely heartless.