Category Archives: Documentary

Jason Osder (Let the Fire Burn) Talks Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence

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I was excited to see Concerning Violence, Göran Hugo Olsson’s follow-up to his powerful and groundbreaking The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. This new film promised to deliver another unique look at forgotten moments in the history of resistance to oppression. In the end, I struggled to understand Concerning Violence.What (if anything) is this film is trying to communicate to an audience? Why did the filmmaker make the choices he did with this spectacular yet harrowing material? Does this treatment do justice to the crucially important historical subject it depicts?

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 succeeded by using its wealth of archival material in a cinematic way that invited audiences to dive into each piece of film as an artifact unto itself and to assemble those artifacts into a coherent history. It wove the potent footage — featuring familiar historical figures but in more extended and extemporaneous clips than many had seen — together with commentary by contemporary African-American artists and thinkers. The loosely structured film invited audiences to make connections between people and events, and the past and the present, without forcing any agenda (aside from the intrinsic value of this history).

Concerning Violence, subtitled Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense, also has a unique design for the use of archival footage in documentary. The topic this time is less familiar to most Americans: African peoples’ efforts to overcome colonization. The commentary is made up of excerpts from The Wretched of the Earthby revolutionary postcolonial philosopher Franz Fanon. The hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill reads portions of this text and, in an odd decision, this commentary is also rendered as text on-screen. The large white letters obscure the archival footage throughout the film.

The use of language in relation to cinematic voice in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 was subtle. In Concerning Violence, it is brutal. It begins with a six-minute preface read by philosopher Gayatri Spivak. Spivak is an important figure and what she says has merit, but the treatment is anti-cinematic to the point of incomprehensibility. Spivak sits in a swiveling chair in a university office, her figure overwhelmed by mountains of books — the word is literally dominating the image. She talks directly to the camera in highly academic language that seems to be part explanation and part apologia. It’s hard to tell because the density of information is overwhelming when presented in this format. Is this a warning or more a matter of the filmmaker attempting to acclimate the audience to the anti-cinematic use of language that permeates the film?

The body of the film is equally challenging. The footage is stark and at times blisters with violence incarnate. Fanon’s words are still sharply provocative today. Hill’s strong voice reflects the potency of the message. Yet, in Olsson’s hands, these pieces are not melded together in a way that makes sense for the cinema. As in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, the use of long, uncut clips is merited by the nature of the rich and visceral footage. However, unlike the previous film, the intervention of the white text — always depicting Fanon’s words simultaneously with Hill’s voice — creates a puzzling barrier to absorbing the reality captured in the footage. The audience is frustrated, even alienated, by the need to peer through the words to see images that would seem to present the most indexical value to the history being depicted.

It is possible to deconstruct these unconventional choices. Spivak, for instance, initially came to prominence for writing an unconventional translator’s preface to the English edition of French poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s opus On Grammatology. In this text, Derrida is largely concerned with “the violence of the letter,” which becomes a powerful theoretical tool in connecting language to power. The poststructuralists sought a break with the history of philosophy and letters. They saw the relationships between sign, signified, and signifier as power relationships that needed to be understood and subverted in much the same way that colonial power structures needed to be dismantled.

Perhaps it is Olsson’s intention to evoke these ideas symbolically. The brutal, anti-cinematic use of language in Concerning Violence can be seen as a symbol for violence itself. Perhaps alienation and separation are the feelings intended for the audience by the filmmaker. What would the opposite of these emotions — feelings of comfort and assurance — mean in reaction to images of racist brutality? Too often historical documentary serves as a salve. It renders historical violence as dramatic arc, defanging history and rendering it more palatable, safe and comfortable. Olsson’s anti-cinematic choices can be seen as intentional symbolic violence directed at the audience, designed to prevent us from having a typical and potentially voyeuristic experience of this footage. Our desire to see violence from our privileged theater seat may itself be violent.

