decentNew to DVD this week: THE DECENT ONE

Vanessa Lapa’s portrait of infamous SS commander Heinrich Himmler made its world premiere at Berlin last year. It went on to screen at Documenta Madrid, DOK.Fest Munich, Planete+ Doc, Jerusalem, Telluride, Bergen, Rio, Reykjavik, Vancouver, and ZagrebDox, among others.

Uniquely constructed around a cache of personal letters and documents discovered in Himmler’s home at the conclusion of WWII, Lapa’s film foregoes outside perspectives to present the life and crimes of the Nazi leader through his own and his immediate family’s words. Beyond the extensive archival period footage employed, the film makes use of voiceover actors to enact letters between Himmler, his mistress Hedwig, his wife Marga, and their daughter Gudrun – while they occasionally over-emote, once the conceit is firmly established, it generally works to provide a candid sense of the administrator’s reprehensible beliefs and self-serving sense of morality. At one moment enumerating his duties in overseeing genocide, and the next sending love letters to his mistress, expressing concerns for the well-being of the concentration camp operators while hand-waving mass murder as a service to racial purity, Himmler presents himself as a master compartmentalizer who is somehow able to rationalize his actions, and those of his party, as inexplicably “decent.” Where Lapa makes a critical error is in doubting the stark power of the archival footage at her disposal – rather than present it undoctored, she instead unwisely employs sound effects and music that gravely cheapens its impact.

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our man in tehranNew to DVD this week: OUR MAN IN TEHRAN

Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein’s answer to ARGO revisionism debuted at Toronto in 2013. Other screenings have included Thessaloniki Doc, Full Frame, Newport Beach, and Galway.

I included the doc in my Toronto coverage here.

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diorComing to DVD today, Tuesday, September 1: DIOR AND I

Frédéric Tcheng’s inside look at the legendary fashion house made its debut at Tribeca in 2014. Its extensive fest circuit also included Seattle, Sydney, Provincetown, Outfest, Jerusalem, New Zealand, Rio, Hamptons, Warsaw, Abu Dhabi, CPH:DOX, Tallinn Black Nights, and Madrid Fashion among others.

Tcheng’s point of entry to the storied brand is the arrival of Raf Simons, Dior’s new artistic director of the haute couture line. Having built his reputation as a menswear designer before moving on to Jill Sander, the Belgian is considered a minimalist, making him an unusual choice to take over the Dior legacy. With much to prove, he sets out to complete his first collection in a scant eight weeks, providing the necessary countdown tension that serves as the impetus here, compounded with the challenge of navigating the demands of an in-demand atelier and its staff of seasoned, and often charming, veterans. While there’s friction at times, Tcheng’s thoughtful approach is much more concerned with detailing the creative process than with focusing on interpersonal drama, for example by showing how Simons develops a preoccupation with the paintings of Sterling Ruby into an innovative thread-printing process. Simons largely remains fairly buttoned-up – all business, all the time – allowing occasional interludes from Christian Dior’s memoirs to serve as a somewhat more personal and revealing thread through the film, which does double duty by imparting a sense of history.

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Venice 2015: Documentary Overview

QSAQEIFZZR88849The world’s oldest film festival, Venice, turns 72 tomorrow, Wednesday, September 2, and runs through Saturday, September 12. While the majority of its hundred-plus lineup focuses on fiction, there’s been a noticeable uptick in nonfiction programming this year between its official selection and the autonomous Venice Days sidebar. Among these offerings are the following:

heart of a dogOf 21 features in Competition, only two are docs: Laurie Anderson’s essay film on love and mortality, HEART OF A DOG (pictured), and Zhao Liang’s meditation on industrialization on modern China, BEHEMOTH. The festival’s discovery section, Orizzonti, which has previously spotlighted numerous works of creative nonfiction, this year only presents one: Renato De Maria’s ITALIAN GANGSTERS, an archival exploration of criminality.

jacksonDocumentaries fare better Out of Competition, making up half of this section, with such works represented as: Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS (pictured), a portrait of the cultural diverse NYC neighborhood; Gianluca and Massimilano De Serio’s I RICORDI DEL FIUME, a chronicle of the dismantling of a massive Italian shanty town; Sergei Loznitsa’s THE EVENT, which re-examines the end of Soviet rule in Russia; Evgeny Afineevsky’s WINTER ON FIRE, a chronicle of the Ukrainian revolution; Amy Berg’s JANIS, a portrait of the legendary Janis Joplin; and Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s DE PALMA, a candid exploration of the director’s long career.

for the loveVenice Classics, an annual sidebar of retrospective work and documentaries about films and filmmakers, offers titles like: Pietra Brettkelly’s A FLICKERING TRUTH, which recounts the efforts to hide Afghanistan’s film archive in the days of the Taliban; Rinku Kalsy’s FOR THE LOVE OF A MAN (pictured), on the intergenerational popularity and fandom of a South Indian actor; as well as appreciations of such figures as Guy Maddin, Jacques Tourneur, Lina Wermüller, Helmut Berger, and Alfredo Bini.

zainabFinal Cut in Venice spotlights several works-in-progress from the Middle East, including Ziad Kalthoum’s ROOSTER OF BEIRUT, about Syrian workers in Lebanon; Tala Hadid’s HOUSE IN THE FIELDS, on a rural community in Morocco; Hakar Abdulqadir’s SEPARATION, about the plight of Kurdish families separated from one another as they flee ISIS; and Kaouther Ben Hania’s ZAINEB HATES THE SNOW (pictured), which follows a Tunisian family as they make a new life in Canada.

innocenceFinally, of the two independently organized sidebars of the festival, International Critics’ Week foregoes nonfiction altogether, while Venice Days offers five titles, including Grant Gee’s INNOCENCE OF MEMORIES: ORHAN PAMUK’S MUSEUM AND ISTANBUL, on a museum created to document a fictional love story.

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black panthersComing to theatres tomorrow, Wednesday, September 2: THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION

Stanley Nelson’s comprehensive look back at the influential organization had its world premiere at Sundance this year. Its extensive festival circuit has also included San Francisco, Sheffield, Pan African, IFF Boston, AFI Docs, Full Frame, Seattle, Encounters, Cleveland, MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, DOXA, Sidewalk, and Black Harvest.

My pre-Sundance profile of the doc may be found here.

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JFKAndLBJ_ATimeForGreatness-crop-321x150Coming to DVD today, Tuesday, September 1: JFK & LBJ: A TIME FOR GREATNESS

Alastair Layzell’s focus on civil rights across two presidencies made its bow at the Annapolis Film Festival this Spring. It made its broadcast debut on PBS last month.

I previously wrote about the doc here.

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gigerComing to DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, September 1: DARK STAR: HR GIGER’S WORLD

Belinda Sallin’s exploration of the work of the famed artist of the macabre made its bow at Zurich last year. Other fests have included Hong Kong, BAFICI, and Sitges, among others.

I previously wrote about the doc upon its theatrical release here.

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