LAFF 2015: Documentary Debuts


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Editor’s Notes: The following reviews are part of our coverage for the Los Angeles Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit and follow the Los Angeles Film Festival Festival on Twitter at @LAFilmFest.


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After a series of dictatorships during the twentieth century, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the country of Haiti in 2010, the same year in which a general election was going to take place. Against this tumultuous backdrop, Ben Patterson’s documentary debut presents the coming together of an unlikely duo who would spearhead the rebuilding of the country through the general election: rapper Pras Michel, one of the co-founders of The Fugees, and Michel Martelly, also known as ‘Sweet Micky,’ one of the most popular (and controversial) musicians and figures in Haiti since the 1980s. Pras finds in Michel an opportunity to wipe the sociopolitical slate clean in a post-earthquake Haiti and decides to back Michel as a presidential candidate. Patterson accompanies the duo as they embark on the challenge of making ‘Sweet Micky’ the number one presidential ticket for the 2010-2011 general election. Part of this challenge is to make both the country and the international world see Michel, presidential candidate, and not Sweet Micky, known for his wild on-stage antics.

Purely at the level of content, the documentary provides a rare insider glimpse of political campaigning in Haiti as well as a survey of the country’s jagged history. What makes the subject even more absorbing is the explicit role of music in Haitian lives in general and during this general election in particular, through Sweet Micky/Michel as well as another surprising presidential candidate, Wyclef Jean (Pras’ former bandmate in The Fugees). When Wyclef enters the political picture, the interrelated issue of the Haitian diaspora, particularly in the U.S., becomes all the more prominent and adds another interesting layer to the story. On a structural level, the documentary brings together in a clear manner these different, interlocking voices and aspects of the general election as part of the overall challenge of post-earthquake recovery. The build-up to who wins the presidential election is strong and dramatic, especially since Pras and Michel encounter a host of obstacles during their bid. Some of the film’s strongest, and sometimes comical, portions involve teasing out Michel’s persona on stage and in politics and negotiating which facets of each to merge to make him the most justified candidate in the public’s eyes. On a formal level is where the film disappoints. Peppered throughout the film are distracting graphics set to beats meant to galvanise spectator emotions when the story is already stirring in the first place. (And one cannot help but wish that the documentary continued its look at post-earthquake Haiti even after the general election, to follow the victor’s first year in office. Although, of course, the emotional arc would have changed entirely. A follow-up documentary, then, Patterson? And without the graphics.) 7.4


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For her own feature-length documentary debut, Shalini Kantayya presents a well-crafted, global-voiced argument for solar energy and its campaign. She employs a standard problem-solution structure common in activist documentaries, a structure that is enriched dramatically by a formidable obstacle to their solution. The problem is two-pronged: dwindling fossil fuels and the environmental pollution that they generate. A large part of the problem, then, is finding alternative energy re/sources that are both clean and renewable. The viable solution is solar energy. To this end, Kantayya follows solar energy role models from leaders and participants of grassroots communities in Northern California to world economic powers like Germany and China. These organisations, figures, and countries are not only spearheading the use of solar energy but also connecting with each other in the process and therefore building an international solar energy industry that acclimates people to it on a regular, everyday level. Kantayya’s juggling act of the different people and geographies engaged in solar energy campaigns is the film’s strongest aspect because it registers the local and global impact of solar energy in an articulate, relatable way.

‘Local’ means creating training programs in solar panel installation for the unemployed in depressed communities like the city of Richmond in northern California (where a Chevron refinery belts out pollution and explosions). The result is the creation of jobs in the city for those who live there, as well as the transformation of their city into a ‘green’ city. Such a socioeconomic phenomenon is what environmental advocate and writer Van Jones, also featured in the film, described in 2008 as the ‘green collar economy.’ ‘Global’ is the trajectory of Chinese company WesTech, whose founder and president Zhongwei ‘Wally’ Jiang has made solar energy a major vehicle to create his version of a green ‘global village.’ It is also about building ties, between Jiang and Germany, which in 2014 set a record for running seventy-five percent on renewables. Kantayya manages to avoid sounding starry-eyed by also documenting Van Jones’ experiences from being a social activist based in northern California to working at the White House. She charts solar energy’s uphill battle against American corporations during Jones’ brief tenure as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in President Obama’s administration in 2009. Kantayya draws out the striking contrast between Jiang’s rising star (pun intended) — as he takes the first steps of turning into reality his dream project of building a ‘solar city,’ in Dallas, Texas no less — and Jones hitting a brick wall by film’s end with his resignation in the same year due to intense smear campaigns. That both of these events took place in the U.S. further draws out the unfortunate contrast of government/national attitudes and action with regards to the commitment to renewables. 8.0


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Despite the unfortunate title, Ilinca Călugăreanu’s debut feature-length documentary (developed from a previous work) is an entry point to the fascinating underground film culture during the last decade of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship and the Cold War in Romania. This underground film culture consisted of VHS tapes of late 1970s/1980s films (mostly Hollywood action) smuggled across the country, dubbed, and shown clandestinely in living rooms in the 1980s. Watching these films was the only opportunity to see how one part of the outside world was like, even if it was delusional, Reaganite Hollywood. To conjure this underground film culture in the present, Călugăreanu uses reenactment liberally. The film weaves together reenactments, interviews with people who had participated in this underground film culture and share their memories, and bite-size clips of Hollywood films that circulated at the time. On the one hand, the stories of this culture are far more interesting than the actual film. The use of reenactments is very literal, simply illustrating what the voice-overs narrate. The voice-overs are dominated by the principal players who made this underground film culture possible: Toader Zamfir, who received VHS tapes from outside the country and organised the dubbing and dissemination of VHS copies in Romania, and Irina Nistor, the main voice dubbing the films into Romanian. On the other hand, through the interviews emerge the issues of videotape aesthetics and the power of voice as resistance and collective memory, which prevent the film from being a radio documentary with tacked-on visuals.

