New Zealand director Peter Jackson has accomplished
something of a miracle. At the behest of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, he and
his team have created a documentary about World War I using archival
footage—scratched, faded, juddery—and restored it nearly to today’s standards (trailer). The process
achieves more than improving watchability, it brings these soldiers to life.
When he received the assignment, Jackson didn’t know what
the film would be, his brief was simply to “do something creative” with the
film archive in time for the 100th anniversary of the armistice last November
He and his team melded the restored film with the voices of
men who had served, interviewed by the BBC decades later. They went to war as
ordinary soldiers, they were young (ages 15, 16, and 17, many of them), and their
reminiscences of the war were quite different than what their officers’ would
have been. This isn’t a movie with battle maps and arrows, strategy and
tactics. It’s not about the unique or memorable incident. It’s everyday
survival. Mud and lice and rats and cigarettes. I cried.
Stick around for the post-movie feature about how the film
was restored. The before-and-after examples of changing the timing, fixing
over- and under-exposures, how sound was added, and the colorization are fascinating.
Their devotion to detail pays off. Speaking of paying off, the film has broken
box office records for a documentary, and Jackson himself took no fee.
This isn’t a movie about heroes. It’s about everyday lads
doing the best they can in the worst circumstances. In the most important
sense, they’re all heroes.Rotten Tomatoes
critics rating: 99%; audiences 92%.
Reviewer Bilge Ebiri in The Village Voice says, “The best way to experience Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers is to do so without knowing a single thing about it.”
The makers of the trailer must have felt much the same way because (uncharacteristically), they didn’t give away much of the story (trailer), except to focus on the surprise reunion of 19-year-old triplets, separated at six months of age, and adopted into separate homes. They find each other by a fluke. The whole idea of “separated at birth” is vaguely sentimental, because in it is the notion that siblings eventually find each other. That there’s a happy reunion. In this film, that’s just the beginning.
I can only agree with Ebiri in saying, see it. It has surprising depths. It will leave you shaking your head, first at the power of coincidence, then everything else. Says an aunt, “When you play with humans, you do something very wrong.”
Plus, you have the pleasure of seeing interviews with veteran journalist Lawrence Wright.
Overwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.
The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”
This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.
If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.
When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.
Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.
Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.
The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.
Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.
Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.
Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.
As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”
Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)
This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.
What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.
Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.
The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.
Do whatever it takes to see the short documentary films nominated for Academy Awards this year! All five involve thought-provoking situations and introduce you to some remarkable Americans.
Traffic Stop (Kate Davis & David Heilbroner for HBO, 30 minutes)
The filmmakers gain access to police dashboard camera footage showing a white Austin, Texas, policeman aggressively subduing a black woman stopped for speeding. He loses it. She loses it. The woman, Breaion King, is an elementary schoolteacher, and we see her in the classroom and in her dance class, and learn what kind of person she is. I wish we had the same 360° picture of the officer. Even so, it’s complicated, with tons of subtext. (See it here.)
Edith + Eddie (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights, 29 minutes)
This film should be marketed as a cure for low blood pressure (trailer). The filmmakers were recording a charming pair of 95-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, newlyweds just as their lives fell apart. A daughter living in Florida finagled a court-appointed guardianship for her mother, and the guardian—paid out of Edith’s estate—demanded that the elderly woman be flown to Florida against her will “for evaluation.” The guardian concluded without seeing Edith that she was not safe living in her own home with her husband. (More about this hair-raising issue here.)
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, 40 minutes)
In this extraordinary film portrait, artist Mindy Alper describes her struggles with mental illness and her commitment to pursue her art. Both through her art and in fascinating, surprisingly upbeat interviews, she communicates in a unique way. She has had a succession of gifted teachers to support her artistic development, and the film shows preparations for a gallery show of her work. One piece, a large papier-mâché portrait of her therapist, brought tears to my eyes for the compassion and love it shows. (See the documentary here.)
Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon for Neflix and the Center for Investigative Reporting, 39 minutes)
Huntington, West Virginia, is the epicenter of U.S. heroin drug deaths, and this film (find the trailer here; view the film on Netflix) shows three heroic women fighting for the community. Jan Rader, a nurse and EMT, attends five or six overdose cases almost daily. Thanks to Narcan, not all are fatal. The city’s drug court is presided over by judge Patricia Keller, both compassionate and no-nonsense. Her goal is to get people back on track, whatever way she can. Necia Freeman started her “brown bag ministry” to help women selling their bodies for drugs. All three are amazing rays of hope in a devastating situation. (More about West Virginia’s epidemic here.)
Knife Skills (Thomas Lennon, 40 minutes)
The Cleveland restaurant, Edwin’s, and its culinary training school were started by Brandon Chrostowski (see the documentary here). He had early brushes with the law and used a judge’s second chance to turn his life around. Edwin’s hires former prison inmates and trains them for jobs in the kitchen and front-of-house. It trains about 100 ex-prisoners a year, who are taught the fine points of haut cuisine and learn about wines and cheeses. This kitchen is not three guys with a microwave, it’s chopping and deboning and saucing and plating, and the workers mostly love it. So do Cleveland diners. Oh, and recidivism rates among Edwin’s trainees? Extremely low.
Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.
According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.
Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”
photo: Vicki Weisfeld
Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.
You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, and the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has been reprinted. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.
Worried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)
At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.
A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.
The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..
In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”
Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).
The heart of many a memorable motion picture is the musical score that presages, enhances, and evokes emotions as the story unfolds.
In Score, a new documentary set for wide release in May, filmmakers Kenny Holmes and Matt Schrader feature leading film music composers—including John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Quincy Jones, Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat—who describe the extraordinary artistry and execution in crafting a memorable score.
