Favela Rising

Favela Rising is a documentary that springs us into the 2000’s.Made in 2005 this documentary by first-time directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary details the growth of a group known as AfroReggae coming from the favela slums of Rio de Janeiro. The film has a very fast paced and heart stopping kind of pace in it, and while it draws attention to the state of the Favela’s in Rio de Janeiro, one forgets the real danger and the real reality of the people living here as they get caught up in the drama of the whole thing.

The film focuses much on Anderson Sa, the founder of the group AfroReggae which tries to promote a better lifestyle than the harsh reality of drug dealing and falling into crime. They do this through music, which they use to reach the youth of the Favelas and try and bring them together as a community by spreading music. It is a film that feels more like a hollywood movie to me than the other documentaries that we have watched previously, possibly for the sense of real-time danger that one tends to associate with an action film rather than real life.

It shows the corruption and the civil oppression rampant in these impoverished areas, the oversaturated colors striking to our eyes as we seen scenes of death and danger, of children living  in a place where their aspirations are to become drug mafia members. Its a harsh and cruel reality and Favela Rising does a good job of bringing attention to it.

Yet in the midst of these oppression and struggle there is hope. As we learn more about the founder of AfroReggae, which is a mix of Brazilian and Afro music, we learn also of the struggle of his family and the dangers he has faced in bringing hope to the Favelas.

Directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary orchestrate their own rules of engagement and the dramatic tension innate to the situation is paced in a way hat seems careful and deliberate.

Through researching this film and the filmmakers I learned of the controversy behind the film that sparked debate. There were man who believed this movie to glamourise life in the Favelas and there was the fact that much of the footage cut into scenes where they show the community is not the same location and that the Favela this was supposed to take place in is not on the coast as the footage would suggest.

There was more controversy over the inclusion of actors from a drama on a similar subject, City of God. The actors Leandro Firmino and Jonathan Haagensen cameo in this film, which strikes me as something very strange to do in a documentary even though they had once been in a movie about Favelas.

The film also does not name its interviewees and watching the credits once more I realized that many songs on the actual soundtrack for the film were not even by the group AfroReggae (The Japanese song at the end anyone? Pink Martini?)”

There was also controversy that they did not address certain aspects of the organization, including that is not a one man project by Anderson Sa who they frame as some kind of modern deity in parts. A simple Google search details the partners who supply it with substantial financial and logistic support, like Rio’s City Council, private Brazilian corporations, multinational recording companies (though it does mention support by a US record label) and international NGOs.

Also in my research I learned that the archive footage of the cops being violent and corruption did not even take place in Vagario Geral, where the documentary was centered.

Still this is a film that I feel is beautifully shot and brings light to a very serious issue that needs to be addressed.


A World of Distortion; Grey Gardens

There is something distinctly maddening about “Grey Gardens”, a 1975 film by the Maysle Brothers.

The film details the lives of two women, mother Edith and daughter Edie, relatives to Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy and once members of a wealthy high class society. They live among wealthy neighbors, having come from the same class as them, however their mansion is a decaying, raccoon and cat infested, crumbling memory of the grandeur it once held.

The two women live very much in the past, as though they have checked out on the now and remembering when things were better. They spend their time in the filth that has collected throughout their once beautiful house, going through photo-books, and talking about the past. Its startling to see how they have changed just as much as the house itself. The photo-books they go through are full of pictures of them when they were younger.

It is very amazing to see the way that they have “decayed” in both image and state of mind just like the house has. They live in a strange kind of bubble that seems to be separate from others, however its not quite true, they still have contact with the outside world, they have friends over, and it is clear which class they came from even though they may be surrounding by a crumbling house.

This film by the Maysle Brothers also falls into the same line as cinema verite as it is very intimate and even exploitative at times. What sets it apart is the non linear structure which can be difficult to focus on exactly when scenes are taking place. It feels as though the same day is being lived over and over again in many ways. The hours and hours of footage are edited down in a way that still creates a whole world.

What is it about this film that draws such an interest? Is it the fact that it shows American Royalty, for the lack of a better term, living in squalor that draws such an appeal. This is an image that we do not often associate with this class of people. So to see their way of life is certainly shocking.

