MCN Columnists
Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Fifteen Feature Documentaries For 2015

tlos_tv__large1. The Look Of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer) While promoting The Act Of Killing, his punchy, audacious, madly performative, deeply troubling masterpiece about the legacy fifty years after the genocide in Indonesia of political opponents, Joshua Oppenheimer didn’t much let on that there was a second, complementary feature in the works. While editing the first film, before his secondary subjects in the government and paramilitaries, knew what a bold, damning document he had fashioned, Oppenheimer shot a round of elegant, formally restrained interviews with his earlier subjects through the offices of his collaborator, Adi Ruken, an optometrist whose older brother had been murdered. Among a range of substantial achievements, Oppenheimer formally anticipated the critique some purists would lodge—veteran documentary commissioner Nick Fraser among them—and embodying Godard’s dictum that the only true criticism of a film would be to make another film, even if it is self-critique. The Look Of Silence responds lucidly to those who found revulsion rather than revelation in his depiction of the gaudy cinema-fashioned fantasies of petty gangsters who still terrorized their neighbors decades later. Of his film about the eddying damage visited upon the victims, he’s talked about the impunity under which he and Adi were able to challenge the still-proud killers, from a strikingly different angle than their earlier interviews; what differentiates the “authentic” from the “typical” in documentary; how The Look Of Silence is like a poem as well as the films of Ozu; and how the metaphor of willful moral blindness and literal myopia, as demonstrated through eye exams performed by Adi while he gently prompts their subjects to once more describe their worst exploits, became a powerful and mysterious metaphor even though it began as a pragmatic choice to maintain their safety in the face of unapologetic murderers. [The link is to my Filmmaker cover story interview with Oppenheimer, which is behind the subscriber paywall.]

2. Amy
(Asif Kapadia) Kapadia’s enveloping, harrowing, even revelatory second documentary with a posthumous subject is a musical, a tragedy, and a major mash-note to the too-soon-gone talent of Amy Winehouse. “Amy” also portrays a woman who was not so much an addict as someone consumed by feelings, the need to express them, and by brutally intense sensations of love. [More.]

Laurie-Anderson-©-Ray-Pride-1024x10243. Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson) “Hello, little bonehead. I’ll love you forever.” Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” opens with the identifiable twinkling cadences of her voice, a wonder-struck performative instrument. She’s saying goodbye to someone she loved: her rat terrier Lolabelle. It’s a winsome, plainspoken, concrete, elusive wonder of an essay film about loss and grief. Lolabelle is the second lead, after the murmurs and venturing of her voice, but that’s not all. Someone named Lou is at the heart of it, even when his presence is only in our consciousness. Heart of a Dog invokes Buddhism and 9/11 and living in Manhattan afterwards and the modern surveillance state and many matters both earthbound and otherworldly, and it’s also a stream of consciousness that literally invokes water and rain and snow and bodies of water, writing atop writing, layerings of images, a palimpsest of inscribing atop inscriptions, as well as splendid sound, overlapping strands of music of polyphonic charm, as well as her voice, always her voice, insistent as ragged memory.  [More.] [Portrait © Ray Pride.]

Truffaut.Hitchcock1-1014x10244. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones) Jones’ sweet, even joyous ode to the making of art begins with audiotapes of Francois Truffaut’s weeklong interviews in 1962 with Hitchcock that became the influential book of the same name, then blends relevant scenes from Hitchcock’s films with astute observations by latter-day directors like Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Richard Linklater and James Gray. [More.]

5. In Jackson Heights 
(Frederick Wiseman) Obstinate, observant, a sculptor of modest cathedrals from the simplest materials—humans in their interactions—85-year-old Frederick Wiseman has fashioned another lilting, longitudinal look at community. [More.]

6. The Iron Ministry (J. P. Sniadecki) Sniadecki’s clamorously atmospheric doc was shot across three years of the infernal, eternal expansion of the vast Chinese rail system. As the railways expand, Sniadecki rides the rails from 2011-2013 and traffics in sensory reportage as he meets passengers in the cramped confines, who bear blunt, wry attitude about class and cash under his direct cinema-styled eye—“What if you do have a ballot, and the choice is one more sonofabitch?” Then he assembles the travels as if we were all on a single, swift journey. Where are they headed? Where are we headed? Coolly formal yet ceaselessly tactile, his film works from lovely visual abstraction to the most material of physical concerns. The Iron Ministry engages filmmaking craft in subtly dynamic fashion and the sound design by Ernst Karel is immaculate, a song for ears that crave the sound of rail travel and the insistent buzz of human commerce. Sniadecki’s passengers also fixate on smell, a sense of cigarettes, animals being butchered, sweat, piss and shit insistently evoked. [More.]

woodpecker3-1500x5507. The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Gracia) Ann elegantly shot, lovingly recorded, endlessly surprising portrait of Fedor Alexandrovich, a Ukrainian performance artist in search of his own truth behind Chernobyl, who may well be a sainted fool, a conspiracist and a hippie crackpot, all in one obstinately charismatic package. Mysteries pile upon mysteries upon lies upon rackets of Russian radio interference: it’s mesmerically good. The easy label of “a Ukrainian Chinatown” is a pretty good one, but there’s hardcore cinematic virtue in the midst of what could have been mere fearful jabber. [More.]