Intellectually, I can understand how the brutal anti-cinematic voice of Concerning Violence may be valid. Cinematically, I cannot. Experimentation is needed in the historical documentary genre because the traditional modes of representation do reinforce old ways of seeing and knowing. Concerning Violence is an interesting philosophical treatise in this regard. Spivak calls it a “teaching text.” As a movie, it is more of a failed experiment.

(published at The Talkhouse.)

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Jason Osder (Let the Fire Burn) Talks Orlando von Einsiedel’s Virunga

I watch a lot of documentaries. In fact, I first saw Virunga at Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in North America. I was there just to watch documentaries and I probably saw 20 in that week alone. In all of that documentary-watching, Virunga — named for the Congolese national park that is its subject — still stands out as a uniquely compelling film.

I also teach non-fiction filmmaking, and there are certain issues that persist in the eternal discussion of what makes a great documentary (and what are the limits of what can rightly be called a documentary at all). Do we judge a documentary primarily by its cinematic qualities or its political saliency? Is it more important to innovate the form or to impact social action? Any way you look at it, this film about the plight of the last surviving population of mountain gorillas, imperiled by endemic warfare and Big Oil, gets high marks.

In cinematic terms, Virunga plays more like a fiction film — an action thriller, really — than any documentary I can remember. It is an emotional roller-coaster akin not so much to Harlan County, USA as to The Bourne Identity. At Hot Docs, I was sitting next to documentary film critic Tom Roston, who later ranked Virunga his #1 film at the festival. Seeing it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on a giant screen with perfect projection and sound was truly a treat, even for a seasoned doc-head.

As far as innovation is concerned, what’s unique in my experience is the way Virungaachieves its narrative engagement through a mixture of genres. The first part of the film is influenced primarily by the natural-history tradition of filmmaking. Even well-worn visual themes (gorillas, mist, mountains) become sumptuous when rendered for the big screen as expertly as they are here. Yes, there are familiar tropes at work in the film, romantic and humanist notions about nature, and anthropomorphizing narrative structures. However, when the actuality merits the long aerial shots and expressive close-ups of endangered primates, we are enchanted.

This enchantment is not put to the expected uses by Virunga, and this is the real magic of the film. Just as we are getting comfortable with these familiar archetypes and rhythms, Virunga changes the script. A tense military situation is developing nearby. Unusually for a natural history piece, soon we are meeting new characters, learning about troop movements and front lines. As the tension builds, we realize that this conflict is not merely a vague context for a warm and fuzzy story of gorillas and park rangers, but a major part of this film. When we return to scenes in the park, the stakes have risen dramatically.

It’s a pleasing hybrid, but just as we begin to feel we have Virunga all figured out, another style and genre are introduced. The British oil company SOCO International is irresponsibly exploring for oil. Corruption is afoot. Another new character, freelance reporter Mélanie Gouby, is on the inside of this story, potentially at her own peril. With an investigative style that now includes tense hidden-camera footage, the mode of documentary filmmaking has again completely shifted.

It sounds like this shouldn’t work, but it does. These stories are woven together like a tightly plotted novel, informing and converging as the film unfolds. Perhaps it works too well. This was Tom Roston’s initial comment to me as we walked out off the theater. He picks up on the theme in his piece: “This is not a typical film for the doc crowd. It’s a movie for the mainstream. But that very well may be its greatest flaw. The doc audience could be thrown by the slickness of Virunga, and its Hollywood-style storytelling. […] I loved it. I’m a doc-lover with a mainstream sensibility.”

I’m a doc-lover with a formal sensibility, and I loved it too. However, to judge from the awards discussion and the comments of some peers (mainly filmmakers and academics), Tom was not incorrect. Many found the combination of styles jarring or the storytelling too pat. While I can see those criticisms, I didn’t see them on my first viewing, when I was completely enthralled.

We can continue to argue Virunga’s contribution to the documentary form, but we must also acknowledge that it delivers on a different set of goals around awareness and agency. As much as this film plays like a Hollywood blockbuster, it is also an activist film to its core, with a clear cause and a loud call to action.

