Archive for the Documentary Category

Red Army

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on February 14, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Red Army photo starrating-3stars.jpgRed Army is a documentary about hockey in the Soviet Union. More precisely, it concerns a nearly unbeatable unit known as the “Russian Five” on the national team. But even more specifically it profiles one member, hockey captain Slava Fetisov. It’s his point of view that shapes the perspective.  The film is essentially a chronicle of how cold war politics played a role in his life.

Most Americans knowledge of US-Soviet hockey centers on what went down at Lake Placid in 1980. Gabe Polsky’s documentary certainly addresses the American hockey team’s victory at the Olympics. However that is presented as merely an aberration in “ the most successful dynasty in sports history.” The Russians won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991. The groundwork was set by coach Anatoly Tarasov. His development of innovative training techniques centered on passing. The intricate maneuvers of the Soviet team are compared to the grace of the Bolshoi Ballet. Their mental strategies correlated to that of a chess player. Indeed watching the Soviet team skate circles around the cruder tactics of the Americans is a startling contrast. Then in 1977, the coach that everyone loved was replaced by former KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov – the coach everyone hated, at least by the athletes. He was even more successful making the Soviet team the most dominant in the world. Despite his accomplishments, he does not come across well. Their life is a nightmare under a totalitarian regime. He puts the players in training camps isolating them from their families for 11 months out of the year. Yet there is a link between his dictatorial methods and the well oiled machine that he elevated under his tutelage. Not surprisingly Tikhonov declined to be interviewed. He died on November 24, 2014 so his voice remains silent here.

Soviet Player Viacheslav Fetisov or Slava, as he is known, is front and center in this documentary. His transformation from national hero to political enemy is the dramatic arc of this tale. He’s a cantankerous old man and director Gabe Polsky doesn’t hide this fact. Right from the start, Slava keeps his interviewer waiting while he fiddles with his cell phone, even flipping him off (and the audience) when asked a question. It’s a defiant behavior that pops up occasionally throughout their conversation. A former KGB agent trying to speak about politics is constantly interrupted by his young granddaughter playing nearby. It’s these unexpected asides that make the account a bit odd at times. Mostly the parallels between sports and politics are highlighted. The rise and fall of the Red Army team with that of the Soviet Union forming the underlying background for everything that happens. Their success was proof “that the Soviet system was the best system”.  Fetisov’s career is profiled with various ups and downs. Through it all he remains a very patriotic fellow despite remaining embittered toward his past coach. Perhaps the “bad old days” of the brutal regimen under which he trained weren’t really so bad in his eyes after all. You’ll understand when you see how this ends.

The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Documentary (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts on January 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Oscar Shorts 2015ShortsHD™, the Short Movie Channel (www.shorts.tv), celebrates its 10th anniversary of its Oscar shorts release by opening “THE OSCAR® NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2015 in a record 450+ theatres across the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America on Friday January 30, 2015. Some features available On Demand and/or on iTunes.

I must say that the Academy’s documentary branch must be a very despondent group. Without question, the 5 most deeply depressing films in any category this year, and perhaps of any year – at least since I‘ve been watching. The takeaway in all of them is that through great suffering, there is hope. Even the most emotionally devastating short highlights altruistic individuals. The movies are listed in order, starting with my strongest recommendation. People already haunted by a negative outlook on life should proceed with caution.

 

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
USA/40MINS/Director: Ellen Goosenberg Kent
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
While 1% of Americans have served in the military, they account for 20% of all suicides in the U.S.  Enlightening look into a crisis center in upstate New York that focuses on calls from military veterans. We hear one side of the conversation – the admirable men and women working at the facility trying to help. However it’s the things I could infer from their dialogue that rattled me most.  For instance, many callers have weapons in hand.  HBO’s formidable documentary division shines a light on an urgent problem that demands attention. The front-runner in this category and rightfully so. (9/10)

 

Joanna
POLAND/40MINS/Director: Aneta Kopacz
Joanna
Mother Joanna has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and this record details the simple, but treasured moments with her family. Her relationship with her little boy is highlighted where they have slight conversations that draw them closer together. A brief but intimate look into her life. Like Our Curse, it has real humanity but the slender window of time presented has more significance for family members than for general audiences. Where does the story go from here? (6/10)

 

