Tag Archives: film

#Cinelove: 2015’s Memorable Documentary

I’ll dispense with the musings of year’s end, looking back, etc… and cut straight to the point to offer up the most memorable non-fiction films I saw this year.  My list cuts a wide spread across styles and subject matter, but I think the common denominator is that all the filmmakers approach their subjects with a pure desire to tell the story.

Democrats
Camilla Nielsson goes behind-the-scenes of the political process in Zimbabwe in this expertly crafted film about the making of a constitution. She and her editor manage to take a potentially dry subject and make it fascinating, absorbing, and touched with humanity.

Last Days of Freedom

Still from Last Day of Freedom.

Still from Last Day of Freedom.

The most memorable film of the year for me was this incredible short. Made by two artists, the film combines visceral animation, intricate sound design, and an intimate story in this emotionally powerful journey.  It’s the heart-breaking recollections of a man who discovers his brother has committed murder and must decide what to do. Being that I run a short documentary festival, I suppose it’s not surprising that it’s at the top of my list.  But it truly rivals any feature for a full, powerful experience. (Directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman)

Heart of a Dog
I don’t love personal films and I don’t love dogs, so it was utterly surprising to me that I was enraptured by Laurie Anderson’s touching essay film. It’s not a traditional narrative, but instead washes over you with imagery, animation, music and, of course, Anderson’s lulling narration.
Cartel Land
In Cartel Land, sometimes you just can’t believe what you’re watching. Director Matthew Heineman says the film unfolds the way that he discovered the story and you can only imagine what it was like to be him as the filmmaker. Cartel Land’s incredible access gives you a different view of the fight against the Mexican drug cartels and gives thought to a big question: who is the good guy?

Spartacus and Cassandra
Ever fall in love with a film?  I felt myself doing just that while watching this impressionistic fairytale. Two Roma children are taken in by a young trapeze artist in a circus on the outskirts of Paris, and while it touches on hard aspects such as parents, legality and education, it also celebrates love and imagination. (Directed by Ioanis Nuguet)

Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his The Act of Killing is quieter, more intimate, and in my mind, even more powerful.  It’s one man’s journey to confront his brother’s killers during genocide in Indonesia. It’s also a testament to the fact that social impact films can be cinematically beautiful.

Tocanda la luz
Charming and thoughtful, this verité film follows the ebbs and flows of life for three blind women in Havana. The women share their lives, fears, loves, and struggles for independence with us. (Directed by Jennifer Redfearn)

P.S. –  I define #cinelove as “to fall in love with a film in that way where it captures your heart through its beauty & humanity.”

– Karen Cirillo

Afghanistan through the (creative) eyes of others

Afghanistan, as a subject, has been crossing my path over the last year – through both my work in the development sector and via various forms of film and writing.

We in the west get a pretty limited view of the state of affairs in Afghanistan, mostly filtered through news media. It should not surprise anyone that the view is pretty limited, as in general our traditional media isn’t really capable of nuance or complexity of perspectives.

Afghanistan, of all places, is certainly a country with a complex history – this latest chapter of over a decade of American involvement represents just a sliver (although, our involvement actually stretches further into the past than many of us realize).

A still from "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year".

A still from “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year”.

After 2001, Afghanistan became the hot topic of numerous documentaries and books. Most focused on the war, usually from the point-of-view of American soldiers or allied troops (Restrepo and Armadillo). Others focused on the myriad of projects and initiatives that were bringing opportunities to the citizens of Afghanistan (Beauty Academy of Kabul).

Earlier this year, I saw/read three works about Afghanistan that transcended the traditional story lines to tell stories beneath the surface that shed light onto the complicated and complex nature of Afghanistan’s history, culture and present day political situation.

