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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Best Of 2013: Nonfiction Features

A list of ten, with some ties, followed by an alphabetical list of another fourteen, from an exceptionally fine year for nonfiction features. I’m equally awestruck by the top three, The Act Of Killing, The Square and Stories We Tell, especially after multiple viewings. Hot Docs, regrettably, was off my map in 2013, but there was much to learn and love at the True/False Film Fest as well as the fifteenth edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, as well as in theatrical release and at other festivals throughout the year. A small, personal remembrance of late documentary filmmaker and mentor Peter Wintonick and Roger Ebert is here, as well as a glimpse of True/False Film Fest 2013 and its opening “March March.”

1. The Act of Killing, The Square, Stories We Tell

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous.

This punchy, audacious documentary masterpiece is also a comedy and a stylized musical, combining bruising horror, burlesque, neighborly genocide and the banality of vanity. Would you expect these proud, aging gangster-murderers to join in a production number of “Born Free” in front of an epic waterfall, surrounded by dancers in neon hot-pink spangles and sung by a chorus that remains anonymous (like most of those credited at film’s end) for their own safety? Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed on as executive producers late in the game, and The Act of Killing shares the wide-eyed ethnographic stare of Herzog and the driven processes of Morris. But Oppenheimer also revels in wandering into the wilderness, akin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dreams-within-dreams-within-jungles, alongside an insistent, biting, ceaseless critique of post-colonialism, burbling beneath in a way that Slavoj Žižek would admire. [My extended interview with Oppenheimer, from the Winter 2013 Filmmaker, is here.]

The Square, Jehane Noujaim.

The camera moves through and with the crowds, on streets and in cafes and in apartments, and from high above, a bird’s-eye view of the humanity-massed square, a remarkable perspective captured this summer, when a news presenter intones, with only a scintilla of exaggeration, the “largest demonstration in the history of the world.” Their faces are seen, their voices are heard. The urgency galvanizes. This is revelatory filmmaking.

Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley.

The masterfully-directed and -edited Stories We Tell is a tricky movie, and it does not stop reflecting and refracting until its very final frames. It’s exceptionally fine, its very concept smudging the boundaries of what many consider to be documentary practice, and almost impossible to describe without tarnishing the unalloyed joy of the discoveries it offers the viewer. Memories are expanded and embellished. Discoveries are made.

4. ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, Victor Kossakovsky.

Take a bite out of the trailer, as well as the one for Where The Condors Fly, below, about the making of Kossakovsky’s mad, lyrical experimental documentary. What’s on the other side of the world? Kossakovsky takes a look-see. ¡Vivan las Antipodas! got only a cursory U. S. theatrical release in spring 2013. Give this madman more money.

5. Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel.

A fierce fish tale from POV of fish and sea. Clank. Groannn. Caw-caw-cawwwwww. Rrrra– Pop. Shreeeeeee! Splurp. Ammmg. R r r rrrr— Sweetgrass filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel further their immersive excursions with the singular nonfiction artifact, Leviathan, aka “Heavy Metal Fishing Ship.” There’s terror within the fishbelly of the beast, clamoring at work, and beneath the waves and in gull-serrated sky. Tiny GoPro cameras were liberally distributed around the ship, many times without a guiding human hand (or eye), scurrying through the moment’s catch like one more creature from below. Blur and smear and digital noise are the virtuosic working vocabulary. Groaning, granular, eruptive, explosive, sometimes hardly legible as image. Even the incessant wetness is infernal in its own fashion. Shot largely by dark, often literally from bird’s-eye or fish-eye view, there is vibrant energy at once deadly and lifegiving. Even the humans seen are observed in eccentric fashion, as otherworldly as the guttering of purest red off the side of the ship into a post-sunset sea, more susurrus than bloody waterfall; cascades of gutted tissue that glide from side to side with ship’s sway; starfish racketing through underwater churn as they tumble from their barnacled place on the hull; or the camera’s dive beneath water’s surface and up again while trained on a patterning screech of seagulls, alternating diamond forms like Escher, live, alive, in cacophonous motion. All is disorientation, the fathoms near-unfathomable. The sea, insurgent, battles the gathering and the machine that man made groans forward.

6. After Tiller, These Birds Walk

After Tiller, Martha Bayne, Lana Wilson.

A tender, melancholy yet emphatic observational doc, After Tiller follows the work done by the last four doctors who perform third-trimester abortions in the United States, all who knew or worked with murdered doctor George Tiller, who was gunned down in a Kansas church in 2009. In its quiet way, it’s an advocacy doc to uphold the law of the land: despite a crazy quilt of state regulations, what they do is legal under federal law. The providers discuss the implications of the acts they perform and the reasons several have continued far past retirement age in their calling. (It’s bracing to hear the word “terrorist” applied to acts of intimidation that include murder and firebombing.) The position of the filmmakers is never in doubt, but in detailing the daily choices, acts, and emotions, Shane and Wilson have made an assured, incisive humanistic nonfiction film to admire.

