Our earth is a delicate, sensitive, living, breathing organism that needs the care and attention we have not given it. Taking it for granted and wishing to control nature have been the markers of modern life. However, ancestral knowledge always recognized the importance of maintenance of that ecosystem that supports our life. In Seed: The Untold Story, Directors Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz take us back to rethink that important relationship of communing with the earth that feeds us.
The latest documentary by director Jeff Feuerzeig, The JT Leroy Story, explores the making of the character of JT Leroy, an author who rose to fame in the early 2000s as a literary sensation by writing about his life, which included sexual abuse, homelessness and coping with HIV. A publisher recalls the work as a novelty, a new voice. However, the story of JT Leroy was a fantasy, a made-up story concocted by Laura Albert, a 40-year-old San Francisco woman originally from New York. She started using characters since early on in her life as she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. She used these personas partly to escape her life, which was full of trauma and abuse but also, seemingly, to get attention. She even attended therapy sessions as her character, melding fantasy and her life into different personas.
The new documentary Plaza de la Soledad is an artistic rumination on aging that presents interwoven stories of different low-income Mexican women who are in their golden years. Although the stories told by each of these women vary, what they all have in common is they are facing their later years as prostitutes. The documentary offers an unflinching and intimate examination of everyday life for these women who seldom have a voice and are often judged harshly.
April 23, 2014
To many, the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune will feel like a nice consolation for the fact that cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky never finished his version of Frank Herbert’s esteemed sci-fi epic. It’s a terrific chronicle of the Chilean director’s ambitious planning to prepare a thorough treatment for his first film proposed to major Hollywood studios. But it is also a celebration of unfettered creativity in all its glorious excess.
For Jodorowsky, a film about several worlds fighting for possession of a substance that expands consciousness should be treated literally as a mind-altering experience. When he set out to adapt the beloved book (which he admits he never read) in 1975, he said he wanted to not just make a film but “a prophet.” He wanted to alter viewers’ sense of perception. He says he wanted to create the cinematic sensation of taking LSD.
What resulted was several hard-bound books of spaceship designs, character sketches, costumes and storyboards that detailed his vision … but no film. In this documentary, filmmaker Frank Pavich interviews Jodorowsky who waffles between the bright side of bringing a new vision to Hollywood that predated Star Wars and a suppressed rage at the machine that stifled his vision. Pavich also brings to life the images of the book by editing together the story boards and animating some of the many detailed concept designs of the spaceships by rendering them digitally. The camera pans and scales over the static images from the book. There are sound effects and an eerie, Moog-drenched score by Kurt Stenzel that could have been the score to Jodorowky’s Dune. It’s as close to the would-be movie as we get.
But that’s not the point of this documentary.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is really about the vision of the cult director that ultimately expands the consciousness of Hollywood for the daring vision needed to pull off science fiction with respect to considering possibilities that go beyond earthbound thinking. Directors like George Lucas, Ridley Scott and James Cameron are indeed indebted to Jodorowsky for planting the seed of possibility for latter-day sci-fi work such as their’s.
Jodorowsky gathered a true dream team of collaborators, or, as he calls them, warriors, to make his film. He hired people like H.R. Giger, who would later design the title monster of the Alien movies, to design the world of the evil Harkonnen. The dark prog rock band Magma was to compose all the music associated with it. Meanwhile, Pink Floyd agreed to also provide original music and Chris Foss and Jean “Moebius” Giraud were brought in for design and artwork. Dan O’Bannon who would go on to write the screenplay for Alien was hired as a screenwriter based on what Jodorowsky saw in Dark Star. Clearly inspired about by Kurick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jodorowsky also pursued that film’s Oscar-winning effects man Douglas Trumbull. However, Jodorowsky was turned off by his underwhelming, practical bottom-line attitude. He was no spiritual warrior for Dune.
The beauty of this documentary comes from its ability to channel Jodorowsky’s lively attitude for art as enlightenment and spiritual home. When he says he does not want to compromise to the studios even if it means the demise of his project, it becomes the right thing. It’s as if Jodorowsky’s Dune fell apart as a martyr so it might inspire films like Star Wars and Alien.
As ever with Jodorowsky, there’s humor in his wisdom. When Star Wars fans bemoaned George Lucas’ revising his films with digital effects in the 1990s the mantra became “George Lucas raped my childhood.” Jodorowsky, however, proudly declares, “I raped Frank Herbert,” as he thrusts his hips back and forth holding an imaginary book doggy style in front of him. In that charming Jodorowsky way of his, he is not belittling the source material. Instead, he compares it to the consummation of marriage, taking a virginal bride dressed in white to the bedroom, tearing away her dress and fucking her. “I raped him with love,” he adds.
