Tag Archives: documentary

Cultural Echoes

Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan

by Tori Hanes

A thorough and colorful exploration of Mongolian history and culture, director Robert H. Lieberman’s Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan immediately astounds with breathtaking cinematography. That awe is transferred to the artistic animation as stories take shape, and is continued in every visual aspect of the film for its entirety. 

The documentary guides you from early Mongolian history to present-day culture. Lieberman’s visual storytelling almost does more to narrate the culture than the scattered interviews. Exploration into the fabric of early Mongolian society is where Lieberman excels. He details how fables turn into norms to connect the culture to an audience largely unfamiliar with the country.

First-person accounts from citizens raised nomadically (a fact touted in the film: nomadic citizens estimate approximately 30% of the country’s population) beautifully and effortlessly transcend the audience to the lush, rolling hills of farmers and livestock.

Unfortunately, an interest in both glossing over and thoroughly explaining the complex history of the country causes a bit of a pile-up. It’s understandable. Recognizing how the culture found itself in the present is paramount for the film’s ultimate point: that Mongolia is a rapidly evolving nation, shifting its position both in the world and internally. Knowing the past is important for expanding on the future, but a smoother structure would’ve made the information more digestible.

On the other hand, Mongolia’s constantly changing society remains under-explored. The choice to invest the audience’s time in the past without a significant payoff looking toward the future leaves the film imbalanced, slightly muddling the ultimate point. 

Echoes of the Empire is many things: informative, compelling, astounding, and sometimes, disproportionate. But the beauty of Lieberman’s vision tied closely with the captivating culture makes for a unique, lifted experience.

Poor Cow

Cow

by Matt Weiner

There’s nothing in the rulebook that says a cow can’t be nominated for Best Actress, right? Because Luma, the bovine star of Andrea Arnold’s mesmerizing new documentary, deserves to be the most improbable frontrunner of awards season.

The filming for Cow took place over about four years at a British dairy farm. There is no voiceover, no reassuring David Attenborough nature narration… Just an unsparing look at Luma and the daily existence for cattle on a modern farm.

For Luma, that means a life built around providing milk through high-tech milkers. In one of the film’s more arresting images, Arnold shows Luma entering what the industry whimsically calls a milk carousel—but takes on the foreboding look of a milk panopticon each time Luma trudges into place.

Arnold and her director of photography Magda Kowalczyk capture everything through Luma and the cattle. When farm workers appear, their presence is in the background, guiding the animals or performing routine examinations but never the focus of the action.

It’s a powerful effect that lays bare our relationship to modern farming without being proscriptive. Cow shows just how much these animals do for us—Luma cannot even nurse her calves. Instead, it’s right back to the milk carousel so no sellable product goes to waste.

And this truly seems like one of the more favorable options for modern farms. The cows get some seasonal pasture time, although the sense of calm it provides them makes the limited time outside the pen all the more depressing.

Luma may not have a voice, but Arnold’s masterful direction makes her as complex and compelling as any Arnold protagonist. Luma deals with birth, sex, sadness, grief. Arnold makes the case that we are connected to these animals. These animals may not have any agency beyond capitalist utility in life, but Cow demands that we at least take the time to reflect on this relationship and what we might owe the things in life that give us so much.

Flipped Perspectives

Guantanamo Diary Revisited

by Tori Hanes

“Forgiveness is an act of revenge”.

This line- spoken by director John Goetz- echoes through every action taken by his film’s subject, Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

The center of a well-documented stain on United States history, Slahi was detained at Guantanamo Bay for 14 years without any charges officially brought against him.

In his book Guantanamo Diary (written in 2005, declassified for release in 2012, and the basis for the 2021 film The Mauritanian), Slahi accuses the United States government of extreme torture tactics, which to this day have been denied by special forces connected to his case. In what he considers to be the ultimate act of revenge, Slahi uses Goetz’s documentary to achieve his lofty goal: peacefully reconnect with the men and women involved with his torture in the name of forgiveness.

