My Black History Month and Oscar Post rolled into one: 13th

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Frankly, I don’t care much about the Oscars, especially in years where it seems voters have lost their mind over a film I don’t care to rush to the theater to see (La La Land) and which can’t be that great (just like I can’t get over the perfectly OK Chicago being considered the Best of that year, just because it was a musical). The Oscars lost a lot of credibility over the years, and they seem to be trying to make it up with this year’s non-musical nominations. In any case, I’m always curious about the documentaries that are nominated. A few years ago, all five nominations were on Netflix, so I was able to see all the documentaries before the ceremony. This year, I’ve only seen two, but I can’t imagine any of the other nominees being better than the two I have seen. In fact, these two documentaries might be my number 1 and 2 of 2016’s best films. One of them is a Netflix documentary, 13th, a most timely film that should be watched tonight, even if you have plans. Cancel them. Watch 13th instead.

You may have seen the most recent episode of Blackish, where Junior schools his dad with some docuknowledge. Of course, Junior has been watching documentaries, 13th in particular. This film, directed by Ava DuVernay, chronicles the history of the 13th amendment, that abolished slavery, yet created a loophole at the same time. The text of the amendment is as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except as a punishment for crime. The film shows how those words allowed a system of slavery to evolve into the mass incarceration we have today. The labeling of a large group of people who have been through the justice system as “criminals” and “super predators” continues to this day to allow so many people to be dismissed as something lesser than. More often than not, those people are people of color, especially African-American men. One of the facts that you’ll likely hear someone somewhere repeat is the fact that 1 in 17 white men at some point in their life spend some time being incarcerated. That number for African-American men: 1 in 3.

Don’t think that this is just a one-sided documentary. DuVernay interviews several conservative figures, including Newt Gingrich. Gingrich actually comes across as sensible and fair. He quite correctly laments how the “war on drugs” played out, saying that the harsher punishments for crack (aka a “black man’s drug”) versus those of cocaine (aka a “white man’s drug”) was a huge mistake. Other conservative voices in the film don’t go as far in admitting past mistakes, but there’s nothing in the editing or the way they are shown that demeans them or their point of view. If anything, she lets their words speak for themselves.

But this film definitely doesn’t let people off the hook. Of course, Nixon and his “war on crime” is a big culprit in the increasing prison population during the ’70’s. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and Clinton’s extension of that war also greatly increased incarceration in America. While this may not be news to many of us, DuVernay finds shocking examples of officials from the Nixon and Reagan administrations explicitly stating that their policies were purposefully meant to decimate the African American community. It’s not just some abstract economic theory whose unintended consequences negatively affected minorities- these people knew what they were doing in targeting those people who weren’t part of their voting base.

13th at times seems to meander and wander. I thought often that it was going off on a tangent. But each time, DuVernay ties it back to the main theme of the film, showing how seemingly different issues are all part of the same problem. It’s like reading a masterfully written essay that covers a wide range of topics, but argues passionately for its position. Although this film was made before the election, it features the words of the Donald juxtaposed with imagery of the abuse of African Americans in the south in the 1960’s. “The Good Old Days” don’t look so good to me, Donald. Have no doubt, 13th seems to have been made in response to problems that don’t seem to be going away. It’s a must see.

The other documentary I’ve seen from this year’s Oscar nominees is OJ: Made in America.

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I’d have a hard time choosing 13th over this film. But to be fair, they are really two different types of experiences. If DuVernay hadn’t chosen to limit herself to 1hr and 40 minutes, she might have had the chance to go deeper into her subject. They are really two different types of movies. In fact, I would say Made in America is really trying to have it both ways: It’s a television documentary that is also a limited series. At nearly 8 hours long, it’s a major accomplishment. Through one person, the director is able to expand the story to be about our country and its various lingering issues of race, celebrity, economic differences, and the justice system. If you have cable, it’s available on ESPN streaming.

There’s a third nomination, I Am Not Your Negrobased on James Baldwin’s writing, that touches on issues of race. What I fear is that these three films will split the votes of those that care about serious, topical documentaries that will challenge and educate you. I predict the win will go Life, Animated a film about a kid who learns to communicate with the world through his love of Disney. Sorry, not good enough for me this year, but that film is available on Amazon Prime.

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: After watching 13th, be sure to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with DuVernay that is also showing on Netflix.

If you still have DVDs delivered from Netflix, put Free Angela and All Political Prisoners in your queue. Angela Davis is one of the many people interviewed in 13th, and her story is a fascinating one on its own terms. Although the documentary wasn’t perfect, and left some questions unanswered, it’s an interesting piece of American History that you may not know about. It’s like the story behind Hidden Figures – why did I never learn about this in school?