It doesn’t matter that Jodorowsky never read the book. What matters is that he created his own work, something that has only gained more value over time. The legend grows as with its mystical possibilities, hence the notion that this may indeed be one of the greatest films never made. Director Nicolas Winding Refn appears early in the documentary to boast that he’s the only one who has seen Jodorowsky’s version of Dune because the director himself sat with him and paged through the book and shared his vision. As we can expect with Refn, it’s a rather juvenile and insulting comment to this idea of possibilities of what the essence of this film did for science fiction cinema. It lowers the film to a materialistic level that defies Jodorowsky’s vision, which belongs to the imagination, and that’s why Jodorowsky’s Dune stands as the greatest sci-fi movie never made.
Jodorowsky’s Dune runs 90 minutes and is rated PG-13 (for fantastical violent and sexual images and drug references). It opens in South Florida on Apr. 25 in Miami Beach at the Regal South Beach and in Boca Raton at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood. The following week, it opens in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood. It will appear at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on June 7 with other Jodorowsky surprises to be announced. Sony Pictures Classics invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
Update: Actor Brontis Jodorowsky will present the film in person on June 15; he will also introduce another film he stars in, Táu (see MBC’s calendar for details). On Tuesday, June 17, at 7 p.m., he, Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson and Miami Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez will share the stage at MBC in the second installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film and other works by Jodorowsky (see details). A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night.
In recent years, several sports documentary filmmakers have made some celebrated documentaries about winners. In 2008, you had two major ones: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, about a legendary tie football game in 1968. More Than a Game followed the high school basketball team that made LeBron James famous. Some subject matter sometimes went beyond winning on the field or court. Sports can change lives for the better, as the 2011 Academy Award-winning documentary Undefeated proved about inner city youths saved by a football coach.
But compelling sports stories don’t always have to be about the winners. With their new documentary Lenny Cooke, the fraternal team of Ben and Joshua Safdie present a promising high school basketball player who, back in 2001, was once ranked number one on a national level, when scouts were also looking at LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. But, as no one knows Cooke’s name today, one can imagine where he ended up.
The brothers Safdie are not here to make a portrait of a loser, however. Cooke just happened to be one of the many mortals chewed up by the pressures of the NBA machine. Cooke was so prominent a player, ESPN cameras followed him around while he was still in high school.
Early in the film, Cooke takes ESPN reporter Tom Farrey to a rundown section of Bushwick with an entourage of friends following. Cooke walks Farrey over to a two-story building and points to some boarded up windows where says he grew up. “It’s a four-family house, knowwhatimsayin?” He notes his family shared the home with “a couple of crackheads. We had the dirty Puerto Ricans” before “the rats took over.”
He also shares dreams of building a movie theater and a YMCA right nearby. But it’s an empty aspiration modeled after superstar player Magic Johnson. Farrey points to Cooke’s jacket emblazoned with almost two dozen NBA team logos. “Who do you want to play on that whole coat there?”
“I want to play for whoever gonna be a lottery pick.”
It’s that cavalier attitude that will ultimately sink this promising 6-foot-6-inch athlete. Meanwhile, the pressure mounts, not just from ESPN camera crews, but also his friends and family. Even an anonymous bag handler at a train station recognizes Cooke’s physique as the epitome of a born basketballer. “Get that money, baby!” he tells Cooke. “School is always gonna be there.” After the man walks away, Cooke turns away and says, “Shut yo ass up.”
The filmmakers use a vérité style capturing Cooke at such tell-tale, casual moments that reveal a doomed contradiction in a young man who may not be following a dream he has not entirely set his heart on. When he finally decides to make himself available to the NBA draft, after 18 months of not even playing basketball, he quietly weeps at a press conference during the announcement. He is never picked and ends up playing in minor leagues to ever-dwindling audiences.
The Safdie brothers follow Cooke from his high school heyday up until the present day. The chronological narrative serves to provide some subtle drama for those who do not follow basketball or know Cooke’s story. The filmmakers, who are embarking on their first documentary feature with this film (earlier works include the mumblecore films The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddylonglegs), prove they have a sensitive eye for revealing scenes. Who knows how many hours of footage they had of Cooke over the course of 13 years, but they know how to chop it down to create a dynamic, cohesive story and still make their subject endearing. They do not offer any voice-over narrative or ask any off-camera questions. They are there to mostly observe and document.