The documentary gets off to a rocky start. Goetz does not seem dedicated to the backstory that consumes the first half of the piece. Heavy-handed voiceovers spoon-feed us the questions Goetz wants us to be asking, as the film dutifully trudges through Slahi’s complicated past. Ironic, really, since Slahi is clear from his first moments on screen. His intention is exclusively to look toward the future.

Goetz competently introduces the key players: former special forces members connected to Slahi’s case, ranging in importance from a low-level guard to head of the operation. Goetz pushes uncomfortable recounts from each person, eventually finding the meat of his story.

The film becomes a power struggle over control of the narrative. Obviously disturbed by Slahi’s presence in the media, the individuals involved are desperate to clear either their name or their conscience. The story takes a turn from Slahi’s already well-publicized narrative and tackles the mental aftermath inflicted on his torturers.

In a case of trauma begetting trauma, a murky view of these people emerges. Questions surrounding complicity in immoral government sanctions, personal responsibility, and humanity in extremity are posed. Simmering on the backburner of the film, Slahi waits for his ultimate act of revenge.

Once Goetz cracks into the heart of his story, a gritty, complicated spectacle is born. In a narrative that is so seemingly black and white, the gradience of humanity is found.

Giving Voice

Algren

by Rachel Willis

One of the literary giants of his age, Nelson Algren has faded from public consciousness in the seventy years since the publication of his award-winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Writer/director Michael Caplan hopes to revive interest in the Chicago native with his documentary, Algren.

As the winner of the first National Book Award, issued in 1950 for the above-mentioned novel, it’s surprising Algren is not grouped in similar circles as other U.S. literary greats such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. 

The best parts of Algren highlight the words of the writer himself. Excerpts from his letters, interviews, and his novels and short stories depict not only Algren as a person and writer, but the way he hoped to portray people in his work. Drawing attention to the underbelly of Chicago, and America itself, Algren portrayed prostitutes, addicts and the dark side of the American dream.

And he did so with sympathy rather than voyeurism or exploitation, according to the many interviews with Chicago natives (such as Billy Corgan) and Algren lovers alike. Several interviews with writers, such as Russell Banks, Studs Terkel and others, help capture the influence of Algren’s work and the importance of his depictions of the “voiceless.”

There is a lot to interest a viewer about Algren, not merely his writing, but his collage work, as well. Many of his collages are revealed throughout the film, and it’s moments like these that help the viewer understand Algren better than the tawdry details of his gambling issues or love life.

Algren’s work, though lauded, also drew controversy. Bookstores refused to carry his books; the Chicago Public Library sent a scathing letter declaring their decision to remove his work from its shelves. These are interesting tidbits provided in Caplan’s film.

Unlike the author’s groundbreaking work, Algren is standard documentary fare. It follows a common pattern, although at times, is messy, as it jumps around from subject to subject – Algren’s affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his dislike of the film version of The Man with the Golden Arm, his love of boxing and poker, his gambling issues. The documentary jerks us along through his life story without a clear focus.

If the documentary had kept a solid focus on one aspect of Algren – whether his artistic endeavors or his life experience – it would have benefitted greatly. Still, if Caplan’s film achieves its goal of reminding Americans of one of our great writers, it’s done what it sets out to do.

American Narcissist

#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump

by Seth Troyer

Comparing America and much of the world’s shift toward fascist totalitarian ideals to the rise of dictators in the 1930s may at first seem over the top. Indeed, much of Dan Partland’s new documentary #Unfit may seem heavy handed – until you remember where we are as a nation.

We elected a textbook narcissist whose strategy for gaining followers centers around a self-obsessed “me first” ethos. He vows to bring back the “the good old days” and encourages an inherently nationalistic philosophy. Enter Donald Trump.