Hubert-Sauper-©-Ray-Pride-copy8. We Come As Friends (Hubert Sauper) Sauper’s teeming, Brueghel-and-Bosch-pursuing documentary portrait of chaos after colonialism in battle-torn South Sudan is even more eye-widening, surreal, sorrowful and anarchic than his earlier Darwin’s Nightmare. Sauper looks like and sounds like a diplomat, but he’s an affable radical who speaks in long, loping paragraphs about the necessity of documentary that aspires to cinematic character. At an audience Q&A in March in Thessaloniki, Greece, which I attended for Filmmaker, an audience member wondered if Sauper meant to change the world. “I’m sorry, I cannot pretend to describe the dilemmas of our time and also give you a solution, a way out,” Sauper said patiently. “I don’t even want to put a website at the end of a film, where you can donate. It’s bullshit; I don’t want to do that. Honestly, if you feel helpless, it’s sad. Ideally I hope that people are inspired and confused and enraged and fascinated.” And what is the work of the documentary filmmaker? “Most of it is thinking. A very small part of it is shooting. Working for six years on a film that is two hours long, most of the time is making detours, asking questions. It’s necessary to go through all that, and the film is the quintessence of that experience.” [More.] [Portrait © Ray Pride.]

PeterAntonAlmostThere19. Almost There (Dan Rybicky, Aaron Wickenden) There’s a delicate and beautiful dance in this seven-years-in-the-making engagement with an elderly Northwest Indiana outsider artist, Peter Anton (whose work was shown at Chicago’s Intuit Gallery in 2010). The movie transforms before our eyes, as it did for the filmmakers, a dance between a willful subject and filmmakers who intend not to stray too close but ultimately can’t help themselves. Anton lives not only in poverty, but also in squalor, in a falling-down house left him by his parents, and the ethical question of how involved the filmmakers ought to be, in light of his circumstances, grows uneasy. “I’m not your subject,” Anton bursts out at one point, “I thought you were my friend.” It’s filled with innerworldly kicks. wOne of the most luminous, evocative choices made was to incorporate images not only of Anton amid his art inside his moldering dump, but of the surrounding landscape, often industrial, at all hours of day and night. [More.]

Iris4-1024x57610. Iris (Albert Maysles) “I improvise, it’s like playing jazz,” says Manhattan fashion icon Iris Apfel in the late Albert Maysles’ final solo venture as documentary director. It’s a meeting of kind minds: Maysles always worked well with women and was drawn to them in many of the films he made, as well as with his brother, notably, Grey Gardens. Looking. Listening. Admiring. Even loving. Apfel’s amply creative style, from couture to costume and back again, is as colorful as can be, and through Maysles’ eyes, she’s one chatty, witty, wise character: “I feel lucky to be working. If you’re lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows.” [More.]

LISTEN TO ME MARLON11. Listen To Me Marlon (Stevan Riley) Throughout his life, Marlon Brando recorded hours and hours of soul-searching rumination, and Stevan Riley’s engulfing tone poem of visuals atop Brando’s stream-of-consciousness matches his vivid verbal impressionism.

blackpanthers12. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson) Superb filmmaking with a sure sense of its subject. The look and sound of the 1960s is celebrated too, from the sleek, sharp, even iconic fashion sense of the Panthers, to the soul-centric soundtrack. (“We had a swagger,” one subject rightly says.) [More.]

gomes13. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes) A trilogy of fact and fiction and frustration and intermittent elation, Arabian Nights is Gomes’ spirited stab at capturing the dispirited days after 2008, and the months and months of economic attrition, pitting Portugal against the European Union and its bankers.

ousmane-sembene14. Sembène! (Samba Gadjigo, Jason Silverman) A rich, engaging portrait not only of Africa’s great filmmaker, but also of the course (and necessity) of influence, including co-filmmaker Gadjigo’s journey while discovering more about the life and work of his late friend.

GCGIBNEY15. Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney) With the participation of a phalanx of HBO lawyers—wonder if the lawyering exceeded the film’s production outlay—Gibney’s bristling assembly of fierce allegations powers through a miniseries worth of complexities in less than two hours. No matter how much you may have read about the subject and for how many years, including collaborator Lawrence Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” “Going Clear” is a rumbling thundercrack. Everything seems implausible, down to the archival footage of L. Ron Hubbard’s goblin smile, gargling purr and English-style choppers. I talked to a few colleagues who knew little of the subject who found the swamp of terrifying material completely comprehensible and also deeply, outrageously odd. [More.]

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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