There is some manipulation in the choice of music, which first kicks off with “Shook Ones Part II” by Mobb Deep, but later turns into the hard bop and free jazz cacophony of Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. Also, they sometimes allow the camera to linger a little too long during Cooke’s 30th birthday celebration, where he ends up singing and breaking down in tears as midnight arrives and most of his friends have all gone home. Then comes a jarringly surreal but superfluous encounter between the elder Cooke and his younger self that hammers its point harder than necessary.
For the most part, though, the Safdies remain reserved and nonjudgmental as they present a captivating testament to the cruel corporate culture of professional sports and one of its tragic casualties. Though it can feel exasperating at times, Lenny Cooke comes across as an important story, handled with enough distance that shows sensitivity to its subject while offering an objective critique of what broke him down.
Lenny Cooke runs 90 minutes and is unrated (expect some real language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Jan. 24, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.
January 16, 2014
This morning, the nominees for the Oscar® awards were announced. Among those nominated for best documentary* was the already plenty-award-winning film the Act of Killing, which also won best documentary from us at the Florida Film Critics Circle. The film’s co-director, Joshua Oppenheimer sent us a statement regarding the nomination this morning: “We are deeply grateful. This nomination is an honor for us as filmmakers, but for the survivors and victims it is a crucial first step in their country’s acknowledgement of a moral catastrophe— the horror of the genocide and the on-going regime of fear and corruption built by the killers. May it also be a first step toward healing.”
Last week, Cinedigm Entertainment released the extended cut of the Act of Killing on home video. I first spoke to Oppenheimer last year. We spoke fast and deep about this film, and much of our conversation can be found in this post featuring two articles:
However, as is usually the case, even with two articles, there was still left over material from our interview. I don’t even think I had room to note that Oppenheimer is actually credited as co-director with Christine Cynn and “Anonymous,” the latter representing the survivors of a virtual genocide in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965. They too spoke out about the Academy Award nomination: “The Act of Killing— and the issues of impunity it raises— will make front-page news today in Indonesia. Our schools still teach children an official history that glorifies genocide, and our government continues to celebrate mass murderers as national heroes. They do so to keep us afraid, so we won’t dare hold them accountable for their crimes. I hope this nomination encourages us to demand truth, justice, and reconciliation.”
That fear was the source of inspiration for making the Act of Killing. Oppenheimer revealed the project began with the Globalisation Tapes, a film he made with Cynn about a Belgian-owned oil pump plantation in Indonesia that manufactured palm oil (take note, Nutella lovers), which documents the struggles of workers with abuse and inhumane working conditions (the film was never released on home video, but you can view it free here). Oppenheimer noted that the workers were threatened into not forming a union and had to endure forced labor and pesticides that killed mostly women over the age of 40. “Turned out that the reason they were terrorized into silence was that their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965 and had been accused for being communist sympathizers simply because they were in a union, had been rounded up, put in concentration camps and dispatched out to be killed by local death squads, and they were afraid that this could happen to them again.”
This piece of history that still haunts much of the Indonesian population became the inspiration for the Act of Killing. However, the filmmaking was met with many roadblocks by Indonesian officials. “As soon as we came back and word got out that that’s what we were doing, the army would come and stop us from shooting with them,” Oppenheimer said.
The victims that compose “Anonymous” then gave Oppenheimer and Cynn the idea to focus on the perpetrators because, they said, they would gladly not only share details about the killings they committed but also show off about them. The filmmakers struck a goldmine of material to work with. “I found they were all boastful. They were all open,” said Oppenheimer. “I found myself in Germany 40 years after the holocaust, and the Nazis were still in power.”
The filmmakers were able to brew up a surreal concoction of staged movie scenes featuring the killers themselves among traditional documentary footage. The mix of gangster film, musical, horror movie and documentary makes for a surreal experience that feels more truthful than most documentaries. The Act of Killing takes an exploration into the depths of the soul of men corrupted by heinous acts to a whole other level.
Oppenheimer said he prefers the extended cut of the film, a near-three-hour odyssey into the heart of remorse and revelation unlike most anyone will ever see, which can be found on the home video release. He notes one of the film’s executive producers also prefers this longer cut to the U.S. theatrical cut: the famed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog (the other noteworthy executive producer is Errol Morris).
The director also noted that some of the subjects of his film have seen this extended cut. “Anwar [Congo] was very, very moved by it. He was silent from a long time after watching it, a little bit tearful, and he said, ‘This film shows what it is like to be me. I am grateful to have had the chance to finally express feelings that I have been discouraged from acknowledging for so many years.’”
