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Early Silent Documentaries: Real-life Adventure Cinema

Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.

Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.

These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.

‘The Epic of Everest’

Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.

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Film Review: The Creeping Garden

‘The Creeping Garden’

Let us dispense with the jokes about films with unusual topics: Yes, if you have to see one movie about slime mold this year, this is it. Yes, The Creeping Garden is the Citizen Kane of slime-mold movies. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s state that Garden is indeed a fascinating film about slime mold, and that it fulfills the documentary objective of informing us about a subject we know little about. The film flies bravely in the face of the world’s ignorance of slime mold, in fact. We visit a British specimen collection in the fungus department of an archive in Kew Gardens, where the curator wistfully notes that very few people request access to the slime-mold section. Those who do are in for a treat: dozens of tiny, dried samples of slime mold, resting in wee boxes with labels hand-lettered by some long-forgotten enthusiast from the 1920s.

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Film Review: He Named Me Malala

Malala Yousafzai

A few years ago I revisited a book I hadn’t looked at since an assigned high-school reading many years earlier. Which is how I was reminded that Anne Frank’s diary is not only an important Holocaust document, but a magnificent piece of writing by a singular author. So much official veneration had stuck to Anne Frank over the years that it was startling to hear her lively, witty, soulful voice come springing off the page. She deserves better than to be relegated to sainthood.

I had similar thoughts while watching this new documentary about Malala Yousafzai.

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DVD: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

Warner Home Video

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Warner, DVD) – Australian filmmaker Mark Hartley has become a champion of the disreputable genre films of the seventies and eighties thanks to such loving productions as Not Quite Hollywood (spotlighting the disreputable side of the early Australian film industry) and Machete Maidens Unleashed (on Filipino grindhouse films). Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is a labor of love from a man whose career to date has been a labor of love.

The story of Cannon Films is unique and fascinating. In 1979, Israeli producer / director Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, who handled the financial side of their Israeli production company, decided to go international. They purchased Cannon Films, a small American independent production company with a couple of successes to its name. Golan and Globus quickly became B-movie moguls, determined to beat Hollywood at its own game with a series of cheaply-made genre movies with stars like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson and cashed in on current fads and box-office hits with quick knock-offs. They became infamous for their flamboyant presence, their non-stop self-promotion, and their reputation for cranking out incoherent and at times incompetent movies between their occasional hits, while in a seemingly alternate universe also produced arthouse movies by Andrey Konchalovskiy (Runaway Train, 1985, Shy People, 1987), John Cassavetes (Love Streams), Franco Zeffirelli (the opera film Otello, 1986), and Jean-Luc Godard (King Lear, 1987), whose contract was written on a napkin over dinner at a restaurant. By the end of the eighties, they had driven the company to bankruptcy by the end of the decade.

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Film Review: ‘Meet the Patels’

Ravi and Geeta Patel

Born in Illinois to immigrant parents, Ravi Patel is a typical first-generation American: Shaped by two cultures, he feels the inherited traditions of the old country but is irrepressibly ’Murican in every significant way. This dual nature is put on breezy display in Meet the Patels, an amusing documentary in which Ravi (and sister Geeta, his mostly unseen co-director) tracks a particularly fraught moment in his family’s life. Ravi is 29, and his parents—humorous dad Vasant and anxious mom Champa—are antsy about him meeting a nice Indian woman and getting married. They come from a culture of arranged marriages, and since that system’s already in place, why bother with the complicated American dating game?

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Film Review: ‘Racing Extinction’

‘Racing Extinction’

Racing Extinction contains many grisly examples of mankind’s impact on the natural world, but one of its most affecting touches is a snippet of birdsong. The movie considers the way various species have been driven to nonexistence in the past few decades, among them the Kaua‘i ?‘? bird. A research unit at Cornell University catalogues wildlife sounds, and they recorded the song of the ?‘?—that is, the very last one—before the type vanished in the late 1980s. It’s a plucky little cry, made all the more poignant because no other ?‘? is around to answer it. Later we see footage of people killing manta rays and a Hong Kong rooftop loaded with thousands of shark fins, but that extinct sound really brings home an overwhelming sense of absence.

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Film Review: ‘Welcome to Leith’

Lynan Dutton, Craig Cobb, and Deb Henderson

Guess who’s coming to burn a cross on your lawn. Noted white supremacist—now there’s a tagline for a business card—Craig Cobb decided a North Dakota town would be just right for seeding a nationwide racist movement. So in 2013 he moved to tiny Leith, population 24 or so. Buying a few bargain-basement properties, Cobb hatched a plan to get other white-power advocates to settle there, take over the town council, and live the dream. This crackpot is the central figure of this documentary account of what happened when the residents of Leith found out what Cobb was up to.

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Restored and revived: ‘The Epic of Everest,’ the first film cameras up Everest, and ‘Summer Children’

The Epic of Everest (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the film record of the third British ascent of Everest, was an event in itself in 1924. Its restoration is almost as much an event. Unavailable for years, with elements in the BFI film vault waiting for years to be resurrected, the restoration was completed and unveiled in 2011.

Presented with a solemnity befitting the gravity of the event (two of the greatest and most celebrated climbers of the day, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, died trying to reach the peak), it’s also as beautiful a nonfiction film you’ll see from the era. Captain John Noel hauled a hand-cranked camera (developed specifically for the challenge of shooting in the snow and ice) along with the expedition party (of 500 men and animals, according to the titles) and captured truly astounding images. He brought state-of-the-art telephoto lenses which enabled him to get viable images from as far away as two miles. But he also brought art and aesthetics to his shots, many of them like landscape portraits alive with passing clouds, shifting shadows, and halos of snow and mist whipped up by the winds. They are framed beautifully and use the light and shadow as dramatic elements.

