Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

Deliver Us (Libera Nos) (2016)

The Italian documentary Deliver Us (Libera Nos) opens on a peaceful, if slightly sinister image: an Sicilian priest quietly prays with a woman sitting in a chair, her back to the camera. As the priest presses his stole to the woman’s head, a terrifying change comes over her: she begins shrieking, jerking, swearing at the priest as though he’s hurting her. But the priest continues to pray, apparently oblivious to the woman’s increasingly violent and erratic behavior.

The scene plunges us directly into the subject of Deliver Us: modern-day exorcisms and the priests who perform them. The focus is primarily on Father Cataldo, a Franciscan priest in Palermo who regularly performs exorcisms on a dedicated following who come from all over Sicily. While there are other priests featured in the documentary, Cataldo is the film’s primary protagonist – and some would say antagonist – as he attempts to bring relief, and faith, to a multitude of people convinced they are possessed by demons.

Deliver Us is presented in a very spare style, refuting any desire to explain itself. There are no talking heads, no explanations of rites or theology, no direct interviews with the priests or the parishioners involved. There are no psychiatrists explaining mental disorders, no elucidations dogma, no naysayers, and no one to give credence – positive or negative – to the rites being performed. There is only what we see on the screen, the horror, the pathos, and the faith of a small group of people who believe, passionately, that their problems, mental, emotional, and physical, are caused by demonic possession.

As the film proceeds, a fascinating picture develops, of a culture and a community from which many (though by no means all) of us probably consider ourselves removed. While we might delight at Max von Sydow doing battle with the devil for Linda Blair’s soul, it is a far different story when faced with real people who believe themselves possessed by the occult. On the one hand, Father Cataldo’s practices have the potential to endanger the people he purports to help – though the film shows at least one sequence where he carefully questions potentially possessed people about their problems, asking them if they’ve seen doctors and therapists, and at one point even turns a woman away, telling her that she’s very probably depressed and needs medical attention. It is this element that begins to move the film away from the impression that it’s simply a debunking and towards an interest in the cultural and traditional development of faith, and the reality of it for those who live within it.

The scenes of exorcism are harrowing, not least because they appear to almost come out of The Exorcist. Swearing, crawling on the ground, smashing furniture, speaking in tongues, growling, and spitting, the people being exorcised are obviously affected by the rites of exorcism, their individual “demons” manifesting themselves almost on cue. These people, like their priests, are not performing possession – whatever their problems and potential illnesses, they are deeply engaged in the efficacy of the exorcism rite. They believe in it, and the film asks us to understand their belief without attempting to judge it.

The people exorcised are far from uniform. Women and men, young children and teenagers, professed “non-believers” and the deeply faithful, all eventually come to Father Cataldo. They are drawn from different classes and backgrounds, and their faith in the priest’s ability to help them is absolute. This is both unnerving and a little sad, but the film takes no steps to mock those who believe, or to force the audience into a position of superiority over these people. Many of them, in fact, purport to be cured, or at least helped, by being exorcised, finding strength to fight the “demons” that possess them in the words of the priest and the dedication to their faith.

Cataldo himself is far from a reassuring presence-there’s something perfunctory about him, especially in the opening sequences, as though he’s operating an exorcism factory rather than a Catholic service-but as the film proceeds, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have some deep-seated desire for great power over others. This is no charlatan, whatever one may think of exorcism. This is a priest who believes, very deeply, in his ability to help people, to fight (and win) the battle against Satan.

Deliver Us is ultimately a slice of life, providing no real answers to the multitudinous questions at the back of its images. But it is an affecting documentary, a window into a fringe element of faith that has often possessed horror film lovers, but holds within it a deep-seated system of beliefs and rituals that are still part of the world today. It is sad, it is frightening, and it holds no answers. It must be taken on faith alone, and that is both its strength, and its weakness.

