Showing posts with label Documentary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Documentary. Show all posts

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Blues: Feel Like Going Home

Feel Like Going Home is one of seven documentaries produced by Martin Scorsese on the subject of blues music. This particular episode was also directed by the auteur and focuses primarily on the roots of the genre. Narrated in part by Scorsese himself, it follows musician Corey Harris as he interviews fellow musicians and goes in search of the blues birthplace, travelling through the Mississippi Delta and eventually to West Africa from where the music was first snatched away in chains aboard slave ships.

Neither a hard hitting exposé nor critically acclaimed undercover investigation, Scorsese’s film is a sort of coffee table documentary, delighting its audience with some great stories and incredible music. It fails to go deep or uncover anything new but might help to bring the blues to a whole new audience.

The first thing that struck me about this film was its look. Scorsese has a reputation as one of the greatest film makers of his or any age and we are used to his highly polished latter work as well as his grittier, earthier beginnings but this film is unlike anything I’ve seen from Scorsese before. It feels cheap and basic, like one man and a camera, and not a great camera at that. A lot of the footage is grainy and dark and it doesn’t appear to be particularly well made in several places. Even the editing is a little slapdash. Although I tried to put this to one side, I could never quite get over it. I understand that the budget must have been low but I’d expected something a little flashier or at least more polished from Martin Scorsese.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing is a remarkable and stomach churning documentary that allows several mass murders to tell the story of their crimes in their own words and through dramatic re-enactments. Following a US backed military coup that resulted in a decades long, right wing dictatorship, somewhere in the region of 500,000 to 2.5 million Indonesians and ethnic Chinese were killed at the hands of Government backed ‘gangsters’ and paramilitaries. Today, nearly half a century later there has been no apology for these heinous crimes and many of the murders are revered as heroes. This film focuses on several of the now ageing killers.

The film is unlike any documentary I’ve seen before. It avoids the bias that inevitably accompanies a documentary feature by allowing the perpetrators to give their own account, in their own words. The director and occasional questioner Joshua Oppenheimer avoids leading questions, instead asking the occasional question that’s on all our minds and allowing those interviewed to answer and elaborate if they feel necessary. Luckily for us the viewer, they often do. Another thing that makes this film stand out is that its ‘stars’ are given carte blanch to re-enact their evil deeds with a full camera crew, make-up, professional lighting and even prosthetics. It makes for chilling viewing.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Man with a Movie Camera

Man with a Movie Camera is a 1929 experimental documentary film by Dziga Vertov which upon watching for the first time earlier this week, instantly entered into my top ten films of all time. The film contains no plot, characters or actors and its only discernible arc is the depiction of the passing of a day in Soviet Russia. It captures the essence of life in 1920s Russia thanks to over 1,700 shots and scenes of everyday life as well as the life of machines and industry. The film is famed now, as it was on its initial release, for its revolutionary and still bold editing and filming style. It’s difficult to put into words the wonders contained within this hour and seven minute avant-garde piece but I hope that my brief description will attract new people to it.

The film opens on one of the more surreal shots which pepper the film in amongst the more traditional fare. We see a cameraman setting up his tripod on top of a giant camera which forms the ground upon which he stands. This is the first of many examples of double exposure used in the film and the camera trickery extends to the boundaries of what was possible in the late 1920s over the next hour. I remember watching Buster Keaton’s 1924 movie Sherlock, Jr recently and being enamoured with his mastery of camera slight of hand but Keaton’s noble efforts look like potato prints to Vertov’s Mona Lisa.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


McCullin is a little seen documentary about the life of famed photojournalist Donald McCullin. Nominated for two BAFTA awards, the film charts the career of its subject from his humble beginnings in poverty ridden Finsbury Park, London in the late 1950s, through his many and varied warzone assignments and towards his later, peaceful retirement. The documentary is narrated by and features extended interviews with the man himself and gives great insight into the reasons behind his adventures as well as descriptions of often horrific events and how he composed some of his most famous photographs.

