Category Archives: Documentary

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” (Wendy Moscow)

 

June 20, 2019.  Nobel prize-winning writer, teacher, book editor and mother, Toni Morrison stands proudly as the latest in an ancestral line of African American women whom she remembers as having fearlessly confronted the world with a clear sense of who they were, despite having suffered horrendous indignities. These are the women who populate Morrison’s novels – “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved” – written unapologetically in the language of the African American experience. Troubled by the cultural assumption that the reader is always white, she defied the norms of her time, writing stories with which Black people could resonate – unconcerned by the hegemony of the white gaze. Exemplifying this paradigm change, Morrison cites Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” an earlier novel whose white gaze is explicitly implied. “Invisible to whom?” she asks. Read the rest of this entry

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“Renegade Dreamers” (Wendy Moscow)

May 25, 2019.  Karen Kramer is a filmmaker who has always been fascinated by communities on the fringes of normative society, whose members dance (sometimes literally) to a different drummer, whose spiritual life or moral compass lead them to reject the path of least resistance. I can remember seeing her film “The Jolo Serpent Handlers” in an anthropology class at Queens College, and marveling at a subculture of which I had been completely unaware, profiled by Kramer with grace, respect and without judgment. She shares her love of celebratory cultural expression with us in many of her films – raising up faith traditions (Haitian Vodou, Hasidism, as well as the snake handlers) in which ecstasy, trance and spirit possession play an empowering role – with music as their driving heartbeat.

“Renegade Dreamers,” Kramer’s latest film, is a nostalgic, joyful and hopeful ride along several of the pathways beloved by the filmmaker: rebelliousness, artistic expression, political counter-culture, and the centrality of music. A previous film, “The Ballad of Greenwich Village,” explored the history of that amazingly fertile neighborhood in all its many different aspects. “Renegade Dreamers” specifically traces the legacy of the Beat poets of the 50’s and the folk musicians of the 60’s (for whom Greenwich Village was an incredibly rich locus of creativity) to the present day – introducing us to contemporary poets and singer/songwriters who are following in the footsteps of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger (to name but a few). Interweaving archival footage with interviews of and performances by these new troubadours, the film allows us to transition effortlessly between past and present, savoring the continuity between the two eras both creatively and politically. Read the rest of this entry

“Walking on Water” at Film Forum (Wendy Moscow)

May 16, 2019.  “Walking on Water” is both the title of a new documentary about the controversial artist Christo, and the concept behind his 2016 project, the second without his working and life-partner, Jeanne-Claude, called “The Floating Piers.” Told in excruciating (but enlightening) detail, director Andrey Paounov follows the creative process of Christo and his team from before the beginning of construction to the (purposeful) end of the art project’s sixteen day existence.

The film, an unflinching portrait of an eccentric and cantankerous visionary, 81 years old at the time the film was made, gives us an extraordinarily intimate look at one of the most well-known artists of our day. Almost from the moment the film begins, we are introduced to someone who is difficult, demanding, and resistant to practical suggestions from his long-suffering operations director Vladimir Yavachev. But there are moments of joy, too. He enthusiastically explains his ideas to a somewhat receptive though bemused elementary school class, when, tellingly, the smart board fails and he ends up drawing on a piece of paper taped to the smart board – a technology with which he is clearly more comfortable. There are other amusing technical glitches – a Skype session that almost doesn’t work and a mic failure in a theater; all superseded, eventually, by the hard work of building a massive project in non-virtual reality. Read the rest of this entry

“Love, Cecil” (Seth Shire)

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June 27, 2018.  “Love Cecil” is the new, remarkably detailed and researched documentary, by director Lisa Immordino Vreeland, about the life and work of Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980), an artist who was many things: photographer of Hollywood and British royalty, New York City street photographer, war photographer, fashion photographer, designer, theatre director, stage designer, insecure social climber, foppish dandy, writer, costume designer, seeker of style and glamour and a serious diarist (155 volumes).  Beaton was a three time Oscar winner, for Best Costume Designer for “Gigi” (1958), then won two more Oscars for Costume Design and Art Direction – Set Decoration for “My Fair lady” (1964).  He was a dedicated scrap book creator (77 volumes), friend of Garbo, a fan of Edwardian bravura, contributor to “Vogue” and “Life” magazines.  All of these melded into one point of view – that of Beaton, a talent in so many areas.  “It’s always Beaton’s look, Beaton’s touch,” one interviewee explains.