These Birds Walk, Omar Mullick & Bassam Tariq.

Two questions resound through 10-year-old runaway Omar’s days, through ups and downs: “Where is home?” And “What is home?” Omar earns the film’s attention with his energy, a resilient, ebullient protagonist among the other lost boys, but the great gift of These Birds Walk is Mullick and Tariq’s emphatically cinematic style, a compelling, lyrical feat of composition, sensation, tempo and duration of painstaking (and sometimes painful) intimacy. (There’s also a chase scene, above, where Omar darts away into a crowd that elevates an already greatly accomplished documentary into a superb action film.) These Birds Walk rests neatly alongside the range of nonfiction films that have the confidence to let story breathe. [My extended interview with Mullick and Tariq at Filmmaker is here.]

7. At Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman.

Institutional conflict. Frederick Wiseman. Two-hundred-forty-four minutes. That is all.

8. To The Wolf, Aran Hughes & Christina Koutsospyrou.

An almost visionary, crafted gem of nonfiction, shot in a remote  Greek village where two ragged families of shepherds, most members elderly, battle and struggle to survive in intense poverty. Without ever feeling derivative, it’s a meeting of Béla Tarr and Theo Angelopoulos, as weathered and wind-sheared and soppingly damp, but a piece with its own integrity. “Most of us have a biblical, romantic image of bucolic life,” Koutsospyrou told me, “but in our film, we tried to capture the real life of shepherds without embellishing it,” countering Greek television documentaries about rural life. A mix of the visually magnificent and the behaviorally minute, To The Wolf, shot in grievously low light below the soak and slash of drenching gloom, conveys an ecstatic dystopia about what’s left behind after the exodus of generations of young to the cities and to farther reaches of the forbidding eurozone. “Greece is finished, it’s dead, it’s gone,” the most shambling of the beaten men murmurs. The film has a physical austerity to match the fiscal austerity imposed upon the most vulnerable of citizens.

9. Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder.

A masterful chronicle, a found-footage thriller, about the 1985 war waged against the militant African American counterculture group MOVE and the aftereffects that followed the Philadelphia police’s firebombing of their headquarters and sixty other homes, killing eleven. Oder shot interviews, talking heads and other new material, but in a daring move, he chose to use only the brimming amount of archival footage he unearthed, foregoing narration as well. (There’s no time past like the present tense.) There’s no way its form, which Osder calls “pure historical pastiche,” could have been defined in a month or two.

10. 12 O’Clock Boys, Lofty Nathan.

Motion pictures, right?

Several films I haven’t seen: Blackfish, Caucus, Expedition To The End of The World, First Cousin Once RemovedThe Last Station, Manakamana, Remote Area MedicalRiver, Sacro GRA, Sleepless Nights, Twenty Feet From StardomThe Unknown KnownWe Always Lie To Strangers.

And fourteen more, including essay films and “heterodox” that blur lines between fiction and fact, in alphabetical order:

Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski.

Crash Reel, Lucy Walker.

Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling.

David Holzman’s Diary, Jim McBride.


A special presentation at True/False, with Eric Hynes discussing the pioneering 1968 mock-doc with filmmaker Jim McBride as part of the “Neither/Nor” series he curated at the Ragtag Cinema.

Dirty Wars, Richard Rowley.

Fallen City, Zhao Qi.

The Last Time I Saw MacaoJoäo Pedro Rodrigues, Joäo Rui Guerra da Mata.

The Machine which Makes Everything Disappear, Tinatin Gurchiani.

Museum Hours, Jem Cohen.

Narco Cultura, Shaul Schwarz.

Our Nixon, Penny Lane.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Terence Nance.

The Trials Of Muhammad Ali, Bill Siegel.

Where the Condors Fly, Carlos Klein.

From the library of Babel

At the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in March, a survey of Patricio Guzmán’s career continued despite a minor accident that kept him from traveling to Greece. His absence provided a highlight before a panel discussion, via Skype, as technical glitches on the Chilean end gave a glimpse of the bustle of the home-cum-office behind him. After the dead air got sorted out, Guzmán spoke at lengoth about historical memory and documentary. “Documentaries are alternative sources of information. One can freely say things that the powers that be and state television prefer to keep hidden, like the issues of abortion or the church,” he said, “I am not referring to poetic documentary, but to direct cinema, which needs few resources and can go beyond the mass media. There are many documentaries dealing with issues like water or human rights, but they are not any good. They are boring and fail to move the audience. Good intentions are not enough; you need to be able to move the public, to build a narration, to find characters. The subject is not enough; we need to produce poetic, creative and imaginative documentaries. This is our duty. Otherwise, there would be no difference between a documentary and the footage from bank surveillance cameras.”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon