Category: Foreign Documentaries


Sweetgrass1

Understanding that documentaries rarely make an impact with mainstream audiences outside of Michael Moore films and sports stories like Undefeated or Hoop Dreams, I consider myself to be a fan. Hell, the very first movie I reviewed for this blog was the Oscar-winning opera documentary, In the Shadow of the Stars, and it’s been a love affair with great documentaries ever since (Children Underground, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Road to Guantanamo just to name a few). The chance to see into another life and another world in a truthful way is something that you don’t often get from fiction (except for anything David Simon makes). However, the key to a great documentary is more often than not (I’ve realized over these last two years) great editing. You can have a fascinating concept, but if you don’t capture the right material (or aren’t choosy enough about what material to present), your film will not succeed to its fullest, and a lack of decent editing is the only thing keeping 2010’s Sweetgrass from reaching the ranks of the great documentaries of this decade.

Because conceptually, Sweetgrass taps into something that few other documentaries really attempt to find. Rather than utilizing subject interviews or voice-over narration or any type of conventional expository structure, Sweetgrass is instead just an hour and forty four minute series of images (with often excruciatingly long shots but more on that shortly) and it expects the viewer to follow along and relate to the trials and tribulations of its protagonists  without being led by the hand in any way whatsoever. And I respect the film for that decision. By removing any sort of barrier between the audience and the subject matter, Sweetgrass becomes a documentary in its purest form by simply documenting. And through this structural decision, Sweetgrass becomes one of the most intimate documentaries I’ve ever watched. Sadly, it is not always one of the most interesting or compelling.

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Sweetgrass follows the very last summer pasture sheep-herding of a massive herd of sheep in a particular Montana mountain range. I actually don’t remember the names of the two main men in the film (and I’ve been taking fairly extensive notes for my reviews again) because they are so often secondary to the images and quest of the film. In fact, the movies goes nearly 20 minutes before there’s any actual spoken dialogue (unless you count the yipping of one of the herders on the ranch). The sheep (as an entire unit) are just as important characters in this film as are the men that are stuck herding them for their summer pasture. And whether it’s the birthing of a new litter, the shearing of the herd before their pasture, young lambs running for the first time, or the inevitable death of sheep at the hands of natural predators, you get sucked into the world of Sweetgrass on the power of image alone.

However, and this is important, Sweetgrass can be slower and more deliberately paced than Eeyore after he’s smoked some barbiturates (I’ve think I’ve made this joke before). There are countless shots in this film that test the patience of even the most patient movie-goers. The film overflows with gorgeous shots of the Montana landscape and memorable images of the sheep herd, but nine times out of ten, the directors/editors chose to just let the scene last at least twice or even three times as long as it should have. I started trying to keep track of the number of times in the film where they just let the camera linger on a scene for what felt like an eternity when nothing was happening (and the shot didn’t progress the themes of the film any more), and I lost count. I’m not sure if I’ve ever watched a documentary that was this hell-bent on ruining a great premise and some great moments with absurdly awful editing.

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For a film that only runs an hour and forty four minutes, Sweetgrass felt like it lasted an eternity. And longtime readers know that I have an endless lover for deliberately-paced, slower films, but the incessant lack of something happening in this film always kept me from fully immersing myself in the world of these ranchhands and sheep in the way that I’m sure the filmmakers intended me to. If you like documentaries, Sweetgrass attempts to do something really interesting, and despite my complaints about the occasional moments of total agony this film put me through, I still enjoyed it and it had enough truly memorable moments to make it worth your while. But if you don’t have any interest in the documentary genre, you should avoid this film like the plague because it will bore the holy hell out of you.

Final Score: B

 

Sometimes I feel like I begin to belabor this point on this blog, but I am an unreformed liberal. I’m not just a liberal by American standards; my political views would probably be more in line with a European socialist nation than even our most “leftist” American state. With that said, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that I wasn’t a big fan of the Bush administration. While I’ve never considered George W. Bush to be patently evil (if for no other reason than I don’t think he’s intelligent enough to be that crafty), his cabinet members and advisers were a whole ‘nother story. The war in Iraq was a colossal mistake and the treatment of many Muslims here at home and around the world was such a blatant disregard for our national values of freedom and liberty that it was nearly sickening. The so-called “War on Terror” is the most obvious example of the rapid erosion of liberties in this nation under the name of “freedom”, and the docudrama The Road to Guantanamo is a chilling expose of one of the most shocking atrocities committed under the mantle of the War on Terror.

Combining archival footage of the initial War in Afghanistan (and later reports on the construction of Guantanamo), interviews with the three real-life protagonists, and dramatic re-enactments of events there were no cameras around to record, The Road to Guantanamo is the heart-wrenching true story of the “Tipton Three,” three British Muslims who were falsely detained and tortured in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for over two years until their eventual release in 2004. Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul were three British citizens who had traveled to Pakistan weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. for Shafiq’s arranged marriage to a girl from his family’s Pakistani village. While there, they decided to enter Afghanistan to help out the locals who were shortly to be out of home, food, and virtually all forms of shelter. After the bombing begins in earnest, the Tipton Three try to return to Pakistan but wind up in a village controlled by Taliban forces. When U.S. bombing runs threaten to destroy the town they’re in, the men try to flee with one of the Taliban convoys and end up arrested by Afghanistani forces. When it’s discovered that they’re British and speak English, the men are considered high-priority suspects and spend the next two years of their lives being viciously tortured and questioned by American intelligence officers.