Deliver Us is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Hedy Lamarr was many things, not the least of them a Hollywood star and actress known more for her beauty than her undoubted talent. But she was also just this side of a genius, a talented inventor who created (among other things) the basis of the technology employed in cell phones, Bluetooth, military and satellite communications, and Wifi signals. Without Lamarr, our world today would be very different, yet she never made a dollar off of her invention. Instead she was often treated as a sort of campy secondary player, a Hollywood star fallen low in the wake of drugs and bad marriages, finally living out her life in voluntary exile as she grew sensitive about her age and appearance.

Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story attempts to throw light on Lamarr’s contributions to science, as well as the inherent injustice of a studio and a media system that insisted on valuing her only for her beauty and never for her mind. She was also condemned for that beauty—the film discusses the history of Lamarr’s first major film, the Austrian production Ecstasy, in which a teenaged Lamarr appeared nude and simulated an orgasm. The film would haunt Lamarr’s career, condemning her to be treated (and remembered) as a man-trap, the whore in the virgin/whore dichotomy that was so popular in Hollywood of that time (and still is). Entrapped by a face that was deemed too attractive to be taken seriously by the men who surrounded her, Lamarr struggled for even the smallest bit of recognition for being something more.

Bombshell traces Lamarr’s life from her childhood in Vienna, her first marriage and subsequent escape from Austria, to her arrival in Hollywood, her participation in the war effort, and finally her self-imposed exile from friends and family until her death in 2000. Much attention is given to Lamarr’s invention, a “frequency hopping system” developed during the Second World War that would have enabled radio-controlled torpedoes to avoid being jammed by enemy radio frequencies. With the help of the composer George Antheil, whose knowledge of player pianos helped the pair to design a mechanically workable system, Lamarr patented her invention, only for it to be rejected by the Navy. She was also denied a place on the National Inventors Council, instead told to use her Hollywood stardom to go out and raise money for war bonds. The patent would remain on the shelf until 1962, when a version of it was finally used on Navy ships. Lamarr and Antheil didn’t receive credit for it, or any of the money attached to it, though it forms the basis of much of the technology used by the public and the military today.

The denial of Lamarr’s intellectual and creative abilities is a theme that runs through Bombshell—she married men who were jealous of her, treating her more or less as a trophy wife. Hollywood used her in much the same way, exploiting her beauty and her vague Otherness while giving her little room to flex her creative or intellectual muscles. And this evidently had a long-term effect on how Lamarr valued herself and her own mind. The film paints a picture of a woman denied much intellectual recognition or outlet by society at large, loved for her beauty while dismissed for everything else. She was a bombshell, and bombshells were not expected to be able to think.

Bombshell makes extensive use of talking head interviews with Lamarr’s children and friends, including TCM host Robert Osborne and actress Diane Kruger. A 1997 interview with Lamarr, conducted by a Forbes reporter, forms the basis of much of Lamarr’s own story, thankfully allowing the actress a chance to speak on her own behalf. But Bombshell focuses too often on Lamarr’s personal problems than on her intellectual abilities, switching tack to talk about her addiction to methamphetamines and her many failed marriages. This becomes a sordid foray into the actress’s past that, while well-intentioned, becomes slightly uncomfortable. Not much is made of Lamarr’s other inventions, including an improved traffic light, despite the film reiterating that she was constantly at work on something in her home laboratory.

One has the sense that there is far more to Lamarr even than what Bombshell wants to present. The film might have done better to focus more on her abilities, both acting and inventing, than on the sad permutations of her personal life. This was a woman who wanted to be remembered for what she accomplished, and yet the film continues to delve into things that she obviously would have preferred not to discuss. There is a sense of sordidness at the edges that somewhat undermines the film’s project to bring Lamarr’s talent and inventive intelligence to light. It is the trap into which many biographical documentaries fall, sadder here because Lamarr literally withdrew from public life in an effort to avoid such scrutiny.

But Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story does so much good for its subject, despite the occasional forays into the lurid. Lamarr received scientific recognition for her invention in 1997, but it is only recently that the public has been made aware of just how much she contributed. Bombshell gives a window into a woman’s life, an accomplished woman, a brilliant woman, a woman who should have been given more respect, more understanding, and more love for what she was and not what people fantasized her to be. It’s hard not to think of other actresses who suffered a similar fate to Lamarr, valued only for their bodies, their glamour, and then made into campy caricatures of their former selves. Thankfully, Hedy Lamarr is no longer a punchline.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will show on PBS’s American Masters.

A River Below (2017)

Every year, the Tribeca Film Festival showcases some of the most interesting documentaries currently in the running, usually adhering (either by accident or design) to a general theme. Last year, nuclear proliferation and the rise of the police state was a major source of dialogue within Tribeca’s documentary entries. This year, the focus has shifted a little to the relationship between art, media, and commerce, and the effects that art and media can have on real world problems.

One of the major issues facing any documentarian is the fact that once you have turned a camera on something, you are affecting its outcome, even if just by drawing attention to a subject. Assuming the documentarian to be operating in good faith, this can sometimes, result in the exposure of corruption, or increased scrutiny on a humanitarian or environmental crisis. It can also cause untold ripple effects that the filmmaker might not have ever foreseen.

A River Below from director Mark Grieco grapples with the issues of environmental reality in a media-driven world. Its initial focus is on an apparently clear-cut environmental problem: the disappearance of the pink river dolphin, a native species of the Amazon that is being hunted nearly to extinction by fishermen who use its flesh to catch a scavenger fish popular as a dish in Columbia and Brazil. Attempting to find ways to conserve the dolphin are Fernando Trujillo, a marine biologist, and reality TV star/conservationist Richard Rasmussen. These men act as the dual stars of this increasingly fascinating and bizarre story of media, nature, and economy.

The film appears to be just an investigation into the conservation attempts surrounding the pink river dolphin and its relationship to the local economies of the Amazon—a troubled but not unknown set of issues that encompasses both the human and the environmental toll of the fishing industry and the political system. The film takes a sudden twist, however, when it discusses one of the major turning points in the attempts at conservation: video footage of the slaughter of a pregnant dolphin by local fishermen, released to popular TV show Fantastico. The video inexorably leads the documentary down a new political and media-fueled path. The story of the video, and the ripple effects that it has on everyone involved, takes up the majority of the film’s runtime, raising questions about the meaning of reality and the future of conservation in an increasingly media driven world.

A River Below deals with a multitude of complex and thorny issues. The filmmakers themselves must make choices about how their film is put together and what they show, but rather than condemning or lauding any of their subjects, they let the subjects speak for themselves—sometimes allowing the camera to continue running long after someone has ceased to speak. There’s a tacit acknowledgment that editing will affect the way that the topic is seen, and certainly the viewer might begin to come down on a single side (at least one of the main players in this drama comes off very badly indeed). But the film also doesn’t shy away from depicting every side of the story, further entwining the viewer in a circuitous course as confusing and dangerous as the Amazon itself. The crux of the story is the degree to which fiction is used to augment reality in order to bring closer attention to a real problem, and who is sacrificed on the altar of someone else’s conservation attempts. The results—what the camera does and does not show, what difference editing does indeed make—have diverse effects, many of them unintentional.

A River Below might have done well to scrutinize its own motives slightly more, or at least reveal the apparatus behind the film. In a film that purports to tell a straightforward story, it fails to completely acknowledge that even in telling the story, and constructing it the way that it does, it produces a very particular narrative. While Grieco and his crew are attempting to present a non-biased perspective, even the presence of their camera affects the way that the subjects talk.

A River Below ultimately doesn’t provide answers to some of its thornier problems, but it does lay bare the way in which media scrutiny affects the world. As the film winds its way further into the jungles of the Amazon, a simple narrative fails to emerge, save for the single overarching element of exploitation. The dolphins and people alike are caught in the same webbed system, and many are unable to extricate themselves from it.

