Tag Archives: documentaries

SXSW: Bill Frisell, A Portrait

Bill Frisell’s discography is incomparable. He’s worked with the best of the best, all of whom consider HIM to be The Best. He’s an actual guitar hero, his influence widespread, his sound envied and copies and admired. But Bill remains an unsung guitar hero, his name not well-known to those outside the business, and he’s pretty content to keep it that way. This documentary, however, is a character portrait of this very interesting man, and very influential musician.

MV5BM2Y1N2I1OTktMGIxYy00N2I1LTljOTMtZjBjM2IzNDRiNjg4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzMwNzMyMjk@._V1_The good thing about this documentary is that so many people line up to talk about Frisell: director Emma Franz assembles the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and more, and the amazing thing is that all of the people have nothing but glowing things to say about the man. The GREAT thing about this documentary, though, is that it contains plenty of live music to love and appreciate, and gosh he’s got a lot.

Bill Frisell seems reluctant to talk about himself (he is however, inclined to sing the praises of other artists), so every nugget teased out feels like a treasure. This documentary will look at the very things that shaped his sound, with particular time spent peering into his brilliant mind and trying to understand music the way he does. There’s lots of great insight here, an intimacy I hardly dared hope for.

His guitar collection is impressive, but not as impressive as his genuine love for each one. It’s so endearing. What a great documentary to have stumbled upon, and I sincerely hope that it’ll be available for your perusal also.



SXSW: Mission Control

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo tells the story of the people who inspired the whole world with the accomplishments of their space program. The first men were young, the average age about 30, most didn’t even know what computers were but they were tasked with sending a man to the moon. They basically had to invent NASA and space travel from the ground up, on the thrillingly generous salary of $6770 a year.

This was such an important time in human history that you can’t help but be drawn in to this drama. In fact, it’s a real credit to the director, David Fairhead, that this documentary feels thrilling even though we all know extremely well how the story turns out. But it’s also contemplative and insightful, the men recounting the hard times that led to the successes, the loss of life that inspired them to do better, to do great things. And they certainly did.

This documentary focuses on the people manning the stations in mission control – the men in contact with astronauts during their space flight. Any problems encountered by the space craft is on their shoulders, with practically no time at all to fix unfathomable challenges and absolutely no room for error. Failing is not an option.

Mission Control is interesting not just for interviewing the people behind the history, but for painting them as real people, country boys and working class kids from smokestack towns. The position of astronaut or NASA engineer or rocket scientist were complete unknowns when they were growing up. And yet they became this remarkable team who defeated the odds and accomplished such great heights.

Fairhead’s documentary has got some really cool archival footage of those first journeys toward the moon – Apollo 8, 11, and even 13, which is as tense as you’d think. These guys remember this time like it was yesterday, right down to details you’ve never considered, like what the room smelled like when people were working for 5 days, nonstop, under stressful conditions, smoking like chimneys, no time to reapply deodorant. But these interesting details are also enhanced by beautiful VFX work and a really nice orchestral score. It’s exactly the kind of tribute that these men deserve.


SXSW: Pornocracy

In 2006-2008, the porn industry suffered a great crash; as the economy tanked, internet piracy soared. The DVD market for porn virtually disappeared and the traditional porn studios became obsolete. Porn consumption, however, has never been higher – 100 BILLION porn videos are viewed every year, 90-95%  from free streaming sites. This has meant very bad things for the women making porn – less money (like, 10 times less), and less safety.

Director Ovidie was herself  the star of pornographic films for 17 years. Today her videos are being streamed for free without her consent, meaning they are much more easily accessed by everyone and anyone – including colleagues and relatives. Porn stars like Ovidie don’t really exist anymore. You may remember a time not so long ago when porn stars were worshiped. Today a woman’s name is rarely attached to her videos. Instead, she’s reduced to a series of tags and keywords, usually related to how many cocks are stuffed into her various holes – and yes, that number is going up and up.

Ovidie’s film Pornocracy explores the consequences of this:

  1. If everything is available for free, who is making any money?
  2. When everything is so easily accessible on the internet, children are seeing it from younger and younger ages (the average is 11). This is actually changing what boys expect from girls when they’re dating and starting to have sex.
  3. The porn industry’s reliance on drugs is rampant. Guys inject their penises to stay hard for 5 hours straight. Women are given child birth drugs to dilate muscles so their assholes can accommodate the 3 cocks expected of them. Then they’re flooded with lidocaine so she can’t feel herself being torn to shreds by the act – she will later though, and she will never completely heal.

