Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Awards-Nazi Award nominations: Documentary

As it is every year, I caught up with a lot of Documentaries after the Oscar nominations were announced, so these can also serve as capsule reviews for the ones I never had the time to write up properly.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)
This unconventional account of the 1965 genocide in Indonesia follows the making of a propoganda piece in which former executioners of suspected communists reenact their killings. One can only imagine what they would think if they knew how this material would actually be used. While the reenactments fluctuate between the surreal to the downright silly, Oppenheimer saves the most realistic one until the film's last third, where we also get to see its principal subject Anwar Congo surprisingly confront decades of repressed guilt over the murders he committed. Though odd and sometimes a slog to sit through, those last 20 minutes really tie it together.

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
I suppose one could complain that it does grow a tad repetitive in its cataloging of orca attacks at marine parks, but in fact, that's the whole point. "50 years from now we'll look back and think, God what a barbaric time," forecasts one of the former Sea World trainers interviewed for the film. Watch it yourself and I'm sure you'll agree that we don't need to wait 50 years to make that observation. It's been steadily stirring the pot on this issue over the course of the year, much to the chagrin of Sea World and Marine Land and the like. Impassioned activism of the most polished variety.

Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling)
An intimate, moving portrait on the struggles of artists, the weight of living in someone else's shadow, and a love that weathers all of its own faults. Ushio and Noriko Shinohara are such naturally interesting subjects that Cutie and the Boxer doesn't need standard conventions of interviews and talking heads to completely engage its audience. Appropriately, it opts for a more artistic, implicit interpretation of their lives; one that allows the viewer to simply watch and listen, free to read into whatever minutia the camera captures. Zachary Heinzerling's invisible direction and probing photography are so unintrusive that the film seems to unfold like a narrative feature more than a documentary (enough even to make it seem staged!), but that doesn't make the story it tells any less poignant.

The Square (Jehane Noujaim)
An extraordinary account of Egypt's recent period of revolutionary tumult as it unfolds on the ground, spanning from 2011's initial occupation of Tahir Sqaure that brought Egyptians of all religions and walks of life together, to its current state of civil unrest as citizens now find themselves combating other citizens for conflicting political goals. By primarily following a small band of the activists for two years, director Jehane Noujaim lends an intimate scope to this epic story, as we witness what a revolution looks like in the thick of the violence and celebration. It paints an elaborate picture of the costs (and of the seemingly unsatisfied cycle) of enacting social change. As one of the film's young subjects philosophically waxes about the ongoing struggle, the people weren't looking for a leader, but for a conscience.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
As the title suggests, this is a story about storytelling; about how our memories shape our perceptions and vice versa. None of the storytellers in Polley's documentary are above question, but that's not to say that any of them are being untruthful. The truth for one person may overlap but still be distinctly different than the truth for another. The same applies to Sarah, who is quick to turn the camera on herself and remind us all that even her version of the story – the documentary itself – is influenced by the prism through which she perceives it. We are seeing the stories unfold through her lens (literally), and she frequently reminds us of that. This meta approach, whereby the making of the film is as crucial a part of the story as the actual stories it's documenting, is the most brilliant innovation of Stories We Tell.

Just missed:
20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, Jeremy Scahill)
The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)
We Steal Secrets (Alex Gibney)

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