LA 92 (2017)

LA 92 is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. Few documentaries plunge you into the middle of a rioting city, into the bleeding heart of America itself. Made up entirely of archival footage, including home video, news reports, and behind-the-scenes images, the film tells the story of the violent destruction of much of L.A. following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. The film traces the city’s history of racial discrimination and police brutality that came to a head (once again) with the beating of Rodney King and the exoneration of the police officers by a primarily white jury.

The film begins with footage of the Watts riots in 1965 that followed the brutalizing of two African-American men by police officers. Moving forward to the 1990s, L.A. remained in turmoil, brought to a head when Rodney King was dragged from his car and beaten bloody by several LAPD officers. Not long after King’s beating, a Korean grocery store owner shot and killed fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins over a carton of orange juice—the shooting, again, caught on the security camera. The owner was eventually convicted but the judge commuted the sentence of sixteen years in prison to community service and a fine. The King verdict, then, is seen in the light of more than thirty years of racial violence in L.A., and the fairly recent spate of violence against African-Americans that the American justice system failed utterly to punish.

The foment of anger and despair is palpable throughout LA 92, and the viewer is forced into close proximity with that anger. It’s impossible to trace the series of events, up close and personal, and fail to understand just what a searing and shocking miscarriage of justice the King verdict was. The energy and the anger is so intense in the lead up to the King verdict that it’s hardly surprising it boiled over into total violence. What is shocking is the degree of violence, and the film draws the viewer directly into the heart of the riots via footage filmed right at the ground level. Protests outside L.A. police departments turn into riots; marches meant to be peaceful boil over into burning and looting, as the city’s incredible fury finally erupts.

LA 92’s greatest strength is that it does not purport to be a political work—it simply shows what happened, and why. It’s a difficult film to watch as it shows, with an unflinching gaze, an American city transforming into a war zone, people bloodied, beaten, cars burned, buildings gutted, and citizens clashing with each other, while police and National Guard troops stand by and do nothing. The lack of concerted police response to the riots exposes a police department and a city government apparently unaware of the degree of anger surrounding the King verdict, and unable or unwilling to do their jobs and protect and serve the people of Los Angeles. There are images here that will be seared in the viewer’s memory: of a woman watching her shop burn, screaming at the unfairness of it; of a man dragged from a truck and beaten almost to death; of Korean shopkeepers arming themselves with automatic weapons to patrol in front of their shops like soldiers; of young men and women, howling in impotent rage, breaking and burning everything in their path because no one will give them justice; of King himself, nearly in tears, begging for it all to stop.

But LA 92 is far more than a historical document—it’s a warning. The film shows, in stark and certain terms, the consequences of a country refusing to provide its citizens, all of them, with the protection and the justice they deserve as human beings. What happened in L.A. in 1992 is not shocking at all, given the current events surrounding police brutality and violence against African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York, and across the country. Nothing that happened in L.A. in 1992 was right—not the verdict, not the riots, not the government response, not the loss of life and of property, not the violence done against a city by its own people. But it is the result of an apparently incurable sickness in this nation, as we continue to refuse justice to people because of the color of their skin, as we continue to treat human beings like animals.

It happened before. It is going to happen again.

LA 92 is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will premiere on National Geographic on April 30.

Shadowman (2017)

Oren Jacoby’s Tribeca documentary Shadowman looks at the vibrant New York street art scene through the life and work of graffiti artist Richard Hambleton. Along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Hambleton became representative of the gritty energy of emerging street art as he painted over the streets of the Lower East Side with his famous “Shadowman” paintings. The stark, ghost-like paintings that appeared on walls and buildings around New York City were calculated to produce the maximum effect on the viewer, interacting with and informing on the urban landscape. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Hambleton survived the epidemics of disease and drugs that decimated the scene, instead vanishing suddenly at the apex of his fame. Through talking head interviews, copious archival footage, and contemporary chronicles, Shadowman paints itself through the 1980s and into the current period, following Hambleton’s strange and meandering path around (and on) the Manhattan streets.

