Posted tagged ‘documentary’

Closing Night at Human Rights Watch: The Yes Men Fix the World

July 3, 2009

The Human Rights Watch 20th International Film Festival closed last week with a righteous guffaw.

The Yes Men Fix the World left a packed Walter Reade Theater in tears of laughter… and social awareness. The documentary drew its comic prowess from the hysterical deformity of corporate America’s moral compass.  And while it’s hard not to laugh at a lodestone that points to a bottom line, it’s also hard not to see the danger in such a perversion.

The second documentary created by “Yes Men” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, Fix the World begins with a voice over explaining that Andy is getting ready to impersonate a DOW spokesperson on the BBC in front of 300 million people, “…and that’s why he looks so nervous.”  Some well-assembled backtracking shows us how The Yes Men function. For the most part, they create fake websites said to represent the various unjust organizations of the world, and wait until people fall into the trap and contact them. They then take various opportunities, for example, to participate in conferences, or to appear on international television.

Early in the film, Mike presents at a conference as a so-called representative of DOW. He claims to have created a model by which a company can calculate whether the human life an enterprise may cost is worth the probable monetary benefit. A character they have created personifies the model: Gilda, a gold skeleton. Alluding to a tragedy that occurred in Bhopal, India in 1984 when a plant belonging Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of DOW, released 42 tons of toxic gas into the air, Mike explained how a worthwhile “gold skeleton” can be differentiated from a futile “skeleton in the closet”: Mike asks, “how many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Twelve. One to screw it in, and eleven to file the lawsuit. How many Indians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Oh, just one.” The Yes Men hoped that the concept of such a model would shock and disturb a room full of white collars, but instead the group embraced it with applause.

Unfortunately, all of the Yes Men’s other attempts at unearthing hearts beneath suits are similarly futile. It is thus that the documentary becomes not a story of problems fixed, but of problems illuminated. This is best illustrated by the pair’s biggest stunt. Masquerading as “Jude Finisterra,” a representative of DOW, Andy went on the BBC and promised at long last to compensate the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Bhopal tragedy. Upon realizing the hoax, DOW immediately released a statement saying that no such compensation would be provided, even though the hoax made it pretty evident that this would be the right thing to do.

Despite this stunt’s impotence when it came to actually changing corporate policy, Andy said in a Q and A following the evening’s screening that he saw the BBC appearance as the Yes Men’s biggest victory, because it succeeded in arousing awareness about the Bhopal tragedy. According to Green Peace, hundreds of articles that would have otherwise went unwritten came into being as a result of the hoax. While Andy concluded in the Q and A that, “DOW would never do the right thing” on its own, he sees a possible solution in further regulation of corporations on the part of the government.  The hope is that the Yes Men’s reawakening of public awareness will somehow translate into public policy.

The most optimistic move the Yes Men make is the mass distribution of a “special edition” of the New York Times.  Researched and compiled by a huge team of Yes Men, the paper is a vision of what the world could be like at a point in the future. Given that the future date chosen for headlines such as “Iraq War Ends,” and “Maximum Wage Law Passes,” is this Saturday, July 4, 2009, it’s obvious that the paper’s socialistic optimism is more than a little bit cock-eyed. But that’s the big upside of keeping your tongue in your cheek: outrageous hope.

The Yes Men Fix the World has its television premiere on HBO July 27. It will be screening at Film Forum beginning October 7.

-Morgan H. Green


An appreciation for a titan of the documentary form, George Stoney

February 26, 2009

It was serendipity, though at the time I took it as a an annoying scheduling snafu. I was a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and wanted nothing more than to throw myself in total production immersion zone: directing, screenwriting, lighting, editing, and putting actual sprockets of film on real cameras. But my first semester in the program, I hit a snag: the only class that would complete my schedule was a lecture series called “The Documentary Tradition.” I was no great fan of documentaries, and my main exposure to them had been through public television. There was lots of reading and viewing of old scratchy black and white laser discs at Bobst Library outside of class. Worst of all, the class focused on documentaries made before 1970. Weren’t all the best docs made in the modern era? But I dutifully showed up the first day of class. I had no choice after all.

There I met George Stoney, one of the best teachers of film I’ve ever encountered and someone many contemporary documentary filmmakers consider the godfather of their craft. The first class broke out 1931’s Man of Aran, and Stoney’s own companion piece How the Myth was Made. From there, the tone was set for a provocative, illuminating, always challenging year. We watched Buñuel’s Land Without Bread to talk about documenting “the other.” The development of faster film stocks, hand-held cameras and sync sound was marked with examples from the early verite tradition, including Chronicle of a Summer and Happy Mother’s Day. And it was in Stoney’s class that I first encountered Anu Kuivalainen‘s Christmas in the Distance, a completely subjective exploration of the frailty of memory, and a film that perfectly anticipated the kind of brilliant experiementation more recently seen in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.

I stuck around for the second semester of Stoney’s class, which turned into an amazing laboratory that hosted some of the leading contemporary lights of the craft to talk about their films, including D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Danny Schechter, and Susanne Rostock. As great as that semester was, my sense of discovery was the greatest in the deeply historical first semester, via those pre-1970’s films that I formerly eschewed.

In short, Stoney’s class transformed me into a completely different person and spectactor, someone with a sophisticated understanding of the ethics of documentary representation. Someone with an appreciation for the multitude of different forms documentary can take. Someone who’s watched “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” three times. That’s why I was thrilled to see the Museum of Modern Art hosting a tribute to the man this weekend. George Stoney will be on hand to talk about his films and the documentary tradition, and I’m sure dispense some of his decades worth of wisdom garnered at the craft’s front lines. And while it’s definitely not the year-long immersion in the documentary form that I found so inspriring, it just might be the next best thing. If you care at all for documentary, don’t miss this singular opportunity to be schooled by the master.

