The Documentary Blog’s TIFF 2010 Review Roundup

Caves of Forgotten Dreams

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
Directed by Werner Herzog
USA

There was a lot of talk about Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams at TIFF this year. I was surprised to see that it was one of the hot tickets of the festival, likely because of his somewhat controversial decision to shoot the film in 3D. It’s a debate that I personally feel has grown a bit tiresome. While I certainly hope all films don’t follow this format, I do think there are merits to the technology and when coupled with the right project, it could be quite fun. I don’t think anybody expected a visionary filmmaker like Herzog to take a stab at the process but the subject matter certainly lends itself to the films exploratory nature, creating an unusual documentary experience.

When Herzog gains extraordinary access to film inside the Chauvet Cave of southern France, he takes a small crew and a few hand-held lights to document what some say could be the oldest examples of human art. Experts say the primitive cave drawings, perfectly preserved inside the sealed cavern, are somewhere around 30,000 years old. Herzog wastes no time examining the decorated walls with his cameras, in some cases lingering for minutes on beautiful images of horses, rhinos and leopards. The documentation is definitive and almost fetishistic in nature. Interviews with cave experts reveal details on the origins and possible meanings of the paintings and the tools they might have used to create them. In one example, movement lines are added to an animal to give a sense of motion. Herzog describes this wonderfully as a form of ‘proto-cinema’.

The big question on everyone’s minds going in to the theatre was ‘what will a 3D Werner Herzog film look like?’ The answer is amazing…at times. There are some absolutely stunning images revealing the depth of the caverns, creating a true sense that you’re right in there with the film crew. At other times, some handheld camera work proved to be a bit of a challenge to take in, causing that typical 3D headache-inducing sensation. I must say, though, for every time the 3D is a tad off-putting, it is offset by a more stable moment that is completely wonderful. Two scenes stand out to me in particular: the first sees a man demonstrating the spear hunting techniques that were probably used at the time of the paintings. The demonstration serves as both an interesting piece of historical information and a clever wink to the audience as Herzog shamelessly indulges in old-school 3D gimmickry. The second scene is an especially Herzogian one consisting of albino alligators. As Herzog speculates what their dreams may hold (classic), the camera lingers above and below the water – shot from the opposite side of a giant water tank — as the 3D highlights the difference of perspective between reality and the refracted image beneath the surface. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is another great example of Herzog’s refreshing take on the nature documentary. A perfect companion piece to Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World.

Boxing Gym

BOXING GYM
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
USA

I’m not really a boxing fan but for some reason I’m totally drawn to films–documentaries or fiction–about boxing. There’s something about that particular sport that I find inspiring. Although Boxing Gym never really focuses on the matches, it certainly captures the spirit of the contenders. Once you spend some time with these aspiring fighters — all of whom train at varying degrees of experience — you realize that there’s a deeper meaning to the sport. Each person has their own individual reasons for dedicating their time to learning the rhythms and the tactics of a skill that most of them likely will never use. What seems like such a clumsy, primitive sport actually holds a much deeper meaning to the patrons of Lord’s Boxing Gym.

In his typical minimalistic fashion, Wiseman focuses his camera on the daily routines of the boxing gym’s patrons, weaving a hypnotic blend of rhythmic sequences that highlight the sights and sounds of the sport. Shot on 16mm film and framed in the now antiquated 4:3 aspect ratio (a refreshing choice), Wiseman refuses to conform to any set of modern standards in the presentation of his work. In lieu of music, the soundtrack consists of the whips of skipping ropes, thuds of the heavy bags and a consistent electronic alarm that goes off every minute, signalling the end (or beginning) of a particular routine or repetition. Once in awhile the athletes stop for a breather, engaging in natural conversations in front of the camera that are occasionally completely unrelated to boxing. One topic that pops up more than once is the Virginia Tech shooting. We also get a glimpse at the process of signing up new recruits, be it a single mother who just wants some regular exercise or a young teen whose black eye sets off questions of revenge–an unwelcome motivation at Lord’s Gym. Oddly enough, a sport that’s so dependent on violence breeds dedicated, passionate people who use the skills they attain as a sort of physical (and mental) enlightenment. Boxing Gym might not be for everyone, but I found it completely fascinating.