Shadowman presents itself as a window into the gritty, wild, energetic art scene of the Lower East Side, as well as a more personal look into the enigmatic nature of Hambleton himself. Though his studio art was valued at a higher rate than Basquiat’s, Hambleton is not the household name of his contemporary. Some of this is a result of the latter’s personality: Arrogant and self-destructive, Hambleton falls out the bottom of the scene as he increasingly refuses to engage in the branding and sale of himself as a commodity. His drug addiction and connected problems further alienate him from those who try to help him when he stops being dependable. He’s used by friends, who take advantage both of his drug addiction and his desperation; he makes agreements with gallery owners and enthusiasts only to renege on them for no clear reason.

What Hambleton—and, by extension, Shadowman—grapples with is the notion of public art when it becomes mainstream, and the ever-present dichotomy of artists needing to survive while at the same time avoiding selling out to a market. By any stretch, Haring and Basquiat sold out, choosing to play the art world game, branding their work for mass consumption. Hambleton didn’t, moving from his Shadowman paintings to an obsession with the Marlboro Man in his studio art, and finally to the “beautiful paintings” that he produced as he became more involved with drugs and eventual homelessness. Owners of Hambleton paintings recall being asked by gallery owners if “Richard is still alive,” knowing that his art will increase in value the moment he dies.

As the film proceeds, Hambleton becomes more, not less, enigmatic. He’s “rediscovered” by several gallery owners and patrons in quick succession, but he’s erratic, unwilling to declare pieces finished despite constant deadlines. He’s found living on the street, in abandoned gas stations, or in flophouses with prostitutes and drug dealers, trading paintings for a meal or drug money. When he’s rediscovered yet again, he’s sick with skin cancer (for which he refuses to get treatment), his back twisted by scoliosis, his body and mind damaged by years of drug abuse. He’s finally offered the opportunity to open his own show, and to once again make enough money to get himself out of the vicious cycle he’s lived in since the mid-eighties. But Hambleton continues to resist commodification, even when it’s in his own best interests. Yet his rejection of commodification isn’t particularly represented as political—it’s rather his inability to do anything except produce art, even to the detriment of his body. He produces art because he must.

Simultaneously tragic and honorable is Hambleton and his total unwillingness to compromise. It would be easy to categorize him as the artist fallen low, or to try to paint his arc into a redemption narrative. But what Shadowman hammers home, intentionally or not, is that life does not fit into comfortable narratives, and that even artists might not fully understand, or be able to articulate, the reasons behind their work. Like his surprising, frightening shadows, now no doubt painted over and subsumed beneath gentrification, Hambleton remains. As the film closes, he becomes a living embodiment of the old New York, a shadow, a reminder of the city’s violent, beautiful, and tragic past, and the people who lived it. There’s something deeply artistic about that.

Shadowman is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Off The Rails (2016)

*Streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.

off-the-rails

This year has seen a preponderance of excellent documentaries, as no doubt the Oscar race will attest. Many have been all-too-topical, as increasing police violence, hate crimes, and the divide between the rich and poor ever widens. Adam Irving’s Off the Rails joins Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Andrew Cohn’s Night School in an examination of the intersection of poverty, race, and perceived criminality, this time through the singular life and more singular crimes of Darius McCollum.

