Tag Archives: documentaries

SXSW: More Human Than Human

1977: Star Wars introduces us to helpful and humourous robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO.

1982: Blade Runner tells us that robots can be scary, and the scariest thing about them is when they’re indistinguishable from us.

1984: Terminator is a robot who’s come to destroy us all.

About 5 minutes after we invented robots we started predicting our own extinction at their hands. About a third of jobs that used to exist in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by robots. Stephen Hawking has warned us that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” In 1998, that annoying plush toy Furby had more computing power in it than was used to put a man on the moon. Our smartphones today are MILLIONS of times faster. With a god-like lack of hubris we are driven to create these things in our own image (or at least replicate the human brain), but once we’ve recreated human intelligence, and robots capable of building other robots, then isn’t the next step SUPER human download.jpgintelligence – and then haven’t we made ourselves redundant? And yet we can’t help ourselves.

Even within this documentary that explores the dark corners of AI, the film makers (Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting) can’t help but wonder if they can build a robot that will replace themselves. Can they get an AI to direct a movie about AI?

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov so this documentary is like heaven to me. This must be what it’s like to ride a rollercoaster: I am sickly fascinated by the very robots that I fear. Maybe that’s why I love movies like Her (in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an AI) and Marjorie Prime (in which people assuage their grief by replacing their dead loved ones with cloned AI) and Ex Machina (in which Domhnall Gleeson falls in love with an AI even as he works to disprove her humanity) but I refuse Alexa in my home, and in fact have never even asked a single question of Siri.

A.I. is not a question of the future. It’s here. The question is, what are we going to allow it to do? Take care of our aging parents? Drive our cars? Create art? If machines can do all of that, then who the heck are we? That was my favourite part of this movie: really thinking about humanity and what it means to live among these sophisticated creatures – creatures of our own making, and possibly our undoing.

The directors do in fact come up with a movie-making robot, and bring in Billy Crudup and Richard Linklater to comment upon its success. But no matter how they feel, or I feel, or you feel, robots are here to stay. And they are capable of very convincingly telling us how great they are. Could we even get rid of them, if we wanted to? Are we as fully in control as we believe? And if so – for how much longer?

 

 

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SXSW: Making The Grade

My grandmother had a very old, very creaky stand up piano in her dining room. Once we’d eaten all her cookies and drawn all over her church stationery, we’d pound away on the untuned keys, convinced we were making loud, beautiful music. We were not. But lessons were for rich people and we were not that either.

This documentary acquaints us with a whole spectrum of Irish piano students, those studying for their first grade exams all the way to the 8th. Old and young are peppered randomly throughout; some have natural ability and others are a little plonkier, but they’re all more dedicated than me. The kids astound me, of course. The piano seems the antithesis of our sped-up society and I’m impressed that any of them have the chutzpah to put in adequate practice, persevere through the tough spots, and pursue an accomplishment that isn’t very well rewarded anymore. But my favourite of director Ken Wardrop’s subjects is a woman with short gray hair and colourful tunics who persists though she’s the first to admit she isn’t any good. I suppose that’s what I admire most: yes, the music sounds better coming from the fingers of someone for whom this comes easily – but it’s so much sweeter coming from the clumsy fingers of a woman who possesses not the teeniest drop of rhythm.

Making the Grade isn’t flashy. There are no stylish tricks. But you’ll find that simply pointing the camera at a bunch of people who know a secret – well, the camera loves secrets, doesn’t it? This is what documentaries are for: exposing those we wouldn’t otherwise know. Whether it’s a little girl discover power and confidence in her music, or a woman finding solace and self-care in hers, it’s moving just to see others be moved by music of their own creation. And of their teachers? This is a loving tribute.

 

SXSW: Take Your Pills

Oh lord – I can’t decide what I’m more relieved about: not being a kid today, or not being a parent today.

Every era gets the drug it deserves, so says the movie’s clever blurb. This generation? This generation takes Adderall. Amphetamines have been around for a long time, but it’s never been more eagerly prescribed to kids than it is today, in the form of ADHD meds, or more abused by students who just like the feeling of being “zoned in” – hence its nickname, college crack.