RATINGS:

13th: Netflix: 5 out of 5                      IMDB: 10 out of 10

O.J.: Made in America:                          IMDB 10 out of 10

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners: IMDB: 8 out of 10

 

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Review: The Act of Killing (2012): Pure Torture

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Let me just cut straight to my opinion of this film: I hated it. I will make it my mission to see it destroyed, and all its critical acclaim go the way of The Birth of a Nation‘s.

The Act of Killing (2012)  is the fifth and final entry of my reviews of the 2013 Oscar Nominated Documentaries. Given all the rapturous acclaim for this film, I was expecting it to contend for my top pick up to this point: The SquareThe premise seemed insane and unbelievable, or as one IMDB reviewer put it, “it needs to be seen to be believed.” True, but that doesn’t make this a good film. The idea of allowing mass-murderers to re-enact their crimes seemed too surreal and interesting to fail, yet it does. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are producers for this film, and if either of them had tackled this subject matter, then it could have been the film I imagined it would be, or the film that critics think they saw. But Joshua Oppenheimer is a hack, offering the viewer nothing but indulgence and wallowing in other people’s depravity, and making us feel complicit in their crime. If that’s how the viewer should feel in watching this, then of course you have to question how Oppenheimer can sincerely believe “There’s no good guys, there’s no bad guys, there’s just people.” [1]

Bullshit!

Oppenheimer must not have even watched his own film, and must be blinded by his “contact with Anwar (the centerpiece of the film and one of the murderers), with whom he’s grown close” [1] Either that or he’s a hipster, trying to maintain an ironic distance from the horrific implications of his film.

I unfortunately have to review this film, develop an opinion of it, and decipher the filmmaker’s intentions by seeking sources outside the film, because we are given virtually no context for what we see in the film. The film begins with a quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”. We then see what seems to be a structure for an abandoned amusement park that is in the shape of a giant fish. Cut to a waterfall where Anwar, the “conscience” of the film, and Herman, the grotesque pig of a man that is dressed in garish drag, are motioning as if they are sirens luring ships to the shore. They are surrounded by ornately costumed dancers. But there is no music, just a director shouting directions. We will come back to this scene towards the end of the film, but when the director shouts “Cut” you see the young dancers stretching to get their coats- they are uncomfortable and cold. The fantasy quickly gives way to reality. We then are given the only historical context to the film: “In 1965, the Indonesian Government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese. In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million ‘communists’ were murdered. The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power, and persecuted their opponents- ever since.” The film then goes on to give their film its current context, which is where they claim to do things that the film won’t end up doing: “When we met the killers, they proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished. The film follows that process, and documents its consequences.”

Not really, Oppenheimer. If you were to truly have documented the consequences of their actions, you would have at least partially stuck with your original intentions for the film, as chronicled in The Australian: “When the filmmaker tried to explore the truth about what happened in 1965 through the experiences of survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, he found: ‘They were too scared to say what had happened to them because the killers were living all around them.’ Police threatened the filmmakers with arrest, while plantation bosses and civic leaders regularly found ways to interrupt shooting. Eventually, the survivors asked Oppenheimer: ‘Why don’t you film the killers?’ Suddenly, ‘all the doors flew open.’ Whereas his original subjects had feared reprisals, the men who’d helped bathe Indonesia in blood were eager to talk about their achievements.” 

And we are treated to their boasting for 2 hours, while the victims and their suffering become an abstraction, and even a source of amusement. Herman, the fat pig of a paramilitary leader, enlists locals to help recreate scenes of terror and kidnapping in the streets. It’s a spectacle to everyone involved, with laughter and joy taken in the recreating of their own country men’s misery. “They burned our house down!” Herman says, mocking and mimicking the families of victims, while people in the street laugh and laugh. They calmly recount how they strangled “communists” using wire. Anwar tap dances on the same roof where he supposedly killed thousands. We meet a newspaperman, who occupied the same building that they killed people in, who claims to be ignorant of what was happening under their shared roof. The Pancasila paramilitary group to which they belonged still thrives, and essentially rules the streets. We see their rallies, which seem stuck in a time warp, as they rail against communists, and claim that the origin of the word “gangster” is “free man” over and over again. In case you thought they were just violent, we are treated to their leader playing golf and making disgusting comments about the female caddie’s genitalia. So we learn they are sexist too. Anwar, Herman, and others begin recreating interrogation scenes quite convincingly, but in a very movie-like exaggerated manner.