Videotape images, unlike digital images, betray their age, which perhaps accounts for the sense of nostalgia that they carry. One interesting topic thread that arises from the interviews is the image quality (or lack thereof) of the films. Since the VHS tapes were at times copies of copies, by the time they reached households the image quality was awful; worse, the image would black out and, as one of the interviewees shares, they had to imagine the missing scene. But it was part of the experience. Even more crucial for the spectators was the voice that translated these film worlds into Romanian. Nistor dubbed films in secrecy in Zamfir’s basement, watching and dubbing four-to-six films per session. She dubbed everyone’s dialogue, male/female, young/old. (When Zamfir employed someone else to help Nistor with dubbing, people reacted negatively.) For Nistor, dubbing was a small, but satisfying way to resist the regime by being the voice, literally, of this underground culture. Through dubbing, she was able to speak in a way that undermined dictatorship-speak. Călugăreanu rightly taps into the power of voice by using Zamfir’s and Nistor’s voices to guide the reenactments. And though the mild payoff in the end is seeing Zamfir and Nistor in the present day, one wishes that their embodied selves could have been part of the documentary early on. 7.0


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Yet still another documentary debut, a most powerfully affecting one, is Jin Mo-young’s portrait of the seventy-plus-year marriage between Jo Byeong-man (in his late nineties) and Gang Gye-yeol (in her late eighties). Jin began to film the couple in 2012, following a special program on the couple that he saw on television. For the next fifteen months, he accompanied the couple and captured on camera their aging love and lives. We feel the weight of their love and lives primarily through the observational style. Though the camera and Jin remain unacknowledged, they are very much physically intertwined with the couple in their space: following them, standing before them, by their side, as the couple eats, sleeps, tinkers around the house, takes walks, and receives their sons and daughters (and their families) for visits.

The film’s candid, minimalist style reflects its social actors. The couple lives according to their means — in the countryside in Gangwon Province, practically in isolation barring the two houses across the field from them; according to their traditions — wearing matching Korean formal attire in all of the footage; according to their environment — chopping wood, clearing snow or leaves in their front yard; and, above all, according to their long-lasting love for each other, which is made apparent at the very beginning, both in the moving prologue (which foreshadows the film’s conclusion) and the sweet and comical subsequent opening sequence.

As they emerge outdoors, Gye-yeol remarks upon all of the leaves that have gathered in their front yard. They begin to sweep and as they both gather the leaves into a pile, Byeong-man begins to throw leaves at her. Of course, she retaliates and a leaf-throwing fight begins. It is both simple and profoundly endearing, which describes the couple and the film in its entirety. But it is not the only ‘fight’ in the film. Roughly the first half of the film is devoted to the couple’s youthful play that is part of their everyday togetherness: in wintertime, a giggling snow fight as they clear thick snow in their front yard; Byeong-man mischievously throwing pebbles at the water to splash Gye-yeol while she washes clothes in a stream. In one sequence, Byeong-man accompanies Gye-yeol to the outhouse during the night and while waiting for her he sings to assure her that he is by her side. Through such scenes, the spectator emotionally enters their world, which makes it all the more crushing when Byeong-man’s age catches up with him. In sickness and in health, the film represents marriage and love in their most distilled incarnations: being by one another’s side. In Byeong-man and Gye-yeol’s case, it also means holding hands, during walks or as they sleep, living not two lives but one shared, over the course of decades. 8.5


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For their first-time collaboration, Holly Morris and Anne Bogart document a most unique and impossible community: inhabitants of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the officially designated area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident that occurred in 1986 and therefore one of the most contaminated areas in the world. Following the initial evacuation in the aftermath, some one thousand people stealthily returned, their emotional sense of home and land stronger than the radioactive threat of the actual land. Most of the remaining inhabitants today are elderly women living on their own. Morris/Bogart accompanied these women in their daily routines in the zone beginning in 2010 and emerged with a touching, frank portrayal of emotional will even in the face of statistics; the power of place; and, inversely, the trauma of exile. To draw out the babushkas’ paradoxical strength of will and community in an officially declared dead zone, Morris/Bogart set them against two different relationships with the zone: those who have remained uprooted since the initial evacuation, of the same generation as the babushkas, and those who visit the zone purely for thrills, clearly of a much younger generation.

Though the (dwindling) number of women are living in the zone illegally, they have been able to remain because they are well past child-rearing age. They breathe the air, eat the vegetation, and go about their lives freely even if it is lonely, all in the name of being in the place where they were born and raised. Every now and then officials visit the ladies to measure radiation levels. When they get together, they are jovial and spirited, buoyed oftentimes by alcohol. Morris/Bogart are by their side at every moment, capturing the babushkas’ unshakeable, infectious energy. In contrast are the group of ladies who did not return after the initial evacuation. Seated in a row for their interview, the difference in demeanour is palpable. As the film shares, those who did not return have had shorter lifetimes, essentially consumed by anguish from a life of exile. Morris/Bogart also include the perception of the zone among younger generations by splicing amateur footage shot by several young men who sneak into the zone, even within the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant sarcophagus. The most significant moment from the amateur footage is when this group of young men bump into one of the babushkas in the woods. They have a brief conversation, but it is really the encounter itself that represents all too clearly a multi-generation gap and the accompanying contrast in values. While for the young men the zone is a seductive toxic playground or Mount Everest to visit and conquer, for the babushkas it is the land of their birth, life, and death, their past and present; in short, their identity. 8.0


About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.