Documentaries

We’re enormous fans of documentary film here at Toronto Screen Shots. In fact, this very blog grew out of the many reviews we were writing for the annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Our coverage now extends well beyond Hot Docs to include documentaries in other festivals, on DVD, on television and even films in development.

Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger

Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger (Director: Joe Berlinger): Documentarian Joe Berlinger wasn’t kidding when he described his latest project as the most dense film he’d ever done during the pre-screening introduction for Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger. Berlinger (best known for co-directing the Paradise Lost trilogy and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) turns his camera this time to James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston mob boss who terrorized the city during the 70s, 80s, and 90s with impunity from prosecution before going into hiding for 16 years until his 2011 capture in California at the age of 81. For years, Bulger was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and he inspired Jack Nicholson’s vicious character in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 movie The Departed. Whitey is a film that demands rapt attention from its viewers, with an avalanche of information being disseminated amidst the complex twists and turns that the documentary takes.

Bulger’s crimes, which included drug trafficking, extortion, racketeering, loan-sharking, and murder, along with the 2013 trial for them, are the focal point of Whitey (curiously, his lengthy time on the lam and eventual capture are barely mentioned). Bulger was implicated in 19 murders and ultimately found guilty of being involved in 11 killings, with a total conviction count of 31 that landed him two life sentences, plus five years. Berlinger was barred from interviewing Bulger, so snippets of a phone conversation between the criminal and his lawyer are interspersed throughout the film, although they add little to the proceedings. The documentary is teeming with interviews from retired cops and FBI agents, ex-wise guys, lawyers, reporters, and the South Boston victims’ family members. The latter conversations are particularly impactful, as Bulger’s acts of brutality take on added dimension via the permanent psychological toll evident on the faces of the people whose lives he destroyed decades ago. There’s also a subplot involving one of Bulger’s alleged extortion victims, Stephen Rakes, that takes an especially bizarre turn. Berlinger’s examination of Bulger’s life and crimes inevitably leads to Whitey taking on a wider scope that finds the filmmaker also probing the corruption that permeated federal and state law enforcement agencies during the decades that Bulger operated at the peak of his criminal power. Called into question is whether Bulger, who is currently preparing an appeal of his conviction, acted as an informant for the FBI in exchange for immunity from his law-breaking, an assertion he firmly denies. The evidence suggests otherwise and one of the film’s biggest questions is just how complicit was the government in allowing Bulger to carry out his litany of crimes?

Berlinger wisely adopts an impartial stance on his notorious subject, resulting in a more comprehensive and challenging film that cements his status as an unmatched purveyor of first-rate contemporary true-crime documentary filmmaking. The Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning director was recently in contact with Johnny Depp, who requested a copy of Whitey in preparation for his upcoming role as Bulger in next year’s Black Mass. Another drama on Bulger has also been in development by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the past couple of years.

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Hot Docs Film Festival is in full swing and runs until May 4. Here is a quick rundown of some films that I have watched so far.

Rich Hill is a heartbreaking portrait of three teenage boys that is beautifully crafted by Tracy Doz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo. Forget about the American dream. These kids live in a world that will be foreign to most viewers and at the same time fascinating. I found it moving and recommend you get to one of the three screenings for this film.

What could be better than a film about some crazy old broads from NYC with eclectic fashion style, a love for life and more energy than the average teenager? Advanced Style follows several women from Ari Seth Cohen’s popular fashion blog and shows us how old age can be embraced despite its challenges. This doc will put a smile on your face.

I wanted to like Self(less) Portrait but I never connected with the film. 50 people talk directly to the camera to share some of their most personal experiences — suicide, abuse, love, bullying, etc. Most of the subjects are interesting but it feels like the film takes on too much making it difficult to engage with any one of the portraits.

Penthouse North is an engaging portrait of 62-year-old Agneta Eckemyr. The former Swedish model and fashion designer had it all — magazine covers, movie offers and celebrity clients. Now she’s losing her penthouse apartment which overlooks Central Park and struggles to make ends meet. Johanna St Michaels captures the entire train wreck with a few surprises.

If you watched Jane Campion’s award-winning television show, Top Of The Lake then you won’t want to miss From the Bottom of the Lake by first time director Clare Young. She examines the creative process behind the show revealing how much time and energy goes into perfecting a script before casting and shooting begins. From word choice to framing a scene, Campion sweats the small details and strives for perfection.

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True/False Film Festival 2014

I’ve just returned from Columbia, Missouri, the home of one of the most unique film festivals in the world. The 11th edition of the True/False Film Festival took place from Thursday February 27th through Sunday March 2nd. Though the fest is dedicated to “nonfiction” cinema, its selections have often been at the vanguard of new movements in documentary and so attract a lot of attention from audiences and critics who may not consider themselves fans of what’s traditionally been considered documentary film. That’s just a long and awkward way of saying that True/False picks really great films that break out of confining categories and connect with audiences.

