Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) is one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries of the last decade. It is certainly an experimental and quite dense experience. But, at least on first watch, there are some aspects certainly lacking.
Part of the issue with the film is that it is so small scale. What Polley is telling here is essentially a piece of family history. A moderately interesting one sure, but there are similar tales of family secrets in many many families I think. The emotional volume of the film never really reaches any great heights either. The director admits during the film that she started out making this piece just for herself. It shows too, with this feeling almost more like an academic self-reflection rather than a feature doco. This subject matter makes it difficult for the film to really differentiate itself and justify the investment. Much of what is going on is interesting. But it is far too slow in its delivery and too small scale. The film really struggles to exceed feeling like a pretty standard familial tale and I don’t think it ever achieves that. At least on a surface level, there is a big focus on memory, about the differing ways in which people recall the same bents. Similarly Polley reflects on the storytelling process occasionally, but this is not a focus throughout the entirety of the film.
It is easy to point out and discuss the fact that Stories We Tell is a film concerned with notions of storytelling and memory. But the thing is, I’m not so sure those things are really there. The ideas bookend the film, are more of a focus at either end. Through the middle though they seem to be less of a concern, with the film just focusing on a mildly interesting family story. One of the more interesting stylistic choices that Polley makes in the film is revealing the artifice of filmmaking. On occasion we see visible sound recording equipment or cameras, drawing attention to the fact that this is a story being crafted, not an immersive truth. Something borne out even further by a late ‘twist’ concerning some of the footage. The experimentation or toying with form is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. It starts with the film’s opening stages, featuring talking heads with only first names provided, not context for who the person is or what perspective they are coming to their testimony from. Though whilst interesting, this affectation is unnecessarily oblique, making it too hard to discern the differing relationships.
Verdict: At some point in Stories We Tell, someone remarks that it’s “a great, great story”. Only I’m not so sure it actually is. It’s an ok film, with some interesting ideas around memory and storytelling philosophy that are not enough of a focus. Which serves to make this slow film even more frustrating. These issues are also only amplified by the fact that it is an exceptionally dense film to take in on first watch. Schooner of Carlton Draught
The Wolfpack (2015) has a documentary pitch to make film buffs swoon – a group of brothers are essentially locked away by their father in a New York apartment, with only a massive movie collection to expose them to the outside world. Sounds like some whimsical documentary fun right… not exactly.
At its heart this is an absurd story, but also a very sad and confronting one. And director Crystal Moselle does not shy away from those confronting aspects. The film focuses on six brothers, who for a vast majority of their lives have been kept inside their New York apartment only allowed out a handful of times a year, if at all. There are moments that highlight the power of cinema, one brother remarks on cinema that “it makes me feel like I’m living… magical.” But the film refuses to be twee on that front. Rather than craft a trite narrative about the transformative power of the medium we all love so much, The Wolfpack shows that even that cannot overcome the brutal experience of being trapped in a controlling situation of domestic control. This is less real-life Be Kind Rewind (2008), more story of horrific domestic abuse and overwhelming control. The experience of these young men (and their barely mentioned special needs sister) is quite confronting, ruled by an iron-fisted, most likely mentally ill, patriarch. By the time the film is made, the boys have come to regard their father with contempt, repeatedly expressing their incisively negative viewpoint of him. Though their mother is still pretty enamoured with him and this contrasting of attitudes functions as a comment on domestic abuse to be pondered by the viewer. As does the impact this upbringing has had on the brothers, as they attempt to reach out into the world, but are hamstrung by their past. One of them eloquently expresses the universal fear of being so ignorant of aspects of the world that he will not be able to handle it. It’s universal, but obviously of much greater concern for him than most of us.
However for all its positive qualities in terms of theme, The Wolfpack is a bit of a mess really. There is a struggle to lay out the narrative of the film at all clearly. Perhaps caught in two minds between the crowd-pleasing positive impacts that a love of film has given these brothers, with the reality of their situation, it does not entirely succeed at delivering either coherently. Surprisingly I found the power of cinema focused aspects to be the least interesting, with the more troubling domestic aspects being much more interesting. It is a little frustrating to see interesting roads the film could have taken hinted out but then not taken – the mother’s story is the most interesting but not a focus and the connection between the movies the boys watch and the course of their life could have also been expanded upon.