For several years Don McCullin has been my favourite photographer having stumbled upon an exhibition of his war photography at the National Media Museum in Bradford. I’ve since been to another of his exhibitions in Manchester and one of his many photographic books became my most expensive book purchase ever at the second exhibition. I’d been looking forward to seeing the film since its original release and was thrilled to find it on television late last night as part of The BBC’s Insight series.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

A couple of times a year, a documentary feature will break through from the restraints of modern, multiplex, big budget cinema and find a way onto our screens. Generally though, because of availability, documentaries find a home on DVD and this is the medium in which I saw Searching for Sugar Man, the latest documentary to win an Oscar. It was precisely lack of availability which meant I had to wait so long to see the film but now I have, I can join in with the many who rate it so highly. Directed by first timer Malik Bendjelloul and produced by Simon Chinn, the producer of the heart-pounding Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man is a seemingly implausible tale of the search for a forgotten musician.

Sixto Rodriguez was a man who released two folk-rock albums in the early 1970s and then disappeared. The albums bombed in the US and Rodriguez’s label estimated, somewhat mean spiritedly, that his records sold around six copies. The rumour was that the singer had committed suicide on stage after the failure of his music career but what he could have never known was that he was huge in Apartheid era South Africa. Although the South Africans knew little to nothing about the singer, to them he was as popular as Elvis or The Beatles and a South African journalist set out in the mid 1990s to discover what exactly did happen to the mysterious singer.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

This is Not a Film

In March 2010 Jafar Panahi, one of Iran’s most internationally known and award winning film makers was arrested for committing propaganda against the Iranian Government. The staunch anti regime director was banned from film making and scriptwriting for 20 years and as of 2011 was under house arrest, awaiting the appeal of a six year jail sentence. While wasting his days at home, Panahi gets the idea to ask a fellow director to visit him and pick up a camera. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb films Panahi in his high rise apartment as he watches TV, takes phone calls and runs through his most recently rejected screenplay, careful all the while to avoid making a film.

Jafar Panahi isn’t a film maker I’d previously come across and in a strange twist of fate, had the Iranian government not imprisoned him, it is possible that myself and many others would have lived out our lives without knowledge of the man or his films. What Panahi does with This is Not a Film is to give the viewer a fascinating insight into the mind of a tortured man as well as the mind of a film maker. Panahi often explains his predicament through the use of film clips and draws on his back catalogue to provide parallels between himself and his characters. The film is truly absorbing.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The Imposter

In 1994 a thirteen year old Texan boy called Nicholas Barclay disappeared from San Antonio. Three years later his family received a call from a Spanish official, claiming that Nicholas had been abducted by a sex slave ring but was now with him in Spain. Despite Nicholas leaving as a thirteen year old with almost Aryan colouring and returning tanned with dark hair and eyes along with a foreign accent, the family accepted the boy who returned as their son. This documentary tells the story of Nicholas’ disappearance and the extraordinary events in 1997 when it seemed that he had returned.

The documentary is created using a mixture of talking heads; achieve home videos and convincing reconstructions which are themselves combined with the talking heads. Almost all of the major players in the story take part which is a little surprising as by the end hardly anyone comes out with any sort of credibility.

I went into this film knowing the story having read about it recently in a magazine. I knew very little about the film however and wasn’t actually sure if it was a documentary or drama. The film plays its cards very early and it isn’t exactly a spoiler, especially given the title, to tell you that the person who returns home in 1997 is not Nicholas Barclay. The real interest for the first half of the film at least, is how on earth this man managed to convince Spanish officials, the American Embassy and most incredibly the family of the missing boy that he was Nicholas. It’s almost too unreal to be true. Without giving too much away, the man who claims to be the boy is of French-Algerian descent and several years older than Barclay. He looks nothing like the boy.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Confederate States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all white people, Amen"

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if the Southern States had won the American Civil War? Well, this film takes that idea and runs with it. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a ninety minute feature masquerading as a History Channel type documentary, charting a fictionalised world in which the American Civil War was won by the South with the help of Britain and France. Delivered with a mixture of talking heads, re-enactments, readings, documentary footage (real and fake) and interspersed with infomercials, just like American television, the film charts the history of the C.S.A from its inception at the outbreak of war in 1861 to the present day.