George Stoney Tribute at MoMA: Feburary 27-28, 2009

Three movies + a panel discussion + farm fresh produce? That’s this month’s Green Screens in an (organic) nutshell

October 29, 2008

Their cows were rGBH free--how 'bout yours?

New Yorkers clamor for hand-tilled morels and sustainably raised pork, beef and chicken, but can Long Island family farmers sate their hunger, stay green and also remain afloat?

You recycle, tote cloth bags, and carpool to work. But would you ever consider actually growing your own produce on your front lawn?

What is that green thing in the back of the fridge and is it actually…edible?

These are just a few of the questions raised by this month’s triple-threat edition of Green Screens. Not only will you be able to explore issues vital to foodies, locovores, and every inhabitant of Planet Earth, you can also stay for a panel that brings together both farmers and filmmakers for a bountiful discussion of all things green. Did we mention that a veritable horn of plenty of local organic produce will be available for sale after the screening? This is no average night at the movies, that’s for sure.

Buy tickets to see Farming the Future, Homegrown and The Fridge: Mon Nov 3: 6

BONUS: Check out Manny Howard’s adventure in micro-farming for New York magazine, in case you are tempted to turn your fire escape into a field of greens.

Check out Homegrown’s official site.

Check out Farming the Future’s official site.

i pallindrome i: Debord’s final film 30 years later

October 2, 2008

If at any time over the last eight years you’ve been haunted by the idea that the ongoing failure of our political leadership is just a symptom of our larger problems, then do yourself a favor and go see Guy Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. While the government will change, we are stuck with the people who permitted them to get away with it: we are stuck with ourselves. That is to say, we all have some explaining to do.

Most famously in his 1967 book (and later film) The Society of the Spectacle, Debord presented one of the most incisive and damning critiques of Western society as we move from producers of goods to consumers of culture. Debord painted a picture of directly lived experience subordinated to and gradually subsumed into an omnipresent media culture.  With In girum, his final film, Debord begins with an unyieldingly negative assessment of society (and in particular the movie-going public) before turning to himself and his compatriots.

“I have merited the universal hatred of the society of my time, and I would have been annoyed to have any other merits in the eyes of such a society,” says Debord, and some viewers may be moved to hatred by a tone so self-aggrandizing that its veers into autohagiography. But rather than worrying how far short from justifying his extraordinary self-regard Debord’s achievements fall, we should be concerned more with whether our own justify our umbrage. It may be no longer possible to believe in Debord’s program, but we have failed to put anything in its place.

Barack Obama and many of his younger enthusiasts insist that it is time to move us beyond the stale debates of the 1960s and that their movement is at the threshold of something fundamentally new. Some things to consider while watching In girum: What, if anything, does it mean that their rhetoric echoes language from Debord? What, if anything, does it mean for us to be sitting at a film festival decades later viewing In girum?

In girum opens Views from the Avant-Garde, which runs October 3-5 as part of the New York Film Festival.

Hot tickets: Waltz with Bashir

September 19, 2008

Even though I’ve seen plenty war films, animated movies, and more than a few documentaries, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir came as a revelation. In the film, Folman, who was an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Lebanon war, interviews fellow fighters as a means of recovering his memory of what happened. Real interviews are interspersed with more dream-like dramatizations of historical events.

Animated films have traditionally served as a window on a fantastical world. In Waltz with Bashir, the fantastical world the film transports us to is the unreliable region of memory. Full of dark, stylized visuals, and also the ability to treat subject matter beyond its tradition’s familiar modes, Waltz with Bashir was like a kinetic graphic novel. Just when it seemed as though the stylization put me far enough away from the film’s core revelations to take them in at a safe remove, I felt as though the filmmaker pulled the rug out from under me.

Dream-like visuals find an unlikely complement in real interview footage. In its treatment of life on the battlefield, Waltz with Bashir shares much with war films like Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, or Platoon. With an eye on the absurdity of what it’s like to be a grunt, Folman’s film deftly portrays boredom and gallows humor punctuated by moments of genuine horror.

Treating such weighty historical material as an “animated documentary” is initially unsettling because it robs the film of its ability to document, a least photographically, its subject. A better term for Folman’s film might be a “filmed memoir.” In the way it turns fresh eyes on an old subject, and confronts head-on the confounding nature of memory, especially of traumatic events, I found that the film shared more with works of self-consciously artful nonfictionists from Dave Eggers to W.G. Sebald.

Ultimately, the film finds its real power in the way it keeps the audience guessing about notions of culpability and heroism. In one section, a former soldier tells the story of his being abandoned by his unit during battle. He’s haunted by feelings of cowardice and failure, but the film provides viewers with no clear-cut verdict on his actions, only the uneasy feeling that we might have reacted in the same way in his place. Later, Folman isn’t sure why he’s so fixated with a massacre that happened during the war. “Were your parents in the camps?” a friend asks. When Folman says yes, the friend says “You’ve been living with this massacre since you were six.”

“Films can be therapeutic,” someone says of Folman’s project early in the film. The finished film he’s offered goes a step further. Finding an idiosyncratic synthesis of elements from documentary, war film and graphic novel, it offers a transformative view of history and memory.

Tickets to Waltz with Bashir are still available:

Wed Oct 1: 9:15
Thu Oct 2: 6