Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Docpoint 2013

Room 237

Not too long ago, another of Helsinki's biggest film festivals took place. As always with DocPoint, the focus was on the year's most exciting, thought-provoking documentary films from around the world. There were several interesting movies to be seen, and it's took a while, but here's a brief look into this year's crop.

The Gatekeepers (Israel/France/Germany/Belgium)
Director: Dror Moreh

Will there ever be a chance for peace in the Middle East? Impossible to say, but at least not if one doesn't study both points of view of Israelites and Palestines. While at first glance this documentary about Israeli chiefs of Security seems to be on Israel's side, it provides criticism to the endless cycle of violence as well.

The film succeeds in contrasting the personalities of all the former leaders of Shoh Bet, or Shabak, the Central Israeli Security Agency. They provide insights on how the nation viewed various threats and wars. The endless cycle of violence has made the men develop a hard shell around them, yet there are points of them reminiscing bloodshed that are quite emotional nevertheless.

The stories of these men are filled with exciting details, confidential information, intrigue and contradiction. Their stories help one to understand at least Israel's dire need to keep its face and appear threatening and all-powerful. It's one of the reasons why the two sides can't really come to terms. This is an important reminder of how a life of ordering massacres affects the human psyche, and what comes from a nation that treats each of its foreign problems by reacting with more violence.


The Queen of Versailles (USA/UK/Netherlands/Denmark)
Director: Lauren Greenfield

Here's a story of a wealthy family that lost everything. While this story's true, it might as well be a sitcom. The main characters are self-centered, dim, greedy, oblivious to any realities in life, and, sure enough, in a constant state of Arrested Development.

Before 2008, real estate billionaire David Siegel and his trophy wife Jacqueline loved to flash around their cash. They build skyscrapers, pay to have their daughter win beauty pageants and in the most outrageous move, build a multi-billion dollar mansion in the same vein as Louis XVI's Versailles Palace in France. Yet with the economic collapse, the Siegels lose their fortune. For the most part the film features them grasping onto last remaining shreds of their wealth.

Since the Siegel's are rich sleazebags, they refuse to recognize the moral of the story - the gambling, borderline illegal actions and political horsetrade having gotten them into the mess they are in. When the shoe's on the other foot, they blame others for destroying them and attempt to bounce back by doing the same mistakes again and again. It's incredible how dumb, vain and all-around unlikeable the main couple comes off, but it just makes the movie more intriguing. They don't care the least.

This movie is a testament to this age, a story on how people overemphasize surfaces, appearances and superficial values. They delude themselves to think they are happy when they can raise envy and outrage. But underneath all that surface is but a husk of a soul, one that has a child's idea on how society works, refuses to take responsibility and is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.


The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (UK/Ireland)
Director: Sophie Fiennes

Leftist philosophy superstar Slavoj Žižek delivers another video essay using film clips from old movies, self-irony and societal critique. And, as always it is highly entertaining. This time around the lovable lisping Slovak talks about how Ideology has shaped the world around us, and can be seen in various cultural product we wouldn't necessarily expect to. Case in point are movies, both old and new, obscure and blockbusters, documentaries and fantasy.

While The Pervert's Guide to Cinema had (albeit a flimsy) thread with which to follow, this time around Žižek seems to ramble on whatever comes to mind. That's not to say the film is sloppy, on the contrary the scenes replicationg various film styles are done carefully and to a good comical effect. A lot of the things discussed are quite familiar to anyone who has ever read an article by him, seen his lecture or the documentary film Žižek! I, of course am guilty of all three, but still I enjoyed immensely to hear these theories again in another, more entertaining format. Whether I agree or not is another thing, but the strength of Žižek is that he doesn't pander but provokes and speaks out his mind. Thus, it's up to the viewer to decide what to make of it.

★★★ 1/2

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (USA)
Directors: Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre

The conceptual performance artist Marina Abramović has had a long career of putting herself into her art since the 1970s. She has done this to such extent that without art at 63 years of age, she feels like a quite lonely, vunerable and uncertain person. The film chronicles her preparation fot the retrospective of her career at New York's MoMA. But it isn't just a case of putting art work on a gallery. Abramović also prepares to sit and stare at the museum guests all day, every day for three whole months.

Abramović's career has much been characterized by the search for boundaries of art. Not only allowing art lovers to look at art, but looking personally back at them is a concept as simple as there is. On a smaller scale, it could be done by anyone. Doing it with thousands of museum-goers day in, day out takes a lot of courage and endurability. But when does meeting another person, not saying one word, become art? Is it only when the other party is a respected artist by profession? The surrounding of a retrospective adds up plenty to the work, it puts on the emphasis that the artist is still present in all of her past work.