Our Curse
POLAND/27MINS/Director: Tomasz Śliwiński
Our Curse
Probably the hardest one to watch. It’s about Leo, a baby with congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS), also referred to as Ondine’s curse. If you cry just thinking about an infant with tracheostomy tube, you’re going to have problems with this one. It’s a punishing watch. I was tearing up just a couple minutes in, but it highlights hope in the form of two parents: Tomasz (the director) and his wife Magda. I thank God that their little baby is in their hands. I feel like he’s going to be getting good care and a lot of love. This story is far from over though. Future episodes are a must for anyone wanting updates on their difficult journey. (6/10)

 

White Earth
USA/20MINS/Director: J. Christian Jensen
White Earth
North Dakota has seen an influx of people seeking work due to an oil boom. This meandering take is mostly filtered through the eyes of children. An immigrant mother is also featured. The chronicle means well, but this account of how the quality of human life has deteriorated in this town, is so vague. Bleak just for the sake of being bleak. (5/10)

 

The Reaper (La Parka)
MEXICO/29MINS/Director: Gabriel Serra Argüello
The Reaper (La Parka)
A man who works in a slaughterhouse reflects on his connection with death. Efrain seems like a thoughtful fellow but what we remember is lots of artistic cinematography of cows being killed, bloody carcasses and racks of meat being processed. Yuck! Turned my stomach. (1/10)

Citizenfour

Posted in Documentary on January 15, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Citizenfour  photo starrating-3stars.jpgI suppose one must make a distinction between what Edward Snowden did and how this documentary presents his contribution to society. There’s no question what Snowden achieved took a lot of courage. The repercussions of his actions will be felt for years to come. He is wholly unassuming in one sense, someone about which you might pass on the street and not think twice. He’s an extremely erudite, well spoken bespectacled gentleman, a geek to some perhaps, but a young, slim, handsome man nonetheless, with a girlfriend for whom he is worried. He‘s a whistleblower if you will, a concerned member of the community who leaked classified intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA) where he worked that gave damning evidence regarding their illegal surveillance techniques on the American public. The effects of which are still being discussed today.

Back in January 2013, documentarian Laura Poitras was contacted via email by a stranger using the pseudonym Citizenfour. The unknown associate offered inside knowledge about extensive privacy abuses by the NSA against its own citizens in the U.S. The man was Edward Snowden, an American computer professional, who wanted to tell his story. He met with Poitras and investigative journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, who was the Guardian intelligence correspondent. Regardless of your opinion of Snowden, he seemingly has no ulterior motive other than to convey information he genuinely felt must be revealed in order to benefit humanity. Edward Snowden’s choice to come forward and simply discuss what he knows forms the basis of this chronicle.

Citizenfour is an insider’s look into a groundbreaking event. What Poitras records is Edward Snowden’s anxiety. The fear of an ordinary man that is exposing what he must in a Hong Kong hotel room. At one point a fire-alarm test in the building has him utterly paranoid that the authorities are coming to get him. The document is filmed over 8 days detailing Snowden’s discussions with journalists Greenwald and MacAskill. Occasionally we break away and witness U.S. officials in court give contradictory testimony. They assert no such surveillance is being done, despite warnings to the contrary. These governmental practices are supposedly necessary in a post 9/11 world – the unfortunate result of terrorist activity. Citizenfour is a rather claustrophobically set in a hotel room. As a revolutionary moment in history that chronicles the life-changing decision of a brave man, it‘s an important work that demands to be seen. In that sense, this feature is indispensable. As a work of entertainment, however, it leaves something to be desired.

12-11-14

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Posted in Biography, Crime, Documentary with tags on July 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz photo starrating-4stars.jpgBrian Knappenberger directs this fascinating documentary about Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy turned internet activist. A hacker not out for personal gain but rather to promote free access to information. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sympathetic portrait. The narrative is fashioned as the loss of a great mind as a consequence of the U.S. government’s overzealous pursuit of a transgressor. A persecution that was disproportional to the seriousness of his actual crime. JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a digital library featuring back issues of academic journals. Aaron was guilty of bulk-downloading a substantial portion of JSTOR’s records using the MIT computer network. Most of the data was available via a paid subscription. Some of the older data was obtainable by anyone for no charge. As the trial approached, Aaron was facing multiple felony charges that could have put him in federal prison. As the case mounted against him, he faced a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine, if convicted.

The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job at presenting a potentially confusing topic in a straightforward and level headed manner. First the account lays out the case for the truly brilliant mind this young man possessed. In family videos we see him as a child reading at an ability far beyond his years. At 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia not unlike Wikipedia. In his teens he was instrumental in the creation of the RSS feed, the public domain watchdog group Creative Commons, and the formation of the social news site Reddit. The documentary makes the argument that he was a key player in the defeat of The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents warned that the proposed legislation’s reach extended much further than mere copyright law. The federal government could block whole internet domains if they saw fit. This, they argued, would ultimately threaten first amendment rights on the Internet. You will marvel at his extraordinarily gifted mind.

