Downloaded, Alex Winter’s chronicle of the rise and fall of the peer-to-peer file-sharing music service Napster, falls on the more conventional end of the documentary spectrum. The filmmaker does a pretty thorough job of chronicling the company’s highlights, from its inception as the brainchild of 18-year-old Shawn Fanning—who basically taught himself computer programming in order to be able to create the program—to its stunning popularity, and then the even more thunderous blowback from Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and the Recording Industry Association of America, all of which helped finally bring Napster’s short but groundbreaking existence to a flaming finish.
Along the way, Winter sketches in brief psychological portraits of some of the players involved (Fanning’s troubled upbringing is offered as a reason that he came up with the idea for Napster in the first place) and features media critics such as John Perry Barlow and Lawrence Lessig pontificating on the long-lasting effects of Napster’s emergence on the digital landscape. And up until its epilogue at least, Winter exudes a welcome fair-mindedness toward the issues of copyright piracy that Napster helped bring to the fore. Aesthetically, Downloaded may not be doing anything especially inventive (though his framing of some of his interview subjects during talking-heads segments approaches Tom Hooper-like WTF eccentricities), but Winter knows he has a great and timely subject and, for the most part, allows these people and the larger story to speak for themselves.
The presence of an auteur is even less pronounced in Touba, an ethnographic documentary in the Robert Gardner vein that details the trek of a million or so Sufi Muslims to the titular town in Senegal to pay tribute to Sheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood and a figure known for his teachings of nonviolence. Though director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi—whose last film, about legendary Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, helped inspire this latest project—offers bits of historical and religious context through both on-screen titles and on-screen interview subjects, much of the film consists of the camera impassively observing these Sufi Muslims showing their devotion to Bamba in various ways, interacting with each other on the streets and so on. In addition, Vasarhelyi doesn’t feature anyone that could be considered central characters; somewhat like Ron Fricke’s Baraka and Samsara, Touba maintains a somewhat global perspective as exemplified by its many aerial wide shots of grand masses of Sufi Muslims engaging in rituals. By contrast to the many documentaries I’ve seen recently that exist simply for the sake of pushing an agenda, there’s something refreshing about a film that’s content to stand back and observes, without judgment—even when the film shows us blatant gender discrimination and graphic animal slaughter, as Vasarhelyi unflinchingly shows us in Touba. (The Robert Gardner connection is strengthened even further by Vasarhelyi’s decision to shoot the film in 16mm.)
In the middle of those two extremes—informational (Downloaded) and anthropological (Touba)—lies Before You Know It, PJ Raval’s often powerful chronicle of a year in the lives of three elderly gay men. The film started from an activist cause: Compared to their heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQ seniors are far less likely to have easy access to such things as health insurance, social services, and the like. From that core idea, however, Raval relentlessly narrows his gaze to three men: Dennis, who’s in his 70s and lives in a LGBTQ retirement community in Portland, Oregon; Ty, a Harlem resident who’s the director of an advocacy group for gay seniors; and Robert, the owner of a gay bar in Galveston, Texas.
All three of them have wildly contrasting personalities: Robert is flamboyantly extroverted while Dennis is painfully introverted, with Ty somewhere in between. And over the course of a year, naturally, a wide variety of heartrending and heartbreaking things happen to these people. Ty finds himself in the midst of a historic moment in gay culture as New York passes a bill legalizing same-sex marriage—though that isn’t quite enough to convince his partner Stanton to officially tie the knot with him. Elsewhere, Robert’s nightclub eventually runs into legal troubles, with his increasing health problems only adding to its struggles to stay open.
Perhaps most haunting of all, though, is Dennis’s story: Only after his wife died did he finally come out of the closet, and even then he still hasn’t come out to his relatives; only at that LGBTQ retirement home and on gay cruises does he feel somewhat comfortable in his own cross-dressing skin. It’s fitting that Dennis is the one who intones the film’s title at the beginning: In the oceans of regret that his weary voice and uncomfortable demeanor exudes, one sees the ravages of a life not fully lived partially as a result of societal forces preventing him from being able to do so. Before You Know It is an exemplary example of a documentary that successfully puts human faces on wider issues, eschewing polemics in favor of the personal.
The film portion of South by Southwest runs from March 8—March 16.