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By Julia Knobloch
For quite a while now, juggling and merging several layers of reality and fiction has been established as a standard in film narrative. Like almost everywhere around us, the boundaries between what is true and false, real and surreal, interpretation and fact are often blurred. Fiction is being told as if it were reality, and reality is often presented as fiction.
Yet there is always room for experiment. In this context, Edmon Roch’s feature film documentary Garbo – The Spy can be regarded as, if not an entirely new, nevertheless an original and fresh attempt at pushing those boundaries even further. To a great extent, Roch relies on clips from spy films and WWII movies (Mata Hari, The Invisible Agent, Our Man in Havana, The Longest Day, and Patton, to name just a few) to tell the historically-confirmed story of a Spanish double agent, Juan Pujol Garcia, who served both the Nazis and the British.
It is a refreshing stylistic approach in that the clips illustrate what usually is very difficult for historical documentaries to show, especially if they don’t use reenactment: the actual action—the what “really” happened—what nobody saw besides the people involved.
By choosing the archived movie scenes, Roch and his team fill in the blanks. This is not so different from reenactment, in the sense that any selection of footage or any scripted re-creation is always an interpretation of the historic facts, a placeholder for what has been lost in history’s maze of “what ifs.”
There are, of course, facts: Pujol—code named Alaric by the Germans and Garbo by the Brits—accepted both the Nazis’ Iron Cross and England’s OBE. After the war, he was reported to have passed away in Africa, a false reality his Spanish family had to accept while Pujol started a new life and a new family in Venezuela. Asked about the underlying motives for his maneuvers as a double agent, he emphasized that he wanted to fight the injustices of his time with the means at his disposal. One can interpret this as Pujol describing himself as a well-intentioned humanist, albeit a cunning one who had to make moral compromises.
According to the film, Pujol, who had defected from the Republican to the Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War, played a major, if not decisive, role in the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, when he convinced the Germans that the imminent landfall of Patton and his troops was slated to occur at Pas-de-Calais, and not, as it eventually did, on the Cherbourg peninsula.
It is a well-known fact that the Nazis were easily to be duped in their war-fueled intoxication. But the successful misleading of the usurpers in black leather boots was a huge, manifold and multi-faceted orchestration, which arguably did not depend on one person alone. Does it diminish Pujol’s undoubtedly important role in the Operation Fortitude (as the Allies codenamed their counterintelligence campaign) if one wonders whether selling him, as the film does, as the lone ranger who saved the Allied Invasion – or the world, as the title suggests – is a stretch?
Nevertheless, Garbo –The Spy is an entertaining, idiosyncratic and provocative film. It clearly involved a lot of time spent in archives and doing in-depth interviews. Tracking down people who by trade aim to remain invisible requires passion and persistence. Seasoned and visionary professionals, Roch and his team researched the facts, talked with trustworthy experts, chose from a nicely-filled pool of footage, and then twined all the layers together, according to their own personal interpretation of one moment in history.
Aptly timed, Marc Levin’s new documentary about a high school basketball team premiered at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan, prior to airing on HBO Sports this October 25th at 9 p.m. ET.
In Prayer for a Perfect Season, award-winning documentary filmmaker Levin returned to his home state to chronicle the 2010-2011 season of the St. Patrick’s Celtics of Elizabeth, New Jersey. The Celtic’s aim is to win the national championship, and the film’s finale unfolds during the last decisive match against their long-time rivals from St. Anthony High School in Jersey City.
But the feature-length documentary – crafted in solid, tried and tested television manner (a familiar mix of establishing shots, explanatory inserts, archive footage, situational sequences, and seated interviews with sports journalists and other authorities) – accounts for more than just the journal of a high school basketball team. The triumphs and tragedies of sport are merely the backdrop for a decisive chapter in the lives of the films’ protagonists.
Veteran coach Kevin Boyle and his stars Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Derrick Gordon (both now freshmen at Kentucky and Western Kentucky, respectively), are portrayed as they traverse an emotionally-challenging year, especially on the personal level. Boyle needs to decide whether to leave St. Patrick and head for a better paying job in Florida. Kidd-Gilchrist struggles with his uncle’s sudden and premature death. (His father was shot dead when Michael was just a toddler.) And Gordon has a hard time coming to terms with his twin brother’s incarceration in a youth correctional facility. All this while St. Patrick High itself fights for survival in times of daunting insolvency, and the overall decline of Catholic school programs nationwide.
