Tag Archives: michael moore

Documentary Double Bill

15 Aug

The advent of cheap, lightweight technology has been a boon to the documentary; in the last ten years the medium has undergone a renaissance both commercially and creatively, in stark contrast to narrative cinema. Spearheaded by innovators like Nick Broomfield and Errol Morris, and thanks in large part to the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the possibility of reaching a mass audience with a subject that resonates has increased exponentially; the designation is no longer an impediment.

Inevitably, this has led to some ‘creative’ uses of the format; ‘documentaries’ like ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ (2010), ‘I’m Still Here’ (2010) and ‘Catfish’ (2010) stretching the definition to breaking point. Whether staged or genuine, the new school of documentaries frequently take as their subject people who would struggle to be taken seriously if they were presented as fictional characters, such is their compelling strangeness. Though wildly different, the following films typify this approach.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2010)

Heralding from the deceptively bucolic town of Boone County, The Whites have a fearsome reputation in the community. A prologue details their convoluted family tree; from the disciplinarian head of the clan, D. Ray, a well-known exponent of ‘mountain dancing’ who was killed in a shootout; to his grandson, Brandon, who when the film begins is awaiting trial for the attempted murder of his mother’s boyfriend. D. Ray’s oldest daughter, the redoubtable Mamie, reels off a litany of tragedy and violence as she introduces us to the rest of the family; focusing on her ailing mother, Bernie May, the ‘miracle woman’ who raised twenty-four children; her brother, Jesco, who inherited his father’s dancing shoes at a heavy price, local fame bringing with it a crippling addiction to ‘gas huffing’ that has left him with severe brain damage; and Kirk, a single mother who tries to get clean in an attempt to regain custody of her newborn. Intersecting these central story strands is an array of other family members with an equal disregard for themselves and others.

On learning that Johnny Knoxville and other members of the ‘Jackass’ crew acted as executive producers, one would expect ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ to be a tawdry exercise in schadenfreude; but the film actually strives to place the Whites in the pantheon of Southern rebels, outlaws pursuing a form of freedom particular to the region’s isolationist principles and traditions; with Hank Williams III as their primary cheerleader. In actuality, there is nothing remotely heroic about the Whites and their ilk, and however genuine the veneration of them may be, the Whites have embraced their standing as ‘white trash’ with commendable self-awareness, in a way that nullifies any attempt to humiliate them. Of all the family, only Kirk and Poney – the one White who got away from Boone – seem to have any inkling as to where their dissolution is leading.

Director Julien Nitzberg makes an attempt to place their fatalism into some kind of socio-economic context, briefly outlining how West Virginia has been treated like a colony, its resources drained and its workforce exploited; but this takes a backseat to bolstering the White’s hell-raising mythology. The Whites pursue a strange type of entrepreneurialism, from D. Ray’s mastery of the social security system to his progeny’s subsistence on ‘hustling, rustling and bustling’, flourishing in the shadow economy of the perennially dispossessed. In detailing the Whites’ excesses, Nitzberg has stumbled upon a family who pose some pertinent questions illustrate some striking points; asking whether the behaviour of the Whites is genetically pre-determined or a product of  their environment, and outlining that ‘urban problems’ exist wherever there is extreme poverty.

One public official points out that a local boy was recently admitted to MIT; asking, ‘why isn’t anyone following him around?’ It is one of the film’s most important questions, as we now live in the ‘Jersey Shore’ paradigm, where the least deserving members of a community are lionized for cheap laughs. ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ presents a milieu where ersatz piety, endemic drug abuse, petty vengeance and easy access to firearms conspire to create an atmosphere of simplistic distinctions and circumscribed identities. Though it seeks to strike a light-hearted note, portraying the Whites as lovable eccentrics, ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ makes for grim, if compelling, viewing. These ‘drug-addled, gun-toting, redneck hillbillies’ are not ‘Appalachian royalty’ or counterculture icons, they are people who have been ground down by generations of poverty and left behind by society, and the film is frequently guilty of trivialising that fact in its attempt to further the White folklore.

Marwencol (2010)

Mark Hogancamp was put in a coma for nine days after being brutally attacked outside a bar by five people: his face had to be rebuilt, his memory was completely wiped and he had to learn everything from scratch, looking at his old life through a stranger’s eyes. When his health insurance expired, Hogancamp’s physical and speech therapy was cut off and he was left to seek his own treatment. Losing his gift for drawing in the attack, this took the form of a miniature village constructed in his garden called Marwencol populated by warring World War II-era armies of action figures and dolls bought from a local hobby store; many of them representing his friends, acquaintances, family members, and even his attackers. Hogancamp’s painterly photographs of the ongoing 1/6-scale saga come to the attention of photographer David Naugle, and his coping mechanism is brought to the attention of the art world.

