Tag Archive: Documentary


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There are two criteria by which I judge the effectiveness of a documentary. Either it moves me emotionally (Children Underground, Undefeated) or it makes me think about the world in new ways (Road to Guantanamo). I’m not sure if a film has ever moved me as much as the 2011 Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner, Undefeated, and if a viewing of The Road to Guantanamo doesn’t leave you incensed about the handling of aspects of the War on Terror, you’re brain dead. Following one season in the life of one of the nation’s most respected high school football programs, Go Tigers! is a more cerebral experience than its spiritual successor, Undefeated, and if it never hits the emotional heights of Undefeated, it may have something more valuable to say.

Undefeated is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen (it’s currently a strong contender for the best, period), and so it’s almost unfair of me to compare Kenneth Carlson’s Go Tigers! to that much-beloved film. Though both films share the structure of following three players through one season (Undefeated also focused on the coach), Undefeated was far more focused on the personalities and emotional growth of the four subjects it portrayed. It was an intensely emotional  and character-driven ride. Go Tigers! is more detached and driven by the meaning of the football town to the team where it plays as well as what type of priorities would produce such a consistently excellent football program.

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In Ohio (and arguably the nation), there is no bigger football program than Massilon, Ohio. Having played for 105 seasons when the film begins, the Masillon Tigers are the oldest high school football team in the nation and easily one of its most successful. Football isn’t just a game in Massilon, Ohio; it’s a way of life. The town lives and dies on the success of the football program, and after a 4-6 season, the town is in a rut. The Massilon school system is on the verge of financial collapse, and if the town can’t pass a levy to salvage the schools, the school’s will have to make devastating cuts across the board. And, in the eyes of the coaches and teachers and players, the only way to convince the town to raise the taxes for the levies is for the high school football team to have a successful season.

Go Tigers! is told from the point of view of three seniors on the football program. Ellery Moore is a natural leader, but the football program is what’s keeping him out of prison where he’s already served a term in juvie for rape (which he denies, but says prison was what he needed regardless). Danny Studer is a gifted artist whose father is the conditioning coach for the team, and Danny’s been bred for football his whole life. And David Irwin is the star quarterback whose biggest concern becomes not making the necessary pass, but finally passing the ACTs. And whether they want it or not, the fate of the whole town lies on these boys’ (and the rest of the team’s) shoulders.

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The residents of Massilon make the obsession of Friday Night Lights‘s residents of Dillon seem like a passing fancy. Danny and David were both held back one year from entering high school so that they could be bigger to play on the football team, and other than an English teacher, no one has a problem with it. Rather than cut some money from the gargantuanly bloated football program, the town wants to raise property taxes on everyone to save the schools. On the day of the biggest game of the season, the high school band has permission from the mayor to march through any establishment in town they choose. Their stadium looks nicer than many smaller colleges. Football is the king of Masillon.

The film is abound with little tidbits exploring the obsession that Massilon has with football, and it isn’t afraid to ask serious questions about where this town’s priorities are. By framing the film’s actions in a town trying to salvage a financially wrecked school system during a major election, the film poses the obvious question of “would this town be in such a mess if the football program weren’t so large?” It also asks such questions as “Would these boys struggle academically if the football program weren’t their lives from the cradle?” And that last part isn’t hyperbole. The film opens with members of the football team staff/booster squad (it isn’t entirely clear) visiting a woman just after she’s given birth and putting a football in her baby’s crib. They do this for every newborn boy in town.

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I watched this movie several evenings ago, but I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. And, this is my first night back in Morgantown after spending the whole summer back in Philippi. I’ve spent most of today in the process of moving and unpacking. It’s as fun and exhausting as it sounds. The fun part is sarcasm. So, I’m going to draw this review to a close. Go Tigers! may not be as life-affirming and immensely enjoyable as Undefeated, but that’s an outrageously high bar to clear. If you have even a passing interest in football, you should give this film a go. I’m not a huge football fan, and I still found it brilliant.

Final Score: A

 

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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

 

(Quick aside before my actual review. We’re on sort of a hot streak here with reviews. Lots of very good or great films lately. And you have to love it when that happens. Makes me remember why I do this blog in the first place.)

