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Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Blackfish Film Poster, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures

While Hollywood languishes inside of digitized cliché and regressive idolatry of the almighty dollar, the collective work of internationally-based documentary film makers only seems to improve year after year. Is it access to better and more easily functional technology or access to better and more compelling stories? What we used to revere as The News, is now so manufactured by particular interest groups as to render what passes for information is generally opinion. With the 24-hour news cycle comes a kind of desensitization of the news, or what is happening in the world, so that we as a collective society have relegated to the documentary film genre and to that peculiar brand of filmmaker the truly courageous chase of journalism. The journalism of documentary film is not always objective, as in the case of Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell (National Film Board of Canada), but it is generally fascinating and full enough of great stories and characters to overcome the slant of unbiased storytelling that is, more and more, the best form of informative media almost anyone currently has access to.

Take The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Final Cut For Real), in which the director offers the hitmen of Indonesian dictator’s Suharto’s death squad a chance to reenact their gruesome murders, in whatever Hollywood genre they wish to use. The film crescendoes to a bloody and violent apex only to grind to a halt as the murderers begin to intimately realize what they have done. This is more than the news could ever be. This is the new post-postmodern reality of melding the fantasical form of fictional film to the everyday make-believe humanity creates to get through the murder of life.

Many other noteworthy films from this year follow the example of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I live In, which give voice to those people who have little to no voice in society. Inequality For All by Jacob Kornbluth, Gideon’s Army by Dawn Porter, A River Changes Course by Kalyanee Mam and The Square from Jehane Noujaim are some of the best among a host of others. Yet the 2013 documentary film which has and will have affected change is Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Magnolia Pictures).

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

2. Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When The Cove premiered at the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival, the director, Louie Psihoyos, answered questions from the audience after what amounted to one of the only showings of the controversial film in Japan. With the mayor of Taiji, the Japanese IWC Representative, the notorious Private Space all in attendance, Psihoyos spoke about why he had to make this film:

The skeptics wanted to focus on animal rights, but this isn’t just an animal rights issue…It’s a human health issue also. And I wanted everyone in the theater to understand that. It’s a human rights film because people need to know that the levels of mercury is off-the-charts toxic.

The Cove was called the Citizen Cane of environmental documentaries and while it proved to be ground-breaking–in many ways analagous to Kane–in its ability to uncover certain of the monstrosities perpetuated upon the animal kingdom by humans, the film was ultimately unable to create the upwelling of support domestically necessary to bring about swift and sure change in the treatment of cetaceans. People couldn’t relate. Americans don’t eat dolphin, never have. But Seaworld? This is where Blackfish changes everything.

The 83 minute film revolves around Tilikum, a 34-year-old orca, whose story is told from his initial capture in the North Atlantic in 1983 to his first non-ocean home at Sealand of The Pacific, where, in 1991, he was responsible for killing trainer Keltie Byrne. After which he was sold to SeaWorld Orlando, where trainers were kept in the dark about the whale’s involvement in Byrne’s death and permitted to work closely with him. Cowperthwaite gives these trainers voice to share with the audience the incorrect whale facts given to park visitors – from diminished whale lifespans to supposed whale behaviors. Since Blackfish’s production ex-trainer John Hargrove has written Beneath the Surface, an expose on the Seaworld culture.

Several whale attacks are seen and explained, including one involving trainer Ken Peters, who survived the grip of a killer whale who inexplicably refused to release him. Eventually we see the story which got Cowperthwaite off of her couch and talking to people: when veteran killer whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was attacked and killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando.

Seaworld, not mentioning the film itself, took out full-page ads in national newspapers in mid-December 2013 which read “SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People” and summarized the following points:

  • SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.
  • We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.
  • SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.
  • SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.
  • The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.
  • SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.

OPS, the Oceanic Preservation Society, led by Louie Psihoyos, has released a letter countering SeaWorld’s facts, entitled, “Marine Mammal Captivity: The Truth Is in the Facts.” The subtitle reads “An Open Letter from the Informed American Public,” which is an important point. 50 years ago when SeaWorld was created, their ethos that “our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans,” was largely true. Most Americans didn’t know anything about fish, let alone cetaceans and other marine mammals. 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, “when they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job,” this statement might have been true to the extent that other than those guided by self-interest and curiosity in the exploration of marine biology, not many people in general give much thought to what lives in the ocean other than the tuna fish sandwich their mom used to make them, but today is another story.

Today we have documentaries like The Cove, Sharkwater, Atlantis, and the work of Jacques Cousteau, who taught that there is as much educational benefit in studying dolphins and whales in captivity as there is in studying humans by observing prisoners in solitary confinement. Today we do not have to rely solely on passionate experts like Cousteau, Cowperthwaite and Psihoyos. Today we have the ability to find out for ourselves what kind of world we live in, and more than ever, choose what kind of world we want to live in. The fact that Blackfish has been aired multiple times on CNN to an audience of more than 20 million, and has become available via iTunes and Netflix, is proof enough that the American public is interested and is becoming educated.

The letter finishes by saying “The truth about SeaWorld is in the facts. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish and our film The Cove give viewers a deep and meaningful connection with the remarkable animals in our oceans. But this is just the beginning of a growing shift in public awareness about the impoverished lives of animals at SeaWorld. As Cowperthwaite says, young people today are becoming the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation. No amount of advertising will counter the Blackfish Effect. SeaWorld, your job is to now adapt to an informed public.”

Whether we agree that capturing and holding animals in captivity is something we as a society want to continue, a related issue has to be that of the survival of the oceans, acidifying at an alarming rate. The Losing Nemo animated short by, coincidentally enough, The Black Fish, is compelling enough to get you to think that without changing the way we do many things, the only animals that exist will be in tanks and surrounded by cages, ourselves included.

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.

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