Columbia is a college town, the home of the University of Missouri (affectionately referred to as “Mizzou”). It has around 100,000 inhabitants and could be considered an artistic and intellectual hub of the region. Nevertheless, I still found it mighty impressive the amount of local support the festival has attained in just a decade. More than support; outright love. The festival succeeds not just with its film programming, but by involving every artistic community in the region (and beyond!). Gorgeously designed posters, program guide, and festival badges, one-of-a-kind sculptures and exhibits created just for the festival, an actual parade (the cleverly named “March March”), buskers performing before every screening, and much, much more. True/False is a celebration of creativity and its sense of whimsy draws a lot of people into its orbit who previously might have been uninterested in anything as stuffy as “documentary film.” It does a great job of “evangelizing” for a certain kind of filmmaking and exhibition and community engagement that is close to my own heart. I loved the films I saw, but more than that, I found inspiration in the way that they were curated and presented to the community. I learned a lot.

Here is Les Trois Coups, a group of musicians that T/F “co-conspirator” Paul Sturtz discovered playing on the streets of Paris and determined to bring to Columbia. They were a hit everywhere they went.

Les Trois Coups

And here are a few notes on the films I saw. I’ll rank them in order of most-enjoyed to least, although everything I saw was thought-provoking in some way. The “secret screening” cannot be named but I’ll link to the text the festival used to describe it without giving the title away:

  • Actress (Dir: Robert Greene) – What happens when you put an actor into a documentary about her own life? Magic, that’s what. Layered and compassionate.
  • Rich Hill (Dir: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos) – This portrait of three teen boys from a small Missouri town achieves something universal even while telling the kind of story that doesn’t make it to the big screen often, at least without preachiness or pity. Humanist storytelling meets perceptive cinematography, finding thousands of moments of beauty in a difficult landscape.
  • Secret Screening Amber (Dir: ?) – this portrait of two alcoholic friends is tough, intimate and doesn’t pass judgement. It is patient and open-hearted, showing the audience that even the most ordinary lives contain drama, comedy, pain and love. Fantastic storytelling.
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (Dir: Frank Pavich) – Alejandro Jodorowsky is a force of nature, and his immense charisma puts this film on its back and carries it through a pretty heartbreaking tale of artistic failure. You’ll laugh a lot, though, and wonder “what if?”
  • Tim’s Vermeer (Dir: Teller) – Another crowd-pleaser carried by its eccentric subject, software millionaire Tim Jenison, who has enough free time and money to try figuring out the secret behind the paintings of Vermeer, and, you know, paint one himself.
  • Killing Time (Dir: Jaap van Hoewijk) – Formally interesting, this film observes an execution by spending the last day of an inmates’s life with his family members. You’ll (perhaps) be horrified at the banality of death’s administration. I certainly was.
  • Ukraine is Not a Brothel (Dir: Kitty Green) – What’s behind Ukrainian group FEMEN’s topless protests? This film bares all. (Sorry). Though this film has lots of surprises (and plenty of boobs, too), it left so many essential (to me) questions unanswered. Still worthwhile and in places deliciously ironic.
  • The Notorious Mr. Bout (Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Tony Gerber) – Using convicted “arms dealer” Viktor Bout’s home movies humanizes him while at the same time muddying the case against him. Successfully portrays him as much a pawn as a true player, but leaves a lot unexamined.
  • Boyhood (Dir: Richard Linklater) – Included for its quasi-documentary method of using the same cast over 12 years, it sorely disappointed me with its rather banal storytelling and constant use of pop culture references and musical cues to mark time.

I’ll also mention that I attended a really interesting panel (“The Critical Takedown”) discussing issues of documentary film criticism that included local hero Adam Nayman, as well as Nick Pinkerton, Sam Adams, and Ela Bittencourt. If I can get the right permissions, I can post the audio here for any interested.

I’d dearly love to return next year, and will make a real attempt to stay closer to the centre of things. We stayed at a very nice Hampton Inn that was a 30 minute walk from the venues. Not horrible, but between the really cold weather and my advancing age, it would be nice to be closer in.

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TINY: A Story About Living Small

TINY: A Story About Living Small (Directors: Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith): Tiny home: a living structure that can range anywhere from 60 to 500 square feet and is typically in the 120 to 200 square foot range. Tiny homes are usually built on flatbed trailers, which make them both easily mobile and qualifies them as “temporary structures”, allowing for compliance with zoning laws and building codes.

Tiny home living is a growing movement embraced by people wishing to make a smaller environmental impact, for financial reasons, and because they generally just want to simplify their lives. Christopher Smith aspired to such a lifestyle, so shortly before his 30th birthday, he purchased a five acre plot of land in Colorado and subsequently set about building his own tiny home, with the assistance of his girlfriend, Merete Mueller. The pair decided to document their experience for a short film, but further explorations into the tiny home movement saw the project, aided by a successful Kickstarter campaign, expand to TINY: A Story About Living Small‘s now 62 minute running time.

