May 18, 2009

Mini-Reviews 2

DIR: Andrew Jarecki

A brilliantly assembled documentary about a devastating case. Jarecki stumbled across this story of a family tearing itself apart after the father and youngest son are charged with sexually abusing children while working on a film about New York’s most successful birthday party clown (the eldest son of the family). It’s a very fair film, built out of new interviews with almost all concerned mixed with archival footage taken by the Friedmans themselves, it never makes up your mind for you about what actually transpired here, but there is an inescapable, constantly mounting, sense of horror as the film runs on. It’s masterfully paced by Jarecki, who lets it unfold as a riveting thriller as much as the story of a family.

DIR: Liz Mermin

This film, a new entry in the BBC’s outstanding Storyville series, chronicles the exploits of the first ever competitive debate team from Qatar. Five intelligent, but very down to earth and extremely likable teenagers, who are to be moulded into a team by two recent Oxford graduates for the 2008 world school’s debating championships in Washington DC. The kids are a joy, and by themselves they make Liz Mermin’s otherwise rather conventional film an engaging experience. I wish it had been a bit longer, and spent a bit more time getting to know each of the team, but their training and their experiences at the championships are an interesting insight into a world most viewers are unlikely to know much about.

DIR: Claude Lanzmann

Over a decade in the making, Claude Lanzmann’s monolithic documentary is perhaps the single most important document about the holocaust (the film is named for the Hebrew word for holocaust). Condensed from over 350 hours of interviews with people from all sides of this hideous series of events Shoah still runs 9 devastating hours. It interviews Nazi party members, ranging from those who made sure the trains to the concentration camps ran on time, to those who helped run the Warsaw ghetto, to one chillingly matter of fact man who was a guard at Treblinka. Jewish survivors describe working in the crematoriums, cutting the hair of women about to go to the gas chambers and the resistance, and Lanzmann speaks to Polish peasants whose looking the other way helped keep the Final Solution secret.

Much information is repeated over and over, this may sound unnecessary, but the effect is that it builds a devastating and almost irrefutable case that these events DID occur (sadly a case we still need to make, because there are still those who would deny it). 9 hours of pure witness testimony may sound dull, it’s anything but, the emotion is so raw that you can’t help but watch, even when all you want to do is turn away. Amazingly Lanzmann doesn’t impose morals on these interviews, he simply reports. This goes as far as his refusal to use archive footage, instead revisiting the camps as they were at filming – deserted, eerie ruins, and allowing the testimony to play over this. This is 10 years incredibly well spent, an invaluable historical resource and a cinematic masterpiece.

Dir: Kurt Kuenne

When Dr. Andrew Bagby was murdered, aged 28, by his ex-girlfriend Kurt Kuenne decided to make a film to memorialise his friend of over 20 years. As he was putting it together, travelling the country interviewing Andrew’s (many) friends and family the film took on a new life, when Andrew’s killer announced that she was 4 months pregnant with her victim’s child. The film became a way to let that child, Zachary, know his father. Dear Zachary is both a document of a crime, and the hideously botched process of justice and a genuinely moving memorial to a good man. Andrew Bagby doesn’t appear to have been an especially remarkable man, just a normal guy working hard to become the best family doctor he could be, a normal guy who tried to think the best of everyone (including his eventual killer), and who everyone he met loved. It’s the kind of thing that everyone would hope someone would feel a need to do for them. Kuenne doles out revelations about how the story unfolded (which I shan’t reveal here) soberly, and with devastating effect, and if at one key point you don’t dissolve in tears then, really, you have no soul. This is an important and powerful film, so much so that you can overlook its occasionally messy and irritating editing and its incessant repetition of certain bits of footage.

Dir: Susan Muska, Gréta Olafsdóttir

This documentary relates the same story told in Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry. It’s a strongly told up to a point, but the insight is rather one sided. For example there are hints in the interviews with both John Lotter and Tom Nissen about their appeals process, but the film never goes into this. Nor does it really explore any of the people concerned in much depth, it briefly mentions Teena Brandon’s habit of forging cheques, but then proceeds to whitewash her, barely resisting canonising her as patron saint of transsexuals. The story is shocking, and some of the interviews are riveting, as is the audio tape of Teena’s Police interview after her rape, but the film is a very surface treatment and though Boys Don’t Cry took major dramatic liberties it is a better and deeper film about these events.

Dir: Joey Figueroa, Zac Knutson

Recorded in Smith’s birthplace of New Jersey on his 37th birthday this is third of his Q and A sessions to be released. Like Evening Harder the problem is that this is a single complete gig, which means that it is a patchy affair, much more so than the first Evening With, which collected stories from a whole tour. The first question here, in particular, prompts an endless answer (an HOUR long digression about his dogs) which takes forever to get really funny. However it is fitfully hilarious, particularly when Smith relates stories about appearing in Die Hard 4.0 and the painful cautionary tale of his rectal health issues.

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