‘Marwencol’ is a poignant, understated meditation on loss and obsession, devoid of the flashy visual ticks that often plague modern documentaries. Some artfully constructed tableaux aside, ‘Marwencol’ is a joyfully shabby experience; handwritten title cards are conspicuously placed in the hands of the dolls, the lighting is often uneven and the shots have a hurried, spontaneous feel – the story is very much the focus here, capturing Mark’s actions and observations without overemphasis on technical concerns. ‘Marwencol’ is everything an effective documentary should be, placing the audience firmly in the protagonist’s life and doing nothing to detract from its authenticity.

The dolls articulate Mark’s inner combat zone, waging war with the Nazis that lurk in his subconscious; the narrative he spins an attempt to impose order on and make sense of a cruel, chaotic world, placing him as the heroic figure at its centre. In Marwencol, everyone adheres to Mark’s inunctions and behaves predictably, villains are punished and fortitude is rewarded. Mark’s compulsion  has intriguing parallels with the mood that permeates the online domain; an environment where everyone can be whoever they want to be, a godlike figure who can bend their idealized proxy world to their will, the distinction becoming increasingly blurred and the disparity more painful.

The temptation must have been there to focus on some of the more salacious aspects of Mark’s life, but director Jeff Malmberg pulls back and treats him with laudable sensitivity and discretion, keeping this as a genuine celebration of outsider art as opposed to a snide, reductive exploitation of abnormality – much like Mark’s work, ‘Marwencol’ was made for the purest of reasons. But as inspiring and affecting as the film is, it leaves one feeling a little wistful. As Mark’s work reaches a wider audience, it simply serves to accentuate his crippling loneliness and alienation, a fact reflected in the darkening tone of events in his stunningly detailed and realised empire. The film ends on a tentative note, hinting that it may have been better for Mark if his work had never been discovered and he had been left to play out the story to its conclusion in peace.

Jesco White: The Dancing Outlaw

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

6 May

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ director Davis Guggenheim and ‘Simpsons’ writer Billy Kimball collaborate for this investigation of America’s troubled education system. In 1999, Guggenheim made ‘The First Year’, a documentary about five young teachers struggling to adjust to life in an inner city public school. Ten years later, he is a father who drives past three public schools on his way to the private school where he has chosen to place his kids. This served as the impetus for Guggenheim and Kimball to explore the lives behind the statistics, interviewing notable figures and following children from across the economic spectrum to get some sense of the tangled, imbalanced nature of the situation.

Despite years of ‘lip service and political bickering’, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001 was intended to curb the gradual decline of America’s public schools, which had been amongst the best in the world until the ‘70s. Of the top thirty developed countries, America is 25th in maths and 21st in science. Eight years later, and the achievement gap continues to widen; the rate of child literacy and numeracy in certain parts of the country is as low as 12%. Certain inner city schools have been branded ‘dropout factories’ with a consequent rise in the prison population, costing the state $33,000 per year, per inmate – enough to pay for private schooling, with $24,000 left over for college.

Like ‘Sicko’, ‘Waiting for Superman’ addresses a domestic issue with global implications; the American model, for better or worse, is still looked upon by certain ideologues as an ideal to which they must strive – when America sneezes the world invariably catches a cold. For international viewers, the film is a chilling window into a world where opportunity goes hand in hand with inequality. Education is indicative of a wider trend where a child’s prospects are largely determined by the economic stability of their upbringing, the drivers of social mobility cease to function and the cycle of deprivation is reinforced. It is a tragedy to see the plight of children like Daisy, a precocious girl who wants to be a vet, and Bianca, who can’t graduate because her mother has fallen behind on the tuition fees.

Bill Gates sounds a note of caution on behalf of the business community, outlining that high-tech industries require a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce, and that demand is rapidly outstripping supply in this regard. But the picture is not entirely grim; there are those who are trying to prevent schools from failing the communities they serve. Geoffrey Canada’s story is an inspiring one; an educator with a vision for ‘education in the nation’, he established the Success Academy in Harlem, an area with twice the unemployment rate of the rest of New York. Canada is an expansive, charismatic figure who refuses to give up on kids who have been given ‘the short end of the stick’ by a ‘cold, heartless world’, and the results he has garnered for his pupils speak for themselves.

Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, is a somewhat more divisive figure. The chancellor of DC public schools – an area that provides a microcosm for the system as a whole – Rhee admits that the majority of kids in her district are getting a ‘crappy education’. However, her reform plans – firing thirty principles, cutting four-hundred jobs, closing twenty-three schools – are met with suspicion by the public and anger by the unions. One of the film’s major failings is its refusal to take Rhee to task on how her closure plans would affect the already poor communities in which these failing schools are located, and to simply paint her as a victim whose bold vision is crushed by a pact between organized labour and the political elite.