What you get is a sometimes interesting but often uninspiring look at a fictionalised world which has a solid anti hate message at its heart. I’d wanted to see the film for months as the American Civil War is something that interests me but I won’t be recommending it to most people unless they have a particular interest in American history or social studies.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Project Nim

"Nim Banana Eat"

Project Nim is a 2011 Documentary feature about the life of a Chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky. In 1973 the two week old Nim became the subject of a Columbia University study that attempted to ascertain whether or not Chimps were capable of communicating with humans in the form of sign language. Nim was bought up as a human by a variety of people based at the University and eventually learned 125 signs for the likes of ‘eat’ ‘play’ ‘Nim’ ‘hug’ and ‘cat’ and was able to string the signs together to form basic requests such as ‘Banana eat me Nim’. Once Nim became too old to be handled he was returned to the Primate Institute in which he was born but then had a traumatic final fifteen years.

I remember studying Nim for A Level Psychology and being fascinated with the idea that Chimps could communicate in this manner. Since that time I have become interested in anthropology and primatology and while I’m no expert, I wasn’t shocked or surprised by any of the incredible things that Nim was capable of. Had I come to the film with no knowledge of Nim or the study I expect I would have enjoyed the film more than I did.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

British Council Film Collection

The British Council Film Collection is an archive of over 120 short documentary films made by the British Council during the 1940s designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played. The films vary in length between around three and thirty minutes and show all aspects of Britain during this tumultuous decade. The films were produced as a way of promoting Britain and Britishness and were seen in over 100 countries as cultural propaganda, as a way of counteracting the Nazis own propaganda about Britain being stuck in the past. In amongst the collection there will be at least a few films that are of interest to everyone with subjects as diverse as the Criminal Justice System, Town Planning, Shakespeare, Ship Building and even the life of an Onion...

Although at the time these films were produced to show how modern and diverse Britain was they feel very dated now. They are voiced over by men with accents that no longer exist outside an American tourist's imagination and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who isn't white on film. Some of the views are also quite outdated. In one film nursing is described as "the most interesting and satisfying career open to women." If you are familiar with any of the towns and cities featured in the films then their appearance will also be a big shock to you. The country has changed a lot in seventy years. Most of the films are shot during the Second World War and this is another interesting feature about them. We are able to see how the nation coped with rationing, bombing and death on a daily basis.

Below are links to and a brief description of four of my favourite films. These are films which for various geographical, historical or personal reasons were of interest to me.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Benda Bilili!

Benda Bilili! Is a 2010 documentary about a group of disabled musicians from Kinshasa, Congo who use rudimentary and hand made instruments to produce wonderful rumba and reggae music. The band are followed from 2004 to 2010 by French film makers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye as they progress from living on the streets and practicing at the city’s zoo to recording an album and touring Europe. The film focuses on the struggles of the various members and those around them and upon their influence in the city and especially on the young street kids who follow and assist them.
The band use strange hand peddled tricycles to get about as most of the members suffer from Polio and are unable to walk. Their songs are about their lives on the streets from being laughed at for being handicapped to songs about sleeping on cardboard. Bad things keep coming at the various members but they never let it get them down and remain focused on making a better life for themselves and their families. In one scene, the leader of the band Staff Benda Bilili a street papa called Ricky Lickabu receives a call to say that the shack that he has been staying at has been burned down. He simply turns to the camera and says “these things happen in life”. He is later seen sleeping on the street with his wife and four children.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The White Diamond

Werner Herzog once again goes back to the South American Rainforrest, the setting of his feature films Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. This time Herzog is in Guyana, one of the less known countries of the continent. A small country, with just 700,000 inhabitants, Guyana shares more in common both historically and culturally with the Caribbean Islands than with its giant neighbours to the south. Herzog is in Guyana to meet Dr Graham Dorrington, an aeronautical engineer who is in the jungle to test his latest airship. The story is tinged with sadness though as in a previous test ten years earlier, Dorrington’s cinematographer Dieter Plage was killed.