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year – by Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy

This powerful film follows an Afghan National Army squad fighting insurgent forces in the southwestern province of Helmand. This is a rare glimpse into the world of the local army. Despite the trainings they received from the invading armies, they’re not always fully prepared for combat. On top of that, what they’re fighting against is not always clear, as the politics of the nation place warlords in governance positions in local provinces. These soldiers are not sure of themselves and are often frightened by the circumstances they face.

Michael McEvoy was a Liason Officer, working with the Afghan Army for 9 months. What he witnessed compelled him to make a film, and he was introduced to Saeed Taji Farouky as someone who would be a compatible co-director. Their collective approach is in-the-trenches, observational, and revealing. The film is intense and immersive, disorientingly so at times. But you feel like you are embedded with these troops, and the confusion you feel is often a reflection of what the soldiers are experiencing as well.

When the usual focus on allied interests and the larger “Afghanistan” narrative is stripped away, the film reveals the personal stories of soldiers who are doing what they can to survive (even if they haven’t gotten paid lately). As the film’s summary says, “this is the war in Afghanistan, through the eyes of the Afghans who live it.”

(The film won the Amnesty International Film Prize and the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. I saw it at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. You can watch the trailer here.)

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

Jenny Nordberg’s book is a fascinating look at bacha posh, the tradition of girls being dressed and passed off as boys. The main story looks at various bacha posh youth and their families, covering how the girls experience boyhood (and the transition back to girls/young women) and why families make this decision for their children.
The_Underground_Girls_of_Kabul
This tradition is intricately tied up with the gender politics and culture in Afghanistan, which is not always as simple as it seems. This leads to another strain of the book, which focuses the push of western aid agencies for female independence and equality and the common failure of not entirely understanding the complex cultural history that feeds into gender politics. The book paints portrait of mothers and girls who are balancing tradition with new opportunities and how complicated that can be.

(I got the chance to see Jenny Nordberg and Faheema, one of the bacha posh from the book, in conversation at New America Foundation. You can listen here.)

Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis isn’t interested in the traditional narratives that media puts forth. Using a treasure trove of archival footage, he weaves together unique takes on major issues facing society. His most recent work “Bitter Lake” takes a look at the history and story of Afghanistan that few are telling you. The West’s interest/relationship with Afghanistan did not begin with 9/11. And the United States is not the first country to be engaged in this complicated country. We’re also not the first to try to empower women or make education more accessible. The Russians tried to do that before we ever got there.

Another theme of the film is the United States’ long alliance with the Saudis, aspects of which Curtis credits for the development of Islamic extremism in the region. At times, the history and interpretation Curtis presents is simplistic and it can feel like he views the Afghan people as disinterested in “progress.” But the film challenges the common narrative of Afghanistan, in history, politics, and culture, and overall lays out a series of complex, interconnected stories that challenges us to learn more.

(I saw the film at the 2015 True/False Film Festival. You can watch it on the BBC player or here.)

– Karen Cirillo

Evocative objects: reflecting history, nuance and emotion

“Living in an era defined more by complex systems than by material things, and increasingly mediated by the digital, how are we touched by the objects we can still touch?”

These words open the summary of the new Flaherty NYC series That Obscure Object of Desire, flahertynyccoverand made me excited. The ideas of coming to terms with our digital space is one I think a lot about. And I’m a big believer that daily life objects reflect our realities. One of the things I do in a new country is go into the supermarket and walk the aisles and get a sense of what is important to people.

So how great to have entire series devoted to the ideas behind objects – what they say about our histories, our personalities, our cultures. And even better that it was curated by two filmmakers (Pacho Velez and Sierra Petengill) that are thoughtful, artistic, and challenging in their own work.

The series runs every other Tuesday at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.

I had the chance to talk with them about the theme, the importance of objects and the shift to digital.

Q: What inspired this programmatic theme?