This is not appetizing food for thought, but this is the world we live in, regardless of whether you yourself are watching porn or not. Everyone else is, apparently. Ovidie, known as the “porn star intellectual,” manages to investigate this phenomenon very thoroughly, uncovering the kingpin behind all these seemingly independent streaming sites. They’re nearly all owned by the same multinational corporation which is so seedy and shadowy with offshore accounts and empty offices. Fabian Thylmann is the guy behind the monopoly, exploiting performers while also boldly, shamelessly stealing from them. Ovidie makes sure he doesn’t get to hide behind his anonymity. This is an important, revealing documentary about the porn industry – but also about how it affects us all.


SXSW: Unrest

Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It’s a debilitating chronic disease as often misunderstood as it is misdiagnosed. People like to call it “the lazy disease” or “the I don’t want to go to work” disease. Doctors often diagnose a mental disorder rather than the autoimmune disease it actually is, telling patients “it’s all in their heads.” But to the 1-2.4 million people who suffer with it in the United States alone, it’s a disease that leaves you drained, sensitive to light and noise and possibly much else, perhaps unable to stand and walk. Permanently housebound and bedridden, they feel they’ve gone missing from their lives – it passes them by while they lie in bed, sometimes with cognitive impairments that make them feel like they’re not truly living.

Director Jennifer Brea is one such person. She was a happy newlywed when suddenly she just got hit with a disease she didn’t even know about. Robbed of the things she once loved doing, this film documents her daily struggles, the constant tug of war that must be waged against her body. She also reaches out to people around the world suffering the same thing, and together they try every supposed miracle cure on the market. When none work exactly as they hope, they stage a protest most are unable to attend. It’s really sad to see such vibrant people struck down by such sweeping disability. It is no wonder that despite serious medical symptoms, one of the most common causes of death for ME sufferers is suicide.

I am moved personally by this film because as you may know, I too have an autoimmune disorder. There are tonnes of autoimmune disorders and all but a handful are practically unknown, even to doctors. I admit to a small bit of jealousy when Brea complains about ME being the least-funded of the major diseases because my disease doesn’t even rate – we call it an “orphan disease”  – nobody’s even trying to cure it. There is no funding. There is no ribbon. There is no textbook. I’ve visited approximately 100 doctors and I’ve had to educate all but 2. The lives this disease ruins are too few for anyone to care. So in that way I understand perfectly what she’s going through; you have a terrible disease and you have no hope of cure. You have no hope, period. And on top of having no hope for yourself, you also have this huge burden of guilt because like her, I’ve dragged someone else into the equation. And while Sean is not sick, his life is also disabled by my disease. If I’m too riddled with pain to leave the house, he stays home with me. He cares with me. He deals with my terrible moods when I’m in pain, and my pushing him away when I’m in despair. He has brought me around the world to different doctors, and he feels the same low when I leave another appointment hopeless. In order to live our lives, I push myself out of bed and out of the house too often, and we both know I’ll pay the price. I’ve cried in anguish in Paris, outside the Centre Pompidou. I’ve bled across the Miami boardwalk. Even right now, in Austin, Texas for the South By SouthWest Conference and Festival, my suitcase is bursting with pills, gauze, and needles (that Sean has had to learn to inject me with) just to get me through, and I’ve limped along in secret pain, unable to even bring one of my most depended-upon medications with me because it’s illegal in this country.

So you’ll understand why I think a film like Unrest is so important. It sheds light in a dark corner of the medical community. It’s important to remember the real people who live their lives in this dark corner. They have voices. They have families who love them. They have friends who miss them. And if we cannot contribute to the cure, we can become allies. We can be witnesses and sympathizers and believers, so that nobody needs to hear from a doctor that “it’s all in your head.”

It’s screening at SXSW March 14 at the Vimeo Theatre and March 16 at Alamo Lamar, which serves great pretzels.

SXSW: Ramblin’ Freak

Although ostensibly about a specific bodybuilder’s incredible true story, Ramblin’ Freak is also about the randomness of life. Parker Smith wants to make a film but he’s not sure of what. He buys a used camera off Ebay thinking maybe he’ll set it up on his dashboard as he drives cross country, but the camera has a different idea. Lightly used, it comes pre-loaded with an old tape of some bodybuilder, and it turns out that body builder is “the man whose arms exploded” so Smith naturally feels that the universe has told him to document this man’s story, and off he goes.