The film is ponderous and heartfelt, and like its focus, almost unbearably intimate. Just the sight of Abramović's stare brings some guests to the brink of tears. Documentarists Akers and Dupre explain Abramović's history extensively and understandably. The film is not qute as experimental as its subject matter, but it does feel like a real experiment, and makes ponder both the nature of art and humanity by itself. Not a small feat.


Room 237 (USA)
Director: Rodney Ascher

The ominous, creepy atmosphere of the 1980 film The Shining, as well as the well-known perfectionism of director Stanley Kubrick, have made the movie larger than life. Since Kubrick tended to refuse to put all the pieces together, there was much left for individual interpretations. Thus, there are plenty of people obsessing over the film and coming up with several outlandish renditions of its meaning.

The documentary is illustrated almost solely with film clips, mostly from The Shining, but also from Kubrick's other films, as well as unrelated movies which deal with cinema-viewing and audience perception like Lamberto Bava's Demons. The interviewees are only present by sound and they are not recognized with texts or anything. It is a democratic approach, putting all the interpretations to the same line, whether observant or bug-out crazy.

Obsessing over the movie, some people have spotted out odd visual clues that provoke imagination, such as the unnatural geography of the Overlook Hotel. The theories surrounding the film's horrors sexual nature, or the retread of American bloodshed from history, seem kind of plausible. And then again, there are people who insist Kubrick framed the moon landings and uses the film to confess this to his wife. Danny's Apollo 11 sweater on one scene is the key proof of this cuckoo theory. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to hear both these accounts, and all in all the film both puts The Shining into a new light, all the while not taking anything from the mystical aura of the masterpiece. On the contrary, adding up to it!


Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir (UK/Italy/Germany)
Director: Laurent Bouzereau

As controversial as directors come, there's no denying Roman Polanski is a character as fascinating as his films. This documentary is an attempt by his long-time friend Laurent Bouzereau to allow the man to speak his mind himself. Polanski spills his life story while on house arrest in Switzerland, waiting whether he will be handed over to US authorities for imprisonment or not.

Predictably, the story hinges on the major three disasters of Polanski's life: Fleeing the Nazi regime as a child, the relationship with his wife Sharon Tate and her consequent brutal murder by the Manson Family, and the director's actions on Jack Nicholson's house with a drugged-up minor, as well as the travesty of a trial that followed. Polanski is a humble man who doesn't attempt to shine his own shield too much and carries his tragedies as well as his successes like his current wife and children. Yet for a film titled Film Memoir, the movie glosses over Polanski's body of work in favor of a character study. His films stem from his private life, so you can't entirely seperate them, but I for one would've been eager to hear more insights on making a large number of brilliant films that disturb and challenge to this day.


Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (UK/USA)
Directors: Ice-T, Andy Baybutt

The rapper that brought you Cop Killer is convinced that hip hop saved his life from life on the streets. Since Ice-T owes the music a debt, he attempts to serve it by going around his peers, rap legends and super stars, asking what makes the music matter. The array of artists is quite impressive, from MC Melle Mel through Ice Cube and Chuck D all the way to superstars of the modern era like Kanye West and Eminem.

This is another one in the series of music documentaries that attempt to serve as a gateway to a world of certain genre. It attempts to serve the field as evenly as possible (yet focuses on the most commercial side), leaves out niche groups and offers little information to true aficionados of rap's history. It's always nice to see music legends talk about their work and how they create their verses, so it's an entertaining piece but far from true art mastery.


Men At Lunch (Ireland, 2012)
Director: Seán Ó Cualáin

The famous photograph about the building of New York, hanging on the walls of bars around the world, has inspired this historical documentary. The movie attempts to find out who were the men sitting on a girder on top of the Big Apple eating their lunch without any fear of falling. Thus, it is a story about labor in the time of the Great Depression, and by extent, immigration.

Unfortunately, since the film is Irish, it is very biased. It attempts to prove a confession heard in one pub to be conclusive, while newspapers and competitions have come to different solutions that are dismissed entirely. Likewise, the story is quite thin since there is little evidence on who's who in the picture. The lazy, archival storytelling style is one for sunday afternoon TV documentaries, but doesn't really work on a big canvas. This could've been an interesting detective story, now it's as bland and unjournalistic as they come.

★ 1/2

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