Then the chronicle goes into the details of his crime. Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking classified documents. He was for the uninhibited dissemination of knowledge that could benefit people. The story acknowledges that infiltrating JSTOR’s database wasn’t completely legal. What he planned to do with his massive procurement of 5 million articles is not specifically known. Yet his misdeed ended there. It’s alleged by the prosecution that he intended to release the downloads to the public on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Even his friends and colleagues accept that this wasn’t such a far-fetched supposition. One only need read his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” to know his opinion toward free and open information.

Aaron Swartz stood for a free and democratic Internet. He was guilty of downloading 5 million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. However since this material wasn’t of a sensitive nature, nor did he plan to financially gain from the acquisition, the infraction seems negligible at best.  Unfortunately none of the antagonists agreed to appear on camera.  If there’s a villain here it’s the U.S. attorney’s office and specially the chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann. He doesn’t fare too well at all. His absence doesn’t help him, but it’s hard to say whether it would have served him if he had showed up to defend his questionable motives.  Even hallowed university MIT comes under fire for its failure to speak up in Aaron’s defense despite their supposed commitment to open access.  The end result is a one-sided but emotionally compelling view. It will make you angry but it will also make you profoundly sad. You will mourn this young man who, in the aftermath of the events detailed here, ultimately took his own life.

Life Itself

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on July 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Life Itself photo starrating-4stars.jpgMy introduction to Roger Ebert (and to film criticism in general) began at a very young age. I used to watch Sneak Previews on channel 9 which was the public television station in the San Francisco Bay area. He, a writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, would co-host along with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. As far as I was concerned you couldn’t mention one without the other. They critiqued enough movies that kids could enjoy to maintain my interest. However most were pictures I was either too young for or had no interest in seeing at that age. It was my dad who initially watched the show and he like me enjoyed the back and forth when they would disagree, even more than the actual review. They spoke intelligently about movies but at a level where I could still understand.

Life Itself is based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name. It’s presented somewhat in chronological order but not always. Sections of his life that pertain to the Siskel & Ebert stuff or his wife Chaz have a constant presence. We’re reminded of what chapter is being addressed in the lower left hand comer. The numbers jump around as the document picks and chooses vignettes that seem most relevant to tell a story. As it charts his career, it touches upon the high points of his days at the University of Illinois as an influential reporter for the Daily Illini on through his job as critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. His rivalry with fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel, their eventual show and the lasting impact that it had, are important milestones.

The best documentaries don’t take sides but rather present its subject for the audience to come to a conclusion. Director Steve James, who also helmed the highly acclaimed Hoop Dreams, doesn’t hide the fact that is clearly a fan.  Roger Ebert enthusiastically promoted his work as well. Life Itself unfolds like a celebratory memoir of a great man who revolutionized film criticism with a more populist approach. It treats Roger Ebert like the be-all, end-all authority giving Ebert a lot of credit for starting what groundbreaking reviewers such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were doing long before him. To be fair, the director does namecheck them.

Occasionally director Steve James allows a little grit. Critic Richard Corliss was particularly disapproving of Ebert’s quick “fast-food” style approach to reviews on TV. His scathing 1990 Film Comment article, “All Thumbs” is mentioned. Ebert could be a bit snippy and egotistical too. His trashing of the movie Three Amigos on The Tonight Show as the movie’s star Chevy Chase sat right behind him is pretty awkward. It reveals Ebert’s prickly personality much better than any wordy description ever could.  The best moments come from the footage of him and Gene Siskel recording their TV program. A series of recorded promos which expose the two bickering like children, provides a candid window into the man. Excerpted footage where they vehemently disagreed in their assessments is provided. The clips highlight their appeal and why no one has ever been able to replicate their chemistry since. Talking head interviews are also particularly enlightening. Gene Siskel’s wife recalls some private anecdotes. How he stole her cab while she was 8 months pregnant sticks out. Film greats Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog wax poetically on the influence he had on their careers.

