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Monday, 22 February 2016

The Oscar Race - Rod Bishop provides a unique report on the contenders for Best Feature Documentary

Spoiler Alert (Chunks of plot etc given away)

Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, USA, 2015)
Matthew Heineman’s voyage into the Mexican drug world contrasts two forces – the Arizona Border Recon led by the dodgy, redneck Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley and the Michoacan-based Autodefensas, a group headed by the charismatic medical doctor Jose Manuel Mireles and his splendidly named second-in-command Papa Smurf. Both groups have the same modus operandi – fight the Mexican cartel gangsters in an armed struggle.

It’s heroic stuff, real-life Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2015) and all coherently brought to the screen by Heineman. When Mireles nearly dies in a suspicious plane crash and is reported as wanting to join the Mexican Government’s drug-busting Rural Defence forces, Cartel Land is gifted with a late, unexpected third act. What started out black and white and then progressed rapidly through grey, ends up the colour of a swamp bog.


Winter on Fire (Evgeeny Afineevsky, Ukraine, 2015)
Profoundly disillusioned by President Yanukovych’s betrayal of their European Union aspirations, the people of Kiev take to the streets in their tens of thousands and occupy the city’s Maidan Square for 93 days.

After the subsequent exhaustive street battles have left 125 of his citizens dead, a further 65 missing and hundreds injured, Yanukovych slips away by helicopter early one morning for exile in Russia. The Kiev citizens have won a heroic resistance against the armed Berkut military police and the thug-like mercenary force employed to do the really dirty work on behalf of the State.

The remarkable footage comes from 28 cameras and includes brutal beatings, on-screen deaths and images of Kiev’s religious orders (Christian, Islamic and Buddhist) supporting the protesters. Some religious leaders are at the front lines taking sniper fire from the Berkut. The political context is thin, the Parliamentary processes sketchy and the opposition leaders come across as caricatures, roundly condemned by the throngs at Maidan Square for appearing in front of the crowds to seek a resolution. That said, if great documentaries are unforgettable, Winter on Fire easily makes the grade.

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark, 2014)
A sparse political context was also an accusation levelled at Joshua Oppenheimer’s An Act of Killing. Unlike Winter on Fire, which might conceivably argue limitations of time and available material, Oppenheimer’s 2013 director’s cut account of the mass slaughter of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Indonesian “communists” in the 1960s clocked in at 2 hours 46 minutes.

If Oppenheimer was affected by the criticism, he has taken absolutely no notice of it in creating this Oscar-nominated sequel The Look of Silence.  The new film focuses on 44-year old optician Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli was butchered in the terror. Adi sets out to interview and challenge the death squad leaders who believe they were only following orders, or believe the past is the past and shouldn’t be raised in polite conversation, or are just simply convinced they were helping Indonesia become a safer place.

Only once is the spectre of “The Americans” raised and the CIA’s list of communist names given to the death squads is not mentioned at all. The military is spoken of in hushed, fearful terms as though the instigators of the reign of terror were standing outside the front door, waiting for an excuse to butcher them.

 In the first film, any moral conscience lay behind the camera. In this one, Adi’s horror at the answers to his questions is barely concealed behind his composed expression. His mind is desperately trying to process what he hears but he constantly appears uncomprehending at such human debasement. For all their contextual and political shortcomings, these two films will resonate in the Indonesian history of the 20th Century and, unlike the memories of the death-squad leaders, will not be easily forgotten. 

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, USA, 2015)
The Nina Simone documentary traces the story of a promising impoverished black talent who is eventually accepted by the white establishment (represented in part by Hugh Hefner) before finding her intense political awakening.

Along the way, we see her as a young child, real name Eunice Waymon, at the piano aspiring to be the first Black classical pianist in America. She has to lie to her preacher mother about playing jazz and we learn from her diaries that her ex-cop former husband beat her, tied her up and raped her. Simone’s politics are reborn during the second half of the 60s and in the 70s she goes into self-imposed exile in Liberia before ending her career residing in Switzerland, the Netherlands and France.

The fierce singer and her explosive life seem to overwhelm director Liz Garbus and the film can’t seem to stop itself from portraying Simone as an often crazy freak. It consequently downplays her (and the film’s) singular quality – Simone’s undoubted musical genius.

Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK, 2015)
Reputedly the highest grossing UK documentary of all time, Amy charts the far shorter life of Amy Winehouse, a singer for whom the term ‘musical genius’ is probably not inappropriate either. Once again, there’s a teenage musical prodigy, familial issues, particularly her father, and a problematic ex-husband. Where the Simone documentary uses diaries, Amy is largely made up of home movies, interviews, copious amounts of television material and images from the odious, omnipresent paparazzi who dwell on her descent into heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol.

At the end, it is left to Tony Bennett to provide a sad eulogy: “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough”. Something Nina Simone accomplished, but not the supremely talented Winehouse who joins the ghoulish Club 27, a membership of 50 musical talents including Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison who died at the age of 27. 

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