Non-Fiction Film

The World of Documentaries

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

Documentaries can be dazzling, with fiction and nonfiction, fact and reconstructed reality intermingling. The direct cinema movement chose to pursue the truth by non-involvement. Later the cinema verities aimed to tell the whole truth, including the impact of the film crew. Agnes Varda’s ‘‘Les Plages d’Agnes–The beaches of Agnes’ (France, colour, 2008, 110 mins) centers on the role of an old lady film maker, Agnes Varda, recounting her life. She talks about herself, with film shooting equipment and mirrors set on a sea beach, in an attempt to find new landscapes. The implements are placed parallel to the sea. Strong winds blow Agnes’ scarf. A handwoked record player recalls American jazz and classical music, with which Agnes grew up. The background music score is original, with extracts of music from films by Varda. Helene Lookart’s mobile camera follows the waves, the sands, the sailing boats and the personal narrative, to build a visual and aural spectacle. Agnes is not nostalgic for childhood. The sounds, on the North Sea beaches were music to her eyes. Childhood is recreated and reconstructed, where she was the middle of five children. Children sell shells and flowers on the beaches. There are photos of her old house in Brussels, with garden, balcony, bedroom and miniature trams and toys. Married to film maker Jacques Demy of the New Wave, film extracts and observations recount Jane Birkin Chris Marker, Jean Luc Godard and Gerard Depardiev. Her first film ‘‘Le Pointe Courte’’ was shot with 16 mm camera. Eighty years of life in cinema are recalled.

Alex Gibney’s absorbing documentary ‘‘We steal secrets : The story of WikiLeaks’’ (USA, colour, 2013, 130 mins) portrays the story of Julian Assange, from his origins as a teenage hacker in Australia, to his confined existence under the radar as the co-founder of WikiLeaks, to his status as a fugitive from justice, facing extradition to Sweden to answer charges of sex offence. The Melbourne whistle blower revealed an American helicopter gunship in Iraq, had blown apart a group of Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, one of whose long lens camera was mistaken for weapon. The world came to know that the US was handing over its prisoners to the Iraqis in direct contravention of Geneva Conventions. While Assange walks, talks and thinks aloud in news and archive footage, there is no new interview footage with the central character.

Emma Davie and Morag Mackinnon’s ‘‘I am Breathing’’ (USA/UK, colour, 2013, 72 mins) is a sad and insightful documentary, about someone who cannot move. Neil Platt, a young, handsome, bearded man is filmed dying of motor neurone disease. His family visibly and the film crew less visibly, hover around him. While the viewer watches helplessly, the idea is the film and not the illness. Footage from childhood clips of Neil to marriage, to paralysis, to a barely weeping face, and a farewell letter to his son, build a time capsule of Neil’s life.

Dan Krauss’ ‘‘The Kill Team’’ (USA, colour, 2013) is a devastating film, depicting Adam Winfield, an American soldier in Afghanistan, who is alerting the military in a kill-for-sport game, where soldiers conspired to kill Afghan civilians. Close shots peer into the staged murders, to appear like ‘‘good shoots’’. Krauss investigates the psychology of trained warriors, who fail to see their victims as fully human. Kirby Dick’s ‘‘The Invinsible War’’ (USA, colour, 2013) portrays the US military as a self protective institution, that punishes whistle blowers. African oil companies in close collaboration with American corporate interests misbehave in Rachel Boynton’s ‘‘Big Men’’ (USA, colour, 2013). The industrial expose highlights a story of ambition, greed and corruption. Matt Wolf’s ‘‘Teenage’’ (USA, colour, 2013) agglomerates archival chips of youth, since the early 20th century. The documentary describes how teenage culture came into existence, with several targets, affecting the coherence of the story. Ilian Ziv’s ‘‘Jerusalem : An Archeological Mystery Story’ (Israel/UK, colour, 2013) questions the mass exile of the Jewish people in AD 70. After a failed uprising against the Roman Empire, the exile of the Jews has played a central role in Christian and Jewish theology. Ziv’s documentary examines new evidence that suggests that the majority of the Jewish people may not have been exiled following the fall of Jerusalem. Important ethical questions are raised about present-day Middle Eastern issues.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘‘The Act of Killing’’ (USA/UK/Denmark, colour, 2013) focuses on the killers responsible for the anti-communist purges in 1960s Indonesia. Killers, or select surviving ones are given their own screen time and space. There was a failed coup in Indonesia in 1965, that involved the assassination of six generals. Blaming the communists, the army launched a program of mass killing, much of it contracted to local gangsters. Some say 500,000 died, others one million. Even by standards of the 20th century, it was a significant atrocity. Within Indonesia, it was mythologised as a glorious victory. The Pancasila youth, a brutal paramilitary group that was involved informing death squads, has 3 million members, and still living ordinary lives among the people, talking about the earlier killing days, knowing they are protected by the state apparatus, including the Pancasila Youth. The killers act out the methods used to despatch victims—strangling, garrotting, beheading, beating to death, and so on. One killer takes the film maker to a river where he ‘‘beheaded’’ victims, brought to him in army trucks. A killer, Anwar Congo and his killer friends wear make-up and costumes, to act out with even more realism than their own crimes. With ‘Born Free’ on the soundtrack, the killers sway, surrounded by dancing girls before a waterfall, while the victims thank Congo for sending them to heaven so long ago. A Panacasila member, Herman Koto dressed up as a drag woman, pretends to feed Congo his liver. The narrative becomes complex, as killer Congo was a co-director of the film. Traumatic and profound, ‘‘The Act of Killing’’ opens up aesthetic doors, even as it tries to provide the possibility of a conscience in Killer Congo. The opera of purgings and their present-day commemoration has a scene where impoverished villagers play—act, with every appearance of willingness, the sacking of their own village.

Shane Meadows is thrilled by the reunion of ‘‘The Stone Roses : Made of Stone’’ (UK, colour, 96 mins, 2013). The band has guitarist John Squire and musicians Brown, Reni and Martin. A press conference in East Midlands is followed by come back shows at Heaton Park. Earlier in 1996 the band had broken up, and the band came back together in Oct 2012. The fans and the band come into prominence in the film. Meadows shows the filth and the fury, the helicopter shots of the crowd at night, and a drunk man sleeping against a hot dog van. As the song ‘Fool‘s Gold’ is played for the entirety of 12 mins, a fifth member of the band, walks of stage and upto the fans in the front row, which is caught in slow motion, for the opening at Warrington bring out the passionate and joyful impact of the band. A split-screen segment breaks the song ‘Waterfall’ into its components of pop perfection sounds.

Frontier, Autumn Number
Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013

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