Ramblin’ Freak captures the aimlessness of youth. Smith, 24 years old, seems untethered, his plan for the documentary really no plan at all, and the finished film turns ramblin-freak-F71268out to be largely unstructured: 50 minutes into the film we still haven’t seen any exploding arms, but we’ve seen plenty of Smith’s unironic mini van, his cat, and his Hipster facial hair. The film is dotted with seemingly random Youtube videos that slowly reveal the personal tragedy behind some of Smith’s listlessness.

Smith’s camera work leaves a lot to be desired. Don’t set your heart on perfectly composed shots. Don’t be surprised when the camera accidentally tilts up and you experience a scene via a shot of the ceiling, that may or may not have sound. And the story telling isn’t much better; unraveling Smith’s intentions feels like an opaque job that we’re not fairly equipped for. But as we made our way through hapless encounters, I began to feel that this disjointed film making was an accurate, authentic reflection on the film maker’s state of mind. If Smith lacks the vocabulary to express his pain, he’s letting his documentary do the talking for him, and it’s a mess.

All told, this is not the story of a body builder with exploding arms, or even about the journey towards that end. It’s really about a young man’s pain, his tentative exploration of it, his bravery and willingness to show it for what it is. Grief is never any one thing, and perhaps coping looks and feels different to this new Millennial generation. Parker Smith engages in this extended, 90-minute selfie and shows us a new kind of navel-gazing as he picks the scabs of his wounds and tries to heal himself.

Ramblin’ Freak screens at SXSW:

March 13: Alamo Ritz

March 16 & 18: Alamo Lamar






SXSW: Walk With Me

Walk With Me is a documentary that peers behind the mysterious curtain of a mindfulness-practicing monastery in rural France. The denizens of the Plum Village monastery have left behind their possessions and their pretensions to practice the spiritual art of living in the moment. Shot over 3 years with unprecedented access, Walk With Me allows us to get that much closer to a subject often shrouded in secrecy.

It strikes me quite quickly that the documentary itself is an exercise in meditation; it lulls carousel-06.jpgus with deliberately soothing music and excellently edited nature sounds. The film makes participants of us, the pace a thing of beauty, very measured, very calm, each image carefully and mindfully chosen. And it doesn’t hurt one ounce that Benedict Cumberbatch narrates.

Walk With Me boasts of time spent with “The Father of Mindfulness” Thich Nhat Hanh, but what I liked best was the insight gleaned from every day people, people who I could relate to, who had left behind everything familiar and everything material for the pursuit of peace and quiet.

I would guess that directors Marc Francis and Max Pugh were themselves transformed by the making of this movie. They’ve delved deeper than we’ve seen before, and achieved a certain intimacy that is rare in a documentary. Told in a fragmentary, rather than narrative, way, the documentary inspires a sense of being and understanding that allows us to explore this unknown by direct observation. The camera never feels intrusive though; there’s a respectful distance and some breathing room that infuses the project with a spiritual vibe.

The images encountered in Walk With Me are unquestionably beautiful. The stories carousel-05captured, the snippets of life, the tranquility: these all guide us down a path of – and forgive the use of this word – enlightenment.

You can catch Walk With Me at the SXSW Conference & Festival:

March 12 & 13 Zach Theatre

March 15 Alamo Lamar

Eight monastics from the film will be leading daily events at SXSW, including walking meditations and Q&As.



SXSW: Let There Be Light

In the race to find alternative energy sources and ultimately save ourselves from certain extinction, nuclear fusion is often left out of the narrative. Let There Be Light is an engaging reminder that fusion research is in fact bursting with potential, even if it is hidden away in the southern French countryside.

This documentary introduces us to a group of scientists who are working together to create Earth’s first artificial star, a star to provide perpetual, cheap, clean energy. It’s an internationally-funded, decades-long project that requires a lot of faith and some tireless screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-11-14-24-am.pngenergy from its proponents. Directors Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Royko interview some very charismatic and enthusiastic supporter and collaborators of the project, called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It’s pretty much the most complex machine ever designed and the commitment of these people cannot be overstated.