At the end of the not-too-perfect season, each protagonist – coach, players, their friends and loved-ones alike – has completed a hero’s journey. St. Patrick will not be the same as everyone sets out for the next chapters of their lives, ready to confront the triumphs and tragedies that inevitably await them.
WHERE ARE YOU TAKING ME? by Julia Knobloch
Prepare yourself for an immersive, unobtrusive journey straight into the heart and soul of Ugandan daily life. The film takes you to a lush high society wedding, observes a female weight-lifting competition, joins a break-dance performance and visits a school for former child soldiers. It saunters through the lively streets of Kampala and wanders across dusty, red country roads, while resting its eyes on a myriad of Ugandan faces. Through the very intimate lens of filmmaker Kimi Takasue’s camera, the African country, recurrently associated with an overall bloody history, appears like a kaleidoscope of beauty, vitality, diversity and hope.
Commissioned by the International Film Festival Rotterdam with the aim of promoting African cinema and unbiased films about the continent, this deliberately meditative collage without voice-over or a narrative thread gains and convinces even more once you read the director’s statement. Kimi writes: ““Where are you taking me?” also moves beyond curiosity into a confrontation of the politics and ethics of the documentary contract.“
Takasue has often pondered the possibilities and limitations of observation, and this recent work is an astute example for her artistic vein and motivation. What at first sight may seem like too random a collection of footage, if beautifully filmed, reveals to be a very private and profound discussion of the power and legitimacy of images.
Telegraph21 is hosting a free preview screening of Where Are You Taking Me? as part of its “Documentary Selections by Telegraph21″ this Tuesday at 5pm at the Big Screen Plaza in NYC.
Neorealist Fiction on the Bowery
By Julia Knobloch
The film captures you slowly, not unlike the Lower East Side. In the beginning, you may be confused, perhaps even skeptic, and you ask yourself: Does this fiction with real life characters really work? Can this deliberate freestyle narration convince and carry 90 minutes? Well, it does, and it can.
The beautiful cinematography and the eclectic art direction are other important assets that make Dirty Old Town, which will be screened at BAM on May 25, a nostalgic yet prosaic homage to the Bowery and its gritty cosmos that can be so arousingly nerve-wrecking.
Just like Rachel, the young squatter who likes to hang out in Billy’s Antiques Shop on Houston Street, where she tries to beguile him with feather masks and her big green eyes. Bill, however, has other problems.
First, Rachel is as old as his daughter Selina, who is about to go to college – another issue Bill needs to deal with. And second, but not less importantly, his landlord gave him a deadline. Bill has 72 hours to get the money or the f@#k out of there.
These ticking 72 hours form the framework for the narration. In a loose manner, the film follows Bill in his fatalistic struggle, while it also wanders about to observe other downtown street legends minding their scripted business. Like short cuts, the scenes and biographies are playfully intertwined. You get glimpses of the characters’ lives like you may get glimpses of the figures on an old merry-go-round that turns to the tunes of a barrel organ. In the case of Dirty Old Town, it is populated with misfits, renegades and freaks, most of them somewhat vaudevillian landmarks of an iconic New York neighborhood.
The three young filmmakers Jenner Furst, Daniel B. Levin and Julia Willoughby Nason have produced this oscillation between reality and art for less than 10.000 USD, and shot it in two days. It premiered last summer at the Sunshine Cinema, and recently had international debuts in London and Paris, with upcoming screenings at Art Basel and in Berlin. What I really liked about it was the intriguing use of reality as fiction. Real life people play, well, not really themselves, but someone that could have been them at some point. Fiction and reality merge into art. And the merry-go-round keeps turning, in spite of gentrification and the ever changing streets of Manhattan.
By Brittany Kerr
Mariachi is recognized for lighthearted rhythms, ornate attire and boisterous voices, yet with such a display it is often seen as a musical wallflower. Romántico illustrates the unconventional lives of Arturo and Carmelo, the two musicians who make up the Mariachi Trio. Director Mark Becker follows them as they sing through the streets of San Francisco and eventually return their hometown in Mexico. It’s a modern tale of a “rock-and-roll” life done mariachi style; both musicians living the night for their art, but waking up to the responsibility of a family life. The documentary transmits a true appreciation to the music so emblematic of many Mexican states. It relays the power of mariachi, as its passionate lyrics give it a reputation for being the vehicle for stealing the hearts of women.
By Julia Knobloch
In Thom Zimny’s documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen looks back with fondness on a crucial chapter of his career.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town is a meditation on where you are going to stand.” This Springsteen quote, half way into the documentary, sums up what the film is about. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man struggling to ground himself, and his creative values. While there are snippets of music throughout, this is no classic music documentary. Rather, the film is about the importance and power of lyrics, and the tedious yet gratifying process of making art.