I’ve never heard of a drug that made me feel old. But back in my day, we took drugs to turn off and check out, but kids today are taking it to check in. And that’s a pretty MV5BNWQ5NDYxNjYtODc4Ni00NmIyLWEyMGYtNGM0N2ZmYjgzYTliXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTg0MzU3NjM@._V1_damning comment on today’s hyper competitive culture in which young adults liken abusing prescribed drugs to drinking a cup of coffee. Like I said, amphetamines aren’t new: The Beatles took them, Andy Warhol took them, Vietnam soldiers took them in order to go, go, go. And then they became horribly addicted, and the drugs became controlled. Except now students are seeking them out as performance-enhancers, faking ADHD to gain an edge while taking the SATs, and getting their hands on drugs whether prescribed or not.

It’s not like this phenomenon was news to me, but being confronted by the statistics in this movie had me uttering “oh shit” with alarming frequency. And that’s what you want in a documentary: facts to open your eyes, and anecdotes to give them colour. Director Alison Klayman looks at the drug’s history, its effects, its draw, its efficacy, the truth and the lies behind it. This documentary takes an issue that may have been niggling at you for a while and makes it not just a headline but an easily digestible information bomb. There are ethics at play here, so ultimately Klayman provides the context but the judgements and decisions are still yours to make – but information is power, and if you’re willing to dose yourself a stimulant, the LEAST you can do is dose prescribe yourself a little reality to go along with it.

 

SXSW: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It’s a beautiful day in this neighbourhood, a beautiful day for a neighbour, would you be mine? Could you be mine?

It was in fact another beautiful day in Austin, Texas when we shunned the sunshine in favour of a SXSW venue to watch Morgan Neville’s documentary about everybody’s childhood friend, Mr. Rogers. It was the 10th day of a 10 day film festival, and Sean and I were worn down but still happy to be there, bellies full of fajitas, not minding the neighbourhood at all, except for the unfortunate fact that there was a bomber on the loose. [You may have read about this in the news – the package bombings had started MV5BMTkxNzgwMjg4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk2MDk1NDM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,663,1000_AL_slightly before the festival began and continued, threats shutting down an event, and police dogs sniffing the larger venues for traces of explosives. The alleged bomber died days later, blowing himself up when the cops arrived to arrest him] But the festival always felt like a safe space and we’d seen lots of great movies and done some once-in-a-lifetime things, and were not just coasting until the closing movie Isle of Dogs later that night.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seemed like a good way to spend an innocuous afternoon. The documentary had been well-received at Sundance, and Sean and I both had some warm, if fuzzy, memories if the cardigan-wearing man who sang his gentle songs to us through the TV.

Turns out, Mr. Rogers was a much more interesting man than I ever knew. An ordained minister, he was at the forefront of childhood development and had some very concrete ideas on how children needed to be treated in order to feel safe and secure – and how television could be a tool toward that goal, but mostly wasn’t.

The documentary has clips from old shows, ancient, that date back to the 1960s, black and white stuff I never knew existed. It’s also got archival footage of him in interviews, and clips from TV shows he did aimed at adults, which are quite another thing. But he’s the same guy, always: slow, steady speech, in that comforting tone of voice, slightly goofy, easy smile, bushy eyebrows, lean, lolloping gait. He spoke directly to children, and sometimes on very difficult, specific topics. I was floored to hear one of his puppets ask what ‘assassination’ meant – but yes, he did dare to cover such things as they made national headlines.

But what is Mr. Rogers’ legacy? This is where the documentary gets really interesting. Did he succeed in making children confident? Or, as some critics say, did he render them entitled when he told each and every one of us that we were special? He was a bit of a radical in his way, and he likely had some effect on most of us North Americans, one way or another. He’s been dead more than a decade but we’re still remembering him with some reverence, and it’s fun to look back – because his history is also our childhoods, and that’s something we can all share.