Its frightening to see how the two women have gone nowhere in their lives. They sit and reminisce about their past grandeur, and the daughter Little Edie speaks still as if her great romance is waiting around the corner. There is a sense of second hand embarrassment as she parades around as though she were eighteen and flirts with the directors. Depsite being in the vein of cinema verite, the filmmakers interact with the subjects at times as well and there are a few shots where you can actually see them in mirrors and such.

On the discs extras we learn that the film is supposed to be an affectionate portrayal, however though perhaps to those who know them they could consider their eccentricities in an affectionate way, however I found that I was rather queasy at the way the family was portrayed to be living, and the squalor around them. Either way, the brothers must have realized that the way they were living was unhealthy.

The two women bicker and fight, Little Edie blames her mother for many of the failures in her life and this is a pattern that continues. This film was depressing and dreary in the way that it showed how these women’s lives had deteriorated  and stalled in such a fashion. In the fashion of cinema verite of this era, the picture is gritty and shaky, through the use of the handheld camera. Still the image that it captures is one that stays with you for a long time.


Don’t Look Back

Coming in as 1967’s Cinema Verite is the no frills documentary “Don’t Look Back”, a black and white film that follows Bob Dylan as a young man busy performing in London, waxing poetical on the condition of the world, wrecking hotel rooms and being a general jerk to reporters. This film is cinema verite for the reason that there is no direction from the filmmakers, they film scenes as they happen. If Bob Dylan is a jerk to a reporter and comes off as angry, then the filmmaker shows him as such, without watering the responses down.

It could be argued that the subjects were influenced by the presence of the camera though. It is not completely farfetched to assume that knowing he was being filmed gave him a sense of bravado and attitude even if it was subconscious. This is not to say necessarily that his actions are completely removed from him character, but as a viewer we would not know that by watching the film.

Through researching this film and the filmmaker, I learned some very telling things about this documentary and what it meant for documentaries that came after.

Pennebaker was one of the first documentary filmmakers to use a handheld camera. While handheld was common in films and drama, it was not used in documentary. This technique and the subsequent effects the technique has on the footage (camera shake, odd angles) made the documentary feel very action packed and and in the moment, fly on the wall if you will. In fact this is one of the reasons that this film is cinema verite, or truth cinema, in that it has a very stripped down feel and there is a sense that everything is happening as is.

Pennebaker is a name that is very related to cinema verite, as he was one of the filmmakers who really started the movement.

This documentary was filmed in a period after Dylan had already moved past folk music. He seems very detached and dissonant and though the crowds in London praise him heavily and girls throw themselves (literally) at him, there is a sense of dissatisfaction that is caught on camera quite well. The title of the film is one that I believe fits the subject perfectly. “Don’t Look Back” can stand for Dylan’s personal state at the time. Through the film I was struck with the distinct impression that he was the kind of person who grew tired of one thing very quickly, the type who needs a challenge and constant stimulation. At this point Dylan had perhaps grown out of his music and grown past his image in the media.

The entire time spent with Dylan in the film felt as though he was rejecting what people thought of him, both in the way he acted at times and in the way he constantly seemed to be reaching for something more, as though it had just slipped his mind. His arrogant and at times belligerence came through without feeling forced, as though it were coming from a very real place inside the singer. From the perspective of Dylans career this was a very pivotal time. I felt as though this documentary was not about his London tour, or about his music so much as it was a glimpse into a moment where he was changing as a person and growing into the Bob Dylan he would become.

This film was a landmark for documentary, especially the style of cinema verite and it remains today a prime example of a film that helped shape the landscape of documentary filmmaking.

Portrait of Jason

Portrait of Jason, in which Jason Holiday (by birth named Aaron Payne) is given the stage for a good hour and forty five minutes. The subject Jason Holiday who is a black, gay male prostitute in the 1960’s, gives a oral retelling and streamlined confession of his life and many different stories.

He performs acts from his show, and there is a sense that he is putting on an act which grows stronger the longer the documentary goes on and he gets progressively more intoxicated. He interacts with the cameraman and people off screen during the filming, responding to their questions. The style of the documentary is definitely not “fly on the wall” in this regard as the subject is very aware of the camera and the people filming are influencing the subject. Another point of interest of this film is that when the footage runs out, you can still hear speaking, the film is not edited so much in regards of looks, but in the sense that  it is edited to keep certain parts of the story.