In the mid 1970s, after his breakthrough success with the legendary Born to Run album, Bruce Springsteen was in crisis. He was afraid that stardom would alienate him from his New Jersey roots. Also, a lawsuit with his then-manager Mike Appel bound his hands, since it prohibited any follow-up recording for 1 ½ years, which seriously endangered his rising career. Thom Zimny, who wrote, directed and edited the documentary that aired on HBO in the fall of 2010, conveys the brooding impatience and the intensity of those months that were ruled by uncertainty, hard work and discipline. Springsteen had written approximately seventy songs eligible for Darkness. Eight made it onto the landmark album when it was finally recorded.
“I stripped the record down to its barest and most austere relevance. Read the rest of this entry »
by Julia Knobloch
I’ve seen many engaging documentaries about the disappeared people in Argentina and Chile, and about the dictatorships that gripped those countries in the 1970s. But Nostalgia for the Light, Chilean director Patrício Guzmán’s cinematic essay about memory, time and Pinochet’s crimes, is different. It had its New York premiere at the MoMA Documentary Fortnight last week, and will be screened at the IFC Center in March.
Shot in Chile’s Atacama Desert, it juxtaposes astronomy, archeology, and one particular human rights movement: for more than 30 years, relatives have been searching for their loved ones, who have been buried by the military, somewhere in this vast, sandy desert 10,000 feet above sea level.
The Atacama is famous for its translucent sky and its arid climate. Both generate excellent conditions for astronomic research and archeological excavations of pre-Colombian artifacts, respectively. Also, in the course of the last decades, yet another form of archeology has taken place. Persistently desperate mothers and sisters have been able to locate several mass graves, and identify the remains of a child or a sibling who were victims of Pinochet’s henchmen. Because you cannot reconcile with the past as long as you haven’t faced it, and as long as you haven’t touched the tiniest knuckle, it’s hard for you to accept that ‘disappeared’ means ‘dead’ – or ‘murdered’, for that matter.
Slowly and virtuously, Guzmán intertwines these various strings of narration and the structure of the film becomes a spiral galaxy. The universe and the desert, stars and bones, shovels and telescopes, science and religion, eternity and finiteness: all rotate around one theme, like star dust or particles in a sandstorm, until they merge in a hauntingly lyric finale that brought tears to my eyes. Read the rest of this entry »
Tim Hetherington’s Diary is an experimental short film that explores the simultaneity of realities within our world. Hetherington, a photojournalist whose feature-length documentary about soldiers in Afghanistan, Restrepo, is currently up for an Oscar, also investigates how his profession has shaped his life, delving into ten years’ worth of footage gathered on travels to conflict zones across the globe. Most of the war-related scenes were shot in Liberia, Chad, and Afghanistan, but there’s also material from Yemen, China, the US, the UK and Thailand.
“I wanted to try to understand the transcendentalism of it all and mentally locate myself,” Hetherington explains. He first came up with the idea in 2009, after finishing a book about the war in Liberia, when he realized just how much journalists who’d interviewed him about the book were disturbed by situations he took for granted as part of one distinctive reality. “So the desire was there to go back through the footage, to go back through what happened to me in Liberia.” Reviewing the immediate past took him further back than he first intended.
“Life is a personal and physical journey. I need to travel far, physically, and to find deep inside what I’m looking for,” shared Hetherington when we recently spoke about Diary.
By Julia Knobloch
It was NYC premiere night for Poster Girl on Feb 1 at the IFC, where it screened as part of the series Stranger than Fiction in front of an enthused and keen audience. The positive reception certainly boosted spirits as the film is headed toward Los Angeles. Sara Nesson’s impressive portrait of a traumatized young female Iraq veteran is nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary short.
The story touches profoundly, and the story telling convinces. This is especially to the credit of the protagonist, Robynn Murray, and the director’s guts and intuition to settle on a delicate political matter before it became a national issue: the complicated relation between society and returning veterans, and the psychological turmoil veterans are far too often left alone with. While the film follows Robynn on her way back into a ‘normal’ life, it captures the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), whose potential consequences span anxiety, addiction, alcoholism, violence and suicide. According to current statistics cited by Nesson., 18 veterans per day end their lives.
In one scene, 24-year old Robynn furiously punches holes in the green wall in her room, before she crouches on the floor, crying helplessly, until her mother comes to comfort her. Read the rest of this entry »