Friday, June 24, 2011

Silverdocs movies

Give Up Tomorrow is the story of Paco and six other young men, who were accused of a rape and murder they did not commit. Paco, the main subject of the film, is vouched for by classmates and teachers who say that he was hundreds of miles away from the crime scene at the time. Through possible misidentification of the bodies at the crime scene, and the alleged victim's mother wielding undue influence in the investigation, the Philippines justice system is revealed to be at best incompetent and at worst extremely corrupt. It's revealed that the alleged victim's father was once a business associate of feared Filipino drug lord Philip Lim, and his daughters vanished right before he was scheduled to testify in a case against Lim; however, a journalist interviewed who wanted to pursue that side of the story was rebuffed by his editors. The victim's mother is overly theatrical in her grief, and later unapologetic about her crusade against Paco, and through her interviews, comes off as very unsympathetic as the film goes on. Paco, however, is very sympathetic. He refuses to flee the country when first accused (against the advice of his family), believing justice will be served because he is innocent, and refuses to give up hope, however hopeless his situation becomes. He never shows the extreme levels of grief that his family does, he remains calm even in dire circumstances, confident that his innocence will come to light and he will be freed. Periodic vindications, such as an overturn of his death sentence and the revelation of corruption in the officials who prosecuted him, are met with further setbacks, like the promise of being freed if he confesses to his crime. But Paco refuses to confess to something he didn't do. In prison, he says, he has three rules; he won't kill himself, he won't kill anyone else, and he won't bring trouble to himself. The title comes from another of Paco's sayings; he says, if he has to give up, he will, "give up tomorrow," and when tomorrow comes, he says the same thing. The story is told through interviews and placards to provide background, with an underdog hero, Paco, facing multiple villains, a corrupt system and the crusading and deceitful mother of his alleged victim.
Lest viewers think that drastic miscarriages of justice are strictly an overseas phenomenon, Scenes of a Crime, which examines police interrogation techniques in the case of a man accused of murdering his infant son, shows that the American justice system has its own flaws. One audience member said the film "made me sick to my stomach." The detectives, who readily admit to using deceit and outright lies to get a confession, do not come off looking good, although they are apparently proud of what they do. Two jurors are interviewed, who do not mention the medical evidence disputing the prosecution's case (evidence that the infant had a severe bacterial infection that had caused him to show signs of illness for days before his death), but just "I saw the confession" and treat that as enough for a conviction. The defense is denied the right to put an expert on interrogation techniques on the stand (a move that one juror said may have changed the outcome of the trial, but another calls "insulting" because "I saw the video"), but with their medical experts, are not fully deterred. Adrian Thomas is ultimately convicted, and the prosecution stands by their story (with one prosecutor describing the case with extreme pathos as though she's still in front of the jury). One of the film's most powerful elements is presenting video of Thomas' interrogation alongside the detectives' admissions of trickery, and with clips from an interrogation training video, which advocates the use of psychological deceit to get the confession. One juror, although disapproving of the interrogation techniques, had the attitude "If that's what works." The most troubling element was how the sound, solid medical evidence, which could have at least produced reasonable doubt, was all but ignored by the jury (a fact further confirmed by phone interviews the filmmakers conducted with jurors who did not want to be filmed) in favor of the "confession." The obvious implication here is that medical evidence was too technical and, perhaps, "boring," but the confession was immediate and easily understood, or so they thought. The reason one juror would have been "insulted" by an interrogation expert explaining that the confession had been coerced and the suspect had been guided by the interrogators (a fact quite apparent in the video, and it should be noted that this interrogation lasted ten hours), is that no one likes to be told that their perception could be wrong, that human perception is fallible. But this fact has come before the criminal justice system in the past, with studies showing the trouble of relying on eyewitness testimony, and the phenomenon of coerced confessions has come up in the past. One of the filmmakers told the audience in the discussion following the film that 25 percent of the convicted criminals later cleared by DNA evidence through the Innocence Project had given confessions. Another troubling element was that the prosecution's medical witnesses, including the on-duty doctor who claimed a skull fracture had killed the infant, refused to be interviewed for the film. Upon later examination, no skull fracture was found on the child. The police based their suspicions on this faulty medical testimony from a doctor who, by his own admission, had not slept in two days. The film interviews people involved on both sides of the case, as well as Adrian Thomas, currently serving a 25 to life sentence for a crime he says he didn't commit. There is no narration, just the stories of investigators, doctors and attorneys, and Thomas, and the interrogation. The filmmakers step back and let their subjects speak for themselves, and, as they said in the post-screening interview, leave the topic open to discussion. While the film ends up on the side of the defense, it is the troubling interrogation video, not skewed commentary from the filmmakers, that leads to this conclusion. Despite the downbeat message, one of the filmmakers, who I spoke to after the screening, feels that some good can come out of it. She expressed her wish to show it to police officers, to show them the ill effects of current, widely accepted police tactics.

