Category Archives: Documentary

SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

https://i0.wp.com/4.bp.blogspot.com/-yZ8pBUuEZJc/UZxUrA232MI/AAAAAAAAEJM/5mkz__zedRs/s1600/KukanDuo+-+Copy.jpg?resize=474%2C367&ssl=1

The first documentary to win an Oscar was the 1941 film Kukan: The Battle Cry of China. There are two unfortunate footnotes. 1.) The film, a unique and historically important “front line” document of Japan’s 1937 invasion of China, has since all but vanished from the public eye. 2.) The female producer, Ling-Ai Li, was not credited. With two tantalizing mysteries to solve, film maker Robin Lung had her work cut out for her. The director’s 7-year quest yields two separate yet convergent narratives: a world-wide search for prints of Kukan for possible restoration, and the fascinating life of a previously unsung female film making pioneer. Lung nicely ties the threads together.

SIFF 2017: A Life in Waves ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/www.onscenes.com/uploads/9/8/6/5/98654918/published/ciani74nyc.jpeg?resize=474%2C356

While her name isn’t a household word, Suzanne Ciani is a musical polymath whose work has been heard by millions…from New Age fans to pinball enthusiasts. Brett Whitcomb’s film is an inspirational portrait of this innovative artist’s 40-year career. An early electronica pioneer, the classically-trained Ciani was in one respect too ahead of her time, because she hit the glass ceiling fairly quickly (the late 60s synth scene was a boy’s club). Undaunted, she reinvented herself as a “sound designer”, making a ton of loot devising ad jingles (and effects, like the Coca-Cola “pop and pour” sound), theme songs, game sound effects, you name it. She kept composing, eventually founding her own New Age record label and becoming a genre star. A fascinating look at a creative genius who’s managed to ride the wave at the crest between art and commerce.

SIFF 2017: Angry Inuk ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

https://i1.wp.com/boxoffice.hotdocs.ca/images/user/hdff_2315/2016/Angry_Inuk_2.jpg?resize=474%2C266

Canadian film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril hails from an Inuk community near Baffin Island, where locals rely on traditional subsistence seal hunting; not only to literally put food on the table, but to earn a living from commercial sales of sealskin products. In 2009, the European Union banned commercial trade in all seal products except for those from Indigenous hunts. While that seems a reasonable concession, the director and her fellow Inuk activists feel that the legislators and animal rights groups miss the fact that the ban has all but killed the market for the products-thus putting the Inuk people in dire economic straits. Aranquq-Baril’s documentary is wise, witty and thought-provoking, offering up a unique perspective on this controversial issue.

SIFF 2017: The Force ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

https://pmcvariety.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/the-force-documentary.jpg?w=474&h=377&crop=1

Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling (my review). It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides.

SIFF 2017: The Farthest ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

https://i0.wp.com/www.diff.ie/content/festival17/The_Farthest_DIFF_7.jpg?resize=474%2C376

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being plunked in front of the TV, transfixed by the reassuring visage of Walter Cronkite, with the familiar backdrop of the Cape Canaveral launch pad. Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event? We seem to have lost that collective feeling of wonder and curiosity about mankind’s plunge into the cosmos (people are too busy looking down at their goddam phones to stargaze anymore). Emer Reynolds’ beautifully made documentary about the twin Voyager space probes rekindles that excitement for any of us who dare to look up. And if the footage of Carl Sagan’s eloquent musings regarding the “pale blue dot” that we call home fails to bring you to tears, then surely you have no soul.

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

https://i1.wp.com/www.berlinale.de/media/filmstills/2017_2/generation_18/201713084_2_IMG_FIX_700x700.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SIFF 2017: Bill Frisell: A Portrait ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/fretboard/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/20012807/DSC00153-720x480.jpg?resize=474%2C316&ssl=1

He doesn’t “shred” or do windmills on stage. In fact, he looks more like a college professor who drives a 1972 Volvo than a peer-revered guitar slinger that most people have never heard of. I will confess that even I (an alleged music geek) couldn’t name one Bill Frisell song. Yet, this unassuming Seattle-based virtuoso has 35 solo albums and scores of sessions with more well-known artists to his credit. He’s also tough to nail down; All Music Guide files him under a dozen genres, including Modern Creative, Post-Bop, New Acoustic, World Fusion, and Progressive Folk. Emma Franz’s film, while perhaps just a smidgen overlong for anyone but a super-fan, nicely conveys the joy of creating, and as its title infers-delivers an amiable portrait of an inventive player.