Verdict: The Wolfpack is a different film to what the synopsis would suggest, both more confronting and less assured than anticipated. Unfortunately, though there is a lot of power captured in this film, it is not captured in a clean, clear way. Stubby of Reschs
“If they kill innocent children and call them al Qaeda,
then we are all al Qaeda.
If children are terrorists,
then we are all terrorists.”
The above is spoken by a Yemeni man, who arrived at the scene of a U.S. drone strike, and it encapsulates much of what makes the Rick Rowley directed, Jeremy Scahill driven Dirty Wars (2013) such an important film. It is a film that Scahill remarks at the beginning is “about the seen, and the unseen”. But most of what it is doing is bringing the unseen to the light where it should be viewed.
Dirty Wars focuses on how the U.S. led ‘War on Terror’ has spiralled out of control, into a worldwide style war. A war that America wages on many fronts, in many different countries. But war has not been declared in a vast majority of them. The film really sheds a light on the clinical coldness of American operations and the overwhelming secrecy in which they are allowed to be carried out. Aspects of the war that on the surface are so surreal they must be conspiracy theories – Obama calling the Yemeni President to ensure a journalist stays imprisoned – are easily shown to be true by Rowley and Scahill. Through some really horrific personal stories, the filmmakers very simply outline the horrors being perpetuated in the ongoing American War on Terror. They talk to people, initially at one site in Afghanistan far from Kabul, where the media rarely roams. The film picks the thread of this secretive American raid with a number of innocent victims, until the whole larger story falls wide open. This is the approach that the film takes in a number of different countries, gaining personal stories into the wrongheadedness of American undertakings.
Scahill’s voiceover is pretty much ever-present and gets the balance right between providing a lot of information, without having it feel like a uni lecture. At times, the imagery onscreen is exceptionally confronting, we see dead children, the acceptable ‘collateral’ damage that the war is bringing. The filmmaking duo, combine to invoke a Michael Moore style approach in some ways, though without a lot of his gimmickry and histrionics (note: I love Michael Moore and his films). But the incendiary passion and determination is there. Rowley is unseen, guiding the film from behind the camera. He leaves the in front of camera work to the charismatic Scahill. Together, the two of them shine a harsh, often embarrassing light on the inadequacy of the American military approach – see for example the commander who can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce the name of the tribe he is working with on a daily basis. Or the manner in which Scahill is totally fobbed off when he presents damning evidence to congress. Scahill is a great frontman for the material – captivating without ever threatening to overwhelm the material. It is not the most cinematic doco you will ever see. The editing is pretty good, but at times there is a struggle weave together the great info. To find interesting images to match the exceptional story being told through the voiceover. So we are occasionally left with pretty contrived imagery, poignant close-ups of nothing in particular, while Scahill lays down some truths.
Verdict: Jeremy Scahill is a fuckin brave badass, and the film kind of reflects that. It may not be all that cinematic. But it is informative, challenging and a ‘call to arms’ of sorts. Just not the sort depicted repeatedly in this film. Pint of Kilkenny
It’s film fest time once again. The Sydney Film Festival is one of Australia’s biggest, and next weekend I’ll be attending for the first time since I lived there, a good eight years or so.
I have been lucky enough to be able to catch a couple of films in advance though, including The Bolivian Case (2015). This doco, focusing on a drug ring importing cocaine from Bolivia to Norway, comes out of the interesting production company United Notions. As well as a killer name, the company seems to have a unique perspective and goal in mind, based across Australia, Bolivia and the States and aiming to create challenging ideas driven cinema.
