The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
(In Indonesian, with English subtitles)
This film is difficult and problematic. In the mid-1960's, the Indonesian government condoned and supported the mass murder of anyone suspected of bearing left-wing sentiments, holding communist beliefs, supporting labor unions, or being a student or an intellectual – you know, the usual suspects. Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result. This movie documents the events not through newsreel footage but through the recollected narratives of the killers themselves, who, of course, roam freely throughout the land even now. Nominated for an Academy Award this year, the film explores the actions of that handful of thugs who helped carry out a tyrannical government's edict to destroy dissension in Indonesia. It is not a pleasure to watch, but it does exhibit something of the depths of evil to which people descend. In between the narratives of the thugs, we see surreal scenes of musical numbers, while the killers playact the scenes of horror they performed so glibbly many years ago. What is disturbing is the lack of compassion for the victims, the utter absence of any sense of wrongdoing, the continued support of the government for these policies, and the horrifying, ongoing presence of evil in that society. Unsettling and nightmarish.
Approved for Adoption, directed by Jung Laurent Boileau
(In French, with English subtitles)
Filmmaker Jung Boileau was just a little five-year-old orphan in Korea when he was adopted by a Belgian family forty-some years ago. Through a blend of animation, photography, and film, we follow Boileau as he adjusts to his new life and loving family. Adjusting is not that easy, although his first several years seem only mildly difficult, with an occasional disturbing incident of racial prejudice or a vague sense of inequality that adopted children may feel now and then, that sense of not being quite loved as much or not belonging as fully as other family members. When Boileau grows into his teen years, problems do arise – in his behavior, in his sense of identity, in the manifestation of his rebellion. These are difficult years for Boileau and his parents and siblings. He looks into how he fit in or didn't fit in his family. He returns to Korea as an adult only to understand that he is as much a foreigner there as in his home country of Belgium. But above all in this story, he seeks and finds where he is truly loved and where he truly belongs. It is both a sad and joyful story documented here for us.
Armadillo, directed by Janus Metz Pedersen
(In Danish, with English subtitles)
Like other war documentaries before it, I am thinking of Restrepo, also owned by HCPL, this film focuses on the soldiers engaged in warfare in Afghanistan. The soldiers happen to be Danish. Stationed in an isolated outpost called Armadillo, they are committed to making Afghanistan a better place, although viewers and the soldiers themselves may have their doubts that this is an achievable goal. We follow the men from deployment through a year of service and then beyond into a followup after they return home again. While they long for actual engagement, most of their work is a daily grind of dealing with local village issues and just passing the time. When they do see combat, we are right there with them, seeing what most of us hope never, ever to see, in all the realism that makes documentaries more than art, closer to life and, in this case, death.
(In French, with English subtitles)
The stars of this film are mostly four-legged. They are animals who live in a safari park in Quebec, where we see them over a winter of being penned in and then into milder weather, when the two-leggeds of the world, we humans, visit them to gaze upon them in something of surprise and wonder. The beasts of this safari park would rather that we not bother. They clearly are not happy, and are distressed outside their natural environment and inside these cages and pens and fenced-in fields. Still, the camera captures a beauty in them that shames us for holding the animals of the world in any kind of lesser status than we hold ourselves. There really isn't any dialogue here; what words we hear are only background sounds and not important to the movie. What is important is the quiet dignity of these beautiful creatures, as they struggle to live on in a world unnatural to them and to their souls.
Disco & Atomic War, directed by Jaak Kilmi
(In Estonian, with English subtitles)
One of the more humorous of the documentaries discussed in this issue, maybe the only humorous one, this film looks at life in Estonia during the Cold War. Our narrator grew up in the city of Tallinn, while Estonia was a nation within the Soviet Union, a nation perhaps a little too close to Sweden and Finland for the comfort of government officials. Here, a clever person might figure out a way to rig an antenna that maybe could pick up Swedish and, by extension, American television. Here, a resourceful boy might turn into the purveyor of news of what happened to J. R. Ewing in the lastest episode of Dallas. Here, neighbors might collectively join ranks to outwit the police, hiding TV antennas and sharing news and secrets of the outside world. And, yes, in that dark time of blocked access to information, our own "beautiful, fragile culture" that produced Dallas and Baywatch served to open a Soviet Bloc nation to the West, while people waited with bated breath to find out who killed J. R.
Hitler's Children, directed by Chanoch Ze'evi
(In German, with English subtitles)
So we know what happened to Hitler and his top henchmen – some killed themselves, some were hanged unto death, some served time in prison – but what of their children, their sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and nephews? What of them? How did they go on living, knowing their parents, grandparents, and uncles did what they did? This documentary explores just that issue. The children carry the guilt, and most seem fully aware of their family's deep shame for the past. They make amends as best as they can, visiting places of their childhood that spark memories of darker times, exploring those memories for clues of what was really going on around them, but now with eyes open and hearts breaking.