SIFF 2017: The Fabulous Allan Carr ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

https://i1.wp.com/insideout.ca/de/cache/toronto_films/1368/630_fl_365.jpg?w=474

If you learn one thing about the business we call “show” from Jeffrey Schwarz’s profile of late movie producer Allan Carr, it’s this: For every Grease, there’s a Grease 2. Yes, the same man produced both films. But there was a lot more to this flamboyant showman, who first demonstrated his inherent genius for turning lemons into lemonade when he secured domestic distribution for a no-budget Mexican exploitation flick about the Uruguayan rugby team plane crash survivors who kept alive by gnawing on their less fortunate teammates (you remember Survive!). He produced some huge hits…and probably more misses. But his hits were big enough to sustain a hedonistic lifestyle, which included legendarily over-the-top parties. An entertaining paean to a special type of excess that flourished from the mid-1970s thru the early 1980s.

SJFF 2017: The Last Laugh ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

https://i0.wp.com/www.highdefdigest.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/last-laugh-425x225.jpg?resize=425%2C225

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. How many Jews can you fit in a VW? No, seriously…you should stop me, even if you haven’t heard it. Because if you do know the punch line, and you think it’s funny, shame on you. Of course, if you’ve never heard it, and now you’re dying to know the punchline, then, shame on me for propagating this horribly tasteless joke, even in this strictly academic context. Because now you’re going to Google it anyway, and if you do, and think it’s funny, then, shame on both of us.

I’ve had people tell me that sophomoric joke over the years, having no idea that I’m Jewish. And every time, I am so tempted to completely destroy them with one simple sentence: “You know, I have relatives on my mother’s side of the family who died at Auschwitz.”  But I don’t. I take the high road; I give a perfunctory chuckle, glance at my watch and mumble something about being late for this thing I have to get to right away.

I think that’s the gist of this documentary, which is built around this rhetorical question: Can the Holocaust be funny? Now, I am by no means a prude, or a P.C. scold. As a former stand-up comic, I firmly believe that when it comes to comedy, no subject is taboo, including the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that I find anything intrinsically funny about the Holocaust…because I don’t. I think it’s possible to cogently stick to my comedy credo as well my opinion that only a sociopath would find the Holocaust “ha-ha” funny.

But, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, right? Anyone? Bueller?

Even Mel Brooks, who is one of the professional funny people on hand to opine on the topic, won’t “go there”. Remember, this is the guy who gave us “Springtime for Hitler”. However, as he astutely reminds us, he may have made fun of Hitler, the Nazis, and the very idea of the Third Reich in his classic film The Producers…but he wasn’t “making fun” of the Holocaust, or milking laughs from it in and of itself in any way shape or form.

And that’s the general consensus from nearly all the comedy luminaries who appear in the film, like Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jeffrey Ross and Harry Shearer; that nothing is off limits in comedy, but everyone still reserves the right to draw their own line, and not ever cross it.

But what about those who actually lived through the Holocaust? That’s where the film gets particularly fascinating; when director Ferne Pearlstein invites survivors to weigh in. It is through their stories that the film ultimately finds not only its heart and soul, but critical historical context concerning a people who have developed a deep-seated cultural fatalism and sense of gallows humor purely as a survival mechanism to get through all the shit that’s been dumped on them for 5,000 years. Hey, quit laughing-that’s not funny.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SJFF 2017: Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/www.biggaypictureshow.com/bgps/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Whos-Gonna-Love-Me-Now.jpg?w=474

This bittersweet yet life-affirming documentary, which recalls the PBS series An American Family, takes an intimate look at the travails of a 40 year-old Israeli man named Saar, who has lived a happy and fulfilling life being out and proud in London, despite the fact that his move was precipitated by getting barred from the  kibbutz where he grew up. However, he is currently weathering a midlife crisis, with an added poignancy: he is HIV-positive and yearns to meaningfully reconnect with his estranged family in Israel, who seem unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their familial love for Saar with their deeply held religious fundamentalist tenants regarding homosexuality. Co-directing brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann were given extraordinary access to Saar and his family, resulting in something rarely experienced at the movies anymore-real and heartbreaking emotional honesty, handled with great sensitivity and compassion.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)