Silverdocs 2011 was not all depressing examinations of corrupt justice systems. To Be Heard is a genuinely inspiring film about a creative writing program in the Bronx. It's unique among the documentary genre in that it presents a solution rather than just a problem. Three students in the program become well-known to the audience to the point where their successes and failures are truly felt by the viewer. When Anthony, a truly talented poet and performer, gets in trouble with the law and can't seem to change his detrimental character flaws, there is a genuine disappointment. When Karina is kicked out of her house after a fight with her mother, there is palpable sadness. When, at the end, we learn she has become a teacher in the Power Writing program (we see her earlier giving journals to her younger siblings and guiding them through writing), the audience cheered. The audience I saw the film with cheered heavily when learning that Pearl, an intelligent, driven and positive young woman, had been accepted to Sarah Lawrence, her dream college. By showing the failures of the students along with the successes, the film avoids "inspirational film" cliches, showing that the writing program is not a miracle cure, but merely a tool to help students who want to help themselves. Teacher and filmmaker Roland Legiardi-Laura said in the panel discussion following the film that this is a program that can be replicated anywhere, that there is no real trick to it, but just giving students a platform to express themselves and learn the power of words (a power, Roland tells them, the world "doesn't want you to have"). This film could be an educational tool, to inspire other schools to replicate the program, and there were educators in the audience, some of whom expressed interest in doing exactly that in their own curricula. This is a film that has the potential to not only inspire viewers, but to revolutionize the American education system, which teachers, parents and students around the country have said is going rapidly downhill.
Being Elmo is a lighthearted, and inspiring in its own way, portrait of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who created the iconic Sesame Street character Elmo. Clash grew up in Baltimore, obsessively watching Sesame Street and, he says, anything done by Jim Henson. Through his local puppet shows at schools and hospitals, he gets on local television and, later, a chance to work with Henson and on Sesame Street. The film goes through his bewilderment as his creation Elmo becomes a cultural phenomenon, and the paradox that entertaining millions of children had taken him away from his own daughter (an issue I wish the film had explored in more depth). Toward the end of the film, Clash is shown giving a child, also interested in puppetry, a tour of the Sesame Street studio and puppet workshop, just as Jim Henson's puppeteers had done for him early in his own career. Another affecting moment has Clash, and Elmo, meeting a sick child, and while Elmo is hugging the child, the camera pans down to Clash, holding up the puppet, fighting back tears. He's moved by what's going on, but can't break character. Elmo can't be sad. The film's best moment comes when Clash describes his flash of inspiration for the character of Elmo. Taking Frank Oz's advice that every puppet character "needs a hook," the hook for Elmo hits Clash on a train ride. Elmo ends up with characteristics of his parents, who Clash says supported him and his dream from the beginning. He gives Elmo his father's imagination and his mother's positive energy. Elmo's hook, Clash realizes, is "love...Elmo loves you." Here, the creator of an icon not only explains how he came up with the character, but also the character's appeal. Young or old, who doesn't like to feel loved?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The beginning and end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's documentary about a cave in France where prehistoric art has been found, are its only weak points. It starts off with long panning shots with excessively loud and pompous music, giving a forbidding tone that the rest of the film does not possess. Herzog's narration, describing the exact location and other details about the cave, is excessively detailed, and detracts from the clear magnificence of the subject.
At the end, Herzog offers a very odd postscript, describing climate changes caused by a nuclear power plant near the historic cave, which induced a tropical climate leading to mutant albino crocodiles. While it's possible he was trying to describe how the world and its inhabitants change over the years, how the mutant life forms of tomorrow are as removed from humans as humans are from the prehistoric humans who made the art in the cave, the message gets lost in the muddled execution.
The rest of the film, however, is masterful. The images from the cave are indelible; far from typical notions of "prehistoric" art, the depictions of animals are detailed (beautifully showcased in a montage near the end), with clear facial expressions and techniques to suggest movement. They're so detailed and sophisticated that they were initially thought to be forgeries, until analysis of the cave elements coating the paintings proved them to be twenty to thirty thousand years old. The discovery was so remarkable that one archaeologist who examined the artwork in the cave says that, after five days of exploration, he had to leave the expedition for days in order to "absorb" what he had seen. He had dreams about the lions depicted on the cave walls.
The enthusiasm and passion of the explorers comes through in the interviews, and is part of what makes the film so engaging. One notes handprints on one wall, seeing a broken pinky on the hand, which allows her to identify the same prehistoric man as having been in another part of the cave; she says she's "following" the person who walked in the cave thousands of years ago.
Herzog's lighting is one of the best parts of the film. At times, the lights are strong, to clearly illuminate the striking detail of the cave art, but at other times it flickers, to suggest, the narration points out, the torches carried by the prehistoric artists while they drew the pictures. Through this inventive technique, the audience is allowed to travel back in time, to our early ancestors, and view the ancient art through their eyes.