Really, it’s hardly shocking when this film reveals that a guy like Trump had affection for the rousing public speaking stylings of Adolf Hitler. Trump has not changed since his billionaire playboy days, his goal is still clear: “win” by any means necessary. Sadly enough, if that’s your only real goal, taking pointers from charismatic fascists continues to be a useful strategy.

Naturally, #Unfit is not saying Trump is Hitler, but that his fits of totalitarian megalomania have the potential to be similarly dangerous.

Until it really sinks in, it may also seem like a cheap shot for this film to compare Trump and his followers’ behavior to that of apes in the wild.

Trump’s mission to be the biggest and the best by any means necessary is as old as animal life on this planet. A leader who pounds his chest the loudest, who rallies followers around self-serving goals and shared hatred for outsiders, unfortunately remains a rather attractive choice in the eyes of many American voters.

Scenes of white nationalist pride and news footage of men screaming “go cook my burrito” to Mexican folks at Trump rallies are juxtaposed with scenes depicting animal “us vs them” mentality. The irony here is of course that the conservatives, who make up the bulk of Trump’s following, who often seem to have the most reservations around ideas of evolution and the link between humanity with the animal kingdom, seem to be themselves clearly emulating primal group dynamics.

Partland’s film is not always eloquent, and at times it stumbles into obvious biases toward the Democratic party. Flashes of former President Obama are shown as folks talk of “better times.” This documentary really shines when it keeps its eye on the bottom line, that Trump is not simply a threat to left wing politics but to American democracy as a whole.

Mission Control

Desert One

by Rachel Willis

It has been nearly 41 years since 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage in Tehran, Iran. Coming on the heals of the Iranian revolution, in which the Ayatollah Khomeini took power from the U.S.-backed Shah, the hostage crisis was perhaps the single biggest catastrophe of the Carter presidency.

Five months after the hostages were taken prisoner, in April of 1980, President Carter authorized a rescue mission, the subject of director Barbara Kopple’s (Harlan County, USA) latest documentary, Desert One.

Drawing on previously unreleased audio recordings, extensive interviews with those involved in the operation, and archival footage, Kopple’s film is one of the most compelling you’ll see this year.

Viewers may not be aware of the details of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, so a brief but informative overview of the situation in Iran paints a vivid picture. What led to the crisis is laid-out in clear detail. Interviews with many of the diplomats who were later held hostage help the audience understand the mood in D.C. as Khomeini came to power. Interviews with Iranian citizens further develop the picture of their attitude toward U.S. policy.

The most remarkable aspect of Desert One is the sheer number of interviews conducted for the film. Kopple interviews hostages and hostage takers, Delta Force members, as well as former president, Jimmy Carter, and his vice president, Walter Mondale.

Though the film is heavily skewed toward the American perspective, there is an attempt at balance by allowing some of the Iranians involved to share their perspective on the situation. However, as with most of history, memories of the incident vary wildly – prisoners describe being tortured; translator Hossein Sheikholeslam describes friendly relationships with the hostages. Hostage taker Faizeh Moslehi says the hostages were treated with respect, yet revels in the memory of seeing Americans defeated in brutal ways.

Animations serve to emphasize the words of the interviews and as reenactments for events not recorded. However, the most effective aspects are the pictures and archival footage – at times, almost too gruesome to bear. It emphasizes the sheer tragedy of the situation, as well as the mounting pressure on the U.S. to resolve it.

Removed from the situation by nearly half a century, it is still a critical moment in American history and not one to be forgotten. Kopple ensures it will remain fresh in our minds a little longer with her riveting piece of filmmaking.   

Let It Kill You

You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski

by Hope Madden

Who’s the greatest American poet? Maya Angelou? Sherman Alexie? Walt Whitman? I will argue that it’s Charles Bukowski.

He really only wrote for about 24 years, but he has nearly 70 books in print: novels, collections of short fiction, and poems. My God, the poems.