Le Joli Mai, directed by Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme
(In French, with English subtitles)
In 1962, the people of France experienced something they had nearly forgotten existed: peace. The war in Algeria was over, or at least was at a standstill; the horrors of the previous world war were fading, as were its scars; and for the first time in years, Paris was alive with happiness. This is a document of those heady days in the spring, when May was once again lovely. Marker and Lhomme shot hours and hours of film of random Parisians, interviewing them and asking them about their lives and beliefs, their politics and convictions. From shopkeepers, to laborers, to members of a wedding celebration, to students, the people of Paris speak out with bemusement and with annoyance, with joy and concern. Collectively, they give us a sense of what it was like in those lovely days of spring in Paris.
Mademoiselle C, directed by Fabien Constant
(In English and French, with English subtitles)
Who is Carine Roitfeld? She just happens to be one of the biggest names in high fashion, the editor of fashion magazines, including Vogue Paris, a constant presence in the world of designers, models, photographers, and magazine editors, in short, a fashion icon. In this documentary, Fabien Constant follows Roitfeld as she shifts to a new endeavor, to create and publish a fashion magazine, CR Fashion Book. Well, if any of the documentaries in this list unsettle you in their harsh realism, you may find this to be a delightful, if superficial, amusement, as the fashionistas of New York and Paris flit about, concerned about their own deadlines and rivalries, adornments and hairstyles. Some excitement is truly infectious as Roitfeld prepares for the publication of her magazine that seriously puts the noses of other fashion editors out of joint. In between Roitfeld's sessions with her personal ballet instructor and her consultations with designers, we meet her family and her associates, to add more to the celebration of her life. If you find yourself leafing through Elle or Vogue while standing in the supermarket checkout line, wishing you were any place but there, you may want to lose yourself in Roitfeld's world. This documentary will certainly open the door to another world for you. If you like fashion documentaries, not necessarily foreign, you may want to try something even better than this, Bill Cunningham New York, also owned by HCPL. While Cunningham is not exclusively a fashion icon, his photography is iconic in itself, and a delightful segment of the film explores Fashion Week in Paris.
My Perestroika, directed by Robin Hessman
(In Russian, with English subtitles)
Like Michael Apted's Up Series, this documentary focuses on adults, who reflect on their childhood and on how growing up in a world now gone impacts those adults even today. The subjects of the film just happen to be children who lived in a very different Russia from what we know today. Russia of the 1970's seemed almost a fairy tale in the recollections of the featured men and women. It presented to them a magical, carefree time. Then along came change in massive ways, with perestroika, the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the attempted coup in 1991, the unsettled decade of crime and capitalism that followed, and now, their present life under Putin. The women and men reflect and consider life then and life now, with the expectations and realities that ordinary people must confront from day to day.
This Is Not a Film, directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmash and Jafar Panahi
(In Persian, with English subtitles)
Jafar Panahi is an Iranian film director forbidden to work on his craft by the Iranian government, which considers his work too controversial, too challenging for the Iranian people. Panahi was arrested in 2010, tried, and sentenced to six years in prison, a sentence which he is now appealing. While he awaits the outcome of that appeal, he resides as obscurely as possible in his apartment. In the same trial, he was also forbidden to direct films for twenty years; thus, his denial that this is a film. It isn't, in a way, since he uses only a small video camera or his smartphone to record his actions occurring in a day. While he allows us to see what he is doing on a typical day of confinement, he also reflects on the films he might make, were he allowed to make them. This sort-of film also allows him to regard film itself as a medium and the nature of art within the real world. Yes, it is philosophical and emerges as its own art form – at once a film and not a film; no, it is never a film, lest the Iranian government clamp down even more. HCPL owns two other films directed by Panahi, Crimson Gold and Offside, and another in which he had a hand in the making, Border Cafe.
To Dance Like a Man, directed by Sylvia Collier
(In Spanish, with English subtitles)
This is perhaps the only truly joyful documentary in this month's list, and its attention is directed towards three boys, triplets, who love to dance. They are studying in the National Ballet School of Cuba, which hundreds of young people strive to attend to refine their skills in dance. Cuba, by the way, is a country where ballet is a national pastime, greatly appreciated by the masses. We follow the young boys as they audition for parts, go through routine exercies at the barre, and dance joyously in classical ballets. We also meet other young students, as well as several young adult dancers and their instructors, who share their philosophy of dance.