Sierra: Conversations had been happening around the idea. I saw the Simon Martin film [Louis Ghost Chair]. It compares furniture objects – chairs. The end of the film spirals off into more abstract, emotional ways that architecture and design and objects affect us. It becomes a kind of poetry. I mentioned this to an architecture friend, who works a lot in abstracted space and how architecture in the real world can play off of conceptual ideas of architecture and film. He noted there’s a lot of thinking now about the difference between digitally mediated space and physical space. [In this context] so many films came to mind – it’s a very fertile space. All artists right now are thinking about that. Digital touches everything we do. It felt like a ripe time for this type of programming.
Continue reading

Americana: History Viewed Through Artifacts

Leth_66Scenes-300x214

66 Scenes of America

The new Winter/Spring Flaherty NYC series That Obscure Object of Desire , curated by filmmakers Pacho Velez and Sierra Petengill, continues tonight with the Americana program.

I spoke with Velez and Petengill about their entire series, which I’ll publish soon, but in the meantime, some thoughts on tonight’s program to whet your appetite.

Q: What about using objects to tell a history?

Sierra: There’s something interesting happening in the program – the Jorgan Leth film is an older piece, but we’re viewing it in 2015 – the gap between the year of the making and the year of viewing changes it. We’re also showing Real West, which is just made and returning to a historical place, or to recreate a historic time. They’re both historical films, but from very different ends of the spectrum.

Q: Can you elaborate on the idea of Americana buttressing national ideas of mobility and entrepreneurship? How do we see that through the Americana films?

Pacho: One of the concrete objects through which we understand these ideas and perpetuate these ideas of America – the notion that we can travel all over it geographically, and also the idea of social mobility that’s implicit through that geographical travel. This “can do it” American value. These things are abstract. How do you codify these ideas? What are the objects that contribute to fetishizing these ideas? Cars; the open road and highways; the single family home; fast food – all of which make appearances through these films.

I just watched 66 Scenes of America again for a class I’m teaching. There’s a scene inside of it, a very famous scene, where Andy Warhol eats a hamburger. There’s the Burger King logo and the Heinz ketchup bottle, things that make me reminisce about my childhood. I’m sure at the moment it was shot, it didn’t feel like a very nostalgic gesture. When one reads about Pop art, it’s often posited as ‘new,’ ‘contemporary,’ ‘in the moment,’ clearing away past artistic ideologies (abstract expressionism, cubism, Social Realism, etc). But, of course, the mass advertising culture that Pop was mirroring has now been with us for so long, and is in many ways being displaced by the online digital world, so that certain icons of pop have started to make me feel nostalgic, or sentimental for ‘the way things used to be.’ Modern consumer gestures have aged in their own way. They’ve gained a kind of sentimentality, gained a historical nostalgic that I imagine Pop artists would be horrified at.

Check out the Americana program if you can.   The series runs every other Tuesday at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.

We Walk Their Path

This weekend, the OneMinutesJr. awards were announced and “We Walk Their Path,” by Amar, won the One Minute of Freedom award. The film was produced during a workshop I facilitated in Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp in the north of Jordan.

There are so many stories from that trip – tales of kids uprooted from their homes, remembrances of lost items and childhood adventures, consistent declarations of an eventual return to Syria. All the kids in the workshop lived at Zaatari, some having been there a year and a half already. The majority came from Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria, just north of the border with Jordan. At the time of the workshop, in January 2014, the Zaatari camp hosted about 85,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria.

IMG_0823

I had facilitated workshops in over 20 countries at this point, so I was no stranger to challenging work environments. In addition to the physical containment (our movement was extremely limited) and the emotional impact (of witnessing life in the camp), there was the hurdle of general inexperience. Most of the seventeen participants of the workshop had never held a video camera before and their image-taking experience was mostly limited to mobile phones. The ideas behind creating imagery were fairly distant for them. But while they didn’t outright grasp the concepts of filmmaking, their imaginations never lacked.

As you can imagine, there are many stories to be told. But, for now, a focus on Amar (first name only, for security’s sake) and his tale of war.
Continue reading