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Restrepo (#110 of 10)

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013

Among this year’s Human Rights Watch selection, six films bear witness to various strands of feminism, artistry, uprising, violence, and filmmaking itself as a tool for revolution. Many of them are accomplished; one may well be a masterpiece.

Iran’s entrenched gender inequality afflicts maker and subject alike in Going Up the Stairs: Portrait of an Unlikely Iranian Artist. Director Rohksareh Ghaem Maghami and Akram, the titular artist, were both married before the age of 10, each threatened by their husbands with horrific physical deformations should they disobey their strict wishes. Now 50, Akram claims to love her husband, Heidap, even while fearful of him, and remains illiterate after he forced her to drop out of school at a young age. Now she paints, channeling her dreams into beautiful, childlike visions ripe with hope and purity, and at the film’s outset, she’s been invited to an exhibition in France, organized by her daughter, Toopa, in hopes that her mother will be able to display her work to the world. Matter of fact in its coverage, save for a few decorative time-lapse shots, Going Up the Stairs doesn’t do much to explicitly examine the power struggles between husband and wife (Akram needs Heidap’s permission to leave the country, and despite telling him off regarding her creative process, she cows to the sexist policies of her homeland), but at this historical moment, the documentation alone feels like a blow to the system. The triumph of an artistic spirit conquering its invisible chains is potent in front of and behind the camera, particularly when an awestruck Akram tours art galleries in France and states, “I feel as if I’ve entered a jungle in which I’m a simple shoemaker.”

True/False Film Fest 2013: Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington and Twenty Feet from Stardom

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True/False Film Fest 2013: <em>Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington</em> and <em>Twenty Feet from Stardom</em>
True/False Film Fest 2013: <em>Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington</em> and <em>Twenty Feet from Stardom</em>

True/False’s 10th year was undoubtedly its best run yet, and as the last song played at its closing concert, by Buskers Last Stand, there was a feeling of elation from a weekend having exceeded expectations. There were the name-dropping perks of up-and-coming Chicago duo MNDR DJing the annual @ction Party; Ushio, the star of Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, demonstrating one of his punch paintings on a billboard-sized canvas; Q&As with big-names such as Daniel Dreifuss, the producer of Oscar-nominated No. But there were the unexpected and discreet perks, too, like seeing the twin brothers that comprise the band Flux Bikes use their bikes as instruments to make complex beat symphonies; finding an enormous fort filled with balloons hiding in a back room at a festival party on Saturday; being entertained by volunteers cracking jokes over megaphones while waiting in a theater line. It’s the quirky, charming touches that distinguish True/False from most film festivals, transforming the experience into more than just a series of events; they turn it into a pop-up community that’s utterly engulfing for a handful of days each year.

Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions Documentary

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Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

In recent years, Academy members have repeatedly favored the most high-profile, buzzed-about doc in this category, from The Cove to Man on Wire to March of the Penguins. For a break in the trend, you’d have to go back to 2005, when Born Into Brothels bested Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s suffering-for-art experiment that had people thinking twice about McDonald’s, at least for a few months. With expected hopefuls like Project Nim left out of this season’s race, 2012 could prove the bookend of the category’s seven-year populist itch, as the most-discussed nominee is probably Wim Wenders’s Pina, an offbeat film that really only looks like a winner on paper.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2011: Life, Above All, Diary, & When Mountains Tremble

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2011: <em>Life, Above All</em>, <em>Diary</em>, & <em>When Mountains Tremble</em>
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2011: <em>Life, Above All</em>, <em>Diary</em>, & <em>When Mountains Tremble</em>

Moving pictures do so many things so well. They teach us empathy for other perspectives. They invent new worlds or show us the old one in a whole new way. They give us the catharsis of a good laugh or cry. They show us the worse that nature—human or otherwise—is capable of, and inspire us to do better. And because they can capture and preserve whole shards of life, they’re better than any other art form at evoking the texture of daily life and the passage of time.

So I’m always disappointed by movies that only want to tell us how we should think or feel about a social or political issue. I wouldn’t go as far as Capra did (“If you want to send a message, try Western Union”), but why not take advantage of the medium’s versatility? Directors need to stage-manage reality, but don’t they also need to remain open to the surprises that help infuse life into a film? Not everyone has to be Terrence Malick, getting his cinematographer to stop what he was doing to focus on the butterfly that wound up touching down on Jessica Chastain’s arm in The Tree of Life, but I suspect the filmmakers whose work feels most alive make movies partly to learn about what they’re filming and to find out what happens when they start the camera rolling, while the ones whose work feels stillborn go in knowing just what they want to show or tell.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Diary

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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Diary</em>
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Diary</em>

Last year’s Restrepo, a documentary following a platoon of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, was marked by a series of close-ups of young soldiers. Their expressions are resigned, saddened, and a little scared. These post-deployment interviews showed us men who had seen terrible things, but the film itself mostly kept the horror in the distance. We see very little actual violence, no Taliban, and only a brief glimpse of a dead American GI. This was largely intentional, as the horror was written on their faces. At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last week, I saw Restrepo co-director Tim Hetherington’s latest short, Diary, which gives us a glimpse of what they did see. It’s a document about the trauma glimpsed by a person in war, a brief but haunting view of tragedy, made up of footage Hetherington shot while traveling around the world as a war reporter and photojournalist. With the terrible news that Hetherington was killed in Libya this week, the film suddenly takes on an extra resonance. It’s the last report of a man who had seen so much tragedy and was still struggling to understand why.

