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HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

Best Documentary Films of 2012

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), Dror Moreh

The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), Dror Moreh

Presumably, any moderately blog-centric “critic” end of the year best-of listing is the easiest part of the job–compiling a blurb heavy inventory of all of the films reviewed over the year. That is if said reviewer actually has access to the myriad documentaries produced and shown around the multifarious festival circuit, the breadth of which is nightmarish to imagine traversing in person. So, email queries are sent. Press kits are downloaded. Youtube is accessed. DVDs are watched on laptops. Our hypothetical critic could theoretically list the entire lineup of documentaries (unalphabetically of course) shown at the Toronto International Film Festival as the official Best of, and be sure of a comprehensive and well-endowed catalogue. As it stands, just wiki-ing, i.e. copying and pasting the prepared blurbs, seems a bit overly 2011. A dark year of documentaries unveiling the wrongs of the world, more to understand than to right them, HESO looks at the Best Documentary Films of 2012, doing our photographic duty to represent the efforts of directors and crews worldwide in their valiant attempts to document the various truths and lies, sublimities and atrocities, living and dying and everything in between, in this one paltry end-of-the-year-best-of-bullshit-attempt-to-grow-our-online-readership blog post.

Best Documentary Films of 2012

The Best Documentary Films of 2011 seemed to be mostly light-hearted and satirical in a way that the 2012 field can’t comprehend, mirroring the shadowy gloom of big feature film releases (Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln & Zero Dark Thirty). Meanwhile, women writers and directors (Alison Klayman, Marina Zenovich, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Lauren Greenfield and many others) are not just gaining acceptance and respect in the film industry, while documenting the world, they are taking it over.

Take the Middle East going full frontal with a slew of portrayals from all ends of the spectrum, including a few inner sanctum expositions on Israel’s complex workings and philosophies. Beginning with The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), directed by Dror Moreh, who interviews six former heads of the Shin Bet–Israel’s secret service–who reflect publicly on their experiences and attitudes during, and after, their service. Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, The Law in These Parts (Praxis Films), from Shilton Ha’Chok interviews the architects of the Israeli military legal system in the Occupied Territories.

5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

Contrast these with 5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), directed by Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi, a record of a Palestinian attempting to record the struggles of his community in the occupied West Bank. Preceding the United Nations General Assembly granting Palestine non-member observer State status, State 194 (Participant Media) from Dan Setton, documents how in 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad launched a plan to demonstrate that his people were deserving of statehood, inspiring them to change their destiny and seek U.N. membership.

Director Damien Ounouri describes his film, Fidaï (Kafard Films), “During the Algerian Revolution, my great-uncle El Hadi joined his sister in France and became an active member of a secret FLN armed group. Settling of scores, attempted murder, hiding, imprisonment and finally deportation back to Algeria in 1962, his personal journey tells the story of countless ex-fighters for Algerian independence, and echoes the current effervescence of the Arab World. Today, at the age of seventy, El Hadi reveals this dark part of his life for the first time.” While This Is Not A Film, (Kanibal Films) reveals director Jafar Panahi video diary travails of being banned from filmmaking in Iran, yet continuing to practice his art while under house arrest. As if We Were Catching a Cobra (Ramad Films), documents Syrian director Hala Alabdalla’s foray into the art of caricature in Egypt and Syria, and in the meantime captures insurgencies breaking out in both countries.

Despite the turmoil in Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the war in Syria, the rest of the world continues to be absorbed with its own vital intricacies. Picture the opening of North Korea to the world and Marc Wiese’s Camp 14 — Total Control Zone (Engstfeld), which tells the story of Shin Dong Huyk, who says, “Our sole purpose was to follow the rules of the work camp and then die. People on the outside call this place the ‘Total Control Zone.’ We knew nothing of the outside. All we knew was that our parents and our forefathers were guilty and we had to work hard in order to make up for it. Sometimes new people entered the camp but I never saw anyone pardoned for their crime and allowed leave. So none of us thought we would ever leave this place. Sometimes people tried to escape, driven by fear of starving or being beaten, but they were publicly executed and became the object of hate for those of us who were left behind.” The Girl from the South (Taskovski FIlms), chronicles José Luis García fascination with the story of a young South Korean student activist he met who crossed over into North Korea and what happened to her.

