MFF 2011 Documentaries

Milwaukee Film Festival 2011
Documentaries

My god, the MFF programmers love their documentaries. Is it my imagination or is there a theme to the majority of the documentaries at MFF? A liberal, maybe even whiny, attack again corporate structures, environmental irresponsibility, powerful white males, and disillusion over the failed American Dream. That’s the NPR-imbibing collective opinion, epitomized in modern documentaries. Why does it make me itch?

Ranked:
Into Eternity
The Interrupters
Page One: Inside the New York Times
Think Global, Act Rural
The Woman with the Five Elephants
The Last Mountain
El Velador
The Redemption of General Butt Naked
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
Somewhre Between
The Bengali Detective
The Flaw

Think Global, Act Rural
Somehow I felt I’d already seen this before. I know I’ve seen eco-feminist Dr. Vandana Shiva speak before on the subjects of seeds and soil – for that matter, please support her. The docu has a pronounced feminist bias and despises those powerful capitalist men who rape the soil – who can blame them? (for the bias, of course) This would be more successful if the filmmakers wouldn’t have spread themselves so thin to generally educate the public (at least I hope more is capable of being achieved than this). And honestly, it’s too sentimental and goes on forever. Very important stuff here – once again, so important that the injection of sentiment baffles me. Get to the point, stick to the facts.

The Flaw
Docu about the origin of the financial crisis and Greenspan’s “flaw.” Every now and then I see a film which, from the moment it begins, is pure living agony because of the filmmaker’s tone, voice, however you’d like to put it. But smugness is the flavor of the noxious tone, like in the films of Jason Reitman. Oh, the smugness is only a symptom… it’s all wrong. The Flaw‘s content is, of course, relevant, but it requires sitting through a massive, massive amount of interruption by those cute, cartoony and absurdly dated television clips from the American 1950’s – the ones which are transparently corporate, male propagandist tripe for future suburb dwellers. The intended effect (a profound sobering into cynicism) will only be effective on those currently and wholly indoctrinated into capitalist bureaucracy, and the more sheltered the better. And here I thought Inside Job had been a tough swallow.

El Velador
First screened as a special screening at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. El Velador is about a rural ghost town in central Mexico created by cartel-related violence (perhaps you’ve heard). It’s a bizarre outpost which is, actually, teeming with mausoleums and whose only denizens are spare Mexican handymen and the rare mourner. The film is almost entirely without words – save for the occasional passing radio/television broadcast, which inevitably reports stolen vehicles, missing persons or discovered corpses. Yes, it is a dead place, and the film carries some of that feeling with it. Even at 72 minutes, every second spent in a dead place cannot help but feel like a darkening of sorts. So, if the mood takes you, if you’d like to experience rural desert silence, lovely (and myriad) ruminations on the landscape, and sun-bleached religious imagery (and who wouldn’t?), El Velador may be your El Dorado!

The Redemption of General Butt Naked
Former Sith Lord Joshua Blahyi is one mess of a megalomaniacal extrovert. It’s interesting to watch his transformation, which is really only a lateral movement of his energies; first, overcome with youthful, oblivious male energy, expressed in crazed violence, and then equally dogmatic during his restoration. This redemption is genuine, Blahyi’s sorrow is genuine… but what’s funny is that no matter what he’s doing, everything remains about himself and his celebrity. How does he repent? By becoming a shrieking Evangelist, center-stage, spotlit, still bounding and rousing the public to his own interests and experiences. Since poor, confounded Blahyi turned from the Dark Side, he short-circuited his own momentum, and as the film moves into Act III Blahyi is much less energized, much more morose, a weaker man. Apparently such a man who exists in one extreme or the other will only be feared or pitied, and neither choice is a whole lot of fun.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
Apparently the world model for what not to do when building an urban housing project is epitomized in the Pruitt-Igoe projects of St. Louis, constructed in the big stupid postwar heyday of the 1950’s and unceremoniously vaporized 16 years later. The reasons for its failure include St. Louis’s declining population, lack of high-end maintenance that its lower-class denizens could never afford and shifting of the urban base to the newly created suburbs. I find it aesthetically intriguing to note that Pruitt-Igoe’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki, also designed the late World Trade towers and that the notorious images of Pruitt-Igoe’s collapse would become legendary. So within 30 years Yamasaki would be connected to major images of collapsing towers with profound criticism of the American way of life as a subtext.

The Woman with the Five Elephants
Who would’ve thought that the film about the Dostoevsky translator would be the one which completely lost me? This is not a slight on the film, just my wretched excuse. I expected to learn a great deal about the process of translation, and a focus on Dostoevsky made it a seemingly greater treat. But no, the film is merely a portrait of Svetlana Geier, the aged Ukrainian woman and her incredible life, and her appreciation of beauty and exactness and compassion. I consider this to be my MFF companion piece to the 2007 docu The English Surgeon (shown at MFF 2009) about the heroic cerebrist Henry Marsh, another film filled with Ukrainian tundra and gloom.

written by David Ashley

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