Hearts and Minds

Documentary Oscar Pool Party Spectacular

Just in case your office Oscar pool doesn’t include the documentary category, Vote Here for what you think will (and/or should be) the winner for Feature Documentary. This could end up being the smallest poll sample in history but why not. Although it hardly rates next to races like Cate Blanchett vs. Amy Adams for best actress, for instance, the fact is that new breeds of non-fiction film have creeped into the public consciousness, esp. when it comes to home viewing and film festivals. Mark your virtual ballot below (by commenting)for one of five nominees:

The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
The Square
Dirty Wars
20 Feet From Stardom

I’ve seen 3 of 5 so far. Of the ones I haven’t seen, “Cutie and the Boxer” from all I hear is a vibrant bio of painter Ushio Shinohara and his illustrator wife, Noriko. It joins a growing list of fascinating art-related docs in recent years. “Who the @#$% is Jackson Pollock?” “The Art of the Steal”, “Exit through the Gift Shop” and “My Kid Could Paint That” are other recommendations in this mini-genre and the just-released “Tim’s Vermeer” sounds like a must-see as well. Some will favor “Dirty Wars” by Richard Rowley and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. But after finally putting out my book “Documentary 101” last year, and writing about the numerous great but sobering films ranging down from the Holocaust to Vietnam to the Iran/Afghan wars, I wasn’t rushing pell mell to see another just to confirm my worst fears. But Scahill is an experienced war correspondent and a stand-up guy not afraid to stir the pot. He has an advocate in Bill Maher, who threw in his vote for “Dirty Wars” on the Feb. 14th edition of his HBO show. He thanked panelist Scahill for all his work, “while we still have you”, joking that there may be a drone out there with the reporter’s name on it.

The real crowd-pleaser of this quintet is “20 Feet From Stardom”, one of the better entries in what could constitute another mini-genre: the belated-recognition rock doc. It gives some of pop and soul’s best back-up singers their day in the sun, while also looking back on backstories of music-biz exploitation and cold-shouldered solo careers. But considering that last year’s winner (“Searching for Sugar Man”), about the long-delayed recognition of forgotten 70s singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, was in a similar vein, it may be that Academy voters will be looking elsewhere. That is, if it can be said that voters in the Documentary Feature category, long known for their arcane methodology, even think like that.

At any rate, the real buzz in the non-fiction form this year has been about “The Act of Killing.” This is as brilliantly conceived and daring a film that came out last year in any category. First time director Joshua Oppenheimer had set out to film surviving relatives of the approximately 500,000 Indonesian Communists and other perceived enemies killed in a 1965 purge that established long-term authoritarian rule in that country. But anti-leftist sentiment there is still so strong that this concept became unworkable and, reportedly on the suggestion of one of the survivors, hatched the idea of turning his cameras on the aging members of the killing squads, eventually encouraging them to cinematically re-create their ghastly deeds of a half-century ago.
(Below is an interview clip with Oppenheimer that also includes the film’s trailer)

It turns out that this gambit, designed to affect a sort of negative catharsis for sanctioned mass murderers who are still revered as heroes, leads to some fascinating filmic moments. Main subject Anwar Congo and his associates come from a “gangster” culture, a word that has a positive ring for many in the political culture. It also has a lot to do with movie culture as Anwar and his fellow ex-war criminals, as slick and as full of references as Tarantino stock players, readily acquit themselves as filmmakers with results both grisly (a reenactment of a beheading) or downright campy (a musical number by a waterfall featuring Anwar’s stocky male friend (also from the notorious Pemuda Pancasila paramilitaries) in drag. Oppenheimer’s “documentary of the imagination” records this process almost as a beguiling dream/nightmare state that is stylistically brilliant.

The complimentary “gangster” is, to them, the linguistic equivalent of “free man.” Shaking down humble merchants and pining for the good old days before the pesky concept of “human rights”, you wonder why these guys don’t get recruited by Wall St. wolves or the North Korean government. Since Oppenheimer was unable to be openly critical of his subjects (many folks in the end credits are listed as “Anonymous”) don’t expect any to have any conventional sense of justice satisfied. The guilt and remorse is buried so deep it can barely be excavated from Anwar Congo himself in the film’s climatic scene, even though he has taken part in Oppenheimer’s provocative premise. But there is some hope as officials in Indonesia have had to acknowledge the film and even to let it slip that these were war crimes being referred to and not some heroic deed from the past.