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Film Review: ‘Listen to Me Marlon’ (1)

‘Listen to Me Marlon’

One summer evening, while visiting the shooting set of Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, I found myself chatting with John Hurt, never a knockout in looks but always a terrific actor. The easy banter, the charming way he leaned to light my cigarette, the suggestive slide of his eyes—suddenly there was a spotlit place where an ordinary encounter had been heightened into the possibility of dramatic story and character. Then he was summoned by his director, to disappear from view behind a poolhouse door. As he emerged, pointing a gun, it was as though that door frame had been a camera wipe. Hurt was Other, lethal and hard, a slight man moving with the weight of his own history and the terror of the moment. Not sure how to convey how astonishing this alchemy was; Hurt had transubstantiated, shaping how he would be seen by the camera.

Acting is authentic mystery. Sure, you can say it’s just putting on a face and pretending to be somebody, something you’re not. A matter of craft, in the word’s positive and negative meanings. But beyond consummate liars and confidence men, there are those capable of unforgettable transformation. Such protean players look like magicians, able to access other selves, body and soul. Are they vampires—like Liv Ullmann’s hollowed-out actress in Persona? Do they dredge truth out of the dark well of their past, tap into collected memory, to illuminate characters that look and feel like us? And what’s the cost to the chameleon? Does it sear like flaying, or is there ecstasy in becoming wholly Other?

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Film Review: ‘Listen to Me Marlon’ (2)

His parents were Midwestern Gothic: the father a bitter drunk who settled things with violence, the mother a poetic type who couldn’t lay off the booze. Yet in the way of strange, sad American stories, these two souls created a combination of DNA and childhood trauma that birthed one of the definitive actors—why not say artists?—of the mid-20th century. The son got his father’s name, Marlon Brando, an ideal moniker for an icon of bigger-than-life coolness and rebellious disdain. If you’re already up on Brando lore, and especially if you’ve read his oddball autobiography, this new documentary won’t uncover much that’s new. But it’s a pleasure to watch, serving up Brando as a model for other artists who aspire to sincerity and honesty in their work.

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Film Review: ‘The Look of Silence’

Adi Rukun

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary The Act of Killing earned an Oscar nomination and a raft of astonished reviews. There were skeptics, however, who questioned the film’s nausea-inducing strategy of encouraging the mass murderers of Indonesia’s mid-1960s genocide to proudly re-enact their atrocities for the camera. That’s a point worth raising, but with the release of The Look of Silence, we glimpse Oppenheimer’s larger canvas. This film—not a sequel, but a complementary project—has an interrogator.

Instead of the neutral camera-eye of The Act of Killing, we see the new film from the perspective of Adi Rukun, an optometrist (born in 1968, after the slaughter) whose older brother was tortured and killed during the purge.

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Film Review: ‘The Wanted 18’

‘The Wanted 18’

Taken separately, there is nothing wrong with political documentaries, animation, or talking animals. Put them together, and you have my kryptonite. So my lack of enthusiasm for The Wanted 18 can be taken with that in mind, especially if you like all of the above. The very slim 75-minute film is based on an incident that took place during the First Intifada: In 1988, as part of a general organized pushback against Israel, some Palestinian inhabitants of the town of Beit Sahour purchased 18 milk cows from a sympathetic Israeli farmer. This way, the population could produce its own dairy products and stop relying on Israel for that part of its diet. Not being dairy farmers, there was a good deal of bumbling involved, which makes for some mildly amusing reminiscences from people who were there. Then the Israeli authorities decided to stop the project, and a hunt ensued as the Palestinian milkmen tried to hide the bovines for a couple of increasingly bizarre weeks.

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Film Review: ‘Our Man in Tehran’

The real Kenneth Taylor

Shouldn’t the documentary come first, followed by a fictionalized feature “inspired by true events”? Not in this case. Ben Affleck’s Argo introduced many viewers to the Mission: Improbable that sprung six U.S. diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Argo was a Hollywood entertainment all the way, even copping the Oscar for Best Picture. Now comes a Canadian documentary that drops the brassy drama of Argo for a more straightforward approach. Its title refers to the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Kenneth Taylor, who not only sheltered the American escapees during their hiding but also fed information to Jimmy Carter’s government for the (ultimately, tragically) botched attempted rescue of the other hostages.

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Film Review: ‘Do I Sound Gay?’

David Thorpe (center) and friends

David Thorpe tells us he got the idea for his documentary when he was riding a train from his home in New York to Fire Island. Surrounded by gay men, Thorpe was struck by the sound of the voices he heard around him. Being gay himself, he wondered: “Do I really sound like that?” He quickly found the answer to be “yes,” and then decided the idea of a “gay voice”—how and why such a thing exists—might make a good subject for a personal-essay film. There’s an irony here, which is that so many practitioners of the first-person documentary, from Michael Moore to Morgan Spurlock, seem to be in love with the sound of their own voices. Thorpe insists he isn’t happy with his. But he sure does talk a lot.

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Film Review: ‘One Cut, One Life’

Lucia Small and Ed Pincus

Back in the ’60s Ed Pincus made some key social-issue documentaries and wrote a how-to book that became a bible for low-budget filmmaking. If he’d kept on that track, he would have remained a respectable figure in the world of nonfiction film. Instead, Pincus rejected the idea that a camera could record something without changing it, and made a first-person documentary about his own life, Diaries (1971–76), released in 1982. That 200-minute epic was scorned as Me Generation navel-gazing by The New York Times, but also widely acclaimed. Pincus’ work was influential (his former Harvard student Ross McElwee clearly aped the Pincus style in his classic Sherman’s March), but the man himself dropped out of filmmaking for 30 years to raise flowers and family in Vermont.

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