Coming 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.
Coming 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.
Coming 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.
Coming 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.
Coming to DVD today, Tuesday, October 21: RUNNING FROM CRAZY
Barbara Kopple’s exploration of mental illness in a famous family debuted at Sundance last year. It also screened at Sundance London, Tribeca, Nantucket, Hamptons, Cleveland, Camden, Full Frame, and Sarasota, among others.
I profiled the doc before Sundance here.
Coming to DVD and VOD today, Tuesday, October 21: URANIUM DRIVE-IN
Suzan Beraza’s exploration of a community divided bowed at Telluride’s Mountainfilm last year. Its fest circuit has included DOC NYC, Denver, Washington DC’s Environmental fest, Big Sky, St Louis, and the United Nations Association fest, among others.
I previously wrote about the film here.
Coming to PBS’s Independent Lens tonight, Monday, October 20: TWIN SISTERS
Mona Friis Bertheussen made its debut at IDFA last year, where it picked up an audience award. It’s gone on to screen at Göteborg, Documentary Edge, DocPoint, ZagrebDox, DocAviv, and Planete+ Doc, among others.
Bertheussen’s endearing if somewhat slight midlength tells the story of Alexandra and Mia, Chinese girls who were adopted by separate sets of parents – one in a small village in Norway, the other in suburban Sacramento – who likely would never have known they even had a sister, much less an identical twin, if it weren’t for an unlikely pair of near-matching red gingham dresses.Their new adoptive parents each coincidentally dressed them in the latter, prompting a conversation, during which they noticed that their daughters looked remarkably similar, beginning a sisterly relationship that has lasted for a decade, albeit at a distance. Beyond revealing this background, the film focuses on the girls in the present, as Mia and her parents visit Alexandra in the tiny village of Fresvik – the second time the sisters have been able to be together since being separated. The result is compelling – while twins are inherently fascinating, their particular circumstances of cultural displacement, vastly different home environments, and the knowledge of one another’s existence bring a different texture to the striking similarities they share, despite distance and language barriers.