It can be easy to put aside thoughts of human rights abuses when you try to rationalize the existence of a place like Guantanamo Bay. After 9/11, this nation was hell-bent on making sure another incident like that never occurred again. So, to many people, thoughts like “I don’t care if these Middle Eastern men (even if Afghanistan can almost hardly be called the Middle East and has more in common with Pakistan and India than Iran or Iraq) are detained indefinitely and without trial if it means I’m safe” don’t seem radical. You never stop to think about what happens when an innocent man gets caught up in all of this. While it was assuredly quite dumb of Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif to go into Afghanistan right before the Americans were sure to invade, these men weren’t Al-Qaeda or terrorists. They were just young British men with perhaps poor decision making skills and extraordinarily bad luck who spent two years in complete hell just because they were brown and in the wrong plaec at the wrong time. Much like with capital punishment (where the possibility of one innocent man being executed has the potential to nullify the entire institution), the chance (and ultimate reality) that three men could slip through the cracks of a system built to protect global citizens from terrorism seemingly says that this system needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

Director Michael Winterbottom ensures a gut, visceral reaction to the mistreatment seen on screen. While the dramatic re-enactments are just that (re-enactments), Winterbottom tapes them with a grainy hand-held camera that expertly gives it a feeling of verisimilitude. Much of the opening act of the film is a chronicle of their road trip that led them from England to Pakistan to Afghanistan, and that establishes an emotional connection with these men who are much like any young men in their 20’s. So to see their world so completely shattered by war and eventual imprisonment only heightens the anger Winterbottom wants to evoke in his audience (which he succeeds in doing). During the segments where Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif are being tortured at the various camps they stayed in before their release, Winterbottom doesn’t hold back from showing the gritty and nearly unwatchable details of the hell U.S. intelligence officers put them (and their many co-prisoners) at the camp. Winterbottom’s portrayal of the atrocities committed at this camp is actually so effective that if I were a jihadist, I would show this film as a propaganda tool to recruit people to my cause. It’s simply that effective.

If the film has a significant flaw, it is that it can move a little too fast for its own good. Winterbottom places so much emphasis on each scene achieving maximum emotional impact that the context of certain moments can be lost in the wake. The film is told so primarily through the eyes and mouths of the Tipton Three that when events occur outside of their perception, very little explanation is given as to why it’s happening which works to disorient the audience much like the individuals on screen, but it fails to educate the audience and helps give credence to claims the far right would have which is that this is leftist propaganda. Their release from Guantanamo was an especially murky subject in the film as little to no reason is actually given as to why American suddenly decided to let these guys go after keeping them prisoner for so long. However, these are minor quibbles against an otherwise phenomenal film. For everyone that is a liberal, muslim, or at the minimum, not a neo-conservative fanatic, you should watch this film as it will open your eyes to the myriad ways our nation’s values were subverted in our own quest to protect ourselves.

Final Score: A

The very first film that I reviewed for this blog way back in the beginning of February was the 1991 Oscar-winning documentary In the Shadow of the Stars which chronicles a year or so in the life of the chorus members of the San Francisco Opera House. I reviewed two other documentaries around that time, but it has been several months since I last watched a documentary feature to review for this blog (March 25th to be exact with the understated Black Sun). It wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid documentary films because it’s a medium that I have much respect and admiration for. Simply put, a documentary hadn’t showed up on my master list for movies since then, but I have another one coming up shortly on my Netflix queue again to make up for lost time. I just finished the quiet and intimate The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, a Danish documentary that may not live up to the high watermark of the other documentaries I’ve watched, but it was a moving and heartfelt film with a story that managed to worm its way into my heart.

The Monastery is the story of the titular Mr. Vig who is an 80 year old man who wishes to transform his beautiful yet rundown castle in the Danish countryside into a monastery for the Russian Orthodox church. Mr. Vig is a lively and intelligent fellow but doesn’t necessarily interact with people very well and he has been a bachelor his entire life. The Russian church sends a group of nuns led by the fiery and uncharacteristically willful Sister Ambrovija to inspect the castle and to see if it can be turned into a monastery. Since the castle has begun to fall apart and is in drastic need of repairs in certain areas, Sister Ambrovija and Vig begin to quarrel over the methods of fixing the castle and various other technical aspects of the transformation into the monastery. It is a simple tale of a clashing of two personalities as well as the devotion of two wildly different individuals to a very a similar cause.

The strength of the film lies in the dichotomy between the relative simplicity of its tale against the backdrop of its eccentric protagonist and his intractable foil. Mr. Vig begins the film as simply a man who wishes to transform his castle into a monastery so that he can create something enduring and seems a man of simple faith. But we slowly learn more about him such as all of the Buddhist imagery he keeps in his house which causes immediate friction with the nuns as well as his complete lack of interest or understanding with women that has existed since his mother who he only ever kissed once. Up until the final frames of the film, we get an even more interesting and clearer picture of Mr. Vig who is far more integral to the success of the film than the story of erecting the monastery. The scenes where he quarrels with Sister Ambrovija are rather entertaining as neither is willing to back down and Sister Ambrovija subverts every expectation of the docile and obediant nun.

Perhaps because I am not a man of faith, I was never quite able to fully engage myself with the story on display here. As much as I found the characters intriguing, the simple building of a monastery was not enough to fully grab my attention, and much of the bickering between the two simply reminded me of the things I didn’t like about religion in the first place. For people that are fans of documentary film-making, this isn’t one of the greatest documentaries ever made, but it’s still quirky and eccentric enough to stand out in its own special way. For those who are especially vitriolic towards religion, you may want to avoid it, but for casual agnostics such as myself, you can still find some beauty and humanity in this picture. For those who are of faith, I’m sure you’ll find this to be a much more rewarding and touching experience than even I did and so to you, I recommend it heartily.

Final Score: B