Life Itself features Ebert’s love of movies just as much as his love for Chaz Ebert his wife, whom he married at the age of 50 in 1992. Their relationship forms a major part of the narrative in the third act. The film is a life lived and it is at various times informative, fascinating and yes sentimental. It would almost have to be. In early 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which was successfully removed in February of that year. 4 years later he had surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw. The results of which altered his life to where he ate and drink through a tube. At times the unblinking gaze of the camera on his appearance is difficult to watch. Unable to speak, he communicated via text-to-speech computer software. There’s an undeniable sadness that must permeate the proceedings. Chaz has a perspective that humanizes a man with an outsized ego. Chaz and Roger’s love for each other is profoundly touching. Their devotion is just as important a component as his thoughts and feelings about film. These scenes contrast with his often cantankerous relationship with his famous cohort Gene Siskel. Although those displays are where the documentary soars, the final act provides a poignant coda on the life of a man who left an indelible legacy on film criticism.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Posted in Documentary, Science Fiction with tags on April 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jodorowsky's Dune photo starrating-4stars.jpgJodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating documentary because it posits “what could have been?” Chilean born director Alejandro Jodorowsky is known for his avant garde films. El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) in particular were mainstays of the 1970s midnight movie circuit in the United States. Neither gained widespread distribution, but both became classics of underground cinema. Then in 1975, the cult director optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. He then proceeded to amass an impressive assemblage of talent: artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for character and set design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, Pink Floyd for music, and a cast that would include David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. The group became what he refers to as his “spiritual warriors” – people with whom the director felt a kinship in manifesting what was to be his masterpiece. Douglas Trumbull, in contrast, was considered for special effects first. The director’s personality didn’t gel with the talent behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and he was not hired.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a engrossing document because it provides the history behind a bizarre movie that never came to fruition. In his fertile and uninhibited imagination, the production becomes sort of a no-holds-barred, anything is possible fantasy with limitless possibilities. Whether an unproven director could have successfully produced an opus of this magnitude is unclear. The undertaking soon ran out of funds. Jodorsoksky burned through more than $2 million of producer Michel Seydoux’s money and hadn’t yet shot a single frame. They appealed for more cash. Apparently the studio was not convinced and shut down the project before it had the opportunity to continue.

Jodorowsky’s Dune makes an entertaining case that this is the greatest sci-fi film never made. The massive Dune storyboard book circulated through various studios in Hollywood as the proposal sought financing partners. The blueprints contain attributes which correlate to visual aspects in Star Wars, Alien, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Masters of the Universe, The Matrix and others. Alejandro Jodorowsky is an intriguing personality and it’s fun hearing him reminisce about something in which he is still so passionate. He was able to charm a lot of people into initially believing in him. As charismatic as he is, I am certain the man is also stark raving mad. There’s no way the final product could have possibly lived up to the potential that this feature suggests. However, that doesn’t lessen the impact of this captivating document on filmmaking. Ultimately Dune would reach the screen in David Lynch’s infamous 1984 adaptation. Jodorowsky’s reluctance to see someone else’s vision of a project he was so close to, is understandable. Even his climatic recounting of that story is worth the price of admission.

Tim’s Vermeer

Posted in Documentary with tags on March 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Tim's Vermeer photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Tim of the title is Tim Jenison a digital video visionary who founded NewTek Inc. in 1985. Vermeer is of course, Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter known for his domestic interior scenes of women mostly. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is perhaps his most celebrated piece. This essentially documents the video software entrepreneur’s desire to explore how Vermeer was able to achieve such photorealistic treatments in the 17th-century. The attention to detail in Vermeer’s work is indeed extraordinary. Furthermore, evidence shows that Vermeer didn’t even bother with preparatory sketches. In 2001, artist David Hockey proposed the idea that some virtuosos relied on optical devices to compose their paintings. His hypothesis was that Vermeer used the camera obscura, a darkened room with an aperture fitted with a lens through which light could enter to form an outside image on the opposite wall inside.

Tim’s Vermeer is not only a document of Vermeer, but also of Tim Jenison a man driven by an obsession. How could Vermeer, a man with apparently no formal training, achieve his creations? The question puzzles Jenison who has no academic foundation either. He hypothesizes that Vermeer utilized a dental sized mirror apparatus in addition to the camera obscura to create his works of art. He then proceeds to reconstruct the actual room depicted in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” building a chair, harpsichord, stained glass windows, and floor tile.  He even gets his own daughter to stand in for the female subject.

