Reel Life: Flick Pix
AT NY FILM FEST 2017, WOMEN MADE DOCUMENTARIES UNIQUE AND RESONANT WITH ME
- Director Vanessa Redgrave with her son producer Carlo Nero at the press conference, after screening of Sea Sorrow at the 2017 New York Film Festival, 10/5/2017.
By Nora Lee Mandel
Women directors spiced up the 55th Annual New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center, September – October 2017, with fiction features and accessible documentaries. This is my coverage of other documentary features were so unique that you’ll need to seek them out at additional festivals, museums, or other specialty outlets, while others resonated with me very personally that my criticism is not as objective as usual.
Hall of Mirrors
DOCUMENTARIES I CONNECT TO PERSONALLY:
The Opera House
Trouble No More
- Subject Issei Sagawa and directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel at NYFF press conference 10/3/2017
Véréna Paravel (Foreign Parts) and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) have collaborated as filmmakers through the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory at Harvard for several years. Their approach has moved from visual anthropology of communities and environments (Leviathan) to a more abstract aesthetic of exploring transgressive desire that persists through humanity. The title means “Cannibal” from an ancient language. Shown as a U. S. Premiere in the “Projections” section of avant-garde films, there were considerable walk-outs during the press screening because it is difficult to watch, even though the cannibalism that PhD literature student Issei Sagawa committed in 1981 to devour his French lover is not shown.
Paravel’s curiosity about the tabloid sensation crime in her native France led her to Japan, where Sagawa returned when declared legally insane and he manages to live off his notoriety. By foregoing their Japanese translator, the stultifyingly overwhelming up-close intimacy (indicated in the still above) did build trust with the subject -- and with his shadow, his caregiver brother Jun, who has his own taboo-breaking obsessions. What makes the film more watchable is that the brothers then shared lots of visual materials from their personal archives, particularly their father’s black-and-white 8 mm home movies of their exaggeratedly happy-looking childhood, on to clips from their participation in various odd genre Japanese reality TV shows and movies, including “pink films”, a kind of soft core porn that Paravel has also been documenting.
Though in such documentaries I always worry about the valid consent of subjects with mental illness, the subtle competition and interaction between these two socially and physically isolated men for attention and understanding is a fascinating look at a fundamental and eternally problematical human relationship of sibling love and rivalry. Grasshopper will theatrically release the film in 2018.
The title means “heaven” in Spanish, and Canadian director Alison McAlpine, in the World Premiere of her first feature, gets as close as possible at 10,000 feet up in Chile’s Atacama Desert, on the Pacific coast, just west of the Andes Mountains. Originally a poet, McAlpine narrates a leisurely tour of, first, the night sky by patiently filming only the dark weeks before and after the brightest moon with subtle time-lapse, and then listening to the diverse assortment of people who watch and relate to the sky in different ways, depending on their quirks, cultures, and opportunities.
The area is known for some of the largest telescopes in the world (as seen in the above still), operated by an international consortia of academic institutions that fled locations with encroaching light. She first interviews astronomers, including planet hunter Mercedes Lopez, who observe via the data on their computers and whirring data collection machines, while outside a man documents what he is sure are UFOs. Ironically, the environment around the observatories is often compared to the landscape of Mars. (My scientist son was sorry to visit near a full moon a couple of months ago, so didn’t get to appreciate the stars.)
Wandering like Werner Herzog around Antarctica in Encounters at the End of the World (2007), McAlpine embraces the indigenous perspective of elderly storyteller Roberto Garcia who says he flies around the stars, in different constellation legends than we inherited from our ancients. Then, under shimmering blue skies, she captures the sounds of birds and hears from those making practical use of the environment – algae collectors, a miner, a fisherman, and cowboys (known locally as baqueanos). Produced with the Canadian Documentary Channel, hopefully Cielo will screen in a U.S. theater space (in science museums?) to encourage you to be guided by the stars. NYC’s Film Forum showed for one week in August 2018, then include it in Queens’ Socrates Park “Outdoor Cinema on July 3, 2019.
HALL OF MIRRORS
- Subject Edward Jay Epstein and co-directors Ines Talakic (l) and Ena Talakic introducing their bio-documentary of him, at the New York Film Festival, 10/2/2017
Debut co-directors sisters Ena Talakic and Ines Talakic (Yugoslavian-born, Italian-educated) made quite a visual splash at the World Premiere of their portrait of octogenarian investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein. Tall, long-haired, beautifully dressed, multi-lingual, and classically-trained musicians (Ines also performed Debussy and wrote the original score), they surely charmed the flattered Epstein into letting them spend three years following him as he researched his 16th truth-telling book How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (Knopf, 2017), from Honolulu to Hong Kong to Moscow, enterprisingly funding their travel and research by producing commercials. Threaded throughout his biography, this odyssey is an informative case study of how old-fashioned shoe leather, observations and curiosity can find overlooked factual evidence even on widely reported global news, while Epstein scorns the internet. His generational condescension to computers is ironically contrasted to Snowden and Wikileaks. The title is his adoption of legendary CIA agent James Angleton’s description of the world of espionage and intelligence activities that Epstein specializes in piercing.