Oppenheimer noted he and Congo, who he filmed over the course of five years, have remained in touch, “and always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate and ultimately transformative journey.”
Then there was Herman Koto, who never hesitated to dress in drag during many of the staged scenes. “Herman has seen the film and loves the film,” said Oppenheimer. “Herman, over the course of the film, fell in love with acting, developed an actor’s loyalty to the truth. A good actor has to have a loyalty to the moral and emotional truth of any situation that she or he is acting in. He does.”
Oppenheimer said Koto also came to his own revelation about the group he belonged to, the sort-of neo-fascist Pancasila Youth, which still hold rallies celebrating the killings to this day. “He became more disillusioned with Pancasila Youth because he came to understand more and more deeply the horror upon which it’s all built. So he’s been very supportive of the film.”
Someone Oppenheimer did not bother showing the film to was Adi Zulkadry. He explained, “He recognizes in the film exactly what the film will do and decides to leave the film for that reason, and he has high connections with the paramilitary leadership in Indonesia, and I was worried that if he saw the film he could start lobbying against the film and that could jeopardize our plan for distributing the film in Indonesia and could make it unsafe for people to screen the film … All high-ranking political leaders who appear in the film inevitably hate the film, as well as they should, or else it would mean I didn’t do my job.”
Though, throughout the Act of Killing, the filmmakers keep the implications of U.S. culpability to these killings on a subtle level in the film, juxtaposing destitute neighborhoods and the fancy malls tourists and the upper class frequent in Jakarta, it’s not lost on Oppenheimer that there was something culturally criminal at play here. Therefore, there could be some poetic justice if the film indeed wins the Oscar, come March 2. “There could be a whole film made, certainly a book written, about the U.S.’s role in supporting the genocide,” he said. “but that would be a historical film. The Act of Killing is not a film about the past. It’s a film about today. It’s about how the past is abused in the present … The moral and cultural vacuum of sort of rampant capitalism and consumerism. The alienation, the hollowness of consumerism is a character that haunts the whole movie.”
*Also nominated for best documentary feature was another Indie Ethos favorite, Cutie and the Boxer (Film Review: ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ looks beyond art for the heart of a long-term relationship)
November 15, 2013
Life emanates from the smallest component. This is the premise of the new documentary Symphony of Soil, where even the most minuscule organisms are shown to have a big impact on our health, environment and the planet. The documentary is a well-researched thoughtful piece directed by Deborah Koons Garcia that presents a slew of passionate scientists unraveling the complex processes that make planet earth thrive. The focus is on soil and how this seemingly small and overlooked component is the basis for environmental success.
The documentary is a master class in the science and practice of sustainable farming. While we learn a lot, the information is not presented in a preachy, you-should-feel-guilty-for-how-you-are-currently-living kind of way. Indeed, unlike many of the environmentally aware/advocacy documentaries, A Symphony of Soil is informative without being heavy-handed. It is a well-organized piece that will also be quite enjoyable for those with a curious mind.
Cast as the protagonist, soil appears as something more than just dirt. Soil is the foundation from which life emanates. When one scientist takes an auger to one lush piece of ground it almost feels as though he is cutting into the fleshy skin of a giant animal. Koons Garcia’s accomplishment stems from the fact that she can create such a bond with an inanimate organism. The slew of experts and practitioners also are cast in the same passionate light about soil. Though the subject could easily induce boredom in some viewers, Koons Garcia’s treatment is uplifting and inspiring.
Through this documentary, Koons Garcia makes a point to show that the future is wide open; we can either continue to squander resources or try the various alternatives presented in the film. As it turns out, Koons Garcia does not tell us what to do but shows us what others are accomplishing. The alternatives are exciting, from a farmer in North Dakota who grew up in a farm and realized what traditional farming does to the earth, to an Indian farmer (Jaspal Singh Chattha) who waxes eloquent about the need for natural, sustainable compost and rails against the Green Revolution.
This is Koons Garcia’s second piece on the importance of environmental conservation. Her previous work The Future of Food was released in 2004, where she depicted the move towards genetically modified foods by agribusiness and the resistance from organic farmers.
Symphony of Soil runs 104 mins. Shotwell Media provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. You can catch it on DVD or catch one of the special screenings available near you. It is set to screen in Palm Beach, on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 3 p.m. at ArtsMuvico Parisian 20 & IMAX. Tickets can be purchased here. For a complete calendar of screenings around the country go here.