This is the study of how a non-artist could construct a masterpiece. For most of the film we watch as Tim attempts to copy the painting. His pursuit occurs over several months. Only a very rich man with deep pockets could possibly endeavor such a colossal undertaking of time and money. At times the experiment is almost like watching paint dry, and the chronicle even acknowledges this.  Yet the results are astonishing nevertheless.  One might suggest that his findings negate Vermeer’s accomplishments. I found quite the opposite. Assuming this is how Vermeer worked, it re-enforces how difficult it was to create his compositions. Tim’s Vermeer is something I’d recommend to anyone with an appreciation for Baroque painting. It probably plays more like a special on public television than as a theatrical movie, but as far as this art history buff is concerned, I was transfixed.

Note: Tim’s Vermeer made the 2014 Documentary Feature shortlist of 15 films, but it did not secure an Oscar nomination.

Cutie and the Boxer

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on January 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Cutie and the Boxer photo starrating-3stars.jpg“The Boxer” is 80 year old Neo-Dadaist artist Ushio Shinohara. “Cutie” is his long suffering wife Noriko Shinohara. The two live and work in New York City and have ever since they originally met in back in 1973. Both were transplants from Japan. Back then he was 41. She was 19. He was a painter and sculptor – a rising star in the art world. She was a student. They got married and she not only became his wife but his de facto assistant as well. For you see, she put her own vocation on hold so she could support her husband’s career.

Ushio is still producing art. While he struggles to affirm his legacy, Noriko is finally getting some deserved recognition. We see him creating his paintings by punching the canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint. He also creates “junk art” sculptures composed of found objects with garishly colored paint. Motorcycles are a common theme. Her work consists of a progression of whimsical drawings depicting her own life with Ushio entitled ‘Cutie and Bullie’. Light animation has these figures parallel their real life counterparts at appropriate times throughout the documentary. Her voice representing a quietly fuming display of resentment.

Cutie and the Boxer is not so much a story about artists but rather people in a 40 year relationship. The couple is a most curious pair. Ushio is small but physically scrappy. Although his work has been displayed at high profile museum exhibitions, his creations haven’t seen a great deal of monetary success. We see the two converse in a cluttered apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by sculptures, scattered materials and cats. Their marriage comes across like a series of “what-coulda-beens”, “if-onlys” and “I -wish-I hads”. In speaking with the camera, Noriko detail a singular existence obsessively focused on her husband’s art career. She admits it has had an effect on their now 39 year old son. Alex is also a struggling artist and clearly uncomfortable on screen. His uncharacteristic upbringing hampered by his father’s alcoholism which now seems to afflict him.

Cutie and the Boxer is mildly interesting, but it’s a depressing watch. There isn’t a lot of insight, but there is nuance. The director’s POV sides with Noriko for having set aside her own ambitions to take care of essentially two children, her son and husband. Ushio is seemingly oblivious or perhaps indifferent to his wife’s regrets. Her own artistic pursuits only now receiving some attention. Together the couple exhibit a competitive alliance regarding their individual careers. Because of all this, the production has an air sadness to it. Yet it’s a relationship that has endured for quixotic reasons, but there is hope here. Ushio inquires of Noriko, if Cutie hates Bullie. “Ah, Cutie loves Bullie so much,” she responds.

The Act Of Killing

Posted in Crime, Documentary, History with tags on January 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Act of Killing photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Act of Killing is hard to watch, espeically when you know the history behind it. By the early 1960s President Sukarno’s support and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was to the objection of the army and Islamic groups. In 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement tried to overthrow the government. The attempted coup d’état was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. This led to the destruction of PKI and Sukarno’s replacement by Suharto himself. Suharto’s anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the West during the Cold War. However what wasn’t widely reported was the subsequent suppression.

Estimates vary, but in the weeks following the coup from 1965 and on through 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million alleged communists were murdered. The victims, which included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, were basically anybody the government decided they didn’t like. They were simply labeled a communist to make the carnage more acceptable. That’s the history behind this chronicle, but it’s not the focus. No this presents the boasting of the actual thugs who were directly responsible for the massacre of millions of souls by their own hands. These self styled gangsters point out that the word ‘gangster’ means free men. Free to rape torture and murder in the name of suppressing communism.

The Act of Killing is a documentary based on over five years of filming. Petty thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were scalping movie tickets before they were promoted to leading the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. One of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceits is that he has those responsible reenact their killings utilizing a variety of different film genres: western, gangster, musical. Herman Koto is another hooligan that is heavily featured in these replications. Hefty in size, he repeatedly performs in drag wearing a tight satin gown. Other more serious large scale productions take place on the very same killing fields where the bloodshed occurred. These include small children and extras ostensibly descendants related to those murdered. The concept is shocking enough and the resulting display is even more surreal.