The co-directors, neither of whom had any building experience, soon come to find that even extra small-scale house construction is more challenging and time-consuming than they expected. Most of the construction work is actually done by Smith, who frequently relies on instructional YouTube videos to guide him and doesn’t come close to completing the project in the four month period originally estimated. Very few of the construction-related obstacles encountered are shown, to the film’s slight detriment (Smith admitted in the post-screening Q&A that they were mostly edited out). There’s a lot of people out there who, like me, possess less-than-stellar handyman skills and showing more of those trials and tribulations would have made Smith’s building experience a little more relatable, as well as added an extra level of small intrigue to the proceedings. Even still, by the time the project is completed, the tremendous sense of accomplishment felt by the amiable Smith and Mueller makes for a satisfying payoff for the viewer as well. An interesting side story also develops as the home takes shape involving the couple’s questionable future together, due to Mueller’s desire to pursue her writing career in New York City.

Interspersed with the scenes showing the couple’s building project are interviews with other tiny home dwellers and tours (very short tours, naturally) of their diminutive abodes. There are repeated testimonials about how much happier they all are with their downsized manner of living and the freedom it allows them, financially and in other ways (such as maintaining a clutter-free existence that relies just on essentials). A couple of different tiny home residents talk about working for years at white collar jobs that took up most of their lives and left them unfulfilled, leading them to reexamine their priorities and make the big change to living small.

Smith and Mueller’s delightful documentary provides an insightful look into the fascinating tiny home movement, with thought-provoking discussions on the meaning of “home” and how that concept fits into the context of the ever-changing American Dream.


oehttp://vimeo.com/28422870

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Maidentrip

Maidentrip (Director: Jillian Schlesinger): The idea of a 13 year old girl nautically circumnavigating the globe alone would sound nutty and ill-advised to nearly anyone. Those were the circumstances that garnered worldwide media attention and touched off a contentious debate and court battle in 2009 when Dutch teen Laura Dekker announced her intention to carry out the plan, and which set the stage for director Jillian Schlesinger’s Maidentrip. After 10 months of legal proceedings, which included Dutch authorities verifying the soundness of both her sailing skills and mental capacity, Dekker eventually unofficially began her epic expedition by setting sail alone (which also means without a support team on a follow boat) from Gibraltar in August 2010, a month before her 15th birthday. Successful completion of the 27,000 nautical mile journey would make Dekker the youngest person to sail around the globe solo. The record attempt officially began in January 2011, as Dekker departed St. Martin on her 38 foot sailboat named Guppy. 366 days later, Dekker arrived back in St. Martin.

After spending a short amount of time onscreen with the sailor, it’s clear that Dekker is mature far beyond her age and instilled with an unflagging drive to challenge herself, a fearless temperament, and little patience for those who question her abilities and decisions. The teenager was born on a boat and has spent much of her life on the water, even choosing to live with her father when her parents split up because it would mean more opportunities to sail. Because her dad had to work so much, Dekker was often left to look after herself and that independence serves her quite well during the solo excursion.

Armed with a video camera, Dekker contributes video diaries that detail various aspects of her experience like cooking disasters, the welcome companionship of a roosting bird or a pod of dolphins swimming alongside her ship, and some of the trip’s weather-related challenges (at one point, there’s been virtually no wind for a stretch of several days). Much of that might sound rather dull – it’s anything but, however. Dekker’s funny and thoughtful observations make for highly enjoyable viewing and the absence of very many dramatic moments in the film (largely because Dekker was unable to film them) isn’t a major negative. The adventure, in and of itself, is drama enough. The hairiest thing in Maidentrip occurs during some dreadful weather off the coast of South Africa that results in waves as high as 60 feet. The weather is so severe that a South African newspaper referred to the conditions as some that “even the bravest skipper wouldn’t attempt” to navigate, but Dekker makes her way through the storm safely, offering little indication of fear in her narration as her camera captures the raging sea surrounding Guppy. She displays the same poise at another moment in the documentary as she casually mentions that her route had to be planned to avoid pirates on the Indian Ocean. Dekker’s video diaries also fascinatingly chronicle the teenager coming of age on the water and increasingly feeling more connected to the sea than to people, even saying at one point that she no longer feels reliant on anybody. One of my biggest shocks with Maidentrip came at the post-screening Q&A when it was revealed that Dekker only shot a total of 10 hours of video for the project. Kudos to the filmmakers (notably editor Penelope Falk) for making the most of the relatively little on-ship footage that was available to them. The pleasing score from Ben Sollee also merits a mention.

Throughout Dekker’s trip, helpfully tracked with effective use of some amusing graphics, Schlesinger meets up with her seven times to film at the many exotic ports the sailor stopped in, such as in the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, and Panama. We see Dekker soaking in the local cultures, participating in activities like bike rides and scuba diving, dealing with a customs official who struggles to grasp the spontaneous nature of her travels, and also bonding closely with a nice American couple who are on their own worldwide sailing expedition. There’s also a scene where Dekker’s wariness of the press is illustrated, as she snaps at questions from a journalist who has covered the teenager’s story for a number of years.

I’m someone who couldn’t have cared less about the activity of sailing prior to watching the charming Maidentrip, but it was impossible not be deeply drawn in by the film’s improbable scenario and, mostly, its engaging subject and her amazingly pure love for the water and adventurous spirit. Laura Dekker’s story practically demands a dramatic feature version from Hollywood.

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