Hale County This Morning, This Evening

If you scroll through the credits for Hale County This Morning, This Evening, winner of the U.S Documentary Special Jury award for creative vision at Sundance this year, you could get the sense that RaMell Ross, the director, editor and cinematographer for the film, wears several hats. If you take a look at his artistic career, you will see that he wears more than several. We could say that he’s a photographer, a poet, an ethnographer and an anthropologist; and his images are his medium.   Ross is yet another example of a still photographer turning to documentary film. When a talented still photographer makes a movie, it is a likely bet that the resultant film will be rich in imagery, almost like a moving photojournalist archive. Hale County is perhaps the quintessential example of this.   Having moved to Hale county in the south of Alabama to shoot large format still photography, he became increasingly interested in the connection between the past and the present as evidenced in the black experience of the historic south. In training himself to look closer at his surroundings, Ross noticed the remnants and implications of that history everywhere. Hale County is in southern […]

On Her Shoulders

You probably have never heard of Nadia Murad. She’s a hero, a visionary and now a woman that commands the attention of the world, in international peace organizations and delegations, at the United Nations, and in the news cycles of multiple countries. But she’s not happy about this, because the reason for all this attention is because of the incredible suffering she and her people endured under the tyranny of ISIS rule. Most of her people, the Yazidi of northern Iraq, were either rounded up and slaughtered by the terrorist group (the men), or taken captive and made into sex slaves (the women). Nadia herself endured unspeakable torture as an ISIS sex slave herself, and has dedicated her life since her escape to generating international awareness surrounding the tragedy.   Alexandria Bombach, recipient of the U.S. Documentary Directing award at Sundance this year for On Her Shoulders follows Nadia through her travels as she courageously takes up the mantle of spokeswoman for her people. Over and over again, for news organizations, international gatherings, and for the film itself, Nadia tells her emotional story, allowing the waves of sadness and loss to flow out through her tears in media event after […]

From Copying to Interpreting

To illustrate this interplay between truth and meaning in documentary film specifically, let’s go all the way back to the beginning; to the invention of the camera in the decades leading up to the turn of the twentieth century. The realization that images could be captured with a machine on photo-sensitive surfaces effectively provoked a partial identity crisis among a group of artists who had previously been in charge of representing reality, the painters. As photography began to replace the practice of painting as a method of portraiture, many painters had to look for a new sense of value in their work.[1] If the machine (the camera) can reproduce what one actually sees in a given scene (landscape, still-life or portrait), then what was the role of the painter? The painters of the late 1800’s were thus forced to embrace the fact that there is more to the artistic enterprise than mere representation. This arguably gave rise to the impressionistic movement. Artists began painting their scenes from a wildly subjective point of view, often ignoring the reality of light and shadow, perspective and optical principle in favor of distortions or individual interpretations of reality. The idea was that it was […]

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

The psychology behind recognition, that feeling of familiarity upon seeing the face of a loved one, is stretched and manipulated in the modern era. We see the faces, hear the voices and experience the mannerisms of celebrities all the time through television, radio and social media imagery as our world is increasingly populated by screens and viewing devices. But as many of us have experienced before, the feeling of familiarity is exposed as a somewhat of a lie the minute you meet a celebrity you think you know in person, and realize there is only the perception of a relationship. For one thing, this person doesn’t know you at all, and for another, you have only been experiencing their public persona. Behind the façade, there are deep waters that make up the essence of this person, and their true selves remain a mystery.   This is perhaps no more evident than in the case of Robin Williams, a true comic genius, one of a kind in his generation, successfully and brilliantly making the jump to heartfelt dramatic work, brining joy and compassionate emotion to millions, yet ultimately ending his life in tragedy.   Marina Zenovich, director of the new HBO […]

Minding the Gap

Skateboarding can be a punishing sport. It’s conducted on surfaces that are unforgiving when you make mistakes, like concrete sidewalks and steps, metal handrails and wooden ramps. It’s not a question of if your body is going to slam into something hard, pointed or jagged, but when. But at the same time, the reward for mastering the skill can be transcendent, a small board with wheels making it possible to hover above the urban jungle that is America these days, to fly or glide through the environment with a simple elegance or to create ballet−like beauty surrounding mundane and ordinary spaces. It can be so much more than a way for adolescents to kill time after school; it can be a metaphor for life, with built in lessons about character and the limits of the possible. It often provides a medium through which a community can form. There are skateboard shops, skateboard art, skateboard parks, skateboard talk and of course, skateboard videos.   Just as skateboarding seems to transcend the sum of it’s parts, Filmmaker Bing Liu has crafted a work of transcendent film out of the trappings of what might seem at first like a skate video. Minding the […]

