Posts Tagged ‘Documentary Film’

My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.


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This blog entry contains spoilers.

Consisting primarily of talking head interviews, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man (2012) is a kind of oral legend about Rodríguez, an enigmatic American folk singer who released two albums in the early 1970s and then vanished into obscurity. The film begins with a rumor that Rodríguez committed suicide onstage in the mid-’70s and then loops back through time to recount his short career, the profound influence he had in South Africa, where his gritty, socially engaged music was an inspiration to artists looking to speak out against the country’s system of apartheid, and the efforts of two men from Cape Town, Peter “Sugar” Segermen and Craig Bartholomew Styrdom, to uncover any information at all about their idol (including his first name). It was only in 1996 that Styrdom, a music journalist, got a hold of Mike Theodore, one of the producers of Rodríguez’s first album Cold Fact (1970), who told him that the singer was still alive.

It’s at this point that the movie, which starts out as a mystery, morphs into a fairy tale. In 1998, Rodríguez — who, for a long time, didn’t know that he was famous because the record company was pocketing the royalties from his South African record sales — traveled to Cape Town to perform a series of concerts for huge crowds of adoring fans who could hardly believe it was really him. This story is all the more touching because Rodríguez, when he finally turns up about half-way through the film, comes across as a hard working, modest, deeply principled man. (According to one of his daughters, he slept on the sofa in his hotel room in South Africa so that the maid wouldn’t have to make up the bed the next morning.) So when fame finally finds Rodríguez, one feels that he truly deserves it, not primarily because he’s a talented musician, but because he seems to be a genuinely decent person. To put it simply, this movie wrecked me emotionally.

Natural’s Not in It

1. Although it’s a welcome relief to see Sean Penn in something like a comedy, his character in Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place (2011) is so far removed from his public persona that, in every line reading and facial gesture, one is acutely aware of the effort he’s making to transform himself for the role. In the film, he plays Cheyenne, a 1980s glam rocker who quit performing at the height of his popularity but still has the big hair and makeup, and Penn delivers all his dialogue in a soft, effeminate voice that’s radically different from how he normally speaks. This isn’t to say that Penn gives a bad performance; only that his work here is just as showy as his award-winning turns in She’s So Lovely (1997) and Mystic River (2003), and to see him opposite Frances McDormand, who’s effortlessly funny and charming as Cheyenne’s wife — a lady firefighter who, for all intents and purposes, is the “man” in the relationship — is to understand the difference between acting and Acting.

2. After the bewildering, exhaustingly hyperactive Il Divo (2008), it’s a welcome relief to see Paolo Sorrentino attempt something like a comedy as his restless style is better suited to an episodic road movie than a decade-spanning epic about the inner-workings of Italian government. The story begins in Ireland where Cheyenne is doing a low-key version of Kane in Xanadu; to pass the time, he makes bets on the stock market and plays shadchan to a spunky goth girl (Eve Hewson) and an earnest waiter (Sam Keeley), who makes the fatal mistake of saying that he likes Mariah Carey. One day, Cheyenne receives word that his father, a Holocaust survivor whom he hasn’t spoken to in thirty years, is dying in New York, and following the funeral, he embarks on a cross-country road trip in search of a Nazi war criminal who persecuted his father at Auschwitz. Along the way, Cheyenne encounters a series of colorful characters, some funny some sad, and Sorrentino fills the margins of the story with lots of amusing notations. All in all, this is an enjoyably minor film.

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Emad Burnat, the co-director and narrator of 5 Broken Cameras (2011), is a Palestinian from the town of Bil’in in the West Bank. In 2005, he bought a video camera to make home movies of his kids, and not long after that, the Israeli army erected a barrier separating the town from a patch of undeveloped land where Burnat’s family used to pick olives — thus allowing Jewish settlers to move in and claim the land for themselves. In response to the barrier, the people of Bil’in attempted various forms of nonviolent resistance, and Burnat used his camera to document both the protest movement and the increasingly brutal attacks by the army (and occasionally the settlers themselves) against the demonstrators. In addition to the footage shot by Burnat, the film incorporates material by five other cameramen, including co-director Guy Davidi (who edited the movie with Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot). However, the film doesn’t show us any events that Burnat didn’t personally witness, nor does it feature any talking head interviews, which would situate his footage within a broader discourse; instead, the movie uses Burnat’s story as a means of framing the situation in Bil’in. An indispensable work of journalism, the film provides a critical and informative firsthand account of what the Israeli occupation looks like on the ground.

Although Midi Z’s Return to Burma (2011) has a certain journalistic interest as a portrait of everyday life in Myanmar following the country’s first democratic elections in 2010, the story it tells is rather slight — as if the movie’s writer-director were afraid that imposing a tighter narrative structure on the characters would dilute the reality he’s trying to put onscreen. The story centers on a migrant laborer, Xing Hong (Wang Shin-hong), who travels from Taipei to his hometown in Burma to deliver a friend’s ashes to his family, and then spends the rest of the film trying to decide whether to stay or go back to Taiwan. The bulk of the movie consists of a series of casual conversations between Xing Hong and his family and friends, most of them about how much money they could make by working in different countries. None of the characters have very distinctive personalities, least of all Xing Hong who’s little more than an avatar for Burma’s rural poor, and the director’s taste for shooting scenes in unbroken long takes puts more emphasis on the characters’ surroundings than their emotions. I wasn’t bored by this but I can’t say that I was deeply engaged by it either.

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