On a personal note, I am a great admirer of Herzog's work, and this may be one of his best efforts. Like the best documentaries, through a specific subject it illuminates and triggers thoughts on a larger scale; in this case, mankind's evolution and the role of art in civilization.
One comment in the film that I found interesting was that, although the bones of many different animals were found in the cave, no human bones were among them, suggesting that humans never lived in that cave. Still, the walls are covered with art. Was it an outpost for travelers? Or a prehistoric art gallery, where early humans displayed their paintings for others to see?
In this and other caves, the explorers have found, in addition to visual art, early musical instruments, a statuette of a woman carved from a mammoth tusk, and even possible evidence of a religious ceremony, a bear skull deliberately placed on a large rock. One archaeologist says that, rather than "homo sapiens", which means "knowing," "homo spiritus" is far more accurate, since "we don't know anything," but human spirit, exemplified in art, began to express itself at this time.
Even early in man's evolution, we had art, representations of what we saw around us. It was simple in subject, but sophisticated in execution (animals were drawn with multiple limbs to suggest movement, the wavy walls of the cave also add to the illusion of movement). One interview subject says the cave art was a means of communication, a way to tell others what they had seen before language evolved. Art, music and religious rites were methods of building society, of strengthening bonds between early humans. Even now, art is used to communicate ideas, or just convey new and interesting images, scenes and stories. Our methods may have evolved, but our aim is the same. We can now manufacture materials for musical instruments instead of having to kill animals and carve flutes from their bones, but the goal of music is the same, to capture mood, soothe or exorcise our psyches, and communicate.

Monday, March 7, 2011


The first film from Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi, who has gone on to make some of the most interesting films I've ever seen, Taxidermia and I Am Not Your Friend, a catalog of ordinary events with a sinister undercurrent. It begins with an old man hiccuping, and the old man sitting outside almost serves as a cornerstone to other residents of the town passing by.
The exaggeration of the mundane is interesting at times, with some fascinating shots, like the man's hiccups creaking his bench, revealing the ants crawling underneath, or a woman in black standing behind a farming couple, which turns out to be innocent, but the old woman's black clothing and how she stands give the scene an initially sinister cast. Another interesting scene has a panorama of the fields, which break into filmstrips, showing the photo negatives that a town resident has taken. Like Taxidermia highlighted the violence of vomiting, Hukkle shows the grinding of tires into the ground and the shaking of milk jars on carts as almost violent, through closeups. But the mundane can be, well, mundane, especially when stretched out into 78 minutes. This may have worked better as a short film, with more impact.
The first appearance of policeman is standing in a field, and initially nothing is thought of it. Then he's seen visiting various houses, clearly conducting questioning, although no dialogue is heard. The questioning scenes are treated as just another scene from the day, and as the camera pans to a fishing scene, the camera goes under the water to find a dead body. There are two funeral scenes, adding to the dark tone.
The attention to small details becomes clear as the detective is looking at a photo of a picnic setup, with seemingly nothing to do with any murder. Detectives have to observe the most mundane, seemingly unimportant details, just as the viewer has done. However, it's still unclear what everything in the film has to do with any murder, as is a bizarre scene that breaks the overall calm of the film, with no clear reason.
As Palfi's first movie, it hardly stands up to his later great works, but it shows his promise as a filmmaker. And one of his central themes is clear from this debut: in his later films, it's almost taken for granted that people do terrible things to themselves and each other. Violence, physical and psychological, is seen as an inevitable part of the human experience. In this overview of a day in the life of a small Hungarian village, a murder and the subsequent investigation are just part of the scenery.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Bronson (2008)

On recommendation from a friend, I watched this film on Netflix recently, and was beyond impressed. I haven't gotten out to the movies to see anything new lately, but I'm glad I watched this one, albeit two years later.
Bronson tells the story of Michael Peterson, who later went by his "fighting name," Charles Bronson, known as "Britain's most violent criminal." After being arrested for a bank robbery, Peterson, seeking fame and some kind of recognition, turns into a wild beast behind bars, garnering his dubious reputation. The film follows him from one penitentiary to another, where he comes up with creative violent means to sustain his reputation. The violent fight scenes captured by director Nicolas Winding Refn are some of the most visceral and direct ever put on film, yet manage to avoid exploitative gore through sheer emotional impact, and because the movie isn't all bloody fight scenes. The narrative is broken with a clever device, where Peterson, aka Bronson, imagines telling his story in a theater to a captive audience, putting on a full performance throughout the tale, making light of his vicious behavior. That he chose the name of an action star as his pseudonym is significant, because his violence, his whole life, is performance, a means to get noticed. Unlike Natural Born Killers, whose director Oliver Stone beat the viewer over the head with the "infamy=fame" equation, Bronson, through creative and engaging storytelling, highlights the same issue in a far more subtle and affecting manner.
The undeniable highlight of Bronson is the fearless, unflinching and powerful performance of Tom Hardy in the lead. Hardy, who gained mainstream notice for his standout role in 2010's Inception, makes the most of the role. He's perfectly menacing in the fight scenes, but he isn't afraid to look foolish for the part, as in Bronson's hammier "monologues" in the theater of his mind, or to show a vulnerable side in Peterson's troubled earlier life. Hardy shows a remarkable range, and plays each side with equal intensity. Through Hardy's charisma and Refn's eye for visceral violence, the viewer gets dragged, willingly, through a harrowing journey into the life and mind of a psychopath, one they won't forget.