Ai WeiWei - Never Sorry

Ai WeiWei – Never Sorry

Fighting censorship has always been the role of the artist and 2012 has seen some of the loudest artists in recent memory. In Alison Klaymans’ Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (United Expression Media), we travel alongside the Chinese “dissident” activist throughout his dealings with the Chinese government. In the same vein is Abdoul Aziz Cissé, The Walls of Dakar, chronicling Dakar’s spontaneous mural frescos, produced by marginal painters, rappers and taggers, as one of its rare sites for free expression.

The ubiquitous face of the most obvious film for the role of the artist in society hangs on nearly every college dorm wall (next to the Che poster), Marley (Shangri-La Productions), the long-awaited Kevin MacDonald bio-pic which uses little-seen archived filmstock and live concert footage to put together a cohesive and even-handed portrait of the man everyone thinks they know. Someone you likely don’t know is the subject of Brad Bernstein’s Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, which depicts the renegade children’s book author and illustrator Ungerer’s wild, life-long adventure of testing societal boundaries through his use of subversive art. Marina Zenovich’s second film on Polanski, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, following Wanted and Desired, “explores the bizarre clash of politics, celebrity justice and the media.”

But what about ‘Merica? What ever happened to the good ol’ days? When we ruled the world…Detropia (Loki Films), directed by Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, an artistic look at the decline of the quintessential American Car city and The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia Pictures), directed by Lauren Greenfield, which shows us the 2008 financial crisis from the point of view of the 1%, won, respectively, the U.S. documentary editing award and the U.S. documentary directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer

Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer

Interviewing The Wire producer David Simon, Arianna Huffington, Woody Harrelson, Eminem, Susan Sarandon and infamous drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, Matthew Cooke’s How To Make Money Selling Drugs (Bert Marcus Productions) spends the first half of the film literally teaching the viewer how to do so, and soon offers glimpses into the lives of those on both sides of the “war on drugs.” Drugs is one thing, but what about the pimp? Told through interviews Chris Rock, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg and with Iceberg Slim himself, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp (Final Level Entertainment), directed by Jorge Hinojosa, shows us the crazy life of the man who reinvented himself from the pimp to founder of Street-Lit by authoring of seven books.

Well-known directors had another banner year in documenting the unknown abuses still happening throughout the world. The Werner Herzog, Errol Morris-produced The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer lets the Suharto-backed Indonesian death-squad leaders tell the story of their atrocities by writing the script, playing themselves, as well as their victims. Less bloody, but equally affecting is Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney’s exposition on the abuse of power in the Catholic Church. And The Central Park Five from Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, the story of how five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping the Central Park Jogger.

Men At Lunch (Sonta Films), directed by Seán Ó Cualáin and narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, tells the story behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, taken on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Building in the autumn of 1932, an unprecedented race to the sky and the immigrant workers who built New York. From New York to London – The Modern Babylon, from director Julien Temple, who tells how it was the marginalized–the immigrant and the artist–that created modern-day London.

Finally, if Vanishing of the Bees and Queen of the Sun failed to impress upon the film-watching populous that the looming epidemic of disappearing honeybees for reasons still obscure, then Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey should suffice. The tagline of Bitter Seeds (Teddy Bear Films), the final film of Micha Peled’s Globalization Trilogy (Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Bluereads) reads, “Every thirty minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” Enough said? Not even close.

Freakonomics the Movie

Freakonomics The Movie

In the recently released documentary film version of Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner find their written musings on “the hidden side of everything” skillfully brought to the screen by an all-star team of modern young documentary film makers: Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).

