As 2010 comes to a close, and a large part of the world is on holiday to celebrate the end of another year, the only thing slowing down should be us, to ask the simplest of questions: What is going on with Reality?
Reality television is more popular than ever. Stand back from Mongolia copying the U.S. copying the U.K. (Insert Country Name‘s Got Talent) and delve into the depths of Talk shows, Dating shows, Cooking Shows, Self-improvement and Makeover, Renovation, Social experiment, Hidden cameras and Hoaxes, Paranormal, YouTube and it quickly becomes apparent that, for good or ill, we are obsessed with documenting our triumphs and (more often) our defeats.
The dominant form of film has become the Documentary. The times that we live in now are so wild and drama-filled that mere fiction and fantasy films cannot compete, thus pushing producers to make them even more far-fetched (as well as pushing our production of animation through the roof). It seems that the more implausible and fantastic the story the screenwriters write (or as often is the case, remake) can not even get into the lobby, let alone get a room in the hotel of people’s desire to go behind the scenes of “what really happened.” Alternatively there is the “Dan Brown Syndrome”, which is if you write something, anything really, that is likely more true than false about Catholicism or the Mona Lisa, the Pope will denounce you and you’ll sell a trillion books. Likewise Salmon Rushdie’s fatwa for The Satanic Verses. There seems to be a genre starting to take form.
Imagine the current Wikileaks saga as a made-for-television miniseries starring David Bowie. Now imagine it as a documentary film. Now a documentary film denounced by the Dalai Lama (though I think he would be for it, but I’m running out of world religious
It’s a great thing for the documentary genre and for film in general. The men and women that make these films are generally so involved in the process of doing it, so passionate about what they are, often times, risking their lives capturing, that they will go to far greater lengths than mere studio blockbuster money can provide. These Director / Activists are dedicated to their craft like no other: Adam Curtis, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Stacy Peralta, Louis Psihoyos, Kazuo Hara, Laura Poitras, among countless others. This year was not only no exception, but rather an exceptional year for documentary film.
As War takes up a larger and larger part of our collective consciousness, so too do documentaries about war and all its hellish and absurd injustices make up more and more what we see and are barred from seeing. Awesome in its ability to lay truth bare before the audience, the honest viewer might be more embarrassed about what they don’t know and the blind acceptance of the mainstream media’s account of the state of the world. Nothing does that more than The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev’s (My Kid Could Paint That, Fighter) film of the cover-up of the death of Corporal Patrick Tillman, ex-NFL defensive player, who left millions of dollars worth of contracts on the negotiating table to fight in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, 2001.
So to does the approach of Restrepo, from War photographer Tim Hetherington, and journalist Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm, 1997, W.W. Norton), who decided to leave the interviews and political spin for the network journalists to cover. Words pale in comparison to the film shocking you dumb with raw footage of one year in the life of a soldier in Afghanistan.
It takes a lot to shock the Danish out of their collected stoicism, but Armadillo (Janus Metz, 2010) might be the film to make even Lars Von Trier blush (unlikely) at perceived controversial behavior of certain Danish soldiers during a shootout with Taliban fighters while stationed at an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. This year’s hard look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan should give heart to those seeking an end to the nine-year campaign (now longer than the Russian occupation): It was three or four years before anyone made a film about Bush Jr.’s war in Iraq, showing a definite impatience with a money and life-sucking foreign policy agenda. Not enough? There’s plenty of discontent elsewhere.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money asks, “What happens when you turn the United States Senate over to market forces?” Captain Jack and the Capitalist revolution. By focusing his keen eye on the megalomaniacal personality of Jack Abramoff, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi To The Dark Side) has cornered the market on the corporate takeover of America and laid the
Where Gibney’s Captain Jack leaves off, Inside Job by Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq) picks up with a scrutinizing eye on the various little reported pieces that led to the ongoing financial crisis. Ferguson was an Internet software entrepreneur before metamorphosing a la Michael Moore from everyday schlub to writer to documentary activist. There is hope stirring.
But don’t get your hopes up too high when you watch Lucy Walker’s Participant Media-driven production of the state of the world of nuclear weapons, Countdown to Zero. Documentary film-making at its sleekest could double as a horror film. It’s certainly not an hour and a half update by Valerie Plame Wilson, Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Robert McNamara, among others, on how all things nuclear are just peachy. The reality is shocking and not about to go away with President Obama’s nuclear disarmament treaty signed in April.
Where the rational fears of Countdown to Zero leave off, the hyper-rational fear of those portrayed in Waiting For Armageddon (Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, Franco Sacchi, 2010) happening onto a loose nuke within sight of Jerusalem picks up. Should we worry that there are more than 50,000,000 Evangelical Americans who support an open war with the Islamic world? Depends on who you pray to.
While some of us wait for the rapture, others merely are impatiently tapping their foot for education. In examining the failure of the American Education System to teach our children, Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) Waiting for “Superman” illuminates the truth on what can be done to help fix the problem. Someone should give Jack Abramoff a call when he gets out of prison. O, if only education were profitable…
The Fence sounds like an accompaniment to Ben Affleck’s The Town, but the two are worlds apart. In 2006, the U.S. government decided that, instead of investing in education, building a 670 mile fence along its 2000 mile-plus border with Mexico was worth alienating the Latino vote–and the money. Three years and three billion dollars later, Rory Kennedy asks, was it all worth it? The cynical viewer half expects the contractor to hire the illegals he is trying to keep out to get this boondoggle done on time and under budget (a la the Palestinians who work on the West Bank Barrier).
As someone who has been to the West Bank Barrier and left his mark, British artist Banksy knows the value of context. The tagline for his first film Exit Through The Gift Shop, which features a number of prominent graffiti artists, is “this is the inside story of Street Art – a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide.” The mere fact that Banksy is still going means that something in the world is still right, still working.
William McDonough often asks the question, “When you throw something away, where is away?” It might very well be at the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In Waste Land Lucy Walker (yes she of Countdown To Zero was busy last year) follows artist Vik Muniz as he photographs the “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, who turn from artistic subjects into inspiring collaborators, recreating photographic images of themselves out of garbage, proving that where art is concerned, as McDonough suggests, there is no such thing as “away”.
Los Angeles Times Film reviewer Kenneth Turran suggests the Kings of Pastry (“16 chefs. 3 days. 1 chance.”) to cleanse the documentary palate. True Angelenos might prefer a little rock and roll idolatry with their New Year’s wishes. If so you would do well with Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange, a very strange look itself at The Doors.
If our constant desire for “reality” programming is any indication, could this year’s films (without even look at the plethora of Nazi documentaries), signal the beginning of The End…?
UPDATE: Steven Soderbergh’s film of Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine is as good as anything Gray himself ever did.