Tabloid

TABLOID
Directed by Errol Morris
USA

Tabloid is a complex, scandalous tale that, like most of Errol Morris’ films, thrives on its details. The basic summary of events are as follows; former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney falls in love with Kirk Anderson and is devastated by his decision to become a missionary for the Mormon church. He relocates to England, which convinces Joyce that she must save him from the evil clutches of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believing that he has become inducted into a cult. She flies to England and rescues him in an attempt to convince him of her undying love and devotion. That’s Joyce’s perspective on the story. The event portrayed through the media paints a much darker picture: Kirk Anderson accuses Joyce McKinney of kidnapping him, chaining him to a bed and raping him in a sensational sex-fuelled scandal ripe for the tabloid pages. Beyond that basic framework is a series of unusual details and side-stories that make up one bizarre, sad, and sometimes hilarious story.

The dense and occasionally meandering tale that Morris weaves is reminiscent of one of his greatest films, The Thin Blue Line. On the original poster for that film, the tagline reads “A softcore movie, Dr.Death, a chocolate milkshake, a nosey blonde and The Carol Burnett Show. Solving this mystery is going to be MURDER.” It’s those minor elements that separate an Errol Morris investigation from your typical murder mystery. Similarly, Tabloid is full of quirky little details that add a texture of insanity to the tale, leaving the audience with a series of disconnected dots that when connected, form a litmus image prime for analysis. That’s the joy of this brand of obsessive storytelling. Morris never shies away from the tabloid nature of the tale, peppering the film with bold HEADLINES accenting certain words or phrases throughout his interviews. He also makes great use of home video footage shot by a reclusive McKinney, scanning her backyard with a video camera making sure that it’s still empty. Another segment involving cloned puppies is particularly unique and provides an interesting perspective on McKinney’s life post-kidnapping and ‘sex and chains’. It’s these small details that make Tabloid, along with all of Morris’ films, memorable and unusual theatrical experiences.

Tears of Gaza

TEARS OF GAZA
Directed by Vibeke Løkkeberg
Norway

I can quite easily say that Tears of Gaza is one of the more brutal, aggressive and unrelenting theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. After watching dozens of people tap out and retreat from the theatre, I can’t help but wonder how effective this ‘shock and awe’ style of filmmaking is in reaching audiences. Having said that, for those who stuck it out to the end, the message was clear: war is fucking brutal.

The film looks back at the Israeli bombings of the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 through some verite footage that is both harrowing and disturbing.These clips are framed by a series of post-war segments following a number of children who survived the conflict and are now left to deal with the loss of their families and their homes. The biggest accomplishment is the film’s ability to balance all of its parts without feeling preachy, maudlin, or cheesy. In fact, I was happy to see some clever editing to create what felt like a cohesive dramatic experience. In one example, director Vibeke Løkkeberg constructs a foreboding tone when a shot of a child glancing towards the sky is heightened by a close up of a military chopper passing by. For a film that’s based in such hard-lined reality, it was great to see some attention given to a cinematic presentation. I was also surprised to see a credit for a sound designer in the opening titles, making me wondering how one might successfully meld an over-produced audio track with the otherwise raw aesthetics of the video footage throughout the film. Luckily, the huge explosions and rumbling tanks heightened the experience and wasn’t much of a distraction at all.

Tears of Gaza contains some of the most distressing scenes of carnage I’ve ever seen in a documentary film, the worst of which is an extended sequence inside of a hospital. As child after child is carried into the emergency room the camera drifts around capturing every agonizing moment, never cutting away or averting its lens when things become too graphic. One scene in which a man inspects the fatal gunshot wounds on the bodies of three dead children seemed to be the point at which many folks in the audience had had enough. While at the time I thought it felt strangely rude for someone to walk out on this story and the people struggling on screen, I couldn’t entirely blame them. If the goal of this film is to depict the horrors of the Israeli bombings, how much do you show? Should you sanitize the images in favour of reaching more people? Clearly, Tears of Gaza was designed to incite a reaction from its audience and approaches its material in a completely aggressive fashion, but at what cost? For the folks who managed to make it through the 83 minute running time it was definitely a powerful experience that will resonate.

Cool It

COOL IT
Directed by Ondi Timoner
USA

At first glance Cool It might seem like an oddity in director Ondi Timoner’s body of work. Her last two films, Dig! and We Live in Public, follow two radical pop culture icons as they self destruct under the weight of their own egos. Cool It is partly an environmental issue film but it still maintains a thematic coherency with an attraction to subversive renegades who challenge popular public perceptions. At the centre of it all is Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial author of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’, who thinks that climate change has resulted in a misuse of funding that could be better spent in areas that will directly affect the living conditions of human beings sooner rather than later. He doesn’t deny the existence of global warming; he simply thinks we are going about dealing with it in the wrong way.