The film begins with a brief history of aviation and in particular the history of the airship. Herzog discusses the rapid rise and fall of the popularity of airships before and after the Hindenburg disaster. Herzog first meets Dorrington in his lab in London. He is an excitable and intelligent man with grand ambitions of soaring above the jungle canopy, capturing its unspoiled beauty and collecting samples that could be used in the Pharmaceutical Industry. Dorrington is eccentric but focussed and it is obvious how much the expedition and test means to him. The tragedy of ten years earlier is only briefly mentioned and leaves the viewer hanging.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

TT3D: Closer to the Edge

"We know the danger. It isn't tidlywinks"

TT3D: Closer to the Edge is a 2011 Documentary which brings the world famous Isle of Man TT motorbike race to the big screen. Beginning in 1909, the TT is one of the most famous and dangerous motorsport events in the world and involves riders taking to the roads of the Isle of Man off the North West Coast of England and reaching speeds of up to 200mph on roads that would usually feature cars, busses and taxis travelling at no more than 30mph. The film follows the contrasting preparations and styles of three riders in the build up to the week long race event and follows their fortunes and misfortunes during the event itself.
The men who feature most prominently are 17 time TT winner John McGuinness, 8 time winner Ian Hutchinson and 30 year old Guy Martin who becomes the focus of the documentary. Guy is yet to win the event and is quite a character. He is a fast talking, old fashioned Lincolnite who is a lorry mechanic during the week. He is described as a maverick and as eccentric by fellow riders and is popular with riders and fans alike due to his unique take on life and take-no-bullshit persona. It is Guy Martin’s character that helps to make the film so interesting. While other riders sleep in their huge trailers, have massages and arrive at scrutineering on time, Martin sleeps in the back of his van, turns up when he wants and complains about anything and everything. As a result he comes over as a bit of a dick at times but is generally very likeable.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee

Shane Meadows (This is England) directs this mock music documentary about Le Donk (Paddy Considine), a Nottingham based roadie working for The Arctic Monkeys and managing rapped Scor-zay-zee (playing himself). The film blends reality and fiction and is set and filmed in five days leading up to an Arctic Monkeys gig in Manchester. Le Donk has recently separated from his pregnant girlfriend (Olivia Coleman) and travels to Manchester with Scor-zay-zee for work and with the hope that he can somehow get the rapper on the bill at the gig.

Paddy Considine is brilliant as Le Donk and carries the entire movie. Most of his lines are improvised and the majority work, with hilarious results. He appears to be channelling David Brent and Alan Partridge at times but is thoroughly convincing.  The film itself outstays its welcome after about 45 minutes. Despite a promising start the joke kind of gets old by the mid way point and although the film comes in at only 71 minutes, it feels long. I couldn’t help feeling that it was more suited to TV and perhaps would have worked better as a 45 minute or one hour special. I’m glad that I didn’t see it at the cinema myself.

Saturday, 21 April 2012


Marley is a 2012 Documentary film that tells the story of legendary Jamaican reggae artist Bob Marley. The film charts his life from his humble beginnings in a small country village without electricity, through his rise to fame in Jamaica, to his exile in London, subsequent return to his Island of birth and eventual death at the age of just 36.

Before going in to the cinema I wouldn’t have classed myself as a Bob Marley fan and although I have a couple of his albums and love his best known songs I knew very little about him. The film gives an honest account of his life and of Marley as a man. The story is told using achieve interviews with Marley himself but mostly through interviews with his friends, family and ex colleagues who are still living. Some of the interviewees are great characters and speak with wisdom. Others are hilarious and most have a fantastic Jamaican Patois which is delightful to listen to. The film also gives some background to Rastafarianism, something else that I knew little about.

The whole film is backed with over sixty Marley and Bob Marley and the Wailers songs which start with the song he first recorded aged sixteen and ends with One Love. This film has one of the greatest soundtracks of any film I’ve seen. The highlight for me was Marley’s triumphant return to Jamaica for the One Love Peace Concert in 1978. After years living in London following an attempt on his life, Marley returned to Jamaica and performed in front of 32,000 people and bought the leaders of Jamaica’s warring Political Parties up on stage where he managed to get them to hold hands above their heads in a sign of peace. It was an amazing thing to witness, even in the cinema and its impact was obvious.

