In Theatres: STRAY DOG

Stray-Dog-700Coming to theatres today, Friday, July 3: STRAY DOG

Debra Granik’s profile of a Vietnam vet debuted at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, where it claimed the best doc award. Its extensive fest appearances include New York, New Orleans, Zurich, Hamptons, BFI London, Hot Springs Doc, Indie Memphis, Stockholm, Film Columbia, Zagreb Dox, Cleveland, Sarasota, Nashville, and Jeonju, among others.

Granik’s titular subject, whose real name is Ron Hall, is a southern Missouri biker who runs an RV park. Despite his gruff exterior, Hall displays a deep generosity of spirit, counseling fellow veterans, attending military funerals of strangers, advising his aimless granddaughter about her future, and creating a welcoming environment for his new wife, Alicia, and her twin teenage sons, who eventually move from their native Mexico to join their mother only to be surprised at the limits in the so-called land of opportunity. Taking a strictly observational approach, Granik allows Hall’s personality and background – and the lasting impact of his two tours of duty in Vietnam – to emerge unhurriedly. The result is a patient, telling portrait of a warrior bearing the invisible scars of his military service, and a slice of Americana that becomes more complex as the film develops.

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Karlovy Vary 2015: Documentary Overview

kvmffHitting the half-century mark this year, the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival opens tonight, Friday, July 3, and runs through next Saturday, July 11. In addition to several retrospective screenings, the prestigious event features approximately 135 new feature-length films, of which just under 30 are documentaries, matching the reduced number of nonfiction offerings evident since last year’s edition. With a handful of exceptions, the nonfiction programming primarily is set apart in its own competitive and non-competitive sections, highlighted below: Continue reading

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1201x782-KEY-IMAGE-TOUGH_LOVE_1-copy-1160x652Coming to PBS’s POV this coming Monday, July 6: TOUGH LOVE

Stephanie Wang-Breal’s look at the struggles of parents facing Child Protective Services had its world premiere at Full Frame last year. Screenings followed at DOC NYC, Hot Docs, IFF Boston, CAAMFest, Seattle, and the Rocky Mountain Women’s fest, among others.

I previously wrote about the film for DOC NYC’s program, saying:
What makes a good parent? How do you prove you are one, after you’ve been deemed unfit? Having lost custody of their children to Child Protective Services, two parents in New York City and Seattle fight to win back the trust of the courts and reunite their families in Stephanie Wang-Breal’s moving film. Acknowledging their past parenting mistakes due to poverty and addiction, both Hasna and Patrick contend with a flawed system that often seems more interested in punishing adults than in serving the best interests of children.

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poem is a naked personComing to theatres today, Wednesday, July 1: A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON

Les Blank’s Leon Russell music doc, completed in 1974, recently made its debut at SXSW. It has since screened at AFI Docs and BAMcinemaFest prior to its theatrical release.

Originally commissioned by folk rocker Leon Russell but caught up in legal troubles, likely due to the artist’s dislike of the final film, Blank’s unruly portrait went unreleased for over four decades. After the filmmaker’s death, his son brokered an agreement with Russell to remaster and finally release the film, long heralded as a “lost” classic by Blank fans. While I’m generally an admirer of Blank’s work, I remain generally uninterested in music docs, and I have no idea who Russell is – following viewing this portrait, that hasn’t changed much: as far as music portraits go, this one is an odd duck. Fans of Russell will likely appreciate the performance footage, but bristle, perhaps as Russell himself did, at Blank’s seeming lack of focused concentration on his ostensible subject – the filmmaker is as likely to train his camera on the demolition of a building in Tulsa, a sunset, or a group of parachuters as he is to following the musician around. This free-association, slice of Americana approach yields some lovely moments of local color – such as an early interview with an older neighbor couple, or a little girl insisting on singing Three Dog Night at a wedding – but in the end proves more frustrating than not compared to Blank’s other, better-known works.

