algorithmsComing to theatres today, October 24: ALGORITHMS

Ian McDonald’s look at blind chess players in India bowed at the International Film Festival of India in 2012. It has also screened at Moscow’s Sports Films festival, Mumbai’s Shorts and Docs fest, the World Chess Championship, Kathmandu’s Film South Asia, Durban, and Sydney, among others.

Focusing on three players, McDonald’s film follows the young men’s efforts to win various competitions between 2009 and 2011 and to fulfill the dreams of their coach, Charudatta Jadhav, who himself became a chess legend after he went blind as a teenager. The latter, frankly, emerges as a much more intriguing screen presence than any of the boys – while McDonald profiles the players and their families at home, this doesn’t yield much beyond a surface sense of their personalities and some information on the cause of their visual impairment. Jadhav, on the other hand, seems an eternal optimist, but one with a single-minded mission – to cultivate someone, anyone, to live out his legacy and, ideally, to prove that blind chess players can and should be able to play – and win – over sighted players. The film never really gets there, though – none of the players seems particularly prodigy-level, losing as much as they win, and McDonald’s camera primarily remains observational, tracking their tactilely focused gameplay, rather than delving into how – or if – their blindness impacts the way they approach the game. The film’s unfortunate title is also never addressed, leaving the well-lensed black-and-white project feeling frustratingly inconsistent.

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citizenfour-300x160Coming to theatres today, October 24: CITIZENFOUR

Laura Poitras’ in-the-moment chronicle of Edward Snowden’s revelations made its debut earlier this month at the New York Film Festival. It has also screened at the London Film Festival, at special pre-release events around the country, and will be part of DOC NYC’s Short List net month.

The third part of a trilogy on post-9/11 America, following MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY and THE OATH, Poitras’ newest film is also, out of necessity, her most personal so far. Already having ended up on government watchlists for her previous work, interrogated at borders and having her footage confiscated, the director was contacted by an anonymous source within the intelligence community using the eponymous handle. Employing encryption technology, they began a tense correspondence with the acknowledged aim that Poitras, as a journalist, would be free to use leaked information in whatever way she saw fit. Though she never expected to find out the source’s identity, much less meet him, that’s exactly what happened, as chronicled in this astonishing film. On Citizenfour’s advice, Poitras contacted The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald and they set out to Hong Kong to meet the man who the world would find out is Edward Snowden. Despite his genuine concerns about not wanting to become the story himself, Snowden’s belief in transparency above all else results in the filming of his debriefing over several days in a hotel room, leading up to his decision to reveal his identity and to seek asylum outside of America. The effect is remarkable – while audiences are by now very familiar with the information he provides here, Poitras adroitly conveys the immediacy of those revelations, and, strikingly, constructs the film as the media – and the world – react to the initial leaks. Even more effective is the smart balance achieved between these real-world espionage elements – where a hotel fire alarm sets everyone on edge, expecting the CIA to bust down the doors – and the upending of these expectations – where one might expect a tension-filled scene of Snowden rushing through the streets of Hong Kong to make his escape, Poitras instead focuses on the affable young man primping in the mirror, attempting to subtly change his hair and appearance prior to leaving the room. And though the filmmaker can’t help but be part of this story, she is careful to include herself just enough that it makes sense without detracting from the core of the film – something which which other filmmakers often struggle. The overall result is a cogent, gripping work of documentary as journalism that demonstrates Poitras as one of our best filmmakers.

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Abu Dhabi 2014: Documentary Overview

abu_dhabi_international_film_festival_logoOne of the United Arab Emirates’ key film events, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, celebrates its 8th year starting tonight, Thursday, October 23, and running through Saturday, November 1. With programming that balances the regional debuts of films that have already garnered acclaim at key international events like Cannes and Sundance with new work from the Arab world, the festival offers scores of shorts and nearly 90 features, of which just over two dozen are nonfiction, many of which are noted below.

piratesAmong the Documentary Feature Competition entries with UAE production support presented are: Samir’s IRAQI ODYSSEY, a personal, 3D chronicle of five decades of family dislocation; Merieme Addou and Rosa Rogers’ PIRATES OF SALÉ (pictured), about a circus set in a Moroccan slum; Yasmin Fedda’s QUEENS OF SYRIA, in which Syrian refugee women perform an updated version of THE TROJAN WOMEN; Nujoom Al Ghanem’s SOUNDS OF THE SEA, following an old singer in his quest to sing folklore to local fishermen; and Nadine Salib’s MOTHER OF THE UNBORN, a portrait of an Egyptian woman stigmatized because of her inability to become pregnant.

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Jihlava 2014 Overview

jihlava logoOne of the largest nonfiction events in Europe, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, launches its 18th edition tonight, Thursday, October 23. More than 70 documentary features will screen through the end of the festival, next Tuesday, October 28. While I’ve never attended, the event has drawn praise from international fest organizers for its eclectic approach to nonfiction programming. Following are some highlights of new work from this year’s lineup. Continue reading

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Margaret Mead 2014 Overview

mead_2014_cover_final_formosaic_880x692_mosaic_fullThis year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, its 38th edition, opens tomorrow, Thursday, October 23, with THE LAST PATROL, Sebastian Junger’s study of the impact of war on soldiers and war correspondents. Before it wraps on Sunday, October 26, the festival – the longest-running doc event in the US – will present more than 30 features, in addition to shorts, panels, and interactive installations at the American Museum of Natural History. The following offers a spotlight on some of these: Continue reading

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In Theatres & On VOD: E-TEAM

e-teamComing to theatres today, Wednesday, October 22 and to Netflix this Friday, October 24: E-TEAM

Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s profile of intrepid human rights abuses investigators had its world premiere at Sundance this January, where the film claimed the US Documentary Excellence in Cinematography Award. The film has gone on to screen at Nantucket, True/False, Full Frame, Hot Docs, Dokufest Kosovo, Sheffield, Montclair, the upcoming CPH:DOX, and DOC NYC as part of the Short List.

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

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nuclearComing to DVD today, Tuesday, October 21: NUCLEAR NATION

Atsushi Finahashi’s look at life after Fukushima had its debut at Berlin in 2012. It went on to screen at Hong Kong, Zurich, Edinburgh, and Seoul’s Green Film Festival, among others.

Trimmed considerably from its significantly longer festival form, Finahashi’s simple but at times affecting film details the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear power plan disaster in microcosm, focusing on the nearby town of Futaba. Thanks to their mayor, Katsutaka Idogawa, Futaba’s residents were evacuated, ending up at an abandoned high school on the outskirts of Tokyo. As the film begins, more than 1400 of these nuclear refugees are stoically facing their new situation, receiving food and communal accommodations, yet still waiting for word from the government and an apology they can believe from Tepco, the power company responsible for the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Checking in every season for a year, the director reveals their dwindling numbers, as more than half move out to start new lives rather than remain in limbo. Beyond Mayor Idogawa, whose sense of powerlessness competes with a subsurface anger and feelings of betrayal, having trusted in the economic benefits of nuclear power for his town, the film also follows families coping with the loss of loved ones and possessions, underscored most poignantly in a sequence midway through the film when residents are allowed back to their homes for two hours to collect keepsakes, and briefly checks in with a local farmer who insists on feeding surviving cows in the contaminated zone, unwilling to let them starve to death like so many other livestock.

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