SXSW: The Director and The Jedi

the-director-and-the-jedi-sxswWhen I was a kid, I had a behind-the-scenes book detailing how they filmed the space combat in Star Wars, and I loved it. I could think of nothing better than to get to play with the spaceship models and the huge Death Star set used for the climactic scene. I found it fascinating to see how the movie was made.

And though my book did not inspire me sufficiently to pursue a career in film, my story is not much different than one that Rian Johnson tells in The Director and The Jedi, or for that matter one that Barry Jenkins told in his amazing keynote speech here at SXSW a couple of days ago about filming Moonlight in the same projects where Jenkins grew up.  Peeks behind the scenes can inspire the next generation of filmmakers, and give birth to a dream that a kid might not otherwise know to have, because it’s not immediately obvious that for every actor there are ten creative people behind the scenes, designing sets, making costumes, and on and on. But beyond that, even for someone like me who’s made a career choice that is not film, it’s just really cool to see how a huge film like Star Wars: The Last Jedi gets made.

The Director and The Jedi spans the course of The Last Jedi’s creation and documentarian Anthony Wonke was clearly given full access to the production. In granting unfettered access to Wonke and his crew, Johnson seems to have been trying to pay it forward, and in doing so he’s given a huge gift to all Star Wars fans.

There are some really amazing moments captured in The Director and The Jedi, with a particular favourite of mine being the destruction of the Jedi library, especially seeing the creature designers lose their shit over meeting Frank Oz.  And really, who can blame them? After all, he’s probably the reason they got into that career, and maybe even the reason their jobs even exist!

Maybe, just maybe, one young Star Wars fan will be inspired by this film to become the next Rian Johnson or Barry Jenkins. But even if not, there will be something of interest in The Director and The Jedi for every kid who ever wanted to fly his or her own model X-Wing through the trench run.

SXSW: Social Animals

Instagram. It has 700 million users, and this documentary is the story of 3 of them.

Kaylyn Slevin is a self-discribed dancer, “beach girl”, and aspiring bikini model. She lives in her parents’ mansion and Instagrams herself rollerskating around its cavernous hallways.

MV5BYzc3YzBmM2QtNWJkNi00NDQ1LWI5YzEtNGNmN2I4YjU0N2U2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjM3NzQzNTk@._V1_Humza Deas grew up in the projects and has come into his own as an urban photographer. He discovered his passion with a broken iphone and now has a serious Insta following thanks to his beautiful images often captured with some risk and daredevil antics. But when he accidentally exposed the subculture, he got death threats.

Emma Crockett is a midwest high school student challenging boundaries and testing limits on Instagram. Her parents don’t allow dating until age 16 but that doesn’t stop her getting dozens of DMs from strangers asking for booty pics. It’s a new world with new kinds of bullying and harassment and one wrong foot meant that Emma had to leave her Christian school to escape the nastiness.

This documentary is probably must-see for anyone over 25 because OH MY GOD it’s eye-opening and panic-inducing. I do have an Instagram account but I use it for one thing and one thing only: proof of life when I have charge of my sister’s kids. That’s it. Watching this doc, I’ve discovered that there are rules to Instagram that I never knew and break flagrantly every time I use it. Never post more than one picture a day. Did you know that? Like I said, I’ll post a hundred pictures of the kids on a weekend away with them, and then nothing for the next month. Never post two selfies in a row. Did you know that? That one doesn’t apply to me since I’ve never taken a selfie and realized I don’t know how. And I suppose don’t care to know. But teenagers, they know. They take this shit seriously, looking for love, for acceptance, but also constantly comparing and dealing with jealousy and envy. And competing for likes! And followers. And fame.

Humza takes thoughtful, inspired photos and deserves to be known for his work and his artistry. Emma is a kid who needs hugs and understanding. With Instagram’s sole purpose seeming to make popularity extremely quantifiable, it’s a dangerous beast to tussle with, and has dire consequences for some. Kaylyn is also just a kid, one who has fallen head-first into the image-obsessed culture of Instagram. And this documentary really forces us to ask how self worth will be measured when how things look is the only thing that matters.