Unfortunately, the minuses outweigh the pluses, both stylistically and ideologically. ‘Waiting for Superman’ belabours its often obvious points; documentaries work best when they are succinct, and losing ten minutes from the running time would have helped – clips from ‘School of Rock’ and ‘the Simpsons’ only serve to trivialize its argument. There are some conspicuously staged moments, dramatic inserts and overly composed tracking shots that remove one from the reality of what is being depicted, while the animation used to present statistics has an air of condescension about it, as if the viewer cannot be trusted to assimilate the information without a jaunty graphic.

‘Waiting for Superman’s’ broad, glossy emotive sweep fails to take into account a number of pertinent issues, such as the rise of corporate sponsorship in public schools and the role of faith schools. Whether or not these omissions are part of a concerted pattern of obfuscation is unclear, but any authoritative study of the issue cannot fail to take these factors into account. The film presents a jaundiced view of unions, suggesting that their campaign contributions are aberrant, rather than standard practice for any corporation or organization, and implies that teaches are ‘disincentivized’ by job security and need inducements in order to perform better. The assertion that funding is not a problem is one of the film’s most ludicrous contentions, given the dire conditions captured in the ‘academic sinkholes’ they visit. Its intentions may be honourable, but for whatever reason, ‘Waiting for Superman’ shies away from some of the more contentious root causes and incipient problems of this increasingly unfair, arbitrary state of affairs.

Guggenheim and Gates on 'Oprah'.

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)

6 Mar

Films addressing the perils of globalization approach the subject from a variety of angles – there’s the broad satirical sweep of ‘The Yes Men’ (2003), the ideological rigour of ‘The Corporation’ (2003) and the hot-button populism of Michael Moore’s broadsides against corporate hegemony. A companion piece of sorts to ‘Life and Debt’ (2001), which explores the impact of IMF/World Bank edicts on Jamaica, ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ takes to the streets of Tanzania to find the reality behind the statistics.

Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake on earth; the source of the Nile, it is the heart of Africa. In the 1960s the Nile Perch was introduced to the lake, a voracious predator which destroyed all other species in the lake but proved to be ‘good economically’ – its fillets are a valuable commodity. Planes fly constantly into the Mwanza airfield, ostensibly to be filled with fish but also allegedly being used to smuggle weapons to war zones in neighbouring Angola, Liberia, Sudan and DRC. While more than half of its thirty-four million inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day and two million are affected by famine, the planes transport the country’s primary resource to Europe.

‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ presents lives on both sides of the divide – from Eliza, a young woman who sells her services to businessmen for ten dollars a night but yearns to return to school, to Dina, a radio engineer on a plane crew who travels to danger zones around the world but never questions his role in the suffering he sees. Of particular poignancy are the tales of Jonathan, Rafael and Mkono. Jonathan is a talented artist who documents the squalor of the slums, guiding the crew through the townships where children melt fish packages to make glue for sniffing. Raphael is a security guard working at the National Fisheries Institute for a dollar a day; an ex-soldier who yearns for the opportunity another war would bring. Mkono is the camp leader at Ito, an island populated by fishermen and prostitutes. A former teacher, he is the film’s voice of wisdom, commenting that ‘poverty is a vicious cycle and ‘only the strong survive’. To see such talent squandered is the film’s ultimate tragedy.

Writer/director/producer/cinematographer Hubert Sauper dispenses with the usual adjuncts used to prettify the medium; there is no narration and his camerawork has an immediacy that feels almost surreptitious at times – its grainy dimly-lit digital photography lags, judders and blurs on multiple occasions. He captures unfiltered a society where the church discourages women forced into prostitution from using contraception, where fishermen die on a regular basis for want of a doctor, where those in power line their pockets at the expense of their citizens. ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ is rife with powerful metaphors – the crashed planes lining the runway of the airfield, filled with so much fish they were unable to take off, children fighting over a bowl of rice, the flourishing market in fish carcasses discarded by the factories, the huge inflatable Coke bottle rising out of the slums.

‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ conveys the truth in a way that no amount of figures and sophisticated arguments could ever do, by simply showing the rampant AIDS and alcoholism, the milksops of the ‘ecological panel’ prevaricating while faced with a looming environmental disaster, the complete lack of any kind of infrastructure for the poor, the palpable sense of hopelessness and desperation that hangs in the air, the Russian fish pilot who says in dead earnest that ‘black people don’t want to work’.

Sauper paints a bleak picture of a people in thrall to the whims of the market, dissecting a system whereby the developed world imports natural riches and exports chaos. ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ is a devastating indictment of the ‘structural adjustment programs’ imposed on debtor nations, a stellar piece of investigative journalism castigating the high-level corruption and inequality fostered by this homogenous model. Sauper succeeds in forcing us to confront our own complicity, asking us to question why it is we enjoy such a cheap and plentiful supply of goods, showing the consequences of a delicate ecosystem thrown out of balance, imploring us to see Tanzania’s problems as our own.

If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.

‘C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America’ Review Link

21 Dec

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004).