I found the positive outlook expressed throughout Cool It quite refreshing. Timoner highlights the ingenuity of mankind by focusing on a series of inventive and cost effective alternative energy solutions including wave power and cloud whitening, both completely new to me. Even the simple idea of painting streets and rooftops white in order to reflect heat and cool cities is a simple and seemingly brilliant small step towards cooling the planet. With all of this, the overall message is a positive one: we can fix this. BUT…  as with all films of this nature, there’s always the concern of a subject slant that might cloud the information. There’s even a section in this film that directly challenges some of the facts in An Inconvenient Truth, and I’m sure a film will eventually challenge the facts in Cool It. It’s a weird endless cycle of information that makes you wonder who to trust. That’s why films such as this are best used as inspirational primer for further investigation in which you can draw your own conclusions. Bjorn Lomborg is an engaging and refreshingly skeptical central figure in a film that’s sure to generate some interesting discussions.

Armadillo

ARMADILLO
Directed by Janus Metz
Denmark

Recently the modern war film seems to have found a common theme: the disillusionment and boredom of desert warfare. I’m sure past wars attracted their share of thrill seekers, but it seems as though the modern soldier represented by cinema of the ‘aughts’ is an adrenaline junkie seeking out the ultimate real life Call of Duty LAN party. Films like Jarhead, The Hurt Locker, Gunner Palace and now Armadillo seem to feed this concept. As broad or off-base a generalization it may be, it certainly makes for some interesting character studies.

Armadillo follows a platoon of Danish soldiers on a four month mission in southern Afghanistan. After a raucous going away party full of heavy metal music and strippers, the boys say goodbye to their families and fly off to join the ‘Armadillo’ platoon in which they’ll engage in ground combat with Taliban fighters. Shot with the new Canon 5D cameras, director Janus Metz constructs a cinematic experience that sometimes feels like a Hollywood production. Actually, I remember when I first saw the trailer there were moments where I was a little confused as to whether or not this was actually a documentary. Based on the poster and the presentation, it seems like this is another great example of a non-fiction indulging in the tropes of fictional cinematic storytelling. After we spend some time getting to know the main characters we follow them into combat–resulting in some loud, exciting action sequences that almost make you forget the gravity of the situation. The soldiers, themselves, even seem to be affected by the otherworldly scenario, forgetting that their actions have consequences. In the third act of the film, they’re faced with the fact that war is not a video game and every choice they make on and off the battlefield is under scrutiny. While I don’t know that Armadillo brought anything particularly new to the table in terms of its message or themes, its presentation is refreshingly candid and Metz’s cinematic eye makes for an interesting documentary experience.

Machete Maidens Unleashed!

MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED!
Directed by Mark Hartley
USA

Anyone who has had the pleasure of catching Mark Hartley’s previous film, Not Quite Hollywood, should know exactly what to expect from Machete Maidens. Vibrant opening titles, outrageous film clips and enthusiastic interviews add up to a great, infectiously geeky film-going experience. In Not Quite Hollywood Hartley tackled the Australian film industry — more specifically, Ozploitation filmmaking — and this time around he focuses on the Filipino film industry, featuring such films as ‘Beast of Blood’, ‘Savage Sisters’, and ‘The One Armed Executioner’. We also get some great insight from a solid line up of interviewees including a interviews from Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Jack Hill and a number of actors and filmmakers involved with the production of these crazy pictures. John Landis also appears oozing crack-cocaine levels of excitement about the ‘girls with the biggest breasts and the most luscious thighs’. Oddly enough, he also comments on the safety standards of the Filipino film sets, which some might find awfully ironic. It’s in these interviews that we get a sense of the myth-making that’s spawned from the low-rent production of these films. The tales of harrowing danger and sexuality are dripping with hyperbole and have clearly been naturally workshopped and audience tested through years of dinner parties and family gatherings. ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I lit a Filipino stuntman on fire?’ Like all great stories, these are people talk with a rhythm that’s self-edited for maximum laughs and dramatic effect.

One thing I didn’t expect from this film was such a heavy focus on American filmmaking–in particular, Roger Corman’s time filming in the Philippines. His prolific body of work could sustain its own documentary so I thought it was strange to devote so much time to New World Pictures when there’s a great opportunity to look at the more unusual films to come out of the East. While the majority of the Filipino cinema highlighted in Machete Maidens Unleashed! might not contain as much of a cultural identity as the Australian films of Not Quite Hollywood, it’s still a ton of fun listening to people talk about their love of movies and moviemaking in such a passionate, unpretentious fashion. Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a fun crowd pleaser that works as a good primer for further investigation into Eastern genre filmmaking! Hopefully Hartley continues this series of films. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Canuxploitation! Make it happen!

You can read my full review of Machete Maidens Unleashed! here.

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