Category Archives: Documentary

13th (2016, Ava DuVernay)

The first half of 13th is didactic–well, except when the film makes fun of interviewee Grover Norquist. There are three or four capital C Conservatives interviewees; Norquist and Gingrich are present because they’re such trolls they think they’re convincing. Gingrich is during his Black Lives Matter phase (the documentary is pre–2016 election, but still very 2016, which I need to talk about), but Norquist is just a chump. Everyone knows it and the film embraces it, maybe the only time 13th lets you have the hint of a smile.

Getting it out of the way, the other Conservative interviewees are just unknown chumps. Or worms. The sad part of reality is director DuVernay isn’t hunting down worms or chumps for these interviews (except Norquist and Gingrich, though, again, Gingrich seems to be present with a different, pre-Trump agenda); they’re just the right guys to be interviewed. Evil organizations out to ruin the United States are actually staffed with the Conservative geek out of a late nineties teen movie.

Norquist being more in line with what happens with a John Hughes bro grows up.

Anyway. I think I have that fervor out.

The first half of 13th is extremely didactic. DuVernay is guiding the film through a certain number of interviewees, through a certain bit of history. She’s also making an argument–the 13th amendment to the Constitution has been used through white supremacy to fuck up the lives of people of color, specifically Black people. And, you know, she’s right. She wins that argument the second Angela Davis comes back as an interviewee after being shown in historical footage. DuVernay doesn’t introduce Davis as a former firebrand, she’s a professor. Even if you know Angela Davis, she goes from being this beauteously interviewed academic to someone who outsmarted some significant bad guys of history in this raw historical footage.

DuVernay does a lot with historical footage, whether it’s from the teens, fifties, sixties, eighties, nineties. It’s one of 13th’s few sticking points. The footage isn’t up-converted correctly. Or it is and DuVernay is obscuring history and making memory this permeable thing, but I think it’s just not up-converted well enough.

So that first half is didactic. It’s a history lesson. It’s a thesis statement, it’s a persuasive essay. DuVernay covers 149 years of history, with more and more focus on the last fifty years as the film progresses. It has a natural narrative flow and then it stops in 2012. And DuVernay tells the audience to now apply that history to what’s going on right now. Starting with Trayvon Martin, continuing into Black Lives Matter, finishing with Trump.

Now, 13th is pre-election, another of its sticking points. Certain aspects of it feel a tad ephemeral. That first half is a lot of historical fact. Learning history, even critically thinking about that history as it affects modernity, it’s ephemeral. Film viewing is an ephemeral act. But since DuVernay’s already proved the thesis, before getting to the present day, what’s 13th doing now? It’s no longer a persuasive documentary or a didactic one. It doesn’t have a narrative. Or, is DuVernay’s narrative distance such the narrative is the viewer’s.

13th is an excellent documentary for the first ninety percent. I even enjoyed the camera manipulation in the interview after a certain point. 13th’s very accessible; DuVernay is looking at the impossibly grim, but she keeps it accessible. With profile interview shots for emphasis. It’s fine.

But then in the last ten minutes or so, DuVernay brings 13th into reality. Immediate, clear, HD reality. Everything comes together. Not just all the subjects, but the visual style of the infographics. DuVernay’s the first person I’ve ever seen the use infographics so starkly. It’s almost a rejection of the effect.

Fine photography from Hans Charles and Kira Kelly. Editor, co-producer, and co-writer Spencer Averick is best at the writing and producing. Even if the cuts to profile weren’t his idea, they’re inappropriately jarring. There’s no nuance to the cuts–good guys and bad get the same cutting. It’s off-putting. Editing is very important.

Nicely, DuVernay doesn’t use that device much in the second half so it’s win-win. She does quite a bit with the documentary medium to get the film right. 13th is outstanding.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ava DuVernay; written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick; directors of photography, Hans Charles and Kira Kelly; edited by Averick; music by Jason Moran; produced by DuVernay, Averick, and Howard Barish; released by Netflix.


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Colin Hay – Waiting For My Real Life (2015, Nate Gowtham and Aaron Faulls)

Even though the film’s called Colin Hay – Waiting For My Real Life, it’s not entirely clear what relationship the documentary is going to have with its subject. There are various people interviewed, ranging from Australian movie stars to record execs to sitcom stars to Mick Fleetwood. Directors Faulls and Gowtham do a fantastic job setting up the film. But no one’s exactly talking about Colin Hay today, they’re talking about him historically. Some of the interviews with the movie stars is just about setting the stage for a time period, for example. And it’s all beautifully edited by David Mercado.

But Colin Hay isn’t really a part of it. His interview clips are from different time periods, there are some where it actually appears he’s talking into the camera from stage, which seems odd. He’s not hostile, but he’s detached. The film hasn’t figured out how it wants to approach him.

Now, I’m going into the film with minimal experience. I was too young for Men At Work when they came out. I was aware of them because their big hits are big hits. I didn’t track down their albums until the mid-aughts. I didn’t even connect Colin Hay and “Scrubs,” which was a thing, and I did watch his episode of “Scrubs.” It was just “what happened to one of the guys from Men At Work.”

As it turns out, kind of a lot, kind of not a lot. But I do wonder how you’d approach the film from a different entry point. Faulls and Gowtham seem to be assuming about my level of knowledge though. It’s not a documentary for music industry enthusiasts. It’s for everyone, presumably whether they’re familiar with Colin Hay or not.