Despite the quirky popularity Freakonomics has found, trying to create excitement and recommending this film to potential viewers can be difficult:

“Sure, it’s about economics, but it’s kind of fun too…”

Freakonomics the Movie

Freakonomics Film PosterThe reason that Levitt and Dubner’s effort in bringing this seemingly arcane minutiae to screen is successful mostly depends on the same success the book Freakonomics found in 2005 in selling four million copies worldwide. The book is well-thought out and well-researched, and slim, parsed up into easily-navigable bitesize niblets of esoteric economies, which rather than drag on, end with the reader wanting more. The film too manages to pull this aspect off spectacularly, especially Alex Gibney’s segment Pure Corruption, which switches emphasis from the almost impossible-to-detect cheating ways of teachers and sumo wrestlers Levitt and Dubner describe in the book, and focuses solely on the sly corruption of modern day sumo wrestlers and the larger story of the stoic association that backs them.

Illustrating the numbers game of sumo wrestling by interviewing experts who delve into various mini-lessons on Japanese culture–Shinto, Tatemae and Honne, hazing in the sumo stables–Gibney asks, “What happens to markets when people cheat?”

Roughly a twenty-three minute long expose, the skilled director is forced to break out the big guns early in a not-so-veiled shot at the Tower of Babel that is the Nihon Sumō Kyōkai (Japan Sumo Association). Riffing off of Levitt’s economic breakdown of Yaochō (match fixing) as not only evident, but rampant in the secret world of sumo, this is a perfect forum to showcase Gibney’s talent at exposing corporate greed and government collusion (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the recent Casino Jack and the United States of Money). “What keeps us from seeing corruption is the illusion that our economy is a rational system, a free market, open to all. The fact is that rigging markets, and matches, is good business, if the rigging is hidden from all but a few.”

The only way to undo corruption is to change rules to undo corrupt incentives. The irony of our analysis of Sumo wrestling was when it became public, the Sumo wrestlers stopped cheating. Not for good, but that is the answer of how you… Click To Tweet

Although he does tenuously stab at the recent Wall Street financial meltdown with allusions to Bernie Madoff and other crooked CEOs, showing that as in “the realm of high finance and the world of sumo both demonstrate that the illusion of purity can not only hide corruption it can help to make it possible,” the segment does not allow enough time to fully explore any real connections, the gaping flaw of the film itself: none of these subjects could support much more than 30 minutes of hardcore film documentation.

Freakonomics is about being short, sweet, and up-to-date. Featuring footage of recently retired Yokozuna (Grand Champion) Asashoryu and current Yokozuna Hakuho (who just won his 18th Makuuchi Division title), Gibney interviews former Yokozuna Akebono and Ozeki (Champion) Konishiki, who talk about the rigors of the twenty-four hour a day lifestyle that being a sumo wrestler entails: training morning to night six days a week for six yearly tournaments while nursing injuries, caring for other higher ranked wrestlers, and maintaining the tough exterior necessary to rise from the depths of the lowest pool of wrestlers to the top, an almost impossible feat for the vast majority who undertake it.

Freakonomics the Movie

Rikishi taking a morning break outside the stable in Tokyo © Manny Santiago

Each tournament lasts fifteen days with each rikishi (wrestler) performing once a day for a possible record of 15-0. If at the end of the two-week exhibition an athlete has a winning record (8-7) he advances in rank, which brings more money and respect, whereas a losing record (7-8) will bring demotion, and its associated humiliations. Therefore the difference between winning and losing is as huge as some of the wrestlers themselves and many who teeter on the edge of the precarious line may be willing to do that much more to advance.

Yet no matter how much the rikishi on the outside of the ring looking in wants to win, it takes two to wrestle. Levitt points out that “two wrestlers I would expect to have an even match, when one of them needs the eighth win and the other one doesn’t, the one who needs it wins 75% of the time, rather than 50% of the time. That is a huge deviation.”

Dubner states, “A rikishi entering a tournament’s final fifteenth match with a 7-7 record has far more to gain from a victory than an opponent with a record of 8-6 has to lose. The next time those two wrestlers meet, lo and behold, the 8-6 wrestler almost always wins those matches.”