The final quarter of the film takes on a deceivingly sadder tone as we reach the final years of Marley’s life. After a battle with cancer he died in 1981 in Miami, USA. There were many people crying in the theatre, including my girlfriend after a very sad few moments on screen. The film ends on a positive note though by showing how Marley’s music and message is still being used to educate and unite people today.  
The film shows Marley to be both a great musician and great man but isn’t afraid to look at his less impressive traits. His womanising is mentioned on several occasions, as is his poor parenting. His willingness to do anything to make it is also a constant theme. He was willing to change his style as well as drop his friends in order to become better known or appreciated and the film doesn’t shy away from letting this be known. A thread I’d like to have seen explored further was his lack of success with black audiences outside of Jamaica. It was hinted at several times but is an interesting area which could have been looked at further.   

Marley is a fantastic biopic documentary which sheds light on one of the world’s best loved musicians. It isn’t afraid to show both his good and bad sides and does a good job of illustrating his life from start to finish. It is accompanied by a soundtrack that head my head bobbing and feet tapping throughout and made me want to go out and further explore his back catalogue as well as his message of One Love.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary finds him in Antarctica where he meets the people who call the frozen continent their home. Herzog announces at the start that this will not be another film about fluffy penguins but will explore the dreams of the people working in this landscape. The entire film crew consisted of Herzog and Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger who spent seven weeks on the continent, interviewing the people who live and work there.

Shortly after arriving, Herzog is in full on grumpy mode as he is stuck in the largest settlement on the continent, McMurdo Island. He is shocked to discover that it looks like a dirty construction site, is criss-crossed by JCB diggers and has a bowling alley and an aerobic studio. Herzog makes it clear that he wants to escape the confines of the settlement as soon as possible. 

Herzog meets many different people in his seven weeks on the continent. Some people, like a geologist Herzog meets sound like poets when describing Ice Burgs the size of countries while others are particularly annoying. A survival instructor being the most irritable person Herzog encounters. We meet an array of weird and wonderful characters from an ex banker turned bus driver to a woman with a beard and another woman who travelled through South America in a sewer pipe on the back of a lorry. Their stories and experiences are rife with philosophy and wonder.

"Through our eyes the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witness to which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence."

Herzog’s ability to put into words what he sees is unrivalled and he sounds like a poet when he speaks. His accent along with the way he conveys himself are a joy to listen to. Herzog takes us into the mind of the people he meets and tries to understand why they are here, what bought them here and how they have adapted to their environment. Herzog also tires to get inside the mind of a suicidal penguin in a very funny but odd moving encounter.

Towards the end of the film, Herzog focuses on the future of Antarctica and the future of us as a species; hypothesising that when we are gone a race of alien archaeologists will study our ruined cities and try to understand why we were in the Antarctic. While there they will uncover the only completely intact human settlement, preserved in the ice. It is a unique and vivid Herzogian vision.

As with all Herzog documentaries, I felt that watching it on Blu-Ray on a large TV was sufficient. Herzog captures great beauty in Antarctica but is also unafraid of filming the uglier sides. To me, his documentary makes Antarctica feel a bit like Prague. It is incredibly beautiful but kind of spoiled by Americans. The film features some wonderfully unique and interesting people and I'd have been more than happy to watch at least another half an hour. This is a charming documentary which goes further than the traditional wildlife documentaries you will have seen before and is a joy to watch.    


For more Werner Herzog films check out my reviews of Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss and Aguirre Wrath of God

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Grizzly Man

"I will protect these bears with my last breath"

Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss)’s 2005 Documentary takes the footage taken by Timothy Treadwell, who lived with and was killed and eaten by bears in Alaska in 2003 and tries to assemble his reasons for doing what he did. Although the film has the look of a nature documentary, it is in fact the study of a man and perhaps mankind as a whole. Herzog compiled the film from 100 hours of footage, shot by Treadwell over the thirteen summers he spent studying and living with the bears.

Many of Herzog’s feature films carry the theme of an obsessed man who sets off on high risk journeys in order to accomplish seemingly impossible feats. This trend continues in Grizzly Man. Treadwell even has a similar haircut and manner of Klaus Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo in the film of the same name. Treadwell openly shuns the outside ‘human’ world and believes it is his duty and right to live with and protect the bears. He feels as though he is the only one who can save them despite the fact that they live on protected park land. It is obvious from the film’s outset that Treadwell is much more at home in the wilderness, surrounded by bears than in human society and it often comes across in his footage that he believes he is a bear or can, at the very least understand and be understood by them. Herzog states that he believes Treadwell was wrong in this respect and sees in the bear’s eyes nothing but the disinterested look of nature.

