Coming to theatres this Friday, November 28: ANTARCTICA: A YEAR ON ICE
Anthony Powell’s chronicle of polar living made its bow at the New Zealand International Film Festival last year, winning the prize for best doc cinematography. It has gone on to screen at Calgary, Anchorage, Cleveland, and Thin Line.
In a project that took a decade to complete, Powell trains his specially-made cameras on the least hospitable part of the world, filming inhabitants of the McMurdo scientific research station on Antarctica’s Ross Island. McMurdo is one of several international scientific installations, with a combined population totaling about 5000, though fewer than 700 remain throughout the harsh Winter months. A diverse cross-section of these intrepid individuals, representing scientists, technicians, support staff, and service workers, who make their home in the pristine polar environment. It takes a certain type of personality to seek out this kind of life experience, so it’s not surprising that many of Powell’s subjects have an endearing element of quirkiness about them, though even that can give way during the punishing total darkness and monotony of Winter. Powell’s beautifully lensed film expertly conveys a sense of the wonder and beauty of the setting, particularly in stunning time-lapse footage, creating a fascinating portrait of a unique place and of its temporary caretakers.
Coming to theatres this Friday, November 28: REMOTE AREA MEDICAL
Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s look at a temporary volunteer medical services clinic bowed at Full Frame last year. It went on to screen at Hot Docs, IFF Boston, Sarasota, RiverRun, Traverse City, Milwaukee, Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, and Nashville, among others.
I included the film in my Hot Docs coverage here.
Coming to DVD today, Tuesday, November 25: A LIFE IN DIRTY MOVIES
Wiktor Ericsson’s revisitation of the work of a softcore auteur premiered at Gothenburg last year. Its festival circuit included DOC NYC, London, Cleveland, and the San Francisco and Toronto Jewish film festivals, among others.
I previously wrote about the doc here.
Coming to DVD and VOD today, Monday, November 24: METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s portrait of a metal band in therapy had its world premiere at Sundance in 2004. It went on to screen at Nashville, Philadelphia, Sydney, Ptown, Transylvania, Thessaloniki Doc, Athens, and Jerusalem, among many others, and to be released theatrically, winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary in 2005. Recently screened as part of DOC NYC’s Docs Redux section, this DVD re-release commemorates the film’s 10th anniversary, and also marks its debut on VOD platforms.
In 2001, as heavy metal rock icons Metallica set out to record a new album, they invited filmmakers Berlinger and Sinofsky to document the process. When band group therapist Phil Towle is introduced, it becomes clear that this will deviate from the standard behind-the-scenes, studio-focused rockumentary approach. After nearly two decades together, the band has to face serious communication and anger issues – not to mention individual struggles with drugs and alcohol, which soon remove lead singer James Hetfield from the scene for months. When he returns, his carefully controlled and limited schedule leads to increasing tensions between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, manifested not in the stereotypical aggression of out-of-control rockstars, but in unexpected discussions of hurt feelings that lend a distinct air of couple’s counseling to the proceedings. As a result, Berlinger and Sinofsky engender curiosity in their film beyond the band’s existing fanbase, crafting an intimate and honest look at middle-aged performers trying to make their musical marriage work.
Coming to theatres and to VOD today, Friday, November 21: LITTLE HOPE WAS ARSON
Theo Love’s exploration of a case of serial church arson debuted at Slamdance this year. It has also screened at Cucalorus, Austin, Heartland, Big Sky, and Lone Star, among others. In addition to theatrical engagements, the doc is available on VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google, and Vudu.
In 2010, various communities in East Texas were rocked by a series of church burnings, beginning with the Little Hope Baptist Church in Tyler TX. While state and federal authorities hunted for motive and clues, some concerned congregations in the deeply religious region staged armed night watches to defend their houses of worship from being next on the arsonists’ list. Love initially details these efforts in a straightforward manner, demonstrating how deeply ingrained religion is in East Texas, and what an affront these acts were to the communities through media coverage and interviews with various parishioners and pastors affected by the fires, as well as law enforcement representatives, such as Christy McAllister, a communications specialist with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The film deviates from conventional true crime coverage through Christy, who ends up being linked to the case’s first credible suspects – her younger brother Daniel, and his friend Jason. As soon as these two figures are introduced, Love breaks away from the arson narrative to sketch out their past, detailing how the two pious young men turned their backs on God when faced with personal heartbreak – Daniel blaming God for his mother’s death, Jason angry over a breakup – and, apparently, lashed out by laying waste to ten churches. While somewhat awkward, this rupture in storytelling is also intriguing, introducing additional family members who lend a texture to the setting, and seems to promise a moral quandary for Christy, which ultimately isn’t borne out, as she instead assists the authorities without hesitation. Too quickly, Love returns to a somewhat dry recitation of what happened next, how the boys were arrested, and the unconvincing excuses employed which lay blame on drugs. While the director captures a clear sense of the all-encompassing nature of religion in the Bible belt, with pretty much every subject weighing in on questions of forgiveness and redemption, the film ultimately is weakened by returning to a too-conventional approach.
Coming to theatres today, Friday, November 21: MONK WITH A CAMERA
Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s profile of a well-heeled photographer turned Tibetan Buddhist monk debuted at IDFA last year. Other festival stops have included Palm Springs, Ashland, Full Frame, Cleveland, Documentary Edge, and Sedona.
Grandson to legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and a photographer who worked with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon in the 1970s, Nicky Vreeland surprised friends and admirers alike when he gave up his glamorous lifestyle for the asceticism of Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, as hinted in Santi and Mascara’s portrait, he hasn’t really completely abandoned the trappings of celebrity and wealth – after all, it’s not every monk who works directly with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or who is appointed by the spiritual leader to be an abbot. While the filmmakers acknowledge some of the contradictions of Vreeland’s comportment – largely dwelling, as signaled by the project’s title, on his continued interest in photography despite Buddhism’s foregrounding of ephemerality – they never particularly push too hard to make sense of their subject’s ability to keep one sandal in the material world. While never quite descending into straight hagiography, the generally likeable film remains fairly slight, and doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the possibilities presented by its unusual subject.
Coming to theatres today, Friday, November 21: FOOD CHAINS
Sanjay Rawal’s exposé of exploited migrant farmworkers had its world premiere at Berlin at the beginning of the year. It went on to screen at Tribeca, Guadalajara, Vancouver, Minneapolis St Paul, and Napa Valley.
Making a strong argument that today’s migrant farmworkers, like those organized by Cesar Chavez in the 1950s and ’60s, are not much better off, Rawal’s film likens them to slave labor in a system controlled by large corporations. The ostensible focus here is on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union of Florida tomato pickers who stage a hunger strike to get the attention of powerful supermarket chain Publix. While other corporate entities have signed on to CIW’s Fair Food Program, which modestly asks for farmworkers to be paid a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked, Publix views the issue as a labor dispute and refuses to come to the bargaining table. While Rawal uses this standoff as the backbone of his film, it’s a bit unsatisfying, as the hunger strike ultimately fails. Still, the workers serve as a sympathetic point of identification for the viewer, and their plight forces us all to take stock of who suffers when we benefit from lower food costs.