The Talakics support his proud anecdotes from his storied career (he’s quite the raconteur) with an impressive array of archival images, with many montages of headlines and TV interviews, since he started as an undergraduate interviewing Warren Commission members and turning that school paper into his first book in 1966. He only allows glimpses into his personal life– and the friends he permits them to interview, including a sometime, younger girlfriend, are a bit nervous to reveal any more than he would want. It’s surprising to see that this famed independent iconoclast is chummy with 1-per centers who fly him around on private planes to long-lasting parties in exotic locations. (The directors originally met him at a party.) No questions are asked if he ever faces ethical conflicts over these connections in his reporting. While the film went on to the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival in Washington, D.C. that I also attended, the directors told me they were in the midst of negotiations for wider release.
- Director Vanessa Redgrave as an internally displaced child in England during World War II
As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, debut director Vanessa Redgrave expanded a benefit performance program by her extended activist family into a very personal and very moving PSA (Public Service Announcement). Produced by her son Carlo Nero, three generations, including her niece Jemma Redgrave, her daughter Joely Richardson, and an eloquent granddaughter with her own protest sign (along with notable co-stars) demonstrate to the British Parliament on behalf of a specific cause: a campaign to allow U.K. visas for 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children.
The campaign was initiated by Lord Alfred Dubs, who was saved from the Nazis as a Jewish Czech boy on a Kindertransport to Britain. The director describes her parallel journey during the war of being evacuated from London to the countryside for safety, and later connecting these experiences through the example Eleanor Roosevelt’s activism for human rights at the U.N. The press called the legislation he sought “The Dubs Amendment”, and a few young teens were subsequently granted asylum.
As Vanessa visits make-shift refugee camps in Italy, Greece, and Calais, France (plus a more established Palestinian complex in Lebanon), she keeps the focus of her pleas on refugee children. The awful image of the drowned Syrian boy on a Turkish beach haunts the film [Alan Kurdi: 2012 – 2015], echoed in poetry by UNICEF Ambassador Ralph Fiennes reciting the title phrase as Shakespeare’s Prospero about his escape by boat: “Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow./Here in this island we arrived.”, in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest.
Many recent documentaries have looked at the broader or political issues of the largest refugee crisis since World War II (Ai WeiWei’s Human Flow), or followed the impact on particular individuals (Lost in Lebanon) or places (The Good Postman (Hyvä postimies)). Though organized unevenly by feelings more than by ideas, Vanessa keeps her aim directly at the audience’s heart to hopefully overcome prejudices. The next campaign in the U.K. her family is pursuing is to allow in the close relatives of refugee children.
DOCUMENTARIES I CONNECT TO PERSONALLY:
THE OPERA HOUSE
© The Metropolitan Opera – The Metropolitan Opera House under construction, 1964
The first New York Film Festival special event at the Metropolitan Opera World Premiered this latest of many behind-the-scenes musical documentary collaborations between director Susan Froemke and producer –and General Manager -- Peter Gelb. Rare stills, marvelous footage, and glorious archival performance music play back, first from the 1883 “Old Met” at 39th Street, with excitement pouring onto Broadway – because there was no room back stage.
Froemke entertainingly and informatively parts the curtains to dramas off-stage. Two men fondly detail growing up in the Lincoln Square neighborhood that master planner Robert Moses designated a slum for the “New Met” and Lincoln Center to be “urban renewal”. Clashes of egos (especially two decades under imperious General Manager Sir Rudolf Bing), multiple architectural and budget changes, and serendipitous solutions are revealed in bemused interviews with designers’ biographers, staff, and relatives, in phenomenal clips and photographs. Robert Drew’s cinema verité Countdown to Curtain excerpts captured director Franco Zeffirelli at the fraught dress rehearsal, when my mother was in the audience. My parents’ friend Herman Krawitz, Bing’s Deputy, is seen in several interviews over the years, still insisting that the technical problems that day were due to the construction engineer not following the agreed-upon back stage specs.