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In Theatres: MALA MALA

mala malaComing to theatres today, Wednesday, July 1: MALA MALA

Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s ostensible portrait of the trans experience in Puerto Rico debuted at Tribeca last year. Other fest appearances have included Provincetown, Austin LGBT, Sydney’s Queer Screen, and Miami LGBT.

Sickles and Santini turn their attention to an excessive nine subjects, creating a survey which is ultimately bogged down by its surfeit of characters and a lack of focus. Despite most media touting the doc as a look at the Puerto Rican trans community, the film actually includes three non-trans-identifying drag queens, four self-identified MTF (one not even Puerto Rican), one woman who refuses the trans label, preferring gender dysphoric instead, and one token FTM who, while sympathetic, barely appears. This strange conflation of trans and drag is significant insofar as one major thread involves the efforts of the trans subjects to mobilize their community to support an anti-discrimination law – it’s telling that those who participate in the Butterflies Trans Foundation are not drag queens, but the other trans-identified characters. While characters like the gender-dysphoric Soraya, or Samantha, whose transition has been temporarily halted, at least afford an opportunity to consider questions around gender, age, and the body, the inclusion of the forgettable drag queen characters feels extraneous, or worse, an excuse to include footage of lip-sync performances to try to spice up the proceedings. Beyond being ill-fitting, it’s a shame, as two of the trans subjects are compelling enough to carry the film all by themselves: Ivana, a self-possessed spokeswoman for the community, and Sandy, a sex worker who’d love to be able to support herself with more traditional employment.

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In Theatres: CARTEL LAND

cartel landComing to theatre this Friday, July 3: CARTEL LAND

Matthew Heineman’s exploration of Mexico’s cartel violence had its world premiere at Sundance this year, where it picked up two awards. It has gone on to screen at Nantucket, True/False, Ashland, Martha’s Vineyard, Full Frame, Dallas, Sarasota, Tribeca, IFF Boston, Documenta, Docville, MountainFilm, Seattle, Sydney, Human Rights Watch, AFI Docs, and Sheffield, among others.

My pre-Sundance doc profile may be found here.

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Still_1913SeedsofConflict_01Coming to PBS today, Tuesday, June 30: 1913: SEEDS OF CONFLICT

Ben Loeterman’s look back at the origins of Middle Eastern strife made its festival debut at the Middle East Scholars Association fest in DC last November. In addition to an extensive series of educational and community screenings, the film has also been featured at the Global Peace, Atlanta Jewish, and Houston Palestine film fests.

As noted by his film’s title, Loeterman focuses his attention on a discrete period of time in Palestine’s history which is posited here as integral to the seemingly intractable quagmire of Israeli/Palestinian relations that has developed over the past century. Notably, this pre-World War I period is concerned with the Ottoman Empire, not the later British rule which began in 1917 which has often been the subject of more scrutiny in its role in later historical developments. The world of Palestine as detailed in Loeterman’s docudrama is a land where a majority population of Muslims coexisted generally peacefully with both Christian and Sephardic Jewish minorities, with all groups adopting an overarching sense of Ottoman identity. This begins to change in response to other global forces, chiefly the mass influx of Ashkenazi Jews to Palestine, seeking to escape persecution. As argued here by scholars, in contrast to the generally assimilated Sephardic Jews, this wave of new Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe steadfastly held to their own identities, language, and culture, espousing Zionism to lay the groundwork for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, and in so doing, alienated Arab neighbors, who responded in kind. While the film’s subjects speculate that a peaceful solution may have been possible, the outbreak of World War I extinguished this hope. Loeterman attempts to liven up what is at heart a talking heads heavy historical doc with dramatized re-enactments featuring monologues from contemporary figures. While the authenticity of their writings is appreciated, the use of actors in period garb are ultimately just additional talking heads in period costume, and an awkward distraction from the more compelling history lesson offered here, including not quite enough on Noah Sokolovsky’s recently rediscovered 1913 documentary, THE LIFE OF THE JEWS OF PALESTINE.

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