The director, Shirley Clarke, filmed the documentary in a period of twelve straight hours. There are elements of cinema verite and  avant garde. Cinema Verite in the sense that the camera captures what happens and the reactions Jason has to the questions posed to him even though the director is influencing the subject through interaction with him.

The film has a very claustrophobic, intimate feeling to it in the way it was shot so close and in such a small space. We see a myriad of emotion and there are moments where you can see the true face of Jason slip through. There is a definite element of staging here as well, as Clarke gives her subject more and more booze, there is a definite sense that he is reveling in the camera and the attention placed on him. His stories become more and more twisted and unrelated, although that could be due to editing as much as it could be attributed to his state of inebriation. He makes wild claims and regales with stories that are most likely very untrue, yet the filmmaker indulges him and draws more such stories out of him.

This development is really quite fascinating to watch as Jason becomes much more needy and his stories grow taller and taller. His relationship with the camera and the room and “props” as it were around him  also is a firm reminder of the staged nature. The question becomes, what can we derive as the true meaning behind Jason’s ramblings and what is it that the filmmaker is trying to present to the audience.

Still Jason seems to be a fascinating character, his awareness of the camera, his attention seeking and the extravagance of his stories clearly etches him into the memories of the viewer. What I find most interesting about Clarke’s filming style is the lack of clean cuts, as though editing was not important to her. It seems to be a direct choice, just as providing Jason with a staged room to work his magic in and loosening his tongue with liquor. The way he interacts with his surroundings and the people in the room suggest that he has been preparing himself for this moment and that he is determined to show the audience just how funny he is, or how crazy his life has been, or all the people hes met and other things that most likely may or may not be true. The nature of truth here is subjective, and on film we will only see one side.



Why We Fight- The Battle of China V.S. Triumph of Will

Why We Fight The Battle of China (19440) was the sixth instalment of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight propaganda series, which served to influence American public opinion. In this particular entry we are introduced to China by looking at Chinese history, music, art and culture, as well as the founding of China and its influence on the Western World. This leads up to the beginning of discourse on the Japanese invasion of China,  and their subsequent wish to invade the rest of the world. The Tanaka Memorial, which is an alleged war strategy document that was given to Emperor Hirohito in 1927, is cited many times in this film.

“Here was their mad dream. Phase One – the occupation of Manchuria for raw materials. Phase Two – the absorption of China for manpower. Phase Three – a triumphant sweep to the south to seize the riches of the Indies. Phase Four – the eastward move to crush the United States.”

 The film pays special attention to  Japanese war crimes, with naturally a heavy tilt towards a bias, since this is a propaganda film and serves a particular purpose. There is a constant narrator throughout the film, and while we begin with scenes of a tranquil China and idyllic view of Chinese culture, these images are soon juxtaposed with the images of Nanking and other ravaged areas taken by the Japanese, during the invasion while calling attention to the “cowardly and treacherous” nature of the Japanese. It is interesting to note that the film cites death tolls which were never affirmed and are lower by modern estimates as well as never mentioning the Chinese communists or Chinese guerilla warfare techniques.

This film I believe can be seen in a modern sense as documentary, even though I do not believe it to be a type of true documentary when it was created. This documentary speaks more to the political climate of this time period of America more than that of any events relating to China and Japan.

This in comparison to Triumph of the Will, which chronicles the 1934 Nazi Congress in Nuremberg. This film was shot without any narration save framing and decisive placement. Aside from speeches and dialectic sound, this film has no added speaking or direction, as compared to Why We Fight, which was highly narrated. While this film does show the Nazi party in a favorable light, the filmmaker argues she was merely there documenting what was happening and was not making a propaganda film on purpose. It is important to note, however she was hired by Hitler himself to produce the film and he found it to be acceptable to release.

Triumph of the Will was released in 1935 and became a prominent example of propaganda in film history. Riefenstahl’s techniques, such as moving cameras, the use of long focus lenses to create a distorted perspective, aerial photography, and revolutionary approach to the use of music and cinematography, have earned Triumph of the Will recognition as one of the greatest films in history.