The Bolivian Case fits in nicely with this perspective, turning a story about three young Norwegian women into a discussion of justice, media morality and societal lust for tabloid trainwrecks. Even without all of that, the film would have been an interesting one – not one but two of the women escape whilst on bail, the dynamics of the ongoing case in Norway are delved into, the women fall in love and give birth in jail and there is the smarmiest, most punchable lawyer in the history of smarmy punchable lawyers. The behaviour of the Norwegian government is also examined. They seem content to leave one of the women to rot in Bolivia, whilst going out of their way to illegally assist the others escape. Occasionally, especially early on, it is a little difficult to follow who is who and keep up with the two strands of the story (one in Norway and one in Bolivia). And perhaps the two stories never quite come together entirely as it still almost feels like two films at the end. But once the characters back in Norway are built up in the same way that director Violeta Ayala does with those jailed in Bolivia, that strand of the film becomes more engaging. To the point where it possesses the film’s biggest emotional punches. The ‘action’ highlight of the film comes as one of the women, Stina, decides to flee whilst on bail, child in hand. Ayala finely crafts this period of the film, having it play like a bit of a heist or escape film.
Another film may have solely focused on this spectacular escape, aided by shady government dealings and the media ‘paying’ to create news. The Bolivian Case has broader points in mind though. Even the escape is examined more from the point of view of what it says that a media organisation would hire mercenaries to get her out. They are essentially creating news by assisting someone to flout the laws in another country. Surprisingly, this behaviour seems to be met more or less with cheerleading in Norway, with Stina’s return apparently a triumphant one. I can understand that aspect if she proclaimed her innocence. But the way I read it was that these women were pretty clearly guilty. The film also focuses on the sensationalism that the case is met with in Norway especially when the women fall pregnant in jail. Australia has seen similar tabloid obsession in recent years, in particular with the case of Schapelle Corby, jailed in Bali for drug offences. There is clearly something universal about the plight of people, particularly young females, jailed overseas that brings the tabloid masses running. In fact the media seems able to craft the narrative of the case in Norway. One of the women is portrayed as the quiet religious girl from a rural area. The one stuck back in Bolivia is painted as the untrustworthy ringleader. The media is able to craft the heroes and the villains of the story. Class, status and even physical appearance all influence the tale that they are spinning. Which is problematic in itself, but when these artificially created notions seep into the ‘justice’ meted out in the court system, it goes from problematic to offensive. Unfortunately this kind of pre-judgement is all too common, whether aided by the media or not, in many places not just Norway.
Verdict: The Bolivian Case is a slick and timely doco that examines the seemingly universal tabloid obsession with pretty young women locked up abroad. It goes further than that though, making pertinent points about the issues of media influencing justice and the way that class and first impressions influence the way that criminals are treated. Thankfully though the film never becomes dreary or a bore to watch whilst doing all of that. Pint of Kilkenny
Nobody embodies the concept of a political sportsman more than Muhammad Ali. Dispensing with most of the sporting aspects of his life, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013) examines the political stances and impacts that this incredible athlete brought to bear on the twentieth century.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a very good example of cinema as biography, a subgenre of documentary that is generally pretty blandly done. The advantage that this film has is that it zeroes in on a very specific aspect of its subject. As such, the fact a minute approach brings so much new knowledge to the viewer (well it did for me in any case) that it is hard to keep up at some points. Ali’s early life and background are quickly sketched in. There is not a whole lot of detail, but there is more than enough to establish where he came from and how that influenced what was to follow. The optics for example of his early career, when Ali was ‘owned’ by 11 crusty old white dudes; or the fact that Cassius Clay was a white man who lived a couple of generations before Ali. The film chronicles Ali’s conversion from the “slave making religion” of Christianity to the “slave breaking religion” of Islam. Director Bill Siegel wisely digresses through this period to paint some really informative background of the history of the Nation of Islam as well as the splits that tear at it, most notably the one involving Malcolm X. This is then brought back to the focal point of the film by examining the huge impacts that Ali’s choice of religion had on his public perception in America. Just like the colour of Jack Johnson’s skin decades earlier, Ali’s allegiance to the Nation of Islam became something for the white American status quo to rail against. Though that is not to say that many in the African American community weren’t also perturbed by Ali’s choice and wished to see him fail because of it.
