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Documentaries Uncovered
by Marinell Haegelin

One of the earliest documentaries is Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (La Sortie des Usines) shown in Paris, March 1895 to demonstrate Louis Lumière’s invention, the cinématographe. During 1895 Louis and brother Auguste, using their equipment, enthralled the public showing dozens of films they made, which were approximately a minute long because that was the maximum size of a film reel. However, public curiosity waned; the field of world exploration triggered the documentary’s revival. After two decades, explorer Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, about Nanook, a celebrated hunter, and his Itivimuit tribe of Eskimos, was ready for distribution. Five major companies turned Flaherty down, until the Pathé organization acquired the film: June 11, 1922 it opened at the prestigious Capitol theatre in New York City—to immediate success.

Clearly the range and scope of documentaries—a nonfiction film—dramatically transformed, devoid of confining boundaries. The 20th century witnessed: travelogue films; newsreels; Leni Riefenstahl‘s infamous propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935); Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning testament to cinéma vérité, Harlan County, USA (1976); in the 1960s –‘70s political documentaries became weapons, especially in Latin America and Quebec; historical films include Henry Hampton’s 14-hour, two-part Eyes on the Prize: America‘s Civil Rights Years (1986,1989) and The Civil War by Ken Burns (1990). Errol Morris included stylized re-enactments in his The Thin Blue Line (1988); Michael Moore, Roger & Me (1989) - Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is renown for taking interpretive license; compilation films forerunner is Esfir Schub with The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), and the Qatsi trilogy (1983, ’88, 2002), produced by Godfrey Reggio, broke ground for non-narrative documentaries also referred to as “visual tone poems.”

Accordingly, certain attributes make some documentaries more viewer friendly: my comparison scale based on the five documentaries I saw is: Very Friendly – An African Election, Women with Cows; Friendly – Silent Snow; Test Friendliness – Tatsumi, Charlotte Rampling – The Look; Least Friendly – Raw Material.

Very Friendly:
An African Election tracks Ghana’s 2008 fifth presidential election. In 1957 the Gold Coast achieved independence from the British; after years of military and civilian governments, in 1993 Ghana established the Fourth Republic following presidential and parliamentary elections. Laced with excitement, suspense, and intrigue, producer and director Jarreth Merz gives us an unprecedented behind-the-scenes view leading up to the election, as the dominant political parties “take no prisoners” vying to win. The National Democratic Congress’s Prof. John Atta Mills, fully backed by legendary past-president Jerry Rawlings, is running against the New Patriotic Party’s candidate Nana Akuffo-Addo. Excellent use of title cards repeats throughout: besides the many NDC and NPP party members, there are supporters from various professional areas and a European Union official. Topher Osborn’s camera takes us up close: traveling back-roads, pushing through throngs at political rallies, sitting-in on staff meetings, and even being turned away from the Strong Room (“you have to be strong to go in there”) when a re-count is called. The music, reflecting the myriad ethnic and native influences Ghana has known, augments the conflicts. Samir Samperisi’s concise editing escalates the tension, incorporates Ghana’s jumbled 20th century political history coherently, and the 89 minutes fly by leaving us astounded and wanting to know more. 

Women with Cows: See page 18

Silent Snow: The magnificent Artic landscape, reflecting nature’s glacial beauty, is changing irrevocably due to worldwide invisible residues that collect here. On a trip to the North Pole for Christmas holidays, young Greenlandic Pipaluk Knudsen-Ostermann encounters first-hand the effect of contaminations, having to use ice-barges where dog sleds once traveled. She is aware this year the sun returned two days earlier, and that illness and premature death is more common. Wanting to know what is destroying her northernmost Inuit community, Pipaluk courageously travels to Asia, Africa, and Central America to investigate the sources of these pollutions, and has eye-opening experiences… relevant for all of us. In Africa for instance, and although people are looking for alternatives, DDT is a cheap form of malaria prevention. “I met many interesting and brave people … living a life influenced by man-made threats but they fight and don‘t give up the dream of a better and healthier life. We are all affected by this pollution, but we can actually fight it.” Together with Dutch filmmaker Jan van den Berg, their acclaimed 14-minute short blossomed into a feature that is “a remembrance of how fragile beauty can be”. Check out:

Test Friendliness:
Tatsumi: Renowned manga (comics) artist Yoshiro Tatsumi’s manga memoir A Drifting Life is the basis for this animated film. Japan’s mangas have a long, complex history with countless genres, and are popular with people of all ages. In post-war occupied Japan, young Tatsumi is able to turn his passion for drawing into a means of support for his poor family. Gaining recognition, Tatsumi’s goal to be a manga-ka is further resolved after meeting his hero, Disney-inspired animator Osamu Tezuka. But his 18th comic, Black Blizzard published in 1956, causes a backlash from the Parent-Teacher Association; frustrated, in 1957 Tatsumi starts the alternative gekiga genre—dark, gritty realism, sometimes violent—catering to adults. Director Eric Khoo incorporates five early Tatsumi short stories, and initially differentiates between Tatsumi’s biography and the mangas, using color versus black & white. Later though, most scenes are in color; also confusing for an audience is his assumption everyone is comics aficionado. Even so, with excellent production values and subtitles, Tatsumi is mesmerizing, and the Singaporean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar©.

Charlotte Rampling - The Look: Admittedly, this woman has led a full life, overflowing with fascinating encounters, collaborators, and artist friends, who come forward to peer into their relationship, and her psyche. Writer and director Angelina Maccarone’s film is separated into chapters that reflect humans emotions, intercut with clips from notable films Rampling has starred in as props: EXPOSURE with Peter Lindbergh, AGE with Paul Auster, BEAUTY, RESONANCE with Barnaby Southcombe, TABOO with Juergen Teller, DEMONS with Frederick Seidel, DESIRE with Franckie Diago, DEATH with Anthony Palliser, and LOVE with Cynthia and Joy Fleury. By their nature emotions are unrestricted; hence unnecessarily we listen to Rampling repeat herself, her thoughts. Reiteration in turn influences the film’s timing: all the chapters could have been shortened. Disappointingly, the grand finale “Love” has Charlotte and two women friends sitting on a king-sized bed chatting in French, with the white German subtitles against the light bedcover making them extremely difficult to read. I appreciate Rampling’s controlled self-evaluation with her select acquaintances, but I tired of hearing her repetitions and, especially with the frustration of the last chapter’s subtitles I was glad to leave the theatre and get some fresh air.

Least Friendly:
Raw Material: Modern day Greece has refuge-metal-scavengers whose numbers have swelled to 80,000. At first the scenery, and gatherers, hold our attention. But, without title and/or sequence cards it is impossible for us to know the history and personal relationships of the many junk-dealers we follow about. One guy does talk about how he worked with horses in his native Albania, and how he internally yearns for that connection with the animals and nature. Adolescent Go-go divulges, “shanty (town living) is what I’ve learned”, and, “I want a Ferrari and a family (and) I’ll drive around and drive everyone mad.” Seventeen-year veteran scrap-collector Hussein supports a family of eight including grandchildren, and laments how before the foreigners came he was able to make good money. Director Christos Karakepelis was unemployed himself in 2004 when he met these individuals, and developed their trust over years before they agreed to be in this project. So it is flummoxing why he does not allow us to become also emotionally involved with them. The end sequence is confusing as well, and seeing Hussein pass a billboard stating, “Our new house overlooks the sea”, as an end-shot is a bit passé. The nature of the subject matter’s focus, societies’ overuse and abuse of materials and people, are depressing and thought-provoking enough.