This is the strongest line-up of films (across the board) in the Documentary Feature Competition that I remember at RiverRun.
An African Election (Ghana/Switzerland/USA, 89 minutes, 2011) The first of two films in the program dealing with Africa, this film covers the 2008 democratic election in Ghana focusing on the office of president. Many of us remember the headlines and news coverage of the contested results in the close race, and this doc provides more context in a format that sustains viewer interest in the outcome.
Armadillo (Denmark, 100 minutes, 2010) Did I just mention context? Context, context, context. Wow. These filmmakers understand its importance and deliver in a big way. This is my pick for Best Documentary in the competition. Armadillo is the film I wanted Restrepo to be. Filmmakers are embedded with a group of Danish soldiers at Armadillo, a base in Southern Afghanistan. While some of the sequences seem to mirror those in Oscar-nominated Restrepo, which speaks to the similarities of troops and situations involved in the war, Armadillo digs much deeper psychologically, has a stronger storyline, and frames the combat experience with establishing and concluding sequences in Denmark that introduce some of their family members in an organic way and makes these “characters” better known to us from the outset. All of that raises the stakes for the viewer. Notable, too, is the cinematography – particularly in the field – the editing to maximize dramatic storytelling, and the exquisite score, which is perfect for this film. Armadillo is a must-see film among the docs in the program.
The Day Carl Sandburg Died (USA, 82, 2011) This is a world premiere showing of a film with plenty of North Carolina ties. Family members, scholars, and performers provide a fitting remembrance of a complex and noteworthy American, a “man of letters” who championed the working class and offered definitions of the American experience that link us rather than divide us. We could use a dose of that right about now. Also, I might be the only person in the Triad who doesn’t know Penelope (Penny) Niven personally, but I have heard her on WFDD and seen her as a key interviewee in this film. Though much of the material was familiar to me, North Carolina director Paul Bonesteel does a good job making it seem fresh.
The Flaw (UK, 78 minutes, 2011) This film covers some of the same ground as the Academy Award winning documentary Inside Job, but that is no criticism. This story deserves to be told over again! Using interviews with economists including Joseph Stiglitz and other observers of and participants in the 2008 financial meltdown, director David Sington integrates archival news footage and old educational films to make the film engaging and to help explain what factors led to the collapse.
The Game of Death (France, 93 minutes, 2010) This is one of my two least favorites of the documentaries in the program (look for the other one next to the bottom of this post). Filmmakers set up a fake game show built around the principles of the Milgram experiment in which participants are asked to shock someone in the next room if the subject provides incorrect answers to questions. An astonishing number of participants do as told even when it is conveyed that the subject (not really being shocked) is in pain. My problem with the documentary – aside from the fact that it is as repetitive as the reality shows it condemns – is that it simultaneously blames extreme television shows for desensitizing people so that they will accept this sort of barbaric torture and plays on the same responses in the audience for the documentary.
Genpin (Japan, 92 minutes, 2010) There are moments and sequences in this film that are riveting, but the structure and pacing of the documentary as currently edited make it tedious at times. That’s a shame because the raw material in this story about natural childbirth in Japan is certainly engrossing.
Kinshasa Symphony (Germany, 95 minutes, 2010) This is the second of two positive documentaries about Africa. A colleague of mine recently said that she didn’t think she could bear to watch another story of despair from Africa, and I hope she’ll see this film. It’s beautifully photographed and provides a powerful testament to the way art can provide purpose and transform lives. All music lovers will enjoy this engaging documentary. My fear going into the film was that it would smack of cultural imperialism, but – happily – that is not the case here.
Nenette (France, 70 minutes, 2010) This film, a portrait of a 40-year-old orangutan on display in Paris, falls into a more experimental mode using observational techniques that focus on Nenette and obscure various narrators – zookeepers and visitors of all ages. I call this an experimental mode of direct cinema because of the juxtaposition of the audio against the images of the primates. I like what the film is trying to do more than I enjoyed watching the actual film, but it offers a nice complement stylistically to the rest of the program.
Space Tourists (Switzerland, 98 minutes, 2009) This film is a bit of a mess and winds up as one of my two least favorite docs in competition. I cannot recommend it (or The Game of Death) even for niche audiences. Space Tourists contains several reasonably good ideas in search of a story. I often say various films I see should be ten minutes or so shorter, but I don’t often (ever?) advocate cutting the running time by more than a third. For Space Tourists, this sort of cutting would undoubtedly help as would starting over with a new score. The current music grates rather than enhances. A lot of people dream of going into space. I’m not one of them. But, if this story had some focus and depth, I could find learning about space tourists engaging.
We Were Here (USA, 90 minutes, 2011) Sometimes documentaries feel like oral history projects, and that’s a bad thing. Not so this time. Focusing on the stories of a few key interviewees, this film expresses the way AIDS affected the emotional landscape of San Francisco in the early 1980s. Archival photos and footage are used effectively to anchor the remembrances, and the stories shared have lost none of their emotional power in intervening years. This film is an important historical document, a moving portrait of a community in transition, and a personal narrative of love and friendship. That’s a lot to accomplish in an hour and a half.