 

SXSW: The World Before Your Feet

Within the thousands of neighbourhoods in the five boroughs of New York City, there are 8,000 miles of streets, bridges, parks, beaches, and cemeteries to explore. For the past six years, 37 year-old Matt Green has been on a mission to walk every single one of them.

Go ahead and ask. He won’t mind. People ask him all the time. “Why?” He really doesn’t know, other than that he loves the city, wants to be doing this, and for reasons he can’t put his finger on he feels that he’s doing something important.

How does he find the time to do all this? He doesn’t have a job. “Are you like independently wealthy or something?” one skeptical onlooker asked. “No, I’m… I’m independently homeless”.

While following Green as he walks, couchsurfs, and catsits his ways around the city, director Jeremy Workman captures way too much beauty, detail, and history to be absorbed properly in a single viewing. And his documentary The World Before Your Feet will make you want to absorb every detail. That’s what Green’s journey and Workman’s film are all about. The beauty of travelling on foot, according to Green, is that you notice things. And with nothing to do but walk and take notice, he never misses a chance to stop to smell the roses, read the signs, and meet the people.

The World Before Your Feet can seem a little episodic at times but how can it not? Green has six years worth of photos, stories, and research to share and this delightful and inspiring documentary does its best to show and tell as much of it as it can. Green and Workman answer most of the hows and whys as well as they can but really this is a film about enjoying the moment which offers a whole lot of moments of its own for us to enjoy.

 

SXSW: They Live Here, Now

Since 1986, Casa Marianella has provided housing and assistance for thousands of recent immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from 40 countries around the world. Dedicated staff help create a healthy sense of community within their walls and help their guests learn English, find jobs, and see immigration lawyers.

Nayeli is a recent addition to the Casa Marianella community. She is 16 years old and would rather not say her last name. The story of her journey from Mexico (she’d rather not say what part) to Austin is a harrowing one, filled with loss, violence, and fear. She is seeking asylum in the US but, as a lawyer tells her, her chances aren’t great. It’s impossible not to feel for her while listening to her story and watching her make connections at Casa Marianella. Unbeknownst to the staff and residents, not to mention me as I was watching the film, she is a fictional character being played by an actress.

Knowing that the documentary I thought I’d been watching was in fact a “fiction/doc hybrid” changes the way I think about the film. My initial review, had I not bothered with some post-viewing research, would have admired the film’s subject and intentions but complained that, with only a 63 minutes running time, we don’t get enough chance to get to know the people staying thereI would have cited Nayeli as an exception because she gets the most screen time. I also probably would have said that this is one of those rare movies that I’d actually wished had been longer.

I now think that maybe I’d been asking a lot of filmmaker Jason Outenreath and his participants. Outenreath spent a year visiting Casa Marianella and forming relationships and building trust. He did not conduct pre-interviews but instead asked his participants “Tell me whatever you feel comfortable with, about your experience as an immigrant coming to the United States”. The answers he gets vary both in length and in how much detail they are willing to provide. Many of the residents have been through unspeakable trauma and some have good reason to fear for their safety. When I think of what they’ve been through, I appreciate even more how giving they are with their trust in Outenreath and the audience and in how much they are willing to share.

What struck me the most about many of the interviews was the gratitude of the film’s subjects. Many take the time to thank the camera for the opportunity to speak, which is something I don’t see a lot of in documentaries. Outenreath sought to give voice to immigrants and refugees who are too often left out of the much politicized discussion on immigrants and refugees. With all the statistics and rhetoric being thrown around on both sides of the debate, Outenreath reminds us to take the time to listen to the people that we’re arguing about.

SXSW: From All Corners

Quick question: How do you feel about cardboard?

Unless your name is Fuyuki Shimazu, the subject of this documentary, your honest answer would probably have to be “I don’t have strong feelings about it either way’. Until day, it was virtually impossible for me to imagine anyone responding any differently. Well, Fuyuki Shimazu loves cardboard.

It all started when he was a poor student wanting a wallet of his own but not able to afford one. Left with only two choices- do without for awhile or get creative- he made himself one out of cardboard. I can’t remember offhand if he made it from cardboard he found in the garbage or if he started doing that later.

