Sublime Seas

John Akomfrah comes to SF MOMA with his Vertigo Sea, coupled with JMW Turner’s The Deluge, to create Sublime Seas, the title of the exhibit.
Akomfrah, who had a knack for the evocative and poetic even in his pointedly Black Audio Collective Days, has given us a very big 3 screen triptych on which play images of the sea, slavery, whale hunting and strangeness. It possesses the mesmerizing quality of IMAX in its size and beauty but also the disturbing quality of a dark nightmare in its images of victims of the middle passage being cast into the sea or of whales being sliced into gigantic slabs of meat and waste. As art, it makes no polemical calls, offers no agenda, sees no solutions, but it disturbs and reminds us of the tangled knots between beauty and destruction quite powerfully.
Each screen is about 20 feet across in a narrow shoe box room so that viewers are looking at the long side of the room from the other side, too close to see all three screens at once easily. Our eyes scan L to R and back to pick up what is happening. What happens is amazingly stunning images of the sea, its waves and swirls and currents; the creatures of the sea moving with easy grace through this apparently pristine medium; strange images of scores of clocks standing on a tidal flat and other surreal images with no obvious meaning; reenactments of aspects of the slave trade, especially of the middle passage with Africans bound in shackles and stowed like firewood in cramped cubbyholes below deck or cast into the sea for no obvious reason, and both rapturous images of whales gliding and breaching through the sea and of harpoon guns firing, repeatedly, and snaring these creatures who are then hauled aboard floating slaughterhouses to be hacked to pieces.
Akomfrah tells us nothing about the history of the slave trade or whale hunting, or hardly enough, in any case, to call this work educational in any real sense, or polemical either. The sea possesses great beauty, and man (white, card carrying capitalist white man, and his minions, it seems), willfully violates the beauty to conduct appalling forms of trafficking and trade. It is hard, though, to leave knowing whether I’ve been more amazed by the stunning imagery or appalled by the implicit narrative. It’s hard to know what to do with this work. Praise the cinematography or condemn the practices? Believe the sea remains pristine and sublime, or question what remains of its once great beauty (global warming does not seem to find a way into the story Akomfrah sketches).
I’m glad I saw it; the images will remain with me but it may also be an example of one, somewhat uncertain direction political thought and activist art and artists have taken in the last few decades.
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3rd Edition is Published

It’s here: The 3rd edition of Introduction to Documentary, first published in 2001.  Lots of updates and photos from new and older films, but the biggest changes is a brand new chapter, “I Want to Make a Documentary: How Do I Get Started?”  It covers key aspects of preproduction from the pov of what funders tend to look for and what a filmmaker needs to convey.

The book size is a bit larger and that makes for a really nice lay out of tables and photos.

