The fantastic four (…I’m so creative)

Alright, so here are four movies that were my personal favorites (or the ones I at least thought most about) at True/False, other than 1/2 Revolution, which I wrote about before. That’s not to say that the other ones I saw weren’t good or didn’t raise great questions, but these are the ones that genuinely engrossed me. I was talking to my friend about how we test documentaries/films and how good they are — when I can stop thinking about the time (it’s not as annoying as it seems, sometimes I just plan out how many minutes are left in a movie, subconsciously) and go completely tunnel-vision into the film, that’s when I know it’s good. These films really did that for me, and all for different reasons. These are not in any particular order.

1. Canícula

Canícula is a fantastic little film by Mexican director Jose Alvarez about the remote Totonac village of Zapotal, Santa Cruz. The film’s aims are subtle, but what I got from it was that it was this celebration of a very small micro-civilization that embraces nature and the world around itself through its strange “flying” tradition, pottery-making, social events and simple moments like bathing in a river. This film catches these tiny little moments — a woman lying momentarily on a cold rock as creek water trickles down over her hair, boys learning how to do a traditional dance for their first “flight,” an awkward first dance, a swaying branch, a pail being dipped into a well — that unify into a beautiful piece that really defies any definition. I’m not exactly sure what Alvarez was trying to say with the piece, but what hit me was the fact that such a small village could have such a remarkable self-sufficiency that might, in turn, affect villages, cities and countries abroad. It’s hard to describe. But maybe a voyeuristic look into a village like this might help viewers like me re-assess how we lead our lives in our own civilization. It’s one of my favorite films of the fest, and definitely worth the watch if you can get your hands on it.

“The Totona preserve their past, which is their dignity as well as ours.”

2. The Island President

Now, before I saw this film, I knew absolutely nothing about the Maldives except for the fact that they were a collection of Islands in the Indian Ocean. Mohamed Nasheed was the president of the Maldives, an island nation that has been precariously hovering over the brink of destruction from climate change. As tides rise and natural disasters impair the economic and social progress of this tiny nation, Nasheed sought to approach international powers about the issue with climate change. By proposing an amendment involving the PPM of carbon emissions at discussions at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, Nasheed steered towards the perfect storm of political contention. I’m not gonna give away what happens, but this documentary’s use of verite and historical clips create a new take on the traditional documentary. Not to mention, the camera used (I believe he said he used the Canon 5D) captured the phenomenal beauty of these islands.

It’s very sad, to see these islands being essentially decimated, day by day, by natural forces caused at least in part by human impact on the environment. There’s a lot of debate about climate change, but when you have such decisive effects of erosion and unexpected weather and moreover, an affected populace, there’s really no reason why you should deny our negative impact on the environment. I’m not going to rant, but I think this documentary, like 1/2 Revolution, is good at shedding a very direct, honest light on an issue without politicizing it. It’s the true story of a man (and a country) who is fighting to keep his country literally afloat. The combination of the tragedy of the situation in the Maldives and Nasheed’s determination really work well to compliment a documentary that reveals the reality of the nature of climate change. You don’t need political commentary or editing to see what’s happening in this area — and most likely in many other areas as well.

Now, Nasheed has been pressured out of office by military supporters of the previous (and very, very brutal) regime before he took over power. This happened a few weeks ago, and it’s eerie, because this documentary shed so much light on the issues in the Maldives and opened up a little positive light for the island nation’s future, but now that the old regime (or its ideas) may be imminent, a dark cloud may be unfortunately hovering over the climate issue. Hopefully this documentary will reach a wide audience, because its impact could be very, very huge.

3. Gypsy Davy

An early photo of flamenco guitarist David Serva.

An early photo of flamenco guitarist David Serva.