Gibney talks to more than skeptical westerner researchers. Surprisingly, his team uncovered a few Japanese experts to testify to Sumo Association ills. Freelance journalist Yorimasa Takeda muses that Yaochō is rampant and match fixing rates can run from as little as a carton of cigarettes in the lower ranks to 1-2 million yen or more for bouts that decide championships. Former editor of the Shukan Post Akihiko Takeuchi states that the continued denial of the existence of Yaochō by the Sumo Association is an example of Honne and Tatemae, the Japanese terms for truth and facade, respectively. Ex-CIA agent Barry Eisler explains the importance of these ideas to Japanese society, “The tatemae is going to be a great spectacle of honest competition, but in the service of creating that pleasing facade the actual players are engaging in a form of corruption. To have the honne exposed produces discomfort.”

The Untouchables

Dohyō-iri - Ring Entrance Ceremony

Dohyō-iri - Ring Entrance Ceremony © Manny Santiago

Few and far between, whistle-blowers are reticent to talk to outsiders for fear of being cast out of the village world lifestyle of sumo wrestling, which does not allow for rocking the boat, but only going with the waves. Other insiders who talked have either been discredited and stripped of the only community they know or have wound up dead. The fact that Gibney can only assemble a freelance journalist, an ex-newspaper editor, an ex-cop and a foreigner–all individuals without ties to the establishment–goes to show how powerful the forces of Tatemae are in keeping in check those who speak out against societal corruption.

Takeda says, “To come out and expose everything was shattering a taboo in Japan’s shadow society…Not only the police, but Japanese society as a whole tend to view the Sumo world as untouchable, as if they are somehow outside the law.”

But in 2007 when the Tokitsukaze stable hazing scandal came to light and onetime Sumo hopeful Takeshi Saito’s corpse was found mutilated and littered with bruises and cigarette burns, and the Tokyo Police said the boy died of natural causes, something had to be done. The boy’s father came forward, demanding an autopsy, which found he had been beaten to death. The Sumo Association elite seemingly had to come clean, yet despite public opinion turning against the Sumo world, they countered with lawsuits against Takeda and proclaimed their Shinto-based purity.

Hiromasa Saikawa, ex-police officer, speaks out against the ever-widening gap of Honne and Tatemae in regards to Japan’s unbelievable conviction rate (96%), “This number does not reflect reality and every single police officer is aware of this. In the case of both police officers and athletes, their efforts are measured in numbers…As long as he’s producing impressive numbers, there’s a tendency not to dig deeper to find the truth. They employ all sorts of schemes to raise those numbers.”

Retired Komusubi (fourth-highest rank) Keisuke Itai publicly admits to partaking in Yaochō and adds that, “If the rikishi are really taking Sumo seriously, there is an element that is sacred to the sport. Even now, if I see a good match, it moves me. And if I see yaochō, I am disappointed. All of us in Sumo can tell just by looking.”

Despite the the depressing truth of the regimented hierarchical reality of Japanese power structure’s unflinching dedication to living a superficial lie, it is heartening to know that not just western economists, journalists and other like-minded outsiders, but some individuals living inside the beehive collective nature of Japanese society are brave enough to risk coming forward to decry not just the overwhelming numbers of match fixing in Sumo, but the human cost of corruption as well.

“The only way to undo corruption is to change rules to undo corrupt incentives. The irony of our analysis of Sumo wrestling was when it became public, the Sumo wrestlers stopped cheating. Not for good, but that is the answer of how you stop cheating. As Louis Brandeis said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.'”

A Magnolia Films presentation of a Green Film Company production, in association with Cold Fusion Media. Produced by Chad Troutwine, Chris Romano, and Dan O’Meara. Executive producer: Seth Gordon, Damon Martin, Jay Rifkin, Michael Roban. Segments written and directed by Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Rachel Grady. Written by Peter Bull & Alex Gibney (Pure Corruption), Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock (A Roshanda by Any Other Name), Eugene Jarecki (It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life), Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?), Seth Gordon (Intro & Segues), Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner (book).

With: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.
Watch the Trailer.

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