It is a common critique of documentary criticism that it focuses on content to the exclusion of form. While this may be true, what we should strive for is balance. The importance of a topic or message does matter to the overall quality of a documentary film. A talented and sensitive filmmaker can uncover this import even with a subject that may seem mundane on its surface. The subject of Virunga, however, is epic. The mixture of genres, heavily molded into a dramatic narrative package, delivers on a central moral message that cannot be missed. If we, as humans, allow this archetypal example of natural beauty and renewable value to fall victim to the forces of greed and corruption, is anything safe?

It is a powerful message, but can a film make a difference? This is yet another way that we tend to judge documentaries nowadays. The creators of Virunga do indeed encourage viewers to get involved and provide tools on their own website. There’s little doubt that, as with Blackfish, The Cove and many others before them, the powerful interests indicted in Virunga will challenge the veracity of the claims made by the film. This in itself can be seen as progress towards holding these interests accountable.

Can Virgunga National Park be saved? On that question, only time can tell. I am of the school of thought that believes the supposed divide between art and impact in documentary is a false dichotomy (hat tip, Cara Mertes). If a film is going to change minds or prompt action, it must first grab our attention with great storytelling about a topic that really matters. For starters, Virunga is all that.

(published at The Talkhouse.)

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Playback: Jeff Malmberg’s ‘Marwencol’

Midway through Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, I was sitting on the edge of my seat. My chin was in my hand and my mouth was slightly open. Also, I actually realized it. There was a moment during the film when I consciously thought, “How did I get in this position?” This film had hypnotized me.

That was SilverDocs 2010. I was privileged enough to be at the film festival just to watch films. I spent a lot of that year going to festivals to study and prepare to cut my first feature doc. I’d been to school for documentary and I had the support of the university where I teach production. I was in a very analytical, diagnostic mode, trying to understand filmmakers’ choices and how each film worked with an audience.

I’m accustomed to understanding a film in terms of structure and methodology on the first viewing. Marwencol, the story of Mark Hogancamp seeking recovery from a brutal attack through creating a miniature World War II town in his back yard, had cast a spell on me. At least in that first viewing, I had no idea how it worked—and that drove me crazy. As soon as it was available on home video, I watched it repeatedly to understand its structure and get a handle on its deftness.

Marwencol is a film about many things: traumatic brain injury, coping, art and the human condition. That day, it reminded me of just how captivating a well-made doc can be. Catching myself on the edge of my chair was inspiring. It didn’t remind me of why I want to make movies; it reminded me why I like watching them.

When I go to screenings of my film now, I look for that body language in the audience: the leaning forward, the open mouths. I especially like to see peoples’ hands touching their faces. I want to see that my film has reached them. It’s not an intellectual thing, but a physical-emotional one. The discussion, the questioning of facts, the unpacking of issues and meaning—those things will come later.

Marwencol reminded me that a documentary can make you forget where you are for a moment and allow yourself to be present in the world of the film. A great documentary doesn’t just explain an issue or even tell a story; it transports us. I suppose that is the appeal of most movies—to live in a different world for a couple hours. Too often, however, this power is employed solely for escapism.

Just as a great documentary can transport us, it can also transform us. Marwencol seems to be saying that we all create models of the world, at least in our own minds. At the beginning of the film, Mark’s model world is private. During the course of the film, he shares it and in doing so is transformed. Like Mark Hogancamp’s miniature world, a great documentary is not just a way out, but also a way through.

(published in Documentary Magazine.)

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Hot Docs: The Pitch

The reason I got to go to Hot Docs in the first place was to pitch in the Hot Docs Forum.

Basil Tsiokos summed up the event better than I could for IndieWire (including a very flattering pre-review of LET THE FIRE BURN – Thank You Basil, glad I got a chance to meet you on our way out of town).