Herzog does not use footage of Treadwell’s death in the film, instead allowing the story to be told by a mixture of friends, relatives and experts. These interviews allow us to get to know Treadwell and help us to understand why he shunned humanity in favour of a dangerous life with bears. Herzog is seen on camera listening to the footage of Treadwell and his companion Amie Huguenard’s deaths and is seen to break down, asking for the audio to be stopped. In this emotional and deeply distressing scene he then tells Treadwell’s friend Jewel Palovak never to listen to what he has just heard and urges her to have the tape destroyed. In the next scene we see footage taken by Treadwell of two male bears locked in an incredibly ferocious fight in which fur is ripped from their skin and floats away on the wind. This scene is perhaps as powerful as if we had heard the footage ourselves as the bears’ strength and ferocity is obvious to behold. Their power is terrifying yet Treadwell stands just feet away. It is a chilling and upsetting scene.

Amie Huguenard, the woman who died by Treadwell’s side is somewhat of an enigma. To maintain the idea that he was alone in the wild, she only appears on camera on two occasions, both times with her face quite eerily but unintentionally covered as if she never wanted to be seen. Her reasons for staying with Treadwell despite her open fear of bears and need to get back to LA for a job remain one of the many mysteries of the film and of Treadwell’s life as a whole.

Herzog delves into Treadwell’s psyche and provides opinions about his subject. He comes to the conclusion that Treadwell may have had a death wish towards the end of his life, a theory that is supported by some of Treadwell’s piece to camera footage. What is clear is that Treadwell was a deeply disturbed man who had a belief that it was his job to protect and even befriend the bears despite the obvious danger they posed to him. He also had a quite obvious hatred of humanity and its excesses.

The film is quite a shocking study of two people’s demise. From the very first minutes you can tell that it is only a matter of time before Treadwell is attacked. The whole world can see it but him. He was blinded by his love of the animals and believed wrongly that they loved him in return. Herzog does a fantastic job of presenting Treadwell’s footage, some of which contains great beauty but much of it, great sadness. There are obvious parallels between Herzog’s obsessions and Treadwell’s which gives the film an extra angle with which to view it. This is a somber piece but one that I’d recommend wholeheartedly.    


Sunday, 1 April 2012

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss: A tale of death, a tale of life looks at the issue of Capital Punishment in America and specifically at the case of the convicted murderer Michael Perry who in October 2001, along with Jason Burkett, murdered three people in Conroe, Texas.

Unlike his last documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams in which Herzog provided much of the commentary in his hypnotic Bavarian monotone, in Into the Abyss he allows both the perpetrators of the murder and those that it affected to provide the majority of the dialogue save for some discerning and hard hitting questions and the occasional voice over from Herzog himself. This allows the story to be told from a first hand perspective and gives great insight as to the motives and consequences of the crime as well as the surrounding circumstances. One thing that the film uncovers is that not one person within the story, whether victim, perpetrator or those in the wider community has lived a happy or trouble free life. It uncovers a kind of underclass within the town of Conroe that perhaps runs through the rest of the country. It seems that everyone Herzog talks to has either been in jail, has had experience of violent crime or has experienced great tragedy. This was an eye opener for me and my girlfriend, coming from middle class families in the UK. It feels a million miles away from the America of the movies.

The film also skirts around the cycle of violence and the fact that you are more likely to commit crime and go to jail if other members of your family have. Jason Burkett, who escaped the death penalty but was given a life sentence, grew up in a house without his father who was and still is in jail for murder. His brother was also in jail. Toward the end of the film, Herzog discovers that Burkett has smuggled his seamen out of the jail and has impregnated a woman who he met after he was convicted. The cycle continues.