 If you are also a fan, documentarian Matteo Borgardt has a film for you.

You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski shares a rediscovered interview from 1981. Italian reporter Silvia Bizio visits the writer in his San Pedro home and they talk for about an hour. It’s very low key, and honestly, not a great deal is covered or discovered in terms of the interview itself.

But.

If you’ve ever just wanted to sit in Bukowski’s living room as wine bottle after wine bottle empties, as ash trays fill, as Max the cat finds a good position on Linda Lee’s lap—friends, this is indispensable viewing.

’81 was a big year for him. Bukowski’s about halfway through his seminal novel Ham on Rye, he’s recently returned from the European trip documented in his nonfiction text Shakespeare Never Did This, and that trip/book’s photographer Michael Montfort makes himself at home on the floor near the ash tray on the end table.

It’s all very low key as people drink and smoke and Bukowski talks. He doesn’t wax philosophical, doesn’t argue too much, doesn’t make proclamations or yell or curse. He doesn’t really even tell any stories, but he does read a few poems (good ones!).

This is hardly the first documentary on Charles Bukowski. (In fact, Taylor Hackford directed the first, 1973’s Bukowski.) But as a general (and quite lovely) rule, previous docs focused on his raucous readings. If you want to hear Bukowski read, there are at least five full length docs that will let you do that.

It’s far rarer to spend some time with the writer at home.

Perhaps because she is drinking herself or perhaps because the writer is in a cagey mood, Bizio never really finds a good footing for questions and answers, although humanity and Bukowski’s low opinion of it offers the slightest hint of a theme for the proceedings. The tour of the house goes badly, and back-and-forth about sex in his writing uncovers little.

If that sounds negative, it shouldn’t. The whole scene is like a page from one of his books: things not going as well as he’d hoped, the fault likely his own, but at least there’s wine. The more wine, the worse it will go, but there you have it.

You Never Had It will not entertain everyone equally, but it will thrill a handful of people and you know who you are.

What the Puck?

Red Penguins

by Brandon Thomas

It’s been 35 years since Ivan Drago tried to break Rocky Balboa. While the fictional Italian Stallion may have prevailed against his Russian foe, the Americans at the heart of Red Penguins weren’t so lucky in their experience with our former Cold War nemesis. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the famous Red Army hockey team found itself struggling to find funding. Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Howard Baldwin thought it would be interesting to invest in the team as a way to funnel great Russian players to his own NHL club. With marketing guru Steve Warsaw acting as the man on the ground in Russia, the new American investors sought to navigate their way through an unfamiliar culture that was tasting the free market for the first time. 

Director Gabe Polsky dives right into the absurdity of these Americans thinking they could immediately saunter into the former USSR. Baldwin and Warsaw’s eccentricities certainly caught their Russian partners off-guard, but also led the two to be unequivocally naive about many things Russian. The film’s early playfulness is fun and entertaining but also feels like a warning to the audience: a warning that the American investors never fully saw. 

At times, Red Penguins feels like a documentary version of a Coen Brothers film. It’s hard not to laugh at the darkly comic situations Warsaw finds himself dealing with. Whether it be a beer- guzzling bear biting off the finger of a drunk employee, or a spy for the Russian mob that took up residence in Warsaw’s office. Anton Chigurh would feel right at home.

More than anything, Red Penguins is a cautionary tale about American overreach. Howard Baldwin wasn’t the first American businessman to foolishly believe that he could march into Russia and woo the former communists with his business savvy. Even the backing of the Disney empire couldn’t solidify a positive outcome. 

While not coming together as a definitive hockey documentary, Red Penguins offers a unique look at a transitional time in the former Soviet Union. The beer-guzzling bears are just icing on the cake. 

The Beat of Your Heart

River City Drumbeat

by Cat McAlpine

Directors Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté explore both struggle and success in their documentary following the River City Drum Corps of Louisville, KY. River City Drumbeat captures how art and culture are both necessary for the survival of a community. The film itself has natural rhythm, moving from raucous drum performances to reflections on the darker side of life as a Black American. 

