REVIEW: The Unknown Known

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The Unknown Known
Directed by: Errol Morris
Starring: Donald Rumsfeld and Errol Morris

The latest Errol Morris documentary, about the political life and times of Donald Rumsfeld, is an intentionally infuriating and vague work.  With the former Secretary of Defense’s onslaught of non-answers, excuses, digressions and nervous smirks, Morris depicts a genuine heart of dishonesty and blithe unawareness.

The Unknown Known is not about a documentarian skewering one of the most notorious figures of the George W. Bush years, which is why I think many will be perplexed at how free Rumsfeld is to run away with many of the questions.  The structure of the documentary almost seems to play with that audience expectation, beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then switching to Rumsfeld’s political career before returning to that post-9/11 time period.

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REVIEW: After Tiller

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After Tiller  
Directed by: Martha Shane and Lana Wilson
Written by: Greg O’Toole, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

After Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in a Kansas church in 2009, only four doctors in America remained who would perform late-term abortions.  After Tiller is a somewhat illuminating profile of those people and the women who seek the controversial procedure.

Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, After Tiller is a compassionate, often clear-headed look at an issue that often prompts shouts of fire and brimstone.  Some of that fire and brimstone makes it into the finished product, as protesters stand outside the various clinics with signs and rosaries, urging the women not to go through with the procedure or damning the doctors who perform it.  For the most part, though, the documentary stays inside the clinics and homes where those doctors work and live.

Those clinics are fascinating places to be, even if many of the employees seemed to put on some sort of facade for the camera at times.  In fact, After Tiller was most effective when that facade clashed with the heart-wrenching testimony of a patient.  They are not only grappling with the unimaginable hardships of their everyday; they are trying to show the world what they do, and why.

In that sense, Shane and Wilson are clearly on their side.  However level-headed their documentary seems, simply looking at these doctors as people instead of lightning rods is taking a stand on this issue.  In an interview on Democracy Now! following the film’s premiere at Sundance, Shane calls the doctors “incredible individuals.”

In that same interview, Wilson talks about her frustration at the human element being left out of the discussion on local media following Dr. Tiller’s murder. She also said that she was motivated by why exactly women would need a third-trimester abortion, which was also my biggest question going in to see After Tiller.

Those abortions account for less than 1 percent of all procedures.  They involve euthanizing the fetus and allowing the woman to give birth, and they’re usually performed in instances where the child will have no quality of life or the mother will be killed in labor.  Dr. Shelley Sella, who works in Albuquerque, New Mexico, talks about the bleakness of this operation, and how it’s impossible not to see those fetuses as babies.

This is how she explains it:

“I think about what I do all the time, and I recognize what I do, and at times I struggle, and at times I don’t.  But I always come back to the woman, and what she’s going through; and, often, what life will this baby have?  What will it mean to be alive with horrific fetal abnormalities?  It’s not just about being alive, it’s about life and what does it mean?”

It’s an astonishing admission, followed by one of several heart-wrenching interviews with patients, their quivering, nervous hands substituting for their faces and protecting their identities.  It’s impossible for me to fathom their situation, and the undeniable weight it has on them and the doctors.

When Shane and Wilson steer away from scenes like that toward the protests, the biggest problems with After Tiller surface.  It’s not that the filmmakers express a distinct point of view in advocating for legal abortion.  As A.O. Scott noted in his review, “a documentary should be assessed as a representation of the world as it is, from a perspective that is itself part of that world.”

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I completely agree with that sentiment, but at times it felt as if the issue was being presented with the exact absence of humanity that Wilson said she sought to restore. This is especially true of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who moves from Nebraska to Maryland during the course of the documentary because late-term abortions are outlawed.  Shane and Wilson follow him as he scouts out various locations, one of them a standard-looking house in a suburban neighborhood.

There are a couple of eerily placed shots during this sequence, though.  One is of a playground from the other side of a fence.  The other is of a daycare sign, with Carhart and his wife waiting at a traffic light near it.  These shots immediately stuck out to meFor such a formally straightforward documentary, the inclusion of these shots at the moment when a late-term abortionist is looking for a building to rent seemed extremely wrong-headed.  They don’t highlight the moral toll the job has on Carhart as much as they add a queasy, and inappropriate, audacity.

After he finds a building and reopens in Maryland, anti-abortion protestors target his landlord by protesting outside his daughter’s middle school with photos of late-term aborted fetuses.  This entire segment with Carhart, from when he left Nebraska to when he resettled, weakened the movie’s effect on me.  I’ve seen this side of the abortion debate, with its seemingly endless protests and polarized narratives.

What I hadn’t seen before was Dr. Susan Robinson, who also works in Albuquerque, talk with heavy reluctance about how she decides when to perform the procedure. There was also the moment where Dr. Warren Hern, based in Colorado, tells a rape victim looking for guidance to seek out the police, and then hugs her.  Those are the scenes that make After Tiller a worthwhile and necessary contribution to this issue.  With their unprecedented access, Shane and Wilson capture enough of them to overshadow those other flaws.

Grade: B-

REVIEW: Stories We Tell

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Stories We Tell  
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Written by: Sarah Polley

Hopefully you go into Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell knowing nothing about what happens. In the interest of preserving that for you, do not read past this sentence unless you’ve seen this beguiling meta-documentary.