Herzog makes it quite clear at the beginning of the film that he is against capital punishment and I suppose I should also lay my cards on the table and state that I agree. I completely understand the arguments for; justice, financial reasons, deterrent, making a person pay the full price, an eye for an eye etc but I personally believe that a state/country loses its moral high ground when it murders its own citizens, for any reason. I don’t think any state has a right to murder. I also believe that it doesn’t act as a deterrent as when you compare crime statistics you discover that the USA has a murder rate of 4.8 per 100,000 with Capital Punishment in place compared to 1.23 in the UK, 1.16 in Australia and 0.84 in Germany. Despite Herzog’s belief, the film remains pretty balanced and gives both those for and against an opportunity to state their reasons. My stance didn’t change but I definitely hated the two men the film documents and thought that the world would have been a much better place without them.

The film is very good at creating tension. In one particular scene, Herzog’s camera passes through the corridor towards the death camber, passed the cell in which an inmate spends their last night, passed a stack of bibles and two tables with flowers on them and through a thick metal door, into a room with a gurney, on which the inmates will die. The scene had me sweating and almost shaking. It is quite chilling. The whole film is edited superbly and uses music to great effect.

One of the downsides of the documentary is that it left me wanting to know much more about the case, the legal system and Conroe, Texas. At 105 minutes, I would have happily sat through another 30. Another problem is that it feels very televisual. This however is a problem that many documentaries face.

The film is bleak and troubling and doesn’t shy away from gruesome scenes and descriptions. It had my girlfriend and I discussing it all the way home which is something that few films manage and is a must watch for anyone with a vote in America.      

Additional. Since watching the film I've found out that it was compiled from just five hours of footage, which makes the resulting film even more remarkable. Along with the feature, Herzog has also made four 45 minute TV Documentaries about other inmates on Death Row which are currently airing on Channel 4 here in the UK and are well worth checking out.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s (Grizzly ManCave of Forgotten Dreams takes the viewer on an incredible journey through the Chauvet cave in Southern France which when discovered in 1994 was found to contain the oldest cave paintings in the world. At 32,000 years old they were more than twice the age of the previous oldest human art ever to have been discovered. To put the painting’s age into perspective, they are more than sixteen times older than Jesus. They are 26,000 years older than many Creationists claim the earth is and they were painted at a time when the artists lived along side Neanderthals, lions and mammoths in Southern France. 

Since the cave’s discovery, every effort has been made to preserve the paintings and the cave itself and no film crew has ever been allowed access before and they are unlikely to gain access again. Herzog takes us through the dark and cavernous cave, past bear skulls that are so old that they have calcified and past huge stalagmites which although take thousands of years to grow, were not present when the paintings were created. The crew and scientists who accompany them must stick to a two food wide metal path that has been created in order to protect the cave floor. A floor which features the longest known cave bear tracks, carbon fragments from 28,000 year old torches and the tracks of a wolf and a human child that walks side by side. It is not known if the tracks are that of hunter and prey or laid down thousands of years apart.

When the Herzog’s light first flickers towards the cave paintings it appears as though they are fresh and could have been drawn that very day. They are in the most remarkable condition and when first discovered were thought to be a hoax. It was not until the scientists looked closer to discover calcification over some of the paintings that they were sure they were dealing with the genuine article. There are many painting in the cave, including those depicting lions, bears, hand prints, horses, mammoths, bison and the only example in Europe of a panther. There are many examples of paintings overlapping each other. In one case, the painting underneath is five thousand years older than the one which partially covers it.

The film is remarkable and incredibly interesting. It is amazing that the paintings have remained undiscovered for over thirty millennia and are still in such great condition. The film’s narration by Herzog in his Bavarian monotone adds to the sense of wonder that the pictures create. He invokes the most wonderful vocabulary to describe what we see as the dreams of long forgotten people and ponders their connection to us. As well as footage from inside the cave there are also interviews with scientists and archaeologists who are working on the site and these provide added insight.

Despite the wonder on screen and the film’s relatively short run time of 85 minutes I did think that perhaps it was more suited to a television rather than theatrical documentary. It also sometimes got a bit dull. While the paintings are undoubtedly incredible, by the time you’ve seen them for the fifth time it does get a bit samey. This doesn’t detract from what is an incredible documentary from the visionary Herzog and one that everyone should see, if only to get a sense of ones place in history and to understand where and who we come from.