Interspersed are five-decade experiences of special, charming fans who are the institutional memory, and chock full of anecdotes: Richard Holmes (who went from the Children’s Chorus to Administrator of Supernumeraries, the regular extras); Alfred Hubay (who retired as Box Office Manager and was my boss during my college summer jobs in the Subscription Department -- still with natty bow ties at 92); and the expressive Leontyne Price (from Laurel, Mississippi to Juilliard student to elegant 90-year-old diva, star of the 1966 gala Opening Night). Price is particularly emotional remembering how the First Lady welcomed her mother into the President’s Box just before the curtain went up; the photograph documenting that greeting is so rare that Lady Bird Johnson’s biographer couldn’t find it to confirm the incident. (Was it in the Met’s archives which was the richest source for this film?) Price gets the last words: “It will endure another 50 years - trust me!” Fathom Events and The Metropolitan Opera will present this delightful documentary in theaters on January 13 and 17, 2018, and then it opens at the Film Society on January 26, 2018.
- Director Susan Lacy introducing her bio-documentary of Steven Spielberg at NYFF, 10/5/2017
Susan Lacy (my graduate school internship supervisor at the National Endowment for the Arts) left three decades producing PBS’s American Masters, and directing several episodes, for the freedom-from-fundraising to direct through HBO, she explained at the World Premiere special event that Steven Spielberg attended. HBO allowed her the luxury to schedule almost 30 hours of interviews with the most famous American director while he was preparing, making, or finishing three films.
With an extraordinary selection of clips, Lacy illustrates the most obvious father and son theme from his oeuvre (mother just in passing), and he obliges with basic pop psychology about his parents. Through more than 80 interviews, stars give directorial anecdotes from each Spielberg film. Would PBS have made her meet with Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, waiting a year to get appointments for their little added insight, in order to include them in the trailer?
Fascinating, and previously unseen, are Spielberg’s private home movies with his wunderkind peers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Zemeckis. He documented their youthful gatherings as the first time he finally felt like one of the guys. Even though they resented he was Universal Studios president Sid Sheinberg’s protégé on the studio lot. Sheinberg probably connected with young Steven as a fellow Jew, but Lacy restricts considering Spielberg Jewish just to Schindler’s List, even in talking to him and his family telling about the anti-Semitism they faced in suburban Phoenix. His sisters’ film accomplishments in their own rights are not mentioned -- Nancy Spielberg as a producer of documentaries including Above and Beyond, and his sister Anne as a writer and producer, including an Oscar-nomination for co-writing Big. This is an unfortunate segregation as if this is just his religion and not an essential element of his family and his own identity and the motivations behind the rest of his films, though one could say that suffuses much of his work. (My additional commentary on the Jewish women in the film.) Spielberg is now available on HBO portals.
TROUBLE NO MORE
Director Jennifer Lebeau creates a comprehensible context for Bob Dylan’s notorious trilogy of faith-based albums – Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981), albums I was always uncomfortable with as the coming out of Jewish-born Robert Zimmerman’s claimed Christian conversion, however long it lasted. World Premiered at NYFF before theatrical screenings via Abramorama, her hour-long merger of re-discovered 1980 rehearsal and concert footage with an added Holy Roller is packaged as a DVD with Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings deluxe box Bob Dylan – Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981.
At a Los Angeles rehearsal studio, Dylan checks that his band is really rockin’, with a tambourine-shaking choir of five African-American women. (Lou Reed’s line from “Walk on the Wild Side” does come to mind: “And the colored girls go…”) Before the tour opens in Portland, Oregon January 1981, interviewed fans are disappointed and angry that this tour will only feature these songs. Defiantly, leather-clad Dylan comes out feisty to guitar riffs: “Are you ready?”
Separately, “The Preacher” (Michael Shannon) appears, in the first of eight intervals, within the image of a stained glass-filled church with a pipe organ, delivering a sermon by Luc Sante, in cinematographer Ellen Kuras’s intense close-ups. While he intones rural metaphors like a Southern evangelical, he convincingly warns us to straighten up, complementing Dylan’s praise songs.
Lebeau effectively achieves a new spiritual service where the inspirational music is integral, comparable to the famed “Gospel Tent” at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. These 35 years later, Dylan’s “Christian” period can be seen within the continuity of his protean mastering of American traditional musical forms, a substantive fusion of black and white -- blues, folk, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll – with electric guitar, drums (Jim Keltner), and keyboards (Spooner Oldham), from “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” to “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody”. (My favorite song from this period “Gotta Serve Somebody” isn’t in the film, but is in the box set.) With his encore cover of “Abraham, Martin, and John”, he musically counters Martin Luther King’s admonition: “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” Not this sacred hour.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler, and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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