It was even said that Capra drew inspiration from Riefenstahl for Why We Fight.

However I find that Triumph of the Will classifies more as documentary looking from a modern viewpoint due to the lack of narration and the continuous footage of a specific event instead of the way Why We Fight uses footage from different events in order to sway the viewer.

Industrial Nature

City Symphony is a set of black and white documentary films, Rain, Manhatta and Man with The Movie Camera all made between the years of 1926-1928. These films are shown together which I found to disconcerting. I did not feel like these films were very related in content, despite the fact that they are shown together. There wasn’t a relationship between the films in my eyes. No coherent pattern.

The film that drew me in the most out of the three was Manhatta. Manhatta showcases the city of New York in all its glory, treating it almost as though it were a thing in itself, a complete whole. It transforms the city into a machine where each piece, person and object interact as a cog turning and making the thing complete.

This film exemplified a streamlined fast paced vision of the modern city of the 20’s. It did not strike me as having any kind of direction or bent, whether that be political or storyline driven. More of a shot of the city , just the events of a regular day as it once was. This is what makes the film feel most documentary-like to me. The feeling of being an observer and drawing your own conclusions from what you are seeing onscreen.

The director Paul Strand, did not include a narrative, which empowers the film by creating images with meaning without being spoiled by a biased voice. It was slightly abstract film, in how the director played with images and light and shadows. However despite the somewhat abstract quality, Manhatta showed the daily life of the city in a logical and coherent sequence.

It is important as a documentary because it shows a side of the city of New York of the 20’s in its mundane at times, well oiled and growing state that we will never see again.

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North is a documentary from 1922, made before the term “documentary” was actually coined. It showed the daily life of an Inuit family, something that had not been documented on film previously. This black and white silent film follows Nanook and his family as they hunt for food, travel and trade for goods. The director, Robert J. Flaherty, who had previously had no experience with film, used a Bell & Howard camera, a portable printing and developing  machine and some special lighting to film.

This film can be seen as a precursor to what we now think of as a documentary. It has no narration, save for written explanations, but it is supposed to show Inuit life from the perspective of a viewer.  While watching the film I was struck by the extremity of life in an area like northern Quebec, which in the film was a vast wasteland of ice and snow. The search for food was constant and necessary for Nanook and his family, and they were cast in a very brave and almost heroic light.

Nanook of the North has a few points worth remembering. Flaherty showed the people living as they would have a hundred years prior to the year they were actually living in. This is a trait of 1920’s “documentary” film, known as Romanticism. For example, during the rousing Walrus hunt, which made a large impression on viewers of the film at that time, Flaherty manipulated events directly by not allowing Nanook to use a gun to shoot down the animal as he would have, in order to film him using a harpoon. There is a correlation between many Travelogues films of the early 1900’s and Nanook, in that many of the Travelogue films embraced primitivism and exoticism and used the convention of staging certain events in order to attract a larger audience.

Having been created before the actual term and method of documentary was created, and considering the varying nature of this form of film in modern documentary film-making, I think this is closer to a modern type of documentary. At the time there was little preceding Flaherty’s work and even with the director involved in staging some of the events, there was little control over  how exactly the events would play out and what was captured on film was reality. Such as in the walrus hunt scene, which was found to be staged. The walrus was still being hunted and there was still an element of uncertainty and danger.

As the first nonfiction feature-length film on its scale, Nanook of the North was considered to be ground-breaking cinema. It showed a culture that was very little-known to outsiders and managed to capture some authentic details of this culture, despite its untruths. It received much acclaim when it was released, considered a success in the United States as well as abroad. Before Flaherty, few films showed the daily lives of people in their films. As mentioned before, there were those such as The Lumiere Brothers, who filmed short scenes of daily life and everyday scenes, however the films were short, generally less than a minute long, and had no plot, no sense of theme or binding story. Flaherty’s film, which was feature length, followed a story and developed characters by focusing on their individual lives. His was one of the first notable films to explore the power of cinema and everyday life. His film showed the struggle of man against nature in a climate and environment that captured audience’s interest. After Nanook of the North it can be said that documentary film was further developed as a genre. Many films followed Nanook, using this same style of ethnographical filmmaking that made Nanook so popular.