Fuyuki’s outside the box thinking turned into a passion and eventually a career.  Searching the warehouses and dumpsters all over japan, he began to collect cardboard that caught his eye and began to make a living off of making and selling wallets. And they’re nicer than you might think. Seen through Fuyuki’s eyes, yeah, I can sort of see it. I wouldn’t have noticed before but there are a lot of cardboard boxes out there with eye-catching designs.

It’s not easy to know what to make of Fuyuki at first as he travels the country to various factories to learn the stories and inspirations behind his favourite cardboard boxes. he worked at a prestigious advertising firm for 3 years as an art director where his colleagues said things like “Whenever you talk, it’s always about cardboard”, “He’s a different kind of species”, and “We have all sorts of employees so he was not the only weird one, but…”. He’s a likable guy though and seems to be able to make friends with anyone. His enthusiasm, if not exactly contagious, is endearing, inspiring, and unquestionably genuine. He’s a great subject for a documentary and director Ryusuke Okajima is smart to keep the focus mostly on him.

There’s a more universal point to all this, of course, about upcycling. With Earth’s resources dwindling as they are… Oh never mind. Just watch the movie. I promise it’ll be worth your time. And if you’re as burnt out on documentaries about the environment as I am, you’ll be relieved to know that Okajima doesn’t belabor this point and only mentions it in any detail towards the end. Fuyuki Shimazu and his wallets are fascinating and From All Corners is wise to keep the focus mostly on them.

 

Jim & Andy

The official title of the documentary is Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton and it’s ‘about’ how Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman in order to portray him in the 1999 movie Man in the Moon.

Andy Kaufman was a comedian who defied definition. There wasn’t and hasn’t been anyone like him before or since; Kaufman existed outside the normal conception of stand-up comedy. For a lot of people he was simply too much – so who better to play him than this generation’s over the top comedian, Jim Carrey?

Having watched the documentary, it’s hard to decide who’s crazier. Maybe Andy MV5BMjM3OTY1OTAxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI0MTUxNDM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Kaufman just didn’t give a fuck – but Jim? The documentary has a tonne of footage from the set of the movie, which was filmed 20 years ago. A documentary was planned at the time (shot by an old girlfriend of Andy’s) but Universal pulled the plug, for fear that the public would discover their beloved Jim Carrey to be an asshole. Cut to 2017 and the cat’s pretty much out of the bag. And maybe asshole’s not even the right word, but there is no one right word: he’s a space cadet, a depressive, a nonsensical philosopher. And those things are all apparent in the documentary, which also features an interview with him present day. And it’s hard to know who to detest and pity more: the Jim Carrey on the set of Man on the Moon was was never Jim Carrey at all because he was so deep in the character Jim never showed up to work, or the Jim Carrey today who at times seems downright bewildered even in his own skin. He talks about fugue states and telepathy, but bottom line, he believes that the spirit of Kaufman inhabited his body during filming. When director Milos Forman or colleagues like Danny De Vito or Paul Giamatti tried to address Jim on the set, “Andy” would be angry and\or defensive. “Andy” was always on, and always creating a ruckus. You can see how that would wear thin. The real Jim Carrey, whoever that is, has recently claimed to have had a spiritual awakening, and depending how woke you are yourself, what he spouts is either enlightened or crazy.

Either way, it’s hard to watch. And while it starts out to be fascinating in a voyeuristic, train wreck kind of way, my tolerance for it eroded before the 94 run time was up. And I’m a little uncomfortable eavesdropping on the scattered thoughts of a man who is perhaps not mentally at his best. Having battled depression for years, he has lately taken to ascribing meaninglessness to everything, coming off loopy in red carpet interviews. And he’s still staring down the barrel of a wrongful death lawsuit, accused by his dead girlfriend’s mother and estranged husband of having introduced her to hard drugs, prostitute, and at least 3 STIs. Carrey maintains the the lawsuit is simply a shakedown. I don’t know who’s right, but I do know that the whole method acting thing was nutty to begin with and is downright unhinged the way he does it. Maybe it’s the counsellor in me talking, but watching this just made me think: this man needs help.