Gypsy Davy was one of the last films that I saw at the fest, and I actually had to leave about 10 minutes early for work before the end, so I unfortunately didn’t get to hear the director speak. This is probably one of my favorites because it was just so good at drawing me in. It’s about the journey of the daughter of celebrated white-boy-turned-flamenco-guitarist David Serva as she seeks to find the method to her father’s (sexual) madness. Through her journey, she finds many half-siblings from unwed affairs and heartbroken former lovers of Serva, and along the way, discovers things about herself and her family that she didn’t know before. It’s an interesting take on a documentary because she doesn’t censor what her opinions are of her father — which are understandably negative, for the most part — and in that sense, it kind of strays from the rule of objectivity that documentaries are often bound to. But as I learned in class the other day, when you’re putting together something of journalistic merit, it’s not the end product that needs to seep with objectivity. It’s the process of objectivity that’s important. And I don’t necessarily think this film had a process of objectivity because essentially, the director was going out to find the realities (and intentionally or unintentionally seek the defamation) of her father, and she admits that the journey was emotional from the get-go.

The introducer before the film said that we might hate or love Rachel Leah Jones, David’s daughter and the filmmaker. But I don’t think this is true. But of course, it’s perhaps that my opinion doesn’t cover every one else. I see how you could dislike her take on creating a film that was emotionally compromised, but I think the emotion was necessary in revealing the true life of a passionate, philandering flamenco guitarist-father. I just thought the pace of the film was fantastic (one criticism, though, would be that it was a little sporadic at times in introducing and talking to the many, many former lovers and children of Serva) and really drew me in. That being said, I didn’t even think to dislike Jones, because I can sympathize with her plight. It’s a very tragic film, but the way in which she approached it was fascinating because it looked at the situation less as an attack on Serva and more of a voyeuristic view into the tumultuous relationship between humans and love. The flamenco scene is very sexual, and the movie was very good at respecting the mysterious, beautiful nature of flamenco music. Perhaps that was not the goal of the film, but it seemed to me that music was a motivating factor in much of the events that Jones discovers through her journey. Music makes people emotional, and so does sex. Serva clearly realized this through his life. You never really know if Serva regrets his never-ending flirtations — you actually never know much about him psychologically, — but in those moments where you see him playing the guitar, you are conflicted by both the beauty of the music and the darkness of the way he leads his life. The music is what he loves, and perhaps that’s why loving a woman beyond the flesh was difficult. You don’t know if he ever loved any woman, but you can definitely see his love for the music. And even if that’s a hard thought, I think that’s something anyone can relate to.

It’s a create commentary on humanity and relationships, and it’s definitely worth the watch. Rachel Leah Jones does a fantastic job.

4. The Impostor

Shot from The Impostor

The Impostor was the film of the fest that really got me thinking more than any other film. But not necessarily about the content of the film. It’s a very ambitious and creative film about a Frenchman, Frédéric Bourdin, who comes to Texas pretending to be the lost son of a grieving family who is eventually realized to be a serial impostor from Europe (sorry for the giveaway, but this is kind of assumed from the beginning). It’s a great story, and it’s very enthralling. I’ve gotta say that I was sucked in from the very beginning, asking questions like, what’s gonna happen to this guy? Who is he? Where will he end up? Who will he strike next? 

But then as I thought about it, I started to think that this documentary was more meta than anything else. I’m not saying that the documentary was necessarily a lie, because I do believe this guy really did do everything the documentary says. But the way the documentary is presented leads me to question the intentions of the filmmaker — not in a bad way — because it’s actually very theatrical. The whole documentary segues between interviews with the family affected (but is it really the family? Probably, but still.) and a reenactment of this crazy concoction of identity theft. It’s very much an “act” rather than a traditional documentary, but that’s not bad. It’s just really interesting. One thing that the filmmaker said after the film was that the most interesting part of what this Frenchman did was be able to convince the family, the customs agents, the FBI and everyone that you think would be able to see through a hooded man with an accent and five o’clock shadow and fall for his routine. And then I was thinking, well, then, why wouldn’t the filmmaker try to do the same thing with his documentary? 

I think the filmmaker’s aim, maybe subconsciously, maybe not, and I may be totally wrong, is to make a comment on the naiveté of documentary-goers. Documentaries are presented as purely fact, but sometimes, they can be anything but that. Just look at the controversy behind the factual validity of documentaries like Fahrenheit 911 or Waiting for Superman. I’m sure this filmmaker isn’t trying to make up a story — it’s definitely true — but I think they way he’s presented it does bring to question what a documentary really is. Can it be an act? How much needs to be true? The audience really fell for this focus on the impostor, which was probably the primary goal. But I do wonder if there was some meta action going on in this filmmaker’s approach. If so, I like that. If not, well, I still think it’s an interesting thought.