True/False Film Fest 2011: Foreign Parts

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True/False Film Fest 2011: <em>Foreign Parts</em>
True/False Film Fest 2011: <em>Foreign Parts</em>

I woke up at 4 a.m. on Thursday to take two flights to St. Louis and then drive two hours to Columbia, Missouri for the eighth True/False Film Fest. This is my third visit to True/False as part of a growing contingent of Mainers (and Maine sympathizers from both coasts) who planted a flag in Columbia five years ago. Aptly described as the “platonic ideal of a college town” by ’09 House correspondent Vadim Rizov, downtown Columbia, on this weekend, seems to exist as a factory which serves exclusively to produce volunteers (600 - 700 this year) for this enchanting documentary film festival.

Columbia, just slightly overwhelmed by True/False’s growing audience (on Sunday afternoon, the downtown trash cans are overflowing with sleeved coffee cups), is immensely welcoming and charming, its amusing incongruities (restaurants closed for church on Sunday; dirt-cheap cigarettes) reminding you what part of the country you’re in, even as you attend a devolving series of late-night afterparties and catch sights like a ukulele-playing busker performing an earnest version of Pulp’s “Common People.” Columbia’s good spirit infects its visitors: both spectators, who eagerly introduce themselves to anyone standing alone (or, in my case, cheerfully inquiring about why I’m writing in a notebook during a screening), and filmmakers, none of whom are hosting premieres or competing for awards or distribution, and who therefore treat this annual journey as something like to a vacation.

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions Documentary

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

When Waiting for Superman surprisingly but rightfully got Oscar’s cold shoulder, the hunt for the documentary feature prize suddenly became a wide open one. Four of the nominated films lean hard on pressing social issues, always a plus, and no two overlap in subject matter, but the best documentary in this category, Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, doesn’t lean hard on our social issues. While that hasn’t stopped previous films from scoring wins here, the last time I thought the Academy would go for a film about people living in and around landfills, surviving off the detritus they find there (2006’s Documentary Short Subject nominee Recycled Life), I lost an Oscar pool. Significant though it may be, Walker’s documentary approach may be too objective for a group that typically favors films that give them the warm and fuzzies or safely, sometimes cheaply, stroke their righteous indignation—though you could say its acclaimed competitors Restrepo and Inside Job suffer from a similar problem.

A Movie a Day, Day 74: Lebanon and Restrepo

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A Movie a Day, Day 74: <em>Lebanon</em> and <em>Restrepo</em>
A Movie a Day, Day 74: <em>Lebanon</em> and <em>Restrepo</em>

Both Restrepo and Lebanon are war-is-hell movies, be-glad-you’re-not-here postcards about young men marooned in outposts at the outer edges of intractable wars (the U.S occupation of Afghanistan and Israel’s battle with its neighbors, respectively). But where one uses reportorial techniques in search of clarity and objective truth, the other creates a choking miasma of claustrophia, confusion and deepening panic to approximate its main character’s state of mind.

True/False Film Fest 2010: Restrepo, Familia, and It Felt Like a Kiss

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True/False Film Fest 2010: <em>Restrepo</em>, <em>Familia</em>, and <em>It Felt Like a Kiss</em>
True/False Film Fest 2010: <em>Restrepo</em>, <em>Familia</em>, and <em>It Felt Like a Kiss</em>

[Click here to read the second dispatch.]

“Thanks to our incredible volunteers, who are getting drunker as the day goes on but still doing an incredible job.” That intro—I forget for which film—was right on both parts: the 600 strong volunteers of True/False surely make a lot of things possible, even if they were all drinking (one of the big venues has a full bar) to while away the tedium of passing out queue tickets. (Special points for inventiveness to the man who stayed in character as Captain Jack Sparrow. He had the swaying walk down and everything.)

But, arguably, the main thing that makes True/False so unspeakably awesome is that they do not care about premieres. At all. Without a doubt, the premiere culture is one of the worst aspects of any festival that can’t get any good ones but still wants their red carpet moment. It’s always some kind of damn mediocre ensemble drama starring Glenn Close or someone, and it always fades into oblivion, and it’s pernicious.

The True/False guys—by which I mean festival heads David Wilson and Paul Sturtz—clearly don’t care about any of this, which is fantastic. (What’s even better is that the Secret Screenings—an idiocy necessary to preserve the “premiere status” of terrific films—are really, really good. The one I saw has the potential to be one of the Films Of The Year. I hope more people pay attention when it’s officially “premiered” or whatever. You get the feeling even if they had premiere status, they wouldn’t abuse it.) What they’ve constructed is a micro-festival that offers a strong personal voice and an argument (roughly, form matters just as much as the polemic, and your righteousness alone will not save you). This is a micro-fest done right.

OK. Let’s wrap up these films.