These aren’t even the most successful parts of The Act of Killing. There are moments here that will leave you absolutely dumfounded. I’m struck by a scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire to avoid spilling too much blood. As he watches it back on a TV monitor, he complains that he shouldn’t have worn white pants during their reenactment. In another scene he instructs his grandsons to apologize to some baby ducks they accidentally hurt while handling. Later Congo wraps a wire around his own neck and asks Koto to tug on it in order to mimic what he did. “Josh, is that how my victims felt?” Congo asks the filmmaker. (long pause) “Well I’d say they felt much worse because while you were pretending, they knew they were going to die.” By the end, Congo gets the dry heaves as he is supposedly coming to terms with what he did. I didn’t buy the sincerity of that gesture for a second, but it still doesn’t make his “performance” any less telling.

The Banality of evil is a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt meaning that evil occurs when ordinary people are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was used after he witnessed the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to him as the most mundane individual whose heinous deeds were orders dictated by the state. That idea floats throughout this documentary particularly when Congo happily speaks as if he is a hero because his behavior was backed by the government.

The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. I suppose there are at least two responses one could greet Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination into the mind of these killers.

•    Reaction #1 These people are monsters and director Joshua Oppenheimer is unfortunately giving them indefensible attention.

•    Reaction #2 The only way to have the murderers open up like this is to make them believe that they are being celebrated. In this manner, the director allows the death squad to expose themselves for what they truly are.

I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve come to the conclusion that I side more with reaction #2. At times the documentary can be a bit obtuse as it’s not always clear where Oppenheimer is going. But ultimately what comes through is that this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended. Not only were these perpetrators of mass violence never prosecuted for their crimes, but many Indonesians view them as heroes today. Conversely this also shows that many citizens continue to live in abject fear of them as well. This chapter of Indonesian history has been mostly shielded from public view. It’s good this document exists. I’m glad that I saw it. Now I never want to see it again.

Blackfish

Posted in Documentary with tags on November 12, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Blackfish photo starrating-4stars.jpgBlackfish is a documentary about Tilikum, a male orca held at SeaWorld in Orlando. Orcas, or killer whales, are the largest of the dolphins and one of the world’s most powerful predators. This chronicle details the history of this particular killer whale. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite analyzes the contributing factors that have led to three deaths. Two trainers and a SeaWorld visitor have been casualties during his 30 odd years in captivity. In fact the death one of their coaches is how this record starts.

Blackfish does a brilliant job at charting the life of Tilikum. He was captured in Berufjörður off the east coast of Iceland on November 9, 1983 at two years of age, along with two other orcas. His “career” began at a now-defunct Canadian theme park called Sealand of the Pacific. Archival footage supports how he was attacked by two older females in the tank. After causing the death of one of his trainers there, Tilikum was transferred to Sea World Orlando in 1992. The film makes a strong argument that the trauma and anxieties to which he was subjected to there, remained with him. However the sermonizing is minimal and what comes next is haunting.

Like any documentary, Blackfish should be taken with a grain of salt. It would’ve been nice if a representative from SeaWorld had agreed to an on-camera interview. Instead we’re given re-printed testimony from SeaWorld officials in previous court cases which went to trail. Perhaps their refusal to participate says something. To this day, Tilikum continues to perform at SeaWorld Orlando, following a year-long hiatus after the death of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Cowperthwaite suggests that Tilikum’s continued current use is business related. He is the most successful sire in captivity, with 21 offspring, 11 of which are still alive.

At the very least, this scathing attack on SeaWorld will question your decision to support this amusement park with a visit. Her research is impeccable. In the account she makes a very powerful case that killer whales should not be kept in captivity at all . That their confinement is to the detriment of both the animal as well as humans involved. The cruel conditions they’re kept in is a contributing factor. She lambastes the practice of separating wild whale pups from their mothers. The accompanying footage replete with piercing sounds of a wailing mother is heartbreaking. More than a dozen testimonies from trainers, employees and experts discuss the inner workings of these parks. Many of it from former employees at the actual Sea World park where Tilikum now resides. It’s clear that many guides have been misled by SeaWorld officials on the dangers posed by these 5-ton beasts. Blackfish is more than mere entertainment. It’s necessary viewing and one of the most important documentaries of the year.

The first time I watched Blackfish was on Novmeber 12, 2013, when it was released to DVD and Blu-ray. Therefore my review has been post-dated despite the fact that my review was written on January 16, 2014.

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