McCollum’s story is an odd one: born and raised in Queens, he became increasingly fascinated by the New York transit systems, especially the subway, as an escape into the calming world of schedules and time tables that contrasted with the uncertainty of his life above-ground. Transit workers favored him with tours and lessons on the intricate workings of the system, increasing his fascination and plunging him deeper in an obsession. When he was fifteen, McCollum wound up accidentally commandeering a subway train when a transit worker left him in charge. He safely made all the stops along the route until he was caught and arrested. Thus began a so-called “life of crime,” which resulted in his being jailed 32 times for impersonating transit officials and stealing trains and buses. McCollum became what he refers to as a “volunteer” in the MTA, attending trade union meetings, working for workers’ rights, and even successfully impersonating a superintendent. He’s spent twenty-three years in a maximum security facility, despite never injuring anyone.

If ever there was a criminal who shouldn’t be in prison, it’s Darius McCollum. He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, though this made little difference to the municipal authorities or the DA’s office. His crimes, while potentially dangerous, are victimless: despite commandeering hundreds of subway trains and buses, McCollum has never injured anyone, and, according to the film, has even been responsible for helping people in crisis. His passion for the MTA is real; his love for it unique among workers. Yet he’s never been employed by the MTA, who views him as a danger and an embarrassment. The news media refers to him as “joy-riding” on trains, labelling him “notorious,” a “transit bandit,” as though his crimes are entirely self-serving and constitute public endangerment.

The film spends most of its runtime in examining McCollum’s character and obsession, conducting long interviews with him, his mother, attorneys, social workers, and psychiatrists. A picture emerges of a bright, capable boy who took to the transit system as a world in which things made sense: trains run on a schedule, there are rules and regulations, structure. Because of his very public arrests, McCollum was barred from working for the MTA (he applied to them twice and was rejected both times). As his crimes mounted up, the MTA continued to decline to employ him. His lack of comfort and direction in life only made him retreat more to the place where things made the most sense, stealing more trains and resulting in a cycle that landed him in increasingly secure facilities until he was imprisoned at Rikers Island, awaiting trial.

But although the film takes McCollum as a very special case, his experience exposes the severe failings of a criminal justice system that is incapable of dealing with a man like him: someone whose crimes are strange, non-violent, and largely non-threatening. Judges refuse to take his Asperger’s into account; he’s left in prison for years awaiting trial; he’s given little social or economic support once he does emerge from prison. Now in his fifties, he’s never held a regular job, never paid rent, never supported himself. Despite a small support network of attorneys, social workers, his mother, and an Imam who worked in his prison, McCollum continues to return to the same behavioral pattern, unable to break the cycle by himself and evidently without the extensive support and therapy that he needs. The system has rejected him, preferring to spend millions of dollars prosecuting and imprisoning him rather than trying to help and understand his problems and find a solution. It is a spectacular failure of the justice system that a non-violent criminal, a man who has never harmed anyone, has spent so much time behind bars.

Off the Rails has a few weaknesses. As McCollum falls in and out of jail, the story itself takes on a cyclical structure, which does become a bit wearing nearing the end. There are also gaps in the narrative: interviews with psychiatrists and Asperger’s advocates are featured, but it’s never explained how long or how often they’ve worked with McCollum, or if they’re simply there as authorities on Asperger’s. The film doesn’t really address the spectacular failure of a transit system with such lax security that someone without licensing or official training can operate a transit vehicle – a brief scene at the MTA bus depot shows that McCollum, or anyone, would easily be able to just drive off with a bus. Brief sequences of animation, as McCollum compares himself to Superman, fall flat and have an edge of unintentional mockery.

But any failings that Off the Rails has falls flat in light of the sorrowful and slightly hopeless story. The film sheds a clear light on the failings of the justice system in the United States, the way in which people are labeled criminals, and the needs for mental health support and therapy. By focusing on a unique story, the film manages to open up a narrative of injustice that spreads far wider than Darius McCollum. If the system has failed him, it has failed thousands of others like him.  We see a justice system that doesn’t seem to want to rehabilitate or help prisoners, but to lock them up, throwing away their lives because they do not fit into prescribed social order. Darius McCollum has been wronged, and the justice system doesn’t seem to care.

Off the Rails is streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.