The Audience Wants to Know the Significance

One night in the historic United Artists Theater in downtown Los Angeles, I had the privilege of watching a live show put on by Ira Glass, host of the radio documentary show This American Life on NPR. Part of the show was a reflection on how he got into a career in documentary radio and learned about storytelling.  Glass has often spoken about how there are two parts to all of his stories. There’s the on-the-ground event or the “anecdote” (usually in the form of interviews) and the reflection on those anecdotes (usually in the form of his own voice over). The idea, thinks Glass, is that the audience wants to know the significance of what they are listening to, or the meaning. When he is investigating a story, and gathering his anecdotes, he always has this notion of significance or meaning in mind. This illustrates the two kinds of value at play in recording and then presenting aspects of the world (whether in radio or film), truth and meaning. As I noted above, the truth can take on various aspects, or focuses, but the task of the documentarian is to frame these events in such a way that meaning […]

Marfa

Marfa Texas is a quirky place. It’s somewhere in the middle of Texas, kind of between El Paso and Austin, with absolutely nothing by way of cities or towns near it. But it’s a town filled with artists. In many ways, it is a kind of social experiment. What if the entire population of a given place was made up of artists? Here is a place where you can find out. Marfa is famous for its airstream trailer, its lack of any fast−food, and its large−scale conceptual art pieces like the Prada Store (look it up if you haven’t heard of it), and the strange “marfa ghost lights” seen in the sky at night.   The short animation playing at Sundance entitled simply, Marfa, by the animation team known as The Brothers McLeod, is a tapestry−like glimpse of some of the things that make Marfa, Texas quintessentially Marfa. The project is the result of some time that brothers Greg and Myles spent in the town, talking to people and making audio recordings, and accompanying the sounds of the environment and interviews of residents with hand−drawn−like representations of the various points of interest around town.   The film is a reminder […]

The Last Race

A Documentary can be so many things. It can be a tool for advocacy, an expression of personality, a means for inspiration by way of showcasing story, or in the case of The Last Race, showing at the Sundance film festival in the U.S. Documentary competition, a simultaneous memorial and celebration. The memorial is for the disappearing land and culture surrounding American stock car racing, the celebration is for the incredible community and tradition that has formed around the races. Riverhead Raceway, the last stock car racing track of its kind left on Long Island, threatened by the fact that the land on which it sits is worth millions of dollars for hungry developers, still has a thriving neighborhood−like group of enthusiasts that flock to the track weekly. The draw for these aficionados is not just the eleven−minute races, but the family bond as seen through fathers teaching sons how to build these cars, the food and beer before and after the events, the insider competitions and rivalries among drivers, and the sense of accomplishment for races won.   For Barbara and Jim Cromarty, the longtime owners of the speedway, the question becomes just what it is that they ultimately […]

Six O’clock News

A good example of point of view at work in McElwee’s films is in a 1997 film he directed for the PBS Frontline series, Six O’Clock News, wherein he explores what it is like to encounter his subjects verses observe them from afar. In the film, McElwee attempts to understand the people involved in the events he sees on the news and decides to travel to newsworthy events to meet them himself. He seeks out the husband of a woman who was murdered in a salon and the area decimated by Hurricane Hugo. He spends time with a man who was trapped in a parking structure in Los Angeles after the Northridge Earthquake. In each situation, he encounters news crews dutifully gathering their footage for the Six O’clock News, flocking to events like animals at a feeding frenzy, staging their interviews and gathering their b-roll, but then, just as suddenly, vacating the premises in order to return to the news room to get the footage on the air. Meanwhile McElwee stays behind, in an attempt to get to know the subjects. He even stays with them as they return to their living rooms and watch themselves on the Six O’clock […]

A Thousand Thougths

Normally, when it comes to reviewing a film, there is an underlying assumption: the reader should be able to tell whether or not the experience of watching said film is worth it, whether or not they want go and replicate that experience. Of course we all know that each viewing will be different: I may watch a movie on the plane, and have a very different experience than someone watching the same movie at home, which will differ from someone watching it in a theater in Los Angeles, which will differ from someone watching it in New York. There will be different surroundings, different environmental influences that may enhance or detract from one’s concentration on the screen. Normally this difference is downplayed. I might, for example, don a pair of noise−cancelling headphones on the airplane so as to minimize these outside influences.  But these environmental influences are undeniably part of the experience of watching a movie. In A Thousand Thoughts, a contribution to the New Frontier category of mixed media film and performance art at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the exploration of these seemingly tangential experiences are highlighted, rather than seen as a contamination of the experience.   A […]