It may be that I wasn’t paying enough attention before, but I feel like documentary filmmakers have been building a stronger platform for the medium in recent years. Last year’s nominees for the Documentary Feature Oscar may have played pretty typically by the safe side. More culturally or structurally challenging works like Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, Bart Layton’s The Imposter, Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film and Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five failed to see a nomination, and you couldn’t ask for a safer winner than the pleasant Rodriguez resurgence feature Searching for Sugar Man. Still there were a significant handful of hefty issue documentaries in the mix, with The Invisible War, 5 Broken Cameras, and How to Survive a Plague making strong cases for socially or physically abused groups and individuals.
2013 thus far has certainly been in no short supply of breakout documentary hits. The Gatekeepers (now out on DVD) had a strong run following its Oscar nomination, a rigorous talking-heads doc that formed a history of the Israel Shin Bet security agency out of interviews from its six previous heads. There was significant interest earlier this year for Sound City, another pleasant enough music doc that premiered at Sundance Film Festival before quickly rolling out, as well as Girl Rising, which focuses on girls from around the world facing many difficult trials, from arranged marriage to child slavery. While the former seems too light-weight to make much impact, the latter doesn’t seem to have a specific enough focus to rally universal support behind it. And, of course, Sarah Polley’s medium-eschewing Stories We Tell has stunned many who have seen it, and will likely endure for many year-end awards. We can only hope the Academy won’t plead ignorance there.
One of the more recent docs to spark interest was Dirty Wars, which investigates the covert wars that the U.S. has been waging in other countries. It’s a film that brings to light information the public viewer probably isn’t much aware, which is amongst the more practical purposes for documentaries nowadays. As such I tend to groan when the Academy chooses to award a film that neither challenges viewers or widens their perspective of the world. For that reason, I can’t vouch for 20 Feet From Stardom (B-), which first opened at the Sundance Film Festival to much enthusiasm and acclaim. Reading it on paper, it’s hard not to get excited for this film focusing on the lives and history of backup singers, as passionate an underdog story pitch as you’re likely to hear. Problem is that point could have just as easily been conveyed on paper as it has been in film.
It’s admittedly hard not to fall for the women on screen, their passion for music so visible and audible as to form a sad emotional chord with their disproportionate star status. Darlene Love is the most recognizable face, hers being a story of manipulation as her star status was oppressively controlled and subdued by Phil Spector. Just as her story of moving past that secondary status is told in retrospect, we see young singer Judith Hill struggle with the demands of a solo career by taking an occasional backup gig. As much as the film details the desire for personal stardom, it mostly focuses on the distinct power of back-up singers, with Lisa Fischer shining most as somebody whose voice shines bright and loud in spite its relegation to the background.
As engaging a subject as this is, director Morgan Neville doesn’t seem to have much interest in conveying these women’s passions as much as conveying information. Half an hour in, it’s hard not to be tired of hearing famous musicians sing their praises and wish more for them, especially if we don’t personally feel that desire for greater things. Neville relays information and interviews, but doesn’t try building acompelling emotional through-line in editing or cinematography, aside from beautifying lens flares that rival J.J. Abrams on his best day. It’s occasionally hard to know whether the film is distracted by or distracting from the performances of these singers. The film’s strongest formal flourish lasts all too shortly, stripping away the main music and primary vocals of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” so we can only hear the iconic backup vocals. 20 Feet from Stardom certainly won’t change worldly perspectives, but it may have you listening closer to the background voices of your favorite songs.
I wouldn’t be surprised if 20 Feet from Stardom snags an eventual documentary feature nod, as it hits many of the same ‘undervalued musician’ notes that Searching for Sugar Man prospered from. However an informal doc that I’d be much happier to see acknowledged is Call Me Kuchu (B/B+), which is also lacking in the department of structural creativity, but not in the urgency or passion of its subject. Though it also pushes the a normative doc structure of speaking more than showing, it makes up in telling us the story solely from testimonials of those involved in it. While it emotionally and morally takes up the cause of Ugandan LGBT activists such as Naome Ruzindana and David Kato, we also hear from newspaper men in staunch opposition of homosexuality. While they may be under the impression that audiences will take their side, their hateful statements come across as enraging purely on principle.
Directors Katherine Fairfax-Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall wisely obscure their presences politically and stylistically, trusting the audience to lay their own morals on the table. What we get is an honest, pictorially unfussy portrait of what it’s like to be a Ugandan ‘Kuchu’, a local synonym for queers in the country. Rather than being implemented as a slanderous remark, though, they wear it as a symbol of pride, something hard to hold up under such extreme public scrutiny. The film finds its forward thrust in the wake of the anti-homosexuality bill, which would make homosexuality a crime punishable by death if passed. It seems ridiculous from a relatively sheltered domestic perspective, but the threat of public execution is present even without the bill implemented. The local newspaper, the Rolling Stone, denies any cruel motivation in a newspaper article that allegedly inadvertently calls the public to “Hang Them!”. Whether or not that was an intentional call to arms is left entirely up to the viewers’ own ethical prejudices.