The other major focus of the film is on the refusal of Ali to join the war in Vietnam when drafted. It seems like a fairly defensible position now. But when it was made back then, by an African American Muslim no less, it was seen as a gross affront to the ‘American way of life’. The very fact that Ali was deemed unfit to continue as heavyweight champion of the world and banned from the ring, would actually partially feed into what made him so iconic in years to come. With a young family to support, Ali went on the road, speaking and honing his skills. Gradually over this time he developed the swagger and bravado that would characterise him as an athlete and which continues to inspire copycats, especially in combat sports, to this day. Again, it is impossible to not consider the lens this trash talk must be viewed through, coming from an electric African American athlete, a convert to Islam and a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam.
Verdict: As an athlete, and a person, Ali was a revolutionary dude and incredibly ahead of his time. The Trials of Muhammad Ali effectively explains why Ali was so revolutionary by digging down into a lot of the detail around his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. A must watch for and fans of sports and politics. Pint of Kilkenny
As a fan of the works of people like Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, especially his 1943 autobiography “Bound for Glory”, I was really keen to see Daniel Skaggs’ documentary Freeload (2014). With all of the popular accounts of riding the rails being at least 50 years old now, it is easy to imagine that the practice does not really exist anymore, but Skaggs brings us a window into this throwback lifestyle.
Even the best accounts of riding the rails are embellished with romanticism to a degree. Working with the immediacy of a pretty mobile camera and within the confines of the documentary structure, Freeload totally strips away any sense of this romanticism. That is not to say that the film is bleak, it just presents the good and the bad of the lifestyle without the need or desire for sentiment. Don’t expect to see a portrait of a bunch of down on their luck dudes, lamenting what life has brought them here. Most of those profiled by Skaggs have made this choice willingly, either for philosophical reasons or simply because they want no part of what the world has become. Who can blame them on that latter point? In fact the psychological insight that the film brings to the decision to ride the rails makes it feel like a pretty logical choice for the most part. The bad of their choice is not shirked from either and we see squalor, alcoholism and a griminess to the lifestyle in the film as well. They are also aware of the history of their lifestyle, of those who have made these choices in the past, whilst also being aware of the differences that separate them such as the fact that most of them are not looking for work, like many of those who were forced onto the rails used to.
I would be amazed to see the practicalities of how Freeload was shot. Skaggs takes his camera into some really tight spots, spending long amounts of time in cramped and dangerous feeling places. So to do the rail riders’ dogs. They all seem to have one, and these generally (though unfortunately not always) well loved dogs are clearly used to sitting still for their own safety. Just like the shooting, the editing of the film is impressive as well. No doubt there were huge swathes of material shot and it is all condensed down into something coherent and broad ranging, without feeling slight. The way that the stories of the various people who are featured in the film are woven together to give a sense of an entire subculture does not feel forced at all and you still get a really good sense of who these people are as individuals.
Verdict: Freeload brings to life a way of living that is probably totally foreign to a vast majority of us. In borderline verite style, Skaggs has done this with an impressive lack of intervention or judgement, allowing these really interesting people and their choice to live this lifestyle speak for itself, good or bad. It’s great to see a film not obsessed with painting a lifestyle as either the depth of despair or a grand philosophical journey either. The film simply shows their way of being. Pint of Kilkenny
I finished off my first MIFF experience with the true crime documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014). If you can imagine a documentary version of a Dennis Lehane novel or Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010) you can pretty much imagine this film. It’s a gangster flick brought to life basically.
The film tells the story of the trial of James J. Bulger, a gangster near the top of the FBI’s most wanted list who had been on the lam for a pretty incredible 16 years. The film takes a look at the crimes(mainly murder) that he committed, the way these crimes impacted on the families of those involved and the rampant FBI corruption that allowed Whitey to rule with an iron fist over Boston and evade capture for so long. The film is insightful when looking both at the gangster and those supposedly enforcing the law. It gives a glimpse into the strange gangster’s psyche or code where it is totally fine, laudable even, to be a murderer. But to be an informant is an unforgivable sin. If anything though, the FBI come off looking even worse than the gangsters in this film. As an outward looking and publicity seeking organisation, they were so obsessed with taking down the Italian Mafia that they let the Irish such as Whitey Bulger do more or less as they pleased. Which is to say nothing of the rampant and overt corruption that amongst other things tipped Whitey off in regards to his impending arrest, allowing him to have an extra 16 years of freedom and which continues to ferment within the organisation even today. No wonder the FBI did not agree to be interviewed for the film.