But as compelling as it is to see some scientists geeking out over this project that’s so mentally exciting and emotionally dear to them, Let There Be Light also shows the shadows. There are almost limitless hurdles. Some of this is brand new science or technology being invented on the spot as needed. The sheer scope is overwhelming. Countries and their taxpayers have to be constantly courted and updated, and scientists have to go begging for money just to keep this thing going. If it works? It could solve the global energy crisis. But if it fails it will be one of the biggest scientific and political blunders of all time. No pressure!

The directors put together some very dynamic interviews, great archival footage, and perhaps my favourite, some great animation with a gorgeous colour palette to bridge the gaps. It’s a lean documentary that stays interesting start to finish.

Let There Be Light has a premiere screening at SXSW this Friday March 10, 9pm at the Alamo Ritz. It will have additional screenings March 12 & 15 at Alamo Lamar. Check it out!

SXSW: Through The Repellent Fence

Through The Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film is a documentary screening at the South By SouthWest Conference and Festival.

It’s about a trio of Indigenous artists (they create under the collective name Postcommodity) who are putting up an art installation, a wall or a fence if you will, between Mexico and the U.S. It is not meant as a separation in the way that Donald Trump intends his, rather, it’s meant as a fence that can bridge the two cultures\countries, and it will travel not along the border but a mile into each country.

It’s clear that the artists have put much thought into how this piece of land art will be perceived. MV5BZGNmM2E0MmEtMjc0YS00YzdkLWFkMTktNzIwOTdiMDY5YTU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDE4OTc1MzE@._V1_They want something temporary, first of all, so as not to permanently alter the land. Think of sutures: something that dissolves after the healing is done. To that end, they come to a beautiful and striking solution of tethering helium-filled balloons. However, the fence is not just symbolic of connectedness, but represents an awful lot of actual collaboration between peoples and communities to make this art happen.

It’s not just about the art, though, but also of our reaction to it. The documentary allows us to talk about borders: real, shifting, fluid, imagined, and imposed. I watched it for exactly this reason: the art spoke to me, but the reasons are what compel, and are why a documentary is a great companion piece to such an important work. But it turns out the documentary, directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas, is thoughtful, intelligent, and a piece with its own inherent value. Its flavour is distinctly Indigenous, serving as a reminder that borders are a construct but life within and around them is always so much more rich and complex than we see in typical media portrayals.The documentary is also surprisingly beautiful, gorgeously lensed by cinematographer David Layton, with sweeping shots of some of the most cinematic landscapes on the planet.

Through The Repellent Fence, a worthy addition to the SXSW lineup, is screening at Rollins Theatre at The Long Center on Saturday, March 11, 4:30pm, and again at Alamo Lamar on Monday, March 13 and Friday, March 17. It’s visually intoxicating and culturally significant: you have nothing to lose.

Starting today, we’ll be in Austin taking in as much SXSW goodness as we can handle. Follow along on Twitter at @assholemovies!


OJ: Made In America

First, understand that OJ Simpson, to me, is the murderer. I was a kid when he killed his ex-wife and her friend, so I hadn’t known him as a football player or movie star or celebrity before then. The first I ever knew of him was when his white Bronco interrupted my Saved By The Bell marathoning.

This documentary doesn’t just seek to illustrate the life and times of one Orenthal James Simpson; rather it places his career and his crime within the context of L.A.’s race wars in the 1980s and 1990s. While the things you thought you knew about his sensational murder oj-made-america-show-400x400trial aren’t wrong, they’re explored with new understanding, through a lens of his being a black man, sort of, but not really.

What on earth do I mean by that? OJ grew up in the projects, as he is fond of saying when it’s convenient. He dreamed not of glory or achievement or wealth, but of fame, of being known. Certainly his football career granted him that. He was a big deal in college football circa 1968, kept his nose clean, stayed out of politics, and earned himself the Heisman trophy. He was drafted to the NFL where he suffered a bit of a slump but had a rebirth by 1973 when he set a record rushing for 2000 yards in one season. I walk my dog further than that nearly every day, but apparently that’s some sort of accomplishment in football.

OJ became a star athlete and celebrity whose fame transcended his race. White American embraced him, and OJ played his part. He courted white culture and did his best to never remind anyone that he was still technically a black man. He was the first national black spokesperson, for Hertz rental cars, and that meant he’d arrived. When he retired from football, he traded in his black wife for a white one and transitioned to Hollywood.