Still, in the end my vote has to go to “The Square”, an absolutely riveting and literally street-level look at the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. After the unceremonial departure of their autocratic leader, Epypt—an immemorial country with little or no background in democracy—was convulsed by a series of demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, civil resistance, occupations and riots to try and determine what came next. Director Jehane Noujaim (who also made the excellent “Control Room” and “Startup.com”) was there with her camera for as much of the so-called Lotus Revolution and it’s still-unresolved aftermath as she could and still have a release date. Originally released by its producer Netflix in Jan. 2013, she has updated it in later releases throughout the past year. Seldom has a documentary felt this immediate in its impact.
(Below interview clip with Noujaim also includes trailer)

Noujaim had followed the revolution’s affect by focusing in on the participation of several people. In the final film, there are mainly three story arcs: that of the young secular idealist Ahmed; Magdy, a thoughtful member of the Muslim Brotherhood who becomes friends with Ahmed; and actor-activist Khalid Abdalla (star of “The Kite Runner”) who returns to his homeland to help man the barricades. With what’s going on in the world today, most notably in the Ukraine and Thailand, “The Square” is a bracing reminder that for so many the only way to affect change against forces of oppression is to enter into a mortal struggle with forces more powerful than yourself. As in so many places, in Egypt the buck stops with the army and a decision on whether or not to use fatal firepower. (In this case, you also have the organizational power of the Brotherhood who elected the ill-fated Mohamed Morsi in 2012). At present, it looks like the military holds the winning hand but the people power unleashed in Tahrir Square in January of 2011 cannot be held back forever, or at least that’s the hope you take away from Noujaim’s extraordinary film.


A Forty-Year Oscar Flashback in the Best Documentary Category

The scathing anti-Vietnam War film “Hearts and Minds” won the Academy Award for top Documentary Feature of 1974, and the acceptance speeches by director Peter Davis and producer Bert Schneider touched off one of the more interesting backstage brouhahas in an awards show that has been no stranger to controversy over the years. Schneider got the crowd especially riled up, speaking of Vietnam’s impending “liberation” and reading a telegram from the Viet Cong delegation at the Paris peace talks that recognized the efforts of American anti-war protestors. Offstage, Bob Hope was furious and proceeded to make a big scene. The unctuous comedian had looked bad in a brief scene in “Hearts and Minds” where he spoke appreciatively of his “captive audience”: a roomful of ex-POWS at a White House dinner. Hope got Frank Sinatra, cohosting the show that year with fellow Rat Packers, to read a disavowal, getting the same mixture of boos and cheers that Davis and Schneider earned only minutes earlier, reflecting the polarizing effects of the war. The documentary category would remain a fairly quiet one on the Big Night until 2003 and Michael Moore’s notorious “shame on you!” harangue aimed at President George W. Bush over the recently launched Iraq war.

“Documentary 101” Sampler (Part 2)


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film with entries on over three hundred titles from the years 1895 to 2012. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

Below are five more snippets from the book, accompanied by film stills only seen here. Click on images for a larger view.

hearts minds

Lieutenant George Coker, was a POW for seven years who returns home with a worldview that remains as black-and-white as one of those old Westerns. No one nowadays would begrudge Coker his status as a homecoming hero in his hometown of Linden, New Jersey. He takes the stage in front of a group of local housewives, literally extolling the virtues of motherhood and apple pie, calling the enemies “gooks” and telling a cafeteria full of schoolchildren that the people of Vietnam are “backward and primitive.” The film seems to imply that Coker is the perfect surrogate for a shortsighted national policy, someone who bought into the system early on and can be relied on to help carry out any military agenda no matter how shaky its justification.
(“Hearts and Minds” 1974)

28 up

Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are former East End school chums who for several episodes were interviewed together and even sitting in the same order. In earlier times, director Michael Apted used subtle tactics to get them to react to what is perceived to be their station in life. But they are now hip to the director they have known for so long, pointing out that the rich kids in the Up group must have found it hard living up to the greater expectations. Besides, they only think about class “every seven years, when you come around.”
(Pictured with Apted during the filming of “28 UP”, these three subjects are part of a group profiled every seven years since they were seven. “56 Up” was released in 2013.)

harlan county

The miners only receive medical benefits after they have been diagnosed with black-lung disease and they are generally treated as little more than another piece of equipment, easily replaced when broken. When the thirteen-month strike begins, you may already find yourself convinced that things haven’t changed much since the early mining days when picketers were openly attacked by police or troops. Director Barbara Kopple is right in the eye of the hurricane during the increasingly hostile confrontations at the gate and she’s not seen as a neutral presence when the company strongmen up the ante with impulsive violence.
(“Harlan County USA” 1976)


In one of the film’s more notorious scenes, President Bush is shown sitting at his Florida-classroom photo op, staring vacantly into space for seven full minutes after being informed the U.S. has just suffered the worst terrorist attack in history. Since Michael Moore can’t resist showing this sequence in nearly real time, he fills up the surreal normality of the moment with his own guess at the president’s train of thought as he continued to sit through the reading of “My Pet Goat.”
(“Fahrenheit 9/11” 2004)

les blank
Stalwart indie documentarian Les Blank was invited to Peru by his friend Werner Herzog to record the production of the German director’s wildy ambitious film “Fitzcaraldo.” This tumultuous project inspired Blank’s most sweeping work. It’s an exceptional insider’s look at the cinematic process at it’s most chaotic. The films center on directors whose grandiose vision of a masterpiece gets knocked off course by formidable obstacles of a political, financial, meteorological, and psychological nature, all in a far-off tropical location.
(“Burden of Dreams” 1982)