If there is a major criticism to be levelled at the film, it is that it’s not a particularly cinematic as far as big screen docos go. Coming out of CNN films, which I did not even know existed, the film often feels more like a CNN news report and not a film experience to fork out your money to see in a cinema. The entire production feels very slick and polished, probably a little too much so. A gangster story should have a bit of roughness around the edges I feel and that may have given this film a little more soul. The film starts off focused quite heavily on those who were affected directly by Whitey Bulger – victims of standover tactics and relatives of murder victims. This is the part of the film with the most heart and whilst the examination of the role of FBI corruption becomes more interesting as the film goes on, I would have preferred a greater focus on these families.
Though it never elevates above being slick and pretty good at what it is aiming to do, Whitey is generally successful as an indictment on the FBI and also as the story of an individual gangster and the horrors he brought to bear on people. Also, if hearing plenty of that distinctive Boston twang is your thing though, this may well be your favourite film of all time.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
Trailer is rather late this week. However given it is a long weekend here, I am still technically posting this on the weekend. As a kid, I was a huge dinosaur geek. In fact I still am a bit of a dinosaur geek. Dinosaur 13 is an intriguing dinosaur related doco currently doing the rounds on the festival circuit. It looks at the discovery of Sue, the most complete T Rex skeleton ever found and the raft of issues that followed. Seems it is not always as simple as finders keepers. The film looks like it will be a great ride, from the beautiful settings to some pretty high drama. Any other big dinosaur fans who are hanging out for this one, or anyone managed to catch it at a festival already?
Here we go with Worth Watching for May, a month that saw another pretty heavy focus on docos, though I mixed in a little body building to go with the political ones. Aside from that there were new release blockbusters ranging from the flawed yet ace to the utterly abysmal, plus a dash of European blandness. As always, share your thoughts with me in the comments section below on these ones.
- The Corporation (2003), Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott – A great history lesson on the corporation and what that can tell us about what they have become. Rights fought long and hard for have been increasingly wound back for individuals and granted to corporations. It is hard to go wrong with great talking heads like Zinn, Chomsky and Michael Moore. We are gradually waking up to the practical and real effects of allowing corporate power to continue unchecked, but less and less is being done about it. Scary. “There ought to be a principle higher than making money.” A statement that should be so obvious, but in this age of the corporation it isn’t. A world where rainwater can be privatised is not a world I am fond of.
- Generation Iron (2013), Vlad Yudin – A brief history of Mr Olympia makes way for a focus on the 2012 tournament. Some of it seems a little scripted and Mickey Rourke, whilst great on the voiceover, is occasionally hard to hear. But the film nails the craft, sweat, tears and science that go into a pretty unique sport. There is no ‘caaahming’ moment here, but it is still worth checking out if you have even a passing interest.
- How to Make Money Selling Drugs (2012), Matthew Cooke – A stylishly done, mock ‘how-to’ guide to doing what the title states. Working its way up through the levels of the drug trade, the cautionary aspect to the film comes from just how frightening the scene is. Mainly concerned with the nature of selling, but does briefly touch on the failed War on Drugs. Well worth a look.
- Godzilla (2014), Gareth Edwards – Some script issues stop it from being the great Godzilla film I was hoping for. But it’s still a very good one. You can see Edwards’ touch all over this, which is a good thing. And the monster itself looks absolutely stunning, better than I could have ever imagined. I thought some of the nuclear allegories were really well handled in the film too. Like so many have mentioned though, this film could use a whole lot more Godzilla. But I’m looking forward to a sequel where we will hopefully see more (and more of the awesome fighting sequences too).
Not Worth Watching:
- Transcendence (2014), Wally Pfister – Terrible. Has a fantastic start and a smattering of interesting ideas. But never threatens to be anything other than utter cliché. First half is blighted by silly villains, but by the second you’ll be wishing they would come back. Incredible how many great performers this film wastes – Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Rooney Mara. Only Paul Bettany comes out of it looking good. It’s not their fault though. It’s the tepid script that has no idea what kind of film this wants to be that kills it.