Given very little context for what is happening, things become very confusing at times. When we are introduced to Anwar’s neighbor, who tells a story of how his relatives were killed, I didn’t know if that was part of the movie they were making or not. Some of the recreations have a nightmarish quality to them, that frankly felt like what a self-indulgent director would do given an unlimited budget. But we never get a sense of how the film they think they are making comes together, or how the “scenes” relate to the historical context we are not given.

We eventually also learn that the killings may have been a cover for the genocide of the Chinese population of Indonesia. When Herman runs for office, we learn that the populace can be bribed for their vote, and he who bribes the best will win the election. Herman loses, and we lose respect for the general populace of Indonesia for seemingly accepting and participating in the corruption that they are essentially victims of. We get to see the members of the paramilitary shake down business owners for protection money, so some sympathy may remain.

Everything I mentioned up to this point happens in the first half of the film. At the hour and 15 minute mark, we got antsy, wondering how much longer this indulgence in depravity could last. I have to admit that I stopped watching at that point, and watched the last 45 minutes just today, a week or so later. Despite several scenes highlighting the natural beauty of Indonesia, the whole country seems like a place to never visit. Oppenheimer treats the viewer to repeatedly observing the actions of people who are the opposite of self-aware at best, and the worst of humanity at worst, without challenging them in any way, shape, or form. I can imagine Herzog taking the same material, and giving it shape and form, and purpose. I can imagine the director of The Devil Came on Horseback or even The Square allowing these people to have their say, but placing their actions in the context of the misery and strife they create. With The Devil Came on Horseback, it was clear what the benefit of the film was. No one would have heard about the suffering in Darfur without it.

And to those who might say that I missed the point of this film, I would point them to Errol Morris’ own The Fog of War, which essentially is a long sustained interview with a “villain” who may have also been to some a mass murderer. The implications, context, and consequences of one man’s actions are clear, even if what we do about it is not. But we inherently as Americans should have wrestled with what we saw because we understood its context and significance. And for what it’s worth, we see a man genuinely wrestle with his conscience, in an understated but genuine way, quite the opposite of the showiness of Anwar’s coming to terms with his actions. So then what is the point of this film? What was the point of going on for 2 hours, letting these people take joy in recreating their own murderous crimes? What are we supposed to learn? What are we supposed to do?

I must quote the following from Jennifer Merin, who quotes her colleague, who also sums up my feelings about the film: “During a post-screening conversation I had with BBC Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser, he commented. ‘It’s as though a documentary filmmaker went down to Argentina, found some ex-Nazis and gave them some money to make a film about how much fun they’d had killing Jews during the Holocaust. Everyone would be horrified. But in this case, it’s about Indonesia. People don’t know as much about it, so they don’t take exception in the same way.’ Insightful and pithy, as always, Fraser’s take on the film and the general response to it just about sums up my own” (2).

But Oppenheimer has the nerve to say the message of his film is “there’s just people.” No, there are people who murder and get away with it, and boast and revel in it. But allowing them to revel in it, without ever really questioning them during the whole process, should leave Oppenheimer with a dirty feeling. Sorry, Oppenheimer, Anwar does not truly come to terms with his actions. A few minutes of hacking up phlegm, or wretching, or whatever he does, does not even begin to count as contrition. If Hitler had come to terms with his actions by getting a little sick, would that mean anything to anyone?

Even better than that, put Hitler in place of Anwar in the penultimate scene of the film. Remember the waterfall fantasy scene at the beginning of the movie? We return to that scene, this time to the tune of “Born Free” (there they go again with the whole “free man” thing) where Anwar is a god like figure, Herman is a grotesque drag queen, and beautiful dancers surround them. Insert two downtrodden dirty people who have wire around their neck, which should immediately for the viewer place these as two of Anwar’s victims. They remove the wire from their neck, and thank Anwar for “sending them to heaven.”

Grotesque. Indulgent. Complicit. Depraved.

Anyone watching this film should read the following, which calls into question the veracity of the claims of the participants in this film:

BFI Review

Also, read the few negative reviews I could find for other reasons to not praise this film:

About.com Review

Filmracket Review 

So that leaves us with the Oscar Documentary Challenge, that I should have finished a month ago. The good news is that 20 Feet From Stardom is now on streaming! So you can decide for yourself on how to rank all five documentaries nominated by the Academy. For me, the order from best to worst would be:

1. The Square

2. 20 Feet from Stardom

3. Dirty Wars

4. Cutie and the Boxer

5. The Act of Killing

Methinks that Blackfish could have been a nomination. I will have to watch that soon.