Much of is simply able representation of a community and a cause, but the film fully forms into something urgent with the third act. If, like me, you walk in with little prior knowledge of the LGBT situation in Uganda, you might be kicking yourself for not paying closer attention to the news back in 2011. It’s also to Fairfax-Wright and Zouhali-Worrall’s credits that they don’t melodramatically hammer down the tragic events that happened, not using those abused or targeted for their homosexualities as manipulated figureheads, but as world-weary, bravely outspoken individuals. In this particular case, more formal flourishes would’ve detracted from the film’s intent, which isn’t so much a call to arms for Americans. There’s little we can actually do to help the dire situation, but simply recognizing that there’s a problem and showing your support for those living under such life-threatening social restrictions can go a long way towards subtly shifting the social mindset.
While Call Me Kuchu wants to expand social boundaries, the subjects of We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (B+) are dead-set on controlling them. Artificially a simple relaying of the Wikileaks phenomenon that vaulted Julian Assange to hacker rock-star status, leave it to Taxi to the Dark Side director Alex Gibney to take a seemingly enervated story and pluck into the foreground all the public and personal implications lying below the surface. Knowing next-to-nothing about Wikileaks beforehand, I had the expectation of a documentary that suffered, as many docs have a tendency to, relaying the information with absolutely no dramatic or social strings attached. If only I’d been more aware of Bradley Manning’s role in it.
While we spend much time focusing in on Julian Assange and the ascent of Wikileaks – initially seen as a public service against a government that *could* be concealing unjust decisions or events from public view – the film is just as much Manning’s story as it is Assange’s. An army soldier with access to reams of government files and “secrets”, we enter Manning’s story through his online communications with hacker Adrian Lamo. With the bright blue letters of his messages lighting up a blank screen, Gibney is able to convey Manning’s emotional isolation in the subtlest and least manipulative of ways. Manning having been dealing with an acute sexual and identity crisis, he comes across most as a tragic kid hero who found himself in over his head. His story is told in deep contrast with Assange’s, whose initial paranoia with the government masks a self-aggrandizing paranoia against everything, down to the implications of his sex life.
Call Me Kuchu had perhaps a more urgent social message attached to it, but We Steal Secrets did heavier lifting in taking a highly publicized story and making it intimately personal, but also a wire-edged thrill-ride in its own right. I fail to grasp how Bill Condon’s narrative film can evoke deeper thought or more inventive thrills than Gibney achieves here. It’s not the government’s dicey secrets that are held in greatest esteem here, though footage of American helicopter gunmen shooting rampantly at civilians will likely make any viewer shudder. Rather it’s our own personal insecurities that find themselves either diverted, in the case of Assange, or desperately confessed, as with Manning. It’s absolutely engaging, and ought to be in the serious Oscar conversation by year’s end.
Far less likely, if damn near impossible, to be appreciated universally by the Academy is Leviathan (B+), which breaks from the typical doc mode of information, as well as the normative film mode of storytelling. There is no story, nor is their necessarily information to be culled from it. My initial attempt to view it at New York Film Festival was met with a nasty sea-sickness, much thanks to Ang Lee’s own ocean-bound visual menagerie in Life of Pi. Held in comparison to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s visceral experiment, though, Lee’s film might as well have been a picture book (which it practically was anyway). Life of Pi‘s 3D use may have grasped desirably at immersion, but it’s difficult not to get sucked in, and then violently thrashed about, by Leviathan.
The “story” starts and ends on a commercial fishing boat in the North Atlantic, and with that scant description Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s camera wanders and swooshes about, with little attention paid to the behind-the-camera mechanics that make it do so. Our eyes are darted onto any spare scrap of discernible image. Minutes are spent looking at light gleaming out in the distance, trying to figure out what it is, and then still questioning long after you already know what it is. There’s a lot of such guesswork, all seemingly from a film that isn’t saying anything. Yet by telling us absolutely nothing and simply showing us this lifestyle in mesmeric disorientation, we’re left to draw our own lines on the significance or insignificance of the imagery.
Many might find themselves repulsed at the sight of hundreds of fish being routinely slaughtered, not to mention the numerous other unintended wildlife that finds its way on the boat by accident. You can find your own moral conclusions from a manta ray being brutally cut in half, shortly before its blood and guts is discarded out to see. As gag-inducing as the images are, they’re also absolutely beautiful to behold. You may be grasping desperately for lucidity as the camera mercilessly plunges beneath the water and up to the skies amongst the seagulls, but none of this imagery is simply displayed. As mentioned before, we are shown, but not told, building a documentary experience as liberating as it is mystifying. With luck we’ll encounter even more docs intent on pushing the boundaries of the medium by year’s end. Just don’t expect the Academy to take close enough interest in Leviathan and the like. The Oscars have little time for truly challenging fare.