Yeah sure he beat his wife on the reg, but with a wink and an autograph the cops would be slapping him on the back, making no reports, casting no aspersions. Life was good until Nicole up and left him and his jealousy surged. The one night Nicole was found dead, nearly decapitated in fact, in a small ocean’s worth of her blood. A friend who had had the misfortune of stopping by at the wrong time, Ronald Goldman, was also killed. And this time the cops couldn’t deny that the crime had OJ’s name all over it.

We all know that OJ was acquitted, but this documentary shows his acquittal as an act of vengeance. The jury was stacked largely with poor black people who had seen members of lead_960the LAPD be acquitted in he Rodney King beating. Here was a chance to right that wrong and make the system work for a black man for once. Everyone conveniently forgot that OJ had spent his entire adult life distancing himself from the black community and they made him a civil rights hero. His lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, played the race card and he played it hard “dealt it from the bottom of the deck” it’s said. And he got off. But instead of relishing his incredible good luck, OJ’s life continued to derail until he found himself in court once again, this time found guilty and sentenced to some 33 years in prison, whether or not his crimes truly warranted it. This, again, was retaliation rather than justice.

At 467 minutes, this documentary achieves a depth we haven’t seen before and earns itself an Academy Award nomination – but is this fair? It had a qualifying run in theatres (though who would pay to sit for nearly 8 hours is a mystery to me) but it was produced and aired on television, in 5 parts on ESPN. Every other documentary had to play by different rules, hovering around that 90 minute mark that makes a film viable and marketable. This is the longest film to ever receive a best documentary nomination, and I can’t help but wonder if this will change things moving forward.

I can’t ignore that this film is very effective, juxtaposing the American dream with American reality, pinning OJ’s circumstances in a time and place that were far from ideal. It is balanced and cheese almighty is it ever thorough, complete with Marcia Clark in a redemptive hairdo. Glory be! It doesn’t waste any of its 467 minutes, nor are any redundant. There is much ground to cover and the film makes clear that OJ is not just a man of his own making, but an idol that a whole culture had a hand in creating (and destroying). There are so many insights here that I sent constant missives to Sean, just venting my hurt and frustration. I’ve come away with a breadth of understanding that his filled a gulch I didn’t even know existed in my awareness of this epic and polarizing event. There are discoveries to be made here, if you’re willing to follow director Ezra Edelman’s trail of breadcrumbs for the requisite 7 hours and change.

Fire At Sea

Fire At Sea is an Italian documentary directed by Gianfranco Rosi that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is nominated for an Oscar.

It’s about the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, between Africa and Italy, and focuses on the European migrant crisis, during which some 15000 people have died trying to reach the island. Hundreds of people board boats that are barely seafaring and risk their lives trying to make it to a safer life. Not everyone makes it.

It’s such a sad story, and an important cause. I wanted badly to like this movie. Badly. Meryl Streep, chair of the Berlin jury, called the film “a daring hybrid of captured fuocoammare-1footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking.” Meryl, love ya, but I respectfully disagree.

I realize I’m going to be in the minority here, but Fire At Sea nearly bored me to death. There’s no narration to drive the story. There isn’t much of a story at all. It follows some island natives who have very little to do with the migrant crisis, and if their lives are affected by it at all, it remains a secret from us. Lengthy scenes are spent on a 12 year old boy who has a lazy eye and an aptitude with slingshots. Why give so much time to him and very little to the actual refugees? The only thing I can conclude is that the film maker is making the migrant crisis seem every day, as perhaps it feels to the people of Lampedusa who have witnessed so much and are now impressed by very little. But for me, hearing people plead for their lives over a CB radio, begging to be saved from their rapidly sinking vessel, it’s horrible. It’s fucking atrocious. But in this documentary, it’s given no more weight than is given to the kid discussing his allergies. So while I concede there might be some bigger meaning going on here, that it’s the juxtaposition of banality and tragedy that really underlines the horror, it just felt off to me, the refugees basically an afterthought.

The length of the scenes are painful, and Rosi’s aesthetic detracts from the film’s impact. Yes, life must go on, even in face of unspeakably injustice, but perhaps this film would have served its subject better had it focused on one more than the other. While I appreciate the message, I can’t help but object to the medium.