The Cover

13th and I Am Not Your Negro

Along with three fiction films–The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight and Hidden Figures–these two docs explore the African-American experience, past and present. All but Birth of a Nation are up for Oscars and Birth would be, too, if Nate Parker hadn’t been pilloried for his response to questions about his involvement in a rape while an undergraduate (he was acquitted of all criminal charges). That is another story, one that deserves more discussion, but the two docs are my focus here.
Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, a compilation of reflections on race by James Baldwin, gives us an extraordinary film. Peck has a remarkably international background and his earlier film on Patrice Lumumba makes clear, his focus on social injustice is wide spectrum, such as the role of the United States in not just propping up but installing business friendly dictators like Joseph Mobutu around the world.
James Baldwin is a perfect vehicle for exploring race in America. As he himself says, he does not speak for any one position, be it Martin Luther King’s, the Black Panther’s, or Malcolm X’s, although he recognizes the value of all those who stand up for racial equality and social justice. Baldwin’s comments are sharp, incisive and more thought-provoking than sloganeering. He reminds us, for example, Patrick Henry’s rousing call to “Give me liberty or give me death” has become a centerpiece of the story of the American colonies in their struggle to throw off the yoke of British domination. And yet, the equivalent words, spoken by Black Panthers, are seen as a dire threat to national security. Baldwin saw the big picture. When a Yale philosophy professor tries to get him to agree that he has more in common with white intellectuals than working class blacks, Baldwin does not take the “let’s all get along; beneath skin color are common qualities,” bait. He rips into the professor, on the Dick Cavett show, with a litany of racist practices that underscore how institutions, like liberals, may not profess to be racist, and yet act in ways that perpetuate racist practices.
Weaknesses: Samuel Jackson reads text by Baldwin in a flat, ponderous tone. He lacks the lightness and sharpness of Baldwin’s own comments. And Peck sidesteps Baldwin’s gay identity despite the ways in which it factored into his place in the civil rights and Black Power movements.
But as a time bomb of precise, memorable insights into what it means to be black in America, I Am Not Your Negro is definitely the film of the year.
13th comes in second. It feels like a film distrustful of its own medium since it is one of the most talk heavy documentaries this year, with voice after voice telling us about the bitter irony of how emancipation led to incarceration. None have the eloquence of Baldwin although all are valuable. 13th gives short shrift to its most original insight: the arrest and sentencing of blacks in the Reconstructionist South to create a work force for the plantations and industries that no longer to rely on slaves. Prisons gave them a new form of legal slavery. But the film, determined to hold to a chain link historical progression, does not return to this point when it touches on the commercialization of the prison industry today, in which many prisoners perform virtual slave labor that profits not only well-known corporations but the private businesses that now run so many of our prisons.
The film compensates for its wordiness with hip hop “breaks” that seem to come from a different sensibility. Powerful, and thematically apt, they seem less like a primary way to make experience embodied and impassioned than like a pit stop before the litany of experts resumes their commentary. Placing most of the speakers in settings that evoke a carceral environment has the feel of a forced metaphor.
Skipped over is the key question of how Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and others (might I add Leader Trump?) used the code of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” to serve as a war on African-Americans. They did, successfully. It was a racist move in every way but accepted. What made it work? The film seems to assume that there was an equivalence between crime, drugs and race but doesn’t show how this idea was itself racist. Why sweep through black communities especially, using brutal, often murderous tactics, to root out criminals and drug dealers? Were crime rates and drug use higher there than anywhere else? Or were white collar drug use and white collar crime seen as less a threat, even though crimes in the ghetto seldom spilled beyond the ghetto? (See O.J.: Made in America for a vivid refresher course: residents in South Central L.A., destroyed their own community in the wake of the Rodney King trial and didn’t set foot in Brentwood and the other white enclaves where folk like O.J. lived.)
13th is a more flawed analysis of racial issues but it brings to light, in a focussed and compelling way, how the American prison system has perpetuated the racial biases that the 13th Amendment set out to eliminate. Jails are the new plantations. Prisoners are the new slaves, and the overwhelming preponderance of those slaves belong to minorities, most vividly African-Americans. in saying this, it sharpens the insights of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and gives racism is proper place in understanding the role of prisons today.
It is hard to envision greater progress in race relations and civil rights without a ruthless dismantling of a prison system that reinforces the underlying fears and hatreds that have nourished racist ideologies for centuries. As powerful works of social justice both films fully deserve their Oscar nominations as well a long and useful life after that particular showbiz distraction comes and goes.

Snowden the fiction film

We’ve had Citizenfour, the documentary film, and now Oliver Stone gives us the true story as a dramatic fiction.  Laura Poitras is there, as a character, filming Snowden in Hong Kong, and it is from this scene that we flashback over his life.  That concept works well; between his own recollections and what Laura draws out (which is everything of interest about his transition from gung ho CIA operative to whistle blower; the Guardian reporter and Glenn Greenwald are only interested in The Big Story, not in Snowden’s story), we get a well developed portrait of what it takes to induce repugnance and indignation in someone who wants to serve his country.

As far as I can make out, the only real justification for the surveillance is that the enema is everywhere, security is paramount, and secrecy is vital to security, hence spying on everyone all the time. That’s what Snowden’s CIA mentor tells us and it feels like a half-baked half-truth; in  other words, as Stone tells it the whole program is a fantasmatic effort to find needles in haystacks that could be better spent pursuing specific leads and launching counter-offensives.  There is no discussion of how to promote democracy or how to build democratic institutions  among our middle east “allies,” or how to rely on “good” Muslims to help feret out the bad, etc.  There is a “hide inside the fortress” mentality to the CIA and NSA that makes effective action almost inconceivable.

All in all, an excellent complement to Poitras’s portrait of Snowden and a film with more suspense than I would have imagined.

Modern Wonders and Distant Talks

Do you ever wonder where “here” is when we say an online talk is “here”? I gave a talk in Zuruch at Do It Again, a terrific conference on Reenactment in Documentary and that was “there,” in Zurich, but now it’s “here,” but it didn’t happen “here” and yet it does. Maybe that counts as a reenactment or at least as a repetition, but it’s not purely a repetition since it’s from a singular point of view, not a filmmaker’s, maybe, but the Conference’s, which chose where to place the cameras, what lenses to use, and when to cut, and so on so that this is in a way a reenacting of a talk from a distinct pov, even it is close to the zero degree style made famous by our French theorist friends.