Regardless of the intentions behind the film, it’s definitely worth the watch. You’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat.


1/2 Revolution: Revolution, vérité and social media

1/2 Revolution, directed by Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi, actually might be one of my favorite documentaries of the weekend, and it just happens to be the first I’ll write about. Now, I’m very interested in the Middle East region, and the Arab Spring is something in particular that I’ve been utterly fascinated with. The chain reaction of revolution in the Middle Eastern region after the revolution in Tunisia in December 2010 threw such a fierce punch that it was felt globally.

This documentary is so successful because it throws you into the streets of Cairo during the January 2011 revolution based in Tahrir Square in Egypt — and it doesn’t have any qualms with showing the brutality of the movement. The confusion, mayhem, tension, anger, exhilaration of the revolution is perpetuated through the shaky camera shots and exclamations of Karim and his friends as they run through the concrete, bloody streets of Cairo. I was on the verge of tears during the whole documentary. The vérité style of documentary, as portrayed through the direct hand-held perspective (mainly from Karim), is extremely successful in invoking the emotions of the viewer — it’s the tragic reality of the situation that you feel in this movie and that makes you cry when you get home (well…I did, at least.)

Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi's "1/2 Revolution" poster

I’ve been a fan of the vérité style of portraying a story whether it’s true or not (here’s looking at you, Cloverfield and Blair Witch Project) for awhile, and I was really hoping for some of it to come out during this fest. Thankfully it did!

The accuracy of the film can really be justified by its content. Everyone knows what has happened from the Arab Spring, and this documentary just shows a new light to the issue. Our perspective of the Arab Spring has been bogged down by different media perspectives and social media. I regret to say that Karim revealed that the effectiveness of the movement was not from Twitter or from (but perhaps Al Jazeera and other nearby news sources played a much more important role) outside news sources, but rather, from the people themselves. Karim said that only 10 to 12 percent of Egyptians used Internet at the time of the revolution, and much less used social media. It’s not a happy thought, but perhaps outside influence isn’t good for — or at least doesn’t have that big of an impact — on the actual happenings during a movement like the Arab Spring. That’s not to say that coverage isn’t important, because it clearly is necessary to inform other people of what’s going on. But I think we run the risk of seeming either too naive or too stubborn when we think that Western ideas and developments are the sole reason for a movement’s success. The people wanted nationalism, so they rallied together; they didn’t necessarily want democracy or Twitter. These outlets that connected our countries were beneficial for both parties, no doubt, but Karim said they really weren’t as influential as we’ve been told. He definitely proposed an interesting argument, and opened my eyes.

It’s not that’s it’s the most groundbreaking documentary in terms of style, presentation or concept. It’s so good because it’s so real; it’s raw footage of one of the most decisive moments of the Arab Spring and of modern history. I mean, I found myself questioning whether or not it was real or not, just because of the things that I was seeing in the film were just so horrendous. Bullet shots in a man’s back, citizens being run over my military tanks — it’s all there and they document all of it. In their small Cairo apartment where they meet up, the friends of the filmmakers are constantly sparring and joining together against the regime and its “thugs” with the other revolutionaries.

Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi's "1/2 Revolution"

Karim said that the reason behind the “1/2” in the title of the documentary was because the revolution isn’t over yet. Although Mubarak was deposed, protestors believe that, perhaps, it’s just a matter of a new regime taking over the old regime, and that tensions are hardly ending.

But moreover, I think the most important part about this documentary is that it serves as one of the best and most undeniably vital records of one of the most important developments in recent political world history. The Arab Spring is something that won’t soon leave our minds, and will be searing in the minds of those who actually live in the countries for an indeterminate amount of time. But as Karim said, we need to make sure that we keep our coverage and opinion of events like this within the perspective of the people themselves. This documentary serves as a champion of the Egyptians (and revolutionaries abroad) and a preserver of a very, very important moment in history. It was moving and should be seen by anyone who reads a newspaper, who writes in a newspaper, or who simply cares about the world and its developments.