- Barbara (2012), Christian Petzold – Pre fall of wall Germany is such a dense, rich setting for a film, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this. It starts in a totally uninvigorating manner and never gets going, partly because you don’t invest in the romantic relationship(s) supposedly at the core of the film. All it really succeeds in doing is being simultaneously arthouse and cliché. It’s exceedingly slow paced with a clunky script, meaning that the dashes of worthiness, such as the lead performance, are buried.
- Bad Neighbours (2014), Nicholas Stoller – There are plenty of reasonably funny moments, but overall this is just another below average comedy. Risqué comedies just don’t know how to push boundaries these days. Can we please stop using rape as something risqué. It’s not boundary pushing its just offensive. There are some ok performances from Rose Byrne, Dave Franco and Zac Efron. But overall there is nothing really worth bothering with here.
If you only have time to watch one The Corporation
Avoid at all costs Transcendence
Everyone who read my top ten of 2013 list will know that I think Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) is a fantastic although deeply disturbing film. Even though it has already featured on this site in brief, I thought that it was time to expand upon my thoughts on the film with this in-depth review.
Given the film is about the sexual abuse of deaf children in the care of the church, it is no surprising that it is so disturbing. Indeed any film on the subject should be. Many exceptional documentaries will make your blood boil. This one was no different and within two minutes that is how I was feeling. But importantly Gibney never feels the need to resort to cheapness to build this rage inside his viewer. He coaxes it out by simply giving thorough information, from which anyone who sees it could never be anything but pissed off. The fact that the Catholic Church for so long hid behind what were on the on the surface good deeds they were doing, in order to sexually molest young deaf men in their care is such a horrid deceit. Those with the power of the priesthood seemingly had no qualms about using that power in this shameful way. This point is reinforced by Gibney’s choice of experts to speak as well. A former bishop explains how there is a connection between the absurd imposition of celibacy upon Catholic priests and the acting out of abuse. Even more chilling is the fact that many priests who carry out these abuses believe that their inherent goodness or ‘holiness’ outweighs their heinous actins.
Similarly, the basic structures of the Church apparently felt no qualms about covering up the shameful abuses carried out by their supposed brothers in Christ. All these revelations just serve to make the individual instances even more horrifying, if that is even possible. The fact that it is all so systematic, with the covering up of abuse, paying off of victims and absurd attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ offenders through spiritual therapy. If there is a God, that god fucking hates child abuse. It is startling just how far up the chain this all goes. Gibney reveals that former Pope Benedict and the beloved John Paul II were both far from perfect in regards to dealing with paedophilia inside the church. The latter ignored complaints made against one of his most trusted confidants. The film shows the horrors perpetuated by both individuals and systems inside the Catholic Church, but wisely avoids bashing the concept of organised religion wholesale. Don’t get me wrong, there are no punches pulled, but Gibney does not dilute the message of the film by extrapolating the horrors he presents as being symptomatic of a belief in God. He does however attack the systematic covering up of abuses by the Catholic Church and connect that to how the church operates worldwide.
The ‘talking heads’ and infuriating subject matter go a long way to making Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God as great a film as it is. However it is also an auteur piece, another example of why Alex Gibney is if not the best cinema documentarian working today, then very close to the top of that list. Probably his most astute decision with this film is to have four of the deaf adult victims of abuse function as talking heads. They sign their testimony, which allows you to feel the raw emotion and lasting effect that the abuse has brought to their lives. Voiceover is used to translate for those of us who don’t read sign and to complement the nuanced signed testimony of the victims. A lesser director would have opted to have the voiceover the focus, perhaps in tandem with re-enactments, but Gibney knows that his approach will deliver the most powerful statement. Another one of the small yet masterful decisions that Gibney makes is with the film’s structure. It starts out specific, opens out to the systematic nature of things and then comes back to the specifics again. This return to specifics at the end is notable, because it is so important that the story of the four men who open up for the film have their entire story told.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is a chilling film about the evil that people commit in the world. Detailed, informative, clear, insightful and artistic, as well as an utterly bleak watch that is depressing for your view of the human race, this is not a film that is easy to recommend. But it is a film that everyone should see once.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter