Coming to DVD today, Tuesday, May 19: LAST HIJACK
Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting’s portrait of a Somali pirate had its world premiere at Berlin last year. It went on to screen at the New York Film Festival, CPH:DOX, Rio, Tempo Doc, Revelation, and Sitges, among others.
One of several recent films, both fiction and nonfiction, focused on the dangerous, desperate piracy taking place in the international waters around East Africa, Pallotta and Wolting’s project is distinguished by its extensive integration of rotoscoped animation, as well as a separate interactive element that allows viewers to inhabit the experiences of Somali pirates. Looking specifically at their standalone documentary, the subject is Mohamed, an Everyman of sorts, scarred by his country’s violent past and willing to take on a dangerous, illegal occupation in pursuit of economic mobility. As the filmmakers follow Mohamed in his daily life, he pledges to stay away from piracy in order to take a new bride. At the same time, the viewer is privy to the knowledge that he has essentially abandoned multiple children from various women with his long-suffering parents, so there’s no reason to believe he’s a changed man – and, in fact, he’s not: Not long into his new marriage, he’s making plans to go back to sea, despite his wife’s promise to divorce him if he does. Periodically, the filmmakers illustrate Mohamed’s background with animation – sometimes effectively, but often superfluously, though an opening sequence, wherein he transforms into an imposing bird of prey that clutches a ship from the ocean, is impressive. Still, the film effectively speaks to Mohamed’s motivations – money, thrills, status – even if it too easily dismisses from consideration the costly – and sometimes deadly – consequences of his actions to hijacking victims.
Coming to DVD today, Tuesday, May 19: DESPITE THE GODS
Penny Vozniak’s behind-the-scenes look at a film director’s seemingly doomed comeback had its world premiere at Hot Docs in 2012. It also screened at Sydney, Fantasia, Raindance, Stockholm, Sitges, Chicago, Atlanta DocuFest, and Minneapolis St Paul, among others.
I previously wrote about the film out of Hot Docs here.
Coming to NYC’s Stranger Than Fiction series tomorrow, Tuesday, May 19 and to theatres this Friday, May 22: SUNSHINE SUPERMAN
Marah Strauch’s portrait of a pioneering extreme sports figure took off at Toronto last Fall. It went on to screen at the New York Film Festival, Martha’s Vineyard, Sarasota, Montclair, Atlanta, Cleveland, Vancouver, and Florida, among several others.
Strauch’s subject is Carl Boenish, an energetic engineer who gave up his career to devote himself to the activity he termed BASE jumping – an awkward acronym denoting the fixed point from which the jump would originate: Building, Antenna, Span (bridges), and Earth (cliffs). Notably, and to the film’s great benefit, Boenish also became obsessed with filming his activities, rigging small cameras to the helmets of jumpers to create nonfiction adventure shorts that Strauch draws from extensively, and which in turn draw in the viewer into an immersive experience of the thrill-seeking sport. This footage, while sometimes crude, most successfully conveys Boenish’s extroverted personality, and the lengths he goes to challenge himself, sneaking into construction sites and making retrospectively ridiculous deals with park rangers to allow him to cultivate his passion. Present-day interviews with old colleagues and especially his widow, Jean, who became as enamored with BASE jumping as her much more excitable spouse, are far more conventional, while re-enactments add slickness to the proceeding but not much else, and instead diminish the impact of Boenish’s own footage and existing archival records. Strauch understandably structures her narrative to build up to Boenish’s strange 1984 death, where, just one day after he set a record, he appeared to attempt a reckless jump from a mountain peak that had explicitly been deemed far too dangerous, and did so without telling anyone, leading to armchair psychologizing and speculations about suicide. Despite its protagonist’s demise, and the the inherent danger of the activity he popularized, however, somehow the film manages to maintain a feeling of celebration and exploration.
Coming to PBS’s Independent Lens tonight, Monday, May 18: 1971
Johanna Hamilton’s look at an early group’s efforts to expose federal surveillance debuted at Tribeca last year. Other fest play included IDFA, Sheffield, AFI Docs, Traverse City, and CPH:DOX, before its release this past Winter.
I previously wrote about the doc upon its theatrical release here.
Coming to HBO tonight, Monday, May 18: SOUTHERN RITES
Gillian Laub’s investigation into the complexity of race relations in the American South made its debut at Hot Docs last month. The film now has its broadcast premiere on HBO.
Six years ago, Laub, a noted photographer, published a series of photographs in The New York Times Magazine on the shameful continued practice of racially segregated high school proms in Montgomery County, Georgia. Bowing to the public pressure that ensued, the school district decided to integrate the prom the following year, but when Laub returned to document the event, it was made very clear that she was not welcome, as shown in the opening scene of her film. Instead, she switched her attention to two separate, only tangentially related stories, both reflecting the region’s still troubling relationship to race: the nearby murder of 22-year-old African American Justin Patterson by Norman Neesmith, an old white man, and the efforts of Calvin Burns, the county’s first African American chief of police, to seek the seat of sheriff. The bulk of Laub’s film details the circumstances and the aftermath of the first of these, which turns out to be more complicated than one might initially imagine, but nevertheless hinges on ingrained, even unconscious, assumptions about race that lead to tragic, unnecessary violence. The second thread, which finds the supremely qualified Burns facing off against an opponent with zero law enforcement experience, speaks to the same racial politics still in play in the county that enabled the Patterson/Neesmith case. Despite the welcome presence of Burns’ outspoken, frustrated daughter Keyke, this storyline, like the forestalled prom coverage, never quite comes together here, and feels underdeveloped compared to the more compelling primary story that Laub explores. Nevertheless, the film, like Laub’s original prom portraits, sheds much needed light on a powder keg issue.
Coming to theatres today, Friday, May 15: DARK STAR: HR GIGER’S WORLD
Belinda Sallin’s tribute to the Swiss surrealist debuted at Zurich last year. Other fest engagements have included Hong Kong, BAFICI, and Sitges, among others.
HR Giger, best known as the designer for ALIEN, allows filmmaker Sallin to enter his Zurich home, a hoarder’s paradise crammed to the rafters with books, artwork, and skulls, in the months before his death last May. Foregoing a traditional biographical approach, Sallin instead primarily records the goings on in the space, with the majority of the interviews handled not by Giger himself but his wife, mother-in-law, assistant, and other members of his coterie. Anecdotes abound, many relating to Giger’s fascination with death and sex, as represented by his biomechanical spraypainted illustrations, while others get into more personal territory, such as extended consideration of his deceased first wife – though there seems to be an assumption that viewers know who she was. Some footage of the artist in his prime offers stark contrast with his present state, with his elocution particularly difficult now, its cause not explained here. While the film attempts to cover some interesting terrain – including longstanding friction between his popular work and the art world, only recently smoothed over – Sallin seems so convinced that Giger’s history is already public knowledge that she barely makes an effort to make her subject accessible to a viewer who has very limited familiarity with the man and his work. As a result, the film ultimately feels too insular to successfully connect with broader audiences, but will likely be embraced by the artist’s pre-existing fanbase.
10 Dec 1978, Tehran, Iran — Original caption: Tehran, Iran: Demonstrators carry photo of Ayatollah Khomeini during anti-shah demonstration. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Coming to theatres today, Friday, May 15: OUR MAN IN TEHRAN
Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein’s corrective to ARGO’s factual looseness debuted at Toronto in 2013. It went on to screen at Thessaloniki Doc, Full Frame, Newport Beach, and Galway, among others.
I previously included the doc in my Toronto coverage here.