In an opening shot, an instructor stands in front of a gymnasium full of young children. Asking them to place their hands on their hearts, he says, “If you get really quiet and get really still and listen very quietly you can feel something beating in your chest…we are born into the world with this sound.”

The belief that we are all born with music inside us is a driving principal of RCDC, which creates an artistic outlet and cultural touchstone for children who might not otherwise be exposed to their African roots. Executive Director and Founder of River City Drum Corps Edward “Nardie” White emphasizes how important the program is to his community, especially young black men. When White was young, he was discouraged from participating in the arts and instead pushed to play basketball and football. Now, he can trace the dozens of lives he has changed with art over the last three decades.

Johnson and Flatté juxtapose vibrant shots of family and laughter with gray rolling footage of the west end of Louisville’s boarded windows and abandoned homes. White gives a tour of his old neighborhood, reminiscing about how the Black community in Louisville has grown and changed. “Our culture is going to be our savior.” He says.

Their greatest challenges? Redlining, poverty, poor education, and violence.

A huge inspiration for both White and the RCDC was White’s late wife, Zambia. Many of the Drum Corps students, current and former, reflect on the immense impact she had on them. One young man shows her photo in his bedroom, next to stickers from prospective colleges, reflecting on how good it feels good to have her watching over him. It is in small moments like these that Johnson and Flatté are able to show just how widely and deeply RCDC has impacted the community.

Zambia is finally shown in some older footage as she accepts an award. Addressing the crowd, she says, “We must give to our young people something we all wake up with…time.”

That’s the central theme of River City Drumbeat, that youth deserve the time, attention, and love their community has to offer, and that it can make a difference. As White says to the Drum Corps before a performance, “Black arts matter.”

River City Drumbeat is a hopeful and loving portrait of a community that has found power in coming together and making music. It is joyful, and sometimes sad, but always looking forward. And it may be just what you needed to watch today.

In Search of a Purpose

In Search of Darkness

by Hope Madden

The first thing you know about Shudder’s new original doc In Search of Darkness is that it’s an encyclopedic look at horror movies from the Eighties.

The second thing you need to know is that it’s 4 hours and 20 minutes long.

Right?!!

Why filmmaker David A. Weiner decided this had to be a standalone doc rather than a short series is beyond me. Certainly you can (and no doubt will) pause the film and come back to it, which is simple enough to do with Shudder. Still, having devoted about 1/3 of my waking day to a single documentary, I feel as if I should have learned more about Eighties horror than I did.

The bright spots: Tom Atkins is as delightful as you hope he is, as, of course, is Barbara Crampton. John Carpenter and Larry Cohen are as curmudgeonly; Keith David’s saucy baritone makes every anecdote extra fun; Alex Winter makes some interesting connections between films and society at large; and some of the industry insider talking heads seem knowledgeable.

There’s no real rhyme or reason to the specific titles discussed, but more problematic is the superficial treatment of the genre. In four and a half hours, I should have learned something, should have heard of a movie I’d never known about. In Search of Darkness refuses to connect any dots.

Some of the asides about VHS cover art, for instance, are briefly interesting, but other such tangents only emphasize the film’s overall weaknesses. The discussion of the final girl or of gratuitous nudity in 80s horror lacks any kind of insight, but when the piece on horror soundtracks did not mention Goblin, it dawned on me that in early 4 ½ hours, not a single foreign title is discussed.

No Argento, no Fulci, no Deodado – niente.

A ninety minute doc that contents itself with a nostalgic traipse down VHS store aisles would be fun. A doc series that contextualizes the phenomenal explosion in the popularity of horror in the Eighties, digging into sexism, feminism, foreign titles, changing music, the Reagan influence, the impact of VHS and MTV – that would be amazing. In Search of Darkness is neither.