“Whether they’re talking about their contemporaries or the greats of yesteryear, the composers express a profound admiration that’s born of an intimate understanding of what makes a work groundbreaking or indelible,” wrote Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter.
The documentary begins with the silent film era. To drown out the distracting sound of a film projector, theatres hired a pianist or organist to convey the action or emotion. That changed with the debut of King Kong in 1933, featuring the RKO Studio Orchestra and a score by Max Steiner.
Orchestral music became a fixture in filmmaking when Bernard Herrmann, a CBS staff conductor, met Orson Welles in the late 1930’s. He wrote and arranged scores for several of Welles’s radio series, including War of the Worlds, then followed Welles to Hollywood, where he wrote the score for Citizen Kane, which premiered in 1941.
Herrmann also is known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he wrote the scores for Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. When you recall the frightening shower scene with Janet Leigh in Psycho, you likely will “replay” the piercing violin sound Herrmann used to augment the horror.
The tempo changed in the 1960’s when filmmakers turned to rock and roll tracks and other source music for such iconic films as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde.
The next big shift was the reintroduction of the studio orchestra —most notably by legendary composer John Williams. Williams is credited with reviving the interest in and use of orchestral musicians and large recording studios, such as Abbey Road in London, for his inimitable sound.
Finally, the film shows how today’s composers are turning to unusual instruments—tribal, traditional—and to digital composition and production for their inspiration. One composer said that if the score gives him goose bumps, he knows he’s hit the mark.
The film most recently received a Directors Choice Award for excellence in filmmaking at the Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF). In a Q&A at SIFF, Holmes remarked on their difficulties scheduling time with the busy composers, yet overcame a frequent obstacle for independent filmmakers—funding—by conducting a global crowdfunding campaign to help defray post-production costs.
Thanks to Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone for this guest post. She’s author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.
Last night’s Oscar ceremony (though I wouldn’t have wished it longer and it couldn’t have been more dramatic) gave such short shrift to the short film nominees, it must have been hard for viewers to get any sense of them. Today’s post, the short documentaries; tomorrow, the live action shorts!
Watching a short film (technically, anything less than 40 minutes, including credits) is like reading a short story: the best ones crystallize the essence of a person or situation, sometimes more memorably than a novel, with all the distractions of backstory, secondary characters, side plots and the like.
Five films were nominated for the documentary shorts, and if you weren’t comfortable with the gritty realities of the war in Syria, you were really out of luck. Three of the films, including the two longest, dwelt with the consequences of that war, made by some very brave filmmakers. The role of “documentaries” in documenting what most of us are protected from came home sharply. Winner in bold.
Joe’s Violin, directed by award-winning producer of Kahane Cooperman (24 minutes), which told the story of Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold’s decision to donate his unused violin to a public radio drive. In partnership with the Holland’s Opus Foundation, New York City’s WQXR collected no-longer-used instruments for schools. Joe’s violin went to Brianna Perez, a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (fascinating in its own right) in the nation’s poorest congressional district. When Joe and Brianna meet, the social, cultural, and generational gulfs between them are dissolved by their love of music and this instrument. One hanky. (See it here.)
Extremis, a 24-minute Netflix documentary directed by Dan Krauss (interview about the filming). The wrenching decisions family members must make for critically ill patients are explored here. The medical team’s lack of a crystal ball is clear. Perhaps it will motivate viewers to have conversations with family before a medical catastrophe occurs, and not to leave them struggling with impossible choices. If you’ve avoided thinking about these issues, see it here.
4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki (26 minutes), is the story of a Greek Coast Guard captain and crew sent out from the island of Lesbos, day after day, sometimes multiple times a day, in all kinds of weather, to rescue desperate, terrified, and sometimes half-drowned refugees (mostly Syrian) trying to cross the 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Through an accident of geography, the physically and emotionally exhausted Coast Guarders must deal with this enormous humanitarian crisis, unaided by the world’s wealthier countries. (I can think of one. Has a big navy too.) (See it here.)
Watani: My Homeland was filmed over three years by director Marcel Mettelsiefen (40 minutes). As Aleppo explodes all around them, four young children live in an abandoned home next to an army outpost. Their mother had taken them away from the dangerous city, but the children insisted on returning to be with their father, a Free Syrian commander. He’s captured by ISIS, and they are heartbroken. When they finally reach sanctuary in Germany—an iffy proposition, at best—young Farah still runs to shelter when a helicopter flies overhead. The detailed portrayal of this close-knit family brings the nightly news home in a way generalizations and statistics never can. Makes you realize “home” is a complex concept too.
The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (41 minutes*), is the story of the unarmed and neutral civilians who respond to every bombing attack in search of victims. Last year, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Interviews with three of them working in Aleppo (a construction worker, a blacksmith, and a tailor in their former lives) show how they have responded with almost unimaginable compassion to the equally unimaginable destruction of their homeland. The white helmets they wear offer no magic protection from collapsing buildings or new bombings and, in fact, at times make them targets. At the last minute, cinematographer Khalid Khatib, a white helmet worker himself, was denied entry to the United States and, therefore, attendance at the Oscar ceremony. A sign of the strength of the film is that I found a Russian website debunking the White Helmets’ work.
These films were all fantastic and about compelling individuals, but my pick for Best Use of the Documentary Form was The White Helmets. Best Raiser of Blood Pressure: 4.1 Miles. Sentimental Favorite: Joe’s Violin.
*I don’t understand the Academy’s rules well enough to know why this nominee wasn’t disqualified for violating the length requirement.
12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!
On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.
While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.
The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.
As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.
“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”
Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.
Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.
The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.
The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.
In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)
Editor’s note:The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.