Stories We Tell is filmmaking of a very personal nature while also being a relentless interrogation of the documentary form.  Polley interviews her friends and family about her deceased mother, filming her process as part of the process.  Along the way she acknowledges the impossibility of objectivity while attempting to achieve it, and throws in some aesthetic twists too.

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REVIEW: Searching for Sugar Man

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Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
Written by: Malik Bendjelloul

Searching for Sugar Man is about both lost treasure and a missing pirate, at least at first glance.  Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary tells the story of Rodriguez, a Detroit musician whose albums bombed in America but became more popular than Elvis’ music in South Africa during apartheid.  He didn’t know this until later, when it was too late to collect the royalties.

Before Rodriguez makes his first modern day appearance in Sugar Man, he is built up into a misunderstood musical genius with talent on the level of Bob Dylan who seemed to vanish into thin air after his music didn’t take off.  Songs from his two studio albums are paired with scenic, often somber shots in both Detroit and Cape Town.  This transforms the movie into more of a tone poem than a straightforward retelling of events that largely happened in the ’90s.

Those shots, especially the ones in Detroit, answer the biggest question I had during the movie: Why tell this story?  Why now?  It is interesting, and making it unfold like a kind of mystery after the initial set-up does distract from the fact that most of the questions about Rodriquez’s identity were answered almost 20 years ago.  When he finally does surface and explain that he went to South Africa and performed concerts when he found out he was famous, the movie started to feel entertaining and emotional but ultimately pointless.

What showcasing Detroit does for the movie, though, is make it timely.  It is a city whose reputation as a labyrinth of modern decay and blue collar grit makes Rodriguez’s story resonate and enhances the story’s meaning.  The tracking shots of him clumsily shuffling down streets often covered in snow show that even though on the other side of the world he is more famous than almost any other artist, here he is just another man.

Between those often elegiac city shots are fairly standard talking head Interviews with his daughters, friends, fans from South Africa and music producers attesting to his talent.  They build a portrait of an artist with that almost undefinable air of mystery; before it was discovered that he was alive, rumors that he committed suicide by lighting himself on fire on stage circulated. When he finally does arrive, more wrinkled than in the photos but no less charismatic, it’s easy to see how he still confounds and mesmerizes the people in his life.

Rodriguez is often described by the other people in the movie as a generous soul who broke his back his entire working life for his family but also stressed the importance of art.  His music is often political, with songs about working class struggle interspersed with the more personal and romantic tunes.  It comes without the hypocrisy that follows more commercially successful musicians with blue collar roots, too; unlike them, he doesn’t make millions singing about the poor.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Catfish

Catfish
Directed by: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Written by: N/A
Starring: Yaniv Schulman, Angela Wesselman, and Ariel Schulman

Catfish, the documentary yin to The Social Network’s yang, begins innocently and romantically enough.  Yaniv Schulman, a photographer from New York, begins a romantic relationship online with a girl from Michigan named Megan.  Of course, for the movie to be interesting or even worth releasing, it can’t stay that simple.

The tone of this documentary is not quite journalistic, but leans more toward the Michael Moore style of documentary filmmaking.  In essence, that means it takes a point of view beforehand, and opts for entertainment rather than insight.  When this relationship with Megan delves into the creepy, the filmmakers aren’t quite willing to take that unbiased leap.  We don’t explore the world of Angela Wesselman, Megan’s “mom,”  as much as we observe her as if we were at a zoo.

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REVIEW: Restrepo

Restrepo
Directed by: Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger
Written by: N/A
Starring: N/A

Many fictional films attempt to recreate reality and make it into art, often asking us to project ourselves onto the characters.  When a filmmaker embarks on a documentary, they are essentially cutting out the middle man (the actors) and attempting to create art out of life as it is being lived.  Restrepo, a war documentary of a new order, is an unassuming work of insightful journalism and people under stress.

Soldiers in Korengal Valley, one of the deadliest battlegrounds in the current war in Afghanistan, live day-to-day in constant chaos.  Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger keep the audience in these moments as much as possible, with the excruciatingly loud bangs of their assault rifles and the whooshing sounds of landing helicopters.  The only breaks from this combat are interviews with the soldiers shot in extreme close-up, and the occasional break showing them casually goofing off or chatting.

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REVIEW: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Directed by: Banksy
Written by: N/A
Starring: Banksy, Thierry Guetta, Shepard Fairey, and Rhys Ifans

The battle between art and commerce is as old as art and commerce.  Can you truly put a price on something that you create?  Is it possible to attach concrete meaning to something that appears so illusive and immune to analysis?  These are big questions, ones that Exit Through the Gift Shop tackles almost effortlessly and on accident.

Initially, this is a film about the evolution of the underground street art movement and its many players.  Thierry Guetta is an amateur videographer whose interest is peaked by the illegal art that these renegades create after the sun sets.  He follows them around, collecting thousands of hours of footage without any real purpose behind his concept other than it interests and inspires him.  In a way he becomes a public relations rep and assistant to these artists’ visions, that is until he meets Banksy.

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