The link to it is here: The website for the conference is http://www.zdok.ch and the direct link to my talk is https://www.zhdk.ch/109306.

You may enjoy the linkage in the talk between thumb sucking and reenactments.

Science, Fraud and Documentary

Tribeca film fest plans to show an anti-science, fact-denying hoax that actually costs lives. VAXXED, akin to Dinesh DeSousa’s OBAMA 2016, denies scientific evidence, established fact, makes fraudulent claims, and is utterly indifferent to the truth. It claims vaccines cause autism and the Festival wants us to think this is a “controversy” rather than a fraud. The Festival has it on its program.
Maybe the FACT of climate warming is a controversy in need of a good forum like Tribeca when the issue is what to do about it.
What to do about this film is to protest, boycott, and warn others. Children’s lives are at stake. The unvaccinated can and do die of preventable diseases and they allow those diseases to persist and spread. The film’s claims are wrong. It’s main “champion” is a doctor who lost his license for his failure to abide by the scientific method and promoted bogus research as true. Tribeca’s failed to do the least bit of fact-checking and seems eager only to draw a crowd, no matter how misguided the message.
This Festival is heading for the recycling center, which is where the wayward and deluded go now that, in this election year, all the handbaskets to hell are overflowing.
Let Tribeca know those of us in documentary film study do NOT support hoaxes, lies and frauds masquerading as “controversy” and exploiting documentary conventions to do it.

2 Knock Out Films

So what are they?  Where to Invade Next and Room.  One doc one fiction and both tremendous.

Michael Moore has taken his boat ride to Cuba with 9/11 rescuers who couldn’t get adequate medical care in their own country and find what they need in Cuba, from Sicko, and made that gesture into a film. Did you know Italian workers can get 8 weeks of paid vacation time/year, 5 months of maternity leave, paid, and a 13th month of salary routinely? Did you know that half of the members of corporate Boards of Directors have to come from the workers in Germany? Or that Finland is far ahead of the U.S. in achieving educational goals by spending less time in school, requiring little or no homework, having no standardized testing, and relying on innate curiosity to drive students to learn?

How about Norway’s prisons, even for murderers, where prisoners have apartments with their own keys and freedom of movement as they learn how to become responsible member of society? Or Slovenia’s free university education for anyone, including foreign students? (It’s just one of dozens of countries to do so.) Or the gourmet meals Moore enjoyed in France, 3 or 4 courses, with scallop appetizers and fantastic main courses, followed by cheese and desert, not at a restaurant, but at a middle school? Or the Constitutional right to equity that women enjoy in Tunisia but not in the U.S.?

The list goes on. Moore has gone to numerous countries, not to expose their corruption and failures but what they do right. And they do a lot that we don’t even know about, even though in many cases, the idea first came from here. Penchants for insularity and attitudes of superiority have cost us dearly. Presidential candidates lie about our greatness when most of the industrial world, and beyond, is doing better than we are with such basic issues as health, education and welfare. The film is a genuine eye opener and could easily form the platform base for Hillary or Bernie, if they were brave enough to say we can actually learn from people different from ourselves.

Room is a different kettle of fish. A young woman and her five year old son have been confined to a single room for seven years when the film begins. We learn she’s been abducted and help captive, that her son has no clue what the rest of the world is like. It is, in fact, only the pretend world he sees on TV, and the view from the too high to reach skylight is like the Reality that Plato’s prisoners fail to turn around to see.  But they are not duped by illusions; they are held captive by a pervert.

The film’s power resides in 1) the fact that much of it is told from the pov of the five year old boy who is just beginning to grasp what lies beyond his room, 2) the incredible performance by Brie Larson as the fiercely protective mother of a son whose father is not to be spoken of, trusted, or believed for a moment, and 3) from the totally not fairy tale aftermath to freedom when Joy and Jack, the captives, must contend with friends and family and media that cannot comprehend or accept what these two brave souls have gone through. The film packs a visceral punch far beyond that of most films. It hits at our wounds from childhood and how we are all trapped inside the rooms and stories we are given and create. It forces us to ask how hard are we willing to struggle to escape, what price we are willing to pay, with what risk to body and soul? It’s no wonder Larson is up for an Oscar and very likely to win, but even more, this is a film up for consideration as one of the most painful, probing, disturbing, and emotionally powerful films of recent years.  It operates in a zone far beyond the formulaic dimensions of the otherwise truly best films of the year, Spotlight,  The Big Short and Revenant. And, perhaps because of that, it’s not an Oscar nominee, but it is one  of the most memorable films I’ve seen in quite some time.