My IMDB Rating of The Act of Killing: 1 out of 10

My Netflix Rating: 1 out of 5

References:

1) APPLEBAUM, STEPHEN (13 April 2013) Indonesia’s killing fields revisited in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary. The Australian

2) MERIN, JENNIFER (2013) The Act of Killing- Movie Review- 2013. About.com

The Square (2013): Oscar Documentary Challenge Entry #3

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I feel a bit like a student who knew when their big assignment’s due date was, and kind of did a lot of work, but didn’t quite finish, and therefore won’t turn in the assignment at all, and then hopes the teacher doesn’t notice (as if teachers just forget these things). Maybe I was hoping to distract everyone with the Arrested Development posts. Did it work?

In an earlier post, I committed to watching all the Oscar nominated documentaries (4 out of the 5 are on streaming, with the 5th being one I’ve seen in the theater). I knew I was giving myself a March 2nd deadline, which seemed like plenty of time. It was plenty of time, but I couldn’t manage to find the time in my busy schedule (it’s almost like I have others thing to do besides watch movies!)

I’ve gotten so close, watching The Square (2013) last night. The only one I won’t finish in time for the Oscar ceremonies tonight is The Act of Killing, which according to a friend, made him “lose faith in humanity, and I’m a community college teacher, so that’s saying a lot.” So that movie is a definite contender and will be something I review later on this week. After watching The Square, I’d have to say the competition is between those two movies.

I’ve been eager to watch this one for months now, ever since it drew attention for being distributed exclusively through Netflix. The movie starts where many others might have ended- with “revolutionaries” gathered in Tahrir Square, the most important and symbolic public space in Egypt, celebrating the removal of the corrupt despot Hosni Mubarak from the presidency. The music at this point is hopeful, the participants speak optimistically, and in broad terms about their success. Seeing that there was still an hour and a half left after this opening segment, I hoped that the tone wouldn’t remain constant, or else this movie would have been a long pat-on-the-back fluff piece saying how great everyone was in bringing about change.

Thankfully, the director Jehane Noujaim, stuck around for the aftermath, the part of most films that you have to fill in yourself by searching on Wikipedia or Google for the latest, or reading the postscripts at the end of the film before the final credits roll. We see change does not come so easy. The first ominous sign of what is to come is when the crowds disperse after the removal of Mubarak, at the request of the Egyptian army, who say they will never hurt Egyptians, but they can go home. The principal characters in the film (one of which is the star of the film The Kite Runnerrealize their mistake, with several of them independently verbalizing that they should have never left the square until a new constitution had been drafted. 

I was reminded of Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude while watching this film, as the same things continue to happen over and over again, this time not generation after generation, but leader after leader (or lack of leader). Not much has changed after six months of military rule, and whereas you are shown at the beginning sympathetic, idealistic, intelligent, and mostly secular Egyptians fighting for change (with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood joining the revolutionaries because it’s the right thing to do as a human, not as a Muslim), opportunistic members of the Muslim Brotherhood move in to the vacuum and begin co-opting the movement for a new Egypt. Anyone who has been brainwashed into believing that government and religion are actually separate in this country should see parallels between what the Muslim Brotherhood does and what the Christian Right has done in our country.

The consequences of this development of course are more drastic and deadly for Egyptians, and even if you are intimately familiar from watching or reading the news about Egypt for the last couple of years, you will see things you probably have not seen before, and get a close-up and graphic view of events that probably were censored by our media here in the United States. The film does bring up the fact that the USA and other nations actually supported indirectly the killing of Egyptians, but doesn’t dwell on that. The real strength of the film, besides having a ground view of history in the making, is that it lets those involved in the democracy movement tell their story. It doesn’t need voice-overs, or to bring in swelling music to make us feel something.

At the end, the optimism of the beginning of the film remains, while being tempered by the reality that bringing about true change requires persistence and dedication to your guiding principles and beliefs. One revolutionary bemoans the fact that they are not successful because they don’t know how to compromise. But on the other hand, that is exactly what makes them extraordinary and worth watching, and supporting in real life in any way we can.

So, after watching 4 out of the 5 entries, The Square is my pick for Best Documentary. IMDB rating: 9 out of 10. Netflix rating: 5 out of 5.

A not so distant, but not really that close either, runner-up would be 20 Feet from Stardom (available on DVD only)

A really distant third would be Dirty WarsBringing up the rear is the modest in its ambitions Cutie and the Boxer

Look for an updated ranking when I post about The Act of Killing later this week.