Anyway, right after setting up the documentary’s tone, Faulls and Gowtham shake it up with a history of Men At Work, the band. Real Life runs under ninety minutes and the intro and Men At Work history probably takes up the first third of it. It’s beautifully paced, with good interviews from the band members, but once it’s over, it’s entirely unclear where things are going. The introduction only foreshadowed the Men At Work story.

Only then Colin Hay’s life story starts getting more and more interesting. The closer the film gets to him, as he’s doing more and more of the interviews, as he becomes a much more singular player in the film’s narrative of his life, the more the viewer’s perspective changes. It’s almost like it’s on a swing, but the filmmakers are very carefully controlling it. The more interesting Hay becomes, the less sympathetic.

But then things happen and all of a sudden, Hay–as a subject–is more important for his humanity than anything else. Only Faulls and Gowtham don’t really change the perspective for these sequences. They’re still positioning the viewer’s closeness, even though the content is on a different frequency. And where the film then comes through is how quickly everything becomes simpatico just shows well Faulls and Gowtham do their job.

It’s no mistake, Colin Hay is a fine documentary.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nate Gowtham and Aaron Faulls; director of photography, Faulls; edited by David Mercado; produced by Gowtham, Faults, and Elizabeth James; released by TriCoast Worldwide.


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The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975, Lawrence Schiller and Bruce Nyznik)

The Man Who Skied Down Everest is a peculiar film. It’s straight, methodical narrative non-fiction. In 1970, Miura Yûichirô set out to ski down Everest. His expedition included a film crew. The resulting film doesn’t tell Miura’s story outside the present action–through narrator Douglas Rain, Miura’s diary entries tell the story in the present tense. Rain’s narration is set against the astounding backdrop of the Himalayas. Skied is almost more interesting as the expedition gets underway than when it reaches Everest, as it clearly became more and more difficult to get shots.

The narration is mostly factual presentation, giving additional details to what the viewer is seeing on screen. Filling it out. There’s a Sherpa boy who gets some attention, but not a subplot. Not even when tragedy occurs. The film has the hardest time with that tragedy, with the narration–presumably Miura’s thoughts at the time–not matching the action on film. Instead of getting an adventurous travelogue, Skied becomes focused on hardship. The sound seems detached and otherworldly at the Everest basecamp (presumably because the audio was recorded separately–Skied tries hard to preserve the original languages of the expedition, Japanese and Sherpa). Directors Nyznik and Schiller aren’t exploring anything with Skied, not the human hardship, not even Miura’s accomplishment. They’re presenting these amazing visuals and how they came to occur.

The music from Nexus and Larry Crosley certainly adds to the unimaginable grandeur of the film. Kanau Mitsuji’s photography is excellent. He uses some awkward lenses which affect the depth occasionally, but they were climbing Everest. They get some slack. Bob Cooper and Millie Moore’s editing is fine. There’s a questionable flourish when it comes to the finale but it’s still footage from Mt. Everest of a guy skiing. They get some slack. And there has to be something, as the film lacks any epical arc to it.

While the film’s called The Man Who Skied Down Everest and the narration is from that man’s diaries, Miura isn’t the exactly the focus of the film. The expedition is the focus of it, specifically the expedition’s journey. It’s lyrical for the most part. It’d be hard not to be given the locations.

The film seems relatively secure with its lack of deeper ambition. As a result, everything else excels. Though whoever told Rain to narrate with broken breath depending on Miura’s stress levels made a mistake. Otherwise, Rain’s narration is perfect. The documentary makers lucked out in having the diary entries. They provide the present action, binding all the startling visuals.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lawrence Schiller and Bruce Nyznik; based on the diaries of Miura Yûichirô; director of photography, Kanau Mitsuji; edited by Bob Cooper and Millie Moore; music by Nexus and Larry Crosley; produced by F.R. Crawley, James Hager, and Dale Hartleben; released by Specialty Films.

Narrated by Douglas Rain.


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Sons of Ben (2015, Jeffrey C. Bell)

Every question director Bell raises in Sons of Ben–passively, because he never lets himself have a presence in the film; Sons of Ben isn’t an active documentary (which makes it all the more impressive)–Bell addresses all of those questions, even the difficult ones, even the somewhat off-topic ones. An example of the latter is the tabs Bell keeps on one of the participant’s marriage, where the personal lives of the rest of the participants are on mute. The wife is exceptionally engaging–and given the positive outcome for Sons of Ben, her perspective would make a great fictional movie.

Bell doesn’t do anything to focus on her. Her presence in the narrative is natural. Her husband starts this group of soccer fans in search of a soccer team, she’s a good source for that event. But Bell’s sensibility for following through isn’t just bringing a person back, it’s how he weaves the participants’ recollections through one another. Small scale, he does a great job with the interviewees and their perspectives. Big scale, he makes Sons of Ben about a subsection of a community finding adapting to an entirely different community. Okay, two great fictional movies.

But those two great fictional movies are because of reality. Bell’s never manipulative with Sons of Ben. When he does have an emotional moment, it’s an earnest one. Even when it’s an emotional recollection to an interviewee and not something external, Bell knows how to present it. He and editors Jacob Brice and Glenn Gapultos have a wonderful sense about how to listen to people.

Sons of Ben is fortuitous to have such a great historical narrative to present, but Bell’s tone for the film is essential. His boldness and honesty elevate the film.

The only problem with Sons of Ben is it isn’t twice as long.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jeffrey C. Bell; director of photography, Bill Totolo; edited by Jacob Brice and Glenn Gapultos; produced by Debbie Axel, Bell and Mike Dieffenbach.


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