New documentaries

This weekend, the International Documentary Association began screening its DocuWeek program (not “festival,” they were quick to emphasize) so the films could qualify for Oscar nominations next year by playing in a commercial theater in Los Angeles. Whatever, I’m just glad the films are being shown even if there have been less than a dozen people at each of my screenings. The first two documentaries are stylish, engrossing pieces about art and artists, and the third is one of the best films I’ve seen all year, a sober look at global economics and third world devastation.

Touch the Sound

I found Thomas Riedelsheimer’s new film much like his earlier one, Rivers and Tides: an aesthetically immersive but philosophically overextended look at the work of a unique artist. Evelyn Glennie is a virtually deaf musician renowned for her classical percussion skills (often using found objects). A passionate and thoughtful onscreen presence, Glennie stages public performances, travels the world with various musicians, and improvises an album in a large industrial space with avant garde musician Fred Frith. In between, she muses at length on the philosophical qualities of sound and describes how she perceives it through her whole body rather than her ears alone, which is undeniably perceptive and inspiring for a while, but eventually begins to drift into a thick haze of poetic abstraction. (“Hearing is a form of touch. . . . . Something that’s so hard to describe because, in a way, it’s something that comes to you. . . . Silence is probably one of the loudest sounds and heaviest sounds that you’re ever likely to experience. . . . I believe that we all have our own individual sound, we hear the sound within ourselves differently, and then you understand–wow–we are the sound.” And on and on.)

The beginning of the film contains its strongest moments, as when Riedelsheimer organizes a cacophony of urban sounds (cars, footsteps, machinery, flapping fabric) into rhythmic sequences. A scene at an airport is positively Bressonian in its celebration of recurring sonic textures: luggage wheels running over the cracks in a floor tile, water dripping in a fountain, footfalls on a translucent ceiling. I enjoyed the film’s aesthetics, and Glennie is photogenic and charming, but the singular approach begins to wear thin after a while. Apparently, a shortened version of the film was made for German television, and I suspect it’s an improvement.

Who Gets to Call it Art?

This lively and amiable film about Pop art in the 1960s is an entertaining overview of the first bona fide American art movement and focuses on the curator who helped define and shape it more than anyone else–Henry Geldzahler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Geldzahler, rotund with his ever-present cigar, befriended and supported many unknown artists of his day (especially Andy Warhol and David Hockney), consciously attempting to understand and promote their work to a wider public. His efforts culminated in his landmark 1969 exhibition, New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, which was seen as a decisive turning point for the Met as well as an entire culture still obsessed with European art. The new exhibition featured artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Frank Stella.

The film interviews many artists from the era and records their candid impressions of Geldzahler and the ’60s art scene in a loose, free-flowing manner, sometimes focusing on the personalities and sometimes focusing on the works through a montage of film clips, art photos, and personal documents. Given the ease with which myths develop around art and artists, it’s refreshing to see a film highlight a curator who invested a great deal of time, energy, and professional effort toward forming a canonical snapshot of the era. Film buffs will also enjoy seeing curator, writer, and filmmaker Jonas Mekas as a recurring talking head.

Darwin’s Nightmare

This quiet, shattering film focuses on Lake Victoria in Africa, the second largest lake in the world (the size of Ireland), and the havoc wreaked by its non-native fish, the nile perch, introduced there in the late-’50s. The large, predatory fish has reproduced so extensively and devoured so many of the lake’s diverse fishes that in the last 40 years, it has rendered a couple hundred species extinct, allowed uncontrolled vegetation and algae to deoxygenate the waters . . . and become the primary focus of a booming “globalized” fishing industry. The nile perch is a European delicacy that has prompted monumental fishing operations owned by foreigners who harvest the fish and fly hundreds of tons of fillets to Europe weekly in huge cargo planes, while the local Tanzanian, Kenyan, and Ugandan workers and surrounding population (who can no longer afford the fish) suffer from malnutrition, poverty, disease, and social disintegration.

Making the situation an even more acute example of the exploitation of the Third World is filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s discovery that many of the cargo planes import arms and munitions just as they export fish, thus highlighting the arms trade to impoverished countries that helps perpetuate the region’s violence and instability. (The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are responsible for 88 percent of arms exports, and the US earns far more selling arms each year than it gives in aid.) One of the local men interviewed in the film openly pines for war purely as an employment opportunity–soldier’s pay beats poverty–and the Great Lakes region is continually marred by civil wars and strife. Four million people have died in the Ituri district in nearby Congo in the last six years, the bloodiest conflict since World War II.

Sauper, in fact, gets quite close to his subjects–the fishermen, prostitutes, orphans, and struggling families of Mwanza, a small village on the Tanzanian side of Lake Victoria. Over a four-year period, he documents their struggles to stay healthy and alive while competing over discarded scraps of fish or melting down plastic packaging that children inhale for sedation. Yet the beauty of the villagers are continually evoked in the film, their resilience and dreams for a better tomorrow, and the film’s lack of narration allows the people and culture to speak for themselves.

Sauper also gains the confidence of the Russian cargo pilots and Indian fish factory owners; the former miss their families and the latter pride themselves on a well-managed product. While it might have been easy to vilify the pilots (particularly one cynical racist), Sauper allows them to express their own financial dilemmas that compel them to ignore the deeply corrupt system in which they participate. “Children in Angola receive weapons on Christmas Day; European children receive grapes,” one Russian shrugs. “That’s business. But I wish all children could receive grapes.”

In addition to its images of human suffering and economic injustice, however, Darwin’s Nightmare achieves its potency by giving viewers admirable space to connect the dots and interpret the various powers at work themselves. Sauper is no polemicist, and his close observation and eye for challenging juxtaposition provides more than enough impetus for engagement. It’s an informative, harrowing, and deeply compassionate achievement.

The film’s website can be accessed here.

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