A few thoughts on the pitching at the Forum:

1. It is a pretty intense environment. This is really the big stage. I had to follow a pitch of a filmmaker who covered a subject for 12 years, and the producer of BEING ELMO, pitching a project that has already won best pitch awards. Intimated much?

2. It is SO important to have an experienced team. I could not have navigated this event nearly so well without backing from my EP Andrew Herwitz and Sundance representative Rahdi Taylor.  Having Sundance on your side does not suck at all, especially if you are pitching a non-traditional approach.

3. I decided to go a little outside the box with my pitch, by standing up (no one else did this) and by addressing the audience directly and asking for a response. I felt that if these things were effective, I would stand out, but that they could also fall flat, or (worse) I could come off as arrogant. In the end, I was very pleased with how it worked out. More than a dozen people came up to me and commented just that I stood up. Really? Such a small thing makes such a big difference? Yes!

4. All this stuff adds up. Regardless of the details, there is something about just being in the room consistently with this small community. Regardless of who you talk to or what the results are, it is important to get your name and work out there and do it consistently.

It was a pretty big thrill to step onto the big stage and I’m pleased that the project is being so well-received.

Me with Executive Prodcuer Andrew Herwitz of The FIlm Sales Company, right after the pitch.

The three Sundance Institute teams pitching at the Forum. The other films are THESE BIRDS WALK, a beautifully shot film "about Pakistani males, but with no guns" and LEONE STARS, a story about an amputee soccer team that is not what you expect. Centered with the big smile is Rahdi Taylor, our SDF rep on the scene. She is a dedicated community-builder and a great partner to have.

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Hot Docs: The Films

I’m just back from Toronto for Hot Docs, the largest documentary film festival in North America. This was my first time to this festival and in fact my first time visiting Toronto, and I must say, I am smitten with both.

Some of my favorite films and filmmakers of the festival also took home prizes:

THE BOXING GIRLS OF KABUL is highly recommended. It won the “Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Prize.” I don’t know what that is, but the prize was $10K. I may be biased on this one, as the filmmaker is a friend of a friend. However, I hung out with a group after that included civilians (IE. not doc geeks) who had been dragged along. It was interesting to hear these folks talk about how emotional the viewing experience was for them. In my filmmaker head, I thought “wow, that was well done,” but hearing these folks who rarely watch docs at all talk, it really validated it.

THE WORLD BEFORE HER won best doc at Tibeca and best Canadian doc at Hot Docs, and this praise is well-earned. The film explores the role of women in modern India through the parallel stories of two groups of women: one training for the Miss India beauty pageant, the other training as Hindi militants. The result is an excruciating emotional complexity that I found genius.

Then there is the winner of best international feature, CALL ME KUCHU. Again, I am biased, as this film has previously received a Garrett Scott award, and so I was tracking it and had an easy in to connect with the filmmakers and they were generous enough to share a portion of their Hot Docs experience with me.

With that said, CALL ME KUCHU is one of those unique, magical, devastating moments in documentary. This film is something very, very special, and talking to people here, there is the feeling that despite it’s serious subject matter and African locale, it could really be seen widely in the U.S. This would be so good on so many levels. I don’t want to say too much, except see the film if you can, and maybe don’t even watch the trailer, gives away too much of the story IMO.

I don’t think I have ever been to a festival where I agreed so thoroughly with the award winners.

I wanted to mention one other film that made me happy:

BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING was a great way to end the festival. It is the story of Wayne White, the set designer and puppeteer who broke out with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, has been a creative force behind all kinds of funky TV, and now has re-invented himself as a fine artist.

I was hoping to finally really love a film at Hot Docs that was not cut-to-the-bone serious, and this was that film. Funny thing is, I rode the airport shuttle at Full Frame with this guy. He mentioned he was the subject of a film, but he didn’t really go into it. We were about to get coffee at the airport, and then got separated. I feel like a boob for not knowing who he was at the time – he’s a genius.

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