I’m going to put forth a rather unpopular position to hold here in the United States. It’s so unpopular, in fact, that if one is running for President of the United States and holds this policy position, they are essentially unelectable. I don’t believe in the death penalty at all. I used to be ardently pro-capital punishment. It was one of my token conservative beliefs (in the face of my otherwise liberal/European political disposition). Yet, after readingJohn Grisham’s non-fiction crime novel, An Innocent Man, I had a fairly sudden and decisive change of heart. The possibility that a single innocent man can be executed invalidates the entire process, and the class and racial disparities inherent in who is actually executed speaks to an inherent inequality and bias to the system. The rest of the world has realized what a barbaric and uncivilized system it is, but here in America we cling to the archaic practice with an almost religious fervor.

One of my problems with the death penalty in its practical use (let alone philosophical oppositions to having the power to end someone’s life) arises from the nature of our legal system. The vast majority of people involved in deciding whether someone should face the death penalty as well as carrying out the investigation and prosecution of the case are publicly elected officials. Politicians (or in this case prosecuting attorneys and judges) have a vested interest in remaining office. The primary way they do this is by not seeming weak on crime. What’s a great way to seem tough on criminals? Execute as many as possible. The way they are chosen for their job creates a feedback loop that places performing in a manner in line with the image they want to project to their constituency ahead of actual justice. The 1992 documentary film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer explores both this issue as well as the money and media circus that prevented America’s first alleged female serial killer from having her fair shot at justice.

For those born in the 90s or who haven’t seen Monster or simply don’t remember the deluge of press when Aileen Wuornos was finally executed in 2002, Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who killed seven men along the Florida interstates between 1989 and 1990. Her claim was that she was acting in self-defense and that each of the men had either raped her or were trying to rape her. British director Nick Bromfield traveled to the U.S. after she had been convicted of the first several of the murders (but not all of them yet) and sentenced to death and interviews her shockingly inept attorney, her adopted mother who is clearly just trying to make a profit off, as well as Wuornos herself. Through footage of the trials as well as evidence obtained showing key figures in the prosecution and investigation profiting off the trial (through film rights), the documentary paints a rather unsettling portrait of Aileen’s failure to receive a fair trial.

There isn’t a question of whether Aileen Wuornos killed those men. She admitted to it. She was apprehended after crashing the car of one of the murder victims (whose body was never found). Her accomplice, Tyria Moore (who was never charged with the crime but the film hints that she profited from film rights as did several key police investigators), had belongings of the victim in her possessions. Honestly, the film doesn’t even make as much of the question of whether Aileen acted in self-defense. I would say she did for the first murder (Richard Mallory) but it’s more questionable with the others. Instead, the film focuses on how so many people ultimately profited from the tragedy of these killings as well as the tragedy of Wuornos’ life period. The adopted “mother” gets a $2500 payment to set up an interview, then tries to stop the interview from happening, and then claims she never got her money in the first place (even though there’s film footage of it happening). You see the deluge of book deals and movie deals and TV deals and the complacency of a system that allows that to happen.

A lot of people seem to take umbrage with the very low quality of the film’s video and that the movie I would imagine started out as an attempt to document the facts of Aileen Wuornos. As you can clearly see throughout the film though, his attempts to do that failed. Nick Broomfield was taken advantage of by Arlene Pralle and Wuornos’ attorney, Steve Glazer, and impeded by law enforcement and the correctional system when they realized he wasn’t painting them in a positive light. So, instead, the film became about the exploitation of Aileen Wuornos by everyone around her as well as her complete inability to receive a fair trial. Since the facts of the case are so well known, taking this approach which instead examines some of the murkier and and less equitable sides of our nation’s legal system makes the film far more interesting in the end than a simple retreading of the facts.

With a history of constant sexual abuse from a young age as well as a history of prostitution from age 11 (just typing that makes me want to cry), Aileen Wuornos lived a troubled and tragic life beyond that which most of us could possibly even begin to imagine. Do I think that she was a danger to society? Yes. She was obviously unhinged in one way or another and likely killed at least one or two of those men not in self-defense (but she likely believed it to be so). Watching the interviews towards the end of her life (which this film doesn’t get to see) clearly shows that. However, she needed mental help. She didn’t need the electric chair (nor, ultimately, what she actually received, lethal injection). Her trial was a travesty of justice, and the people who were supposed to care for her the most just used and exploited her like everyone else in her life. Nick Broomfield captures the tragedy of her victimhood.

Final Score: A-

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