The result is “Love, Cecil,” a kaleidoscopic portrait of artistic talent tied to a man, an outsider to English high society who desired, and received, the company of what he called “Bright, Young Things” (mainly code for closeted, gay, upper class), of the then fashionable British society.  Beaton was never confident that he had been truly accepted into this upper class stratum, as he was not “to the manor born,” something which actually may have been a driving force for his art, in which he continually tried to prove himself.  Beaton was also gay at a time when homosexuality was against the law – another aspect of his life which made him feel like an outsider.  Beaton was a complex artist whose life itself was, perhaps, a performance of sorts. Read the rest of this entry

The Doctor From India (Wendy Moscow)

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June 1, 2018.  At a pace befitting its subject, the life of Ayurvedic practitioner Vasant Lad, the new documentary “The Doctor From India” unfolds like an extended meditation on holistic healing and the power of radical empathy. To those for whom finding sacred wisdom within oneself, living in balance with nature, and seeing holiness within every being seems like unbearable spiritual claptrap, seeing this lovely film by director Jeremy Frindel just might be a transformative experience.

 

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian form of medicine that employs not only the rate but the movement and rhythm of a patient’s pulse as the primary means of diagnosis. The three pulse types – “vata”, “pitta” and “kapha” (correlated with energies/physiological functions in the body and in nature) must be in balance, according to this system, for the patient to be healthy. An Ayurvedic practitioner might suggest plant-based remedies as well as a change in one’s mental outlook and physical habits. But, says Dr. Lad, everyone must discover that inner spark of sacred knowledge of their own existence – the “I AM” that allows someone to realize who they are at the very core of their being. Then, self-healing is possible. Read the rest of this entry

“Heading Home: the Tale of Team Israel” – Premieres on May 29 at the JCC Manhattan (Seth Shire)

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Baseball, Jews in sports, “Mensch on a Bench,” yarmulkas, yeshiva students, cheer leaders, rabbis, pre-game Purim services at a stadium, anti-semitism, Israel and the Middle East conflict, all come together in “Heading Home: the Tale of Team Israel.”  Ironbound Films, a stellar documentary production company, hits a home run again (sorry, I couldn’t resist) with its latest documentary – a joyous, funny, heartfelt and compelling portrait with a host of great characters.  Even a documentary has to have great characters, and “Heading Home” delivers.

I will admit that despite being part of a Jewish, baseball loving family, I never developed an interest in baseball, or sports in general for that matter.  My thing is film.  Now, having said this, I think that there must be some genetic, Jewish/sports influence as I have always liked movies (narratives and documentaries) about sports and about Jewish issues.  To this end, “Heading Home: the Tale of Team Israel” fired for me, on all pistons, as I know it will for audiences of many different backgrounds.  This documentary’s themes of pride, culture and, most of all, identity, will cut across cultures and resonate with people of all ethnicities.

When it comes to baseball, the State of Israel may not be the first name to come to mind.  After all, there is the stereotype about Jews not being good at sports and, as we learn in this documentary, Israel has only one baseball field…in the entire country!

“Heading Home” is the story of 10 Jewish American baseball players (former big leaguers) who join a team to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic (which consists of 16 baseball teams, each representing a different country) held every four years.  To play in the WBC, a player has to be a citizen of the country for which he is playing.  To be a citizen of Israel, one has to be Jewish, which means having, at a bare minimum, one Jewish grandparent.  As long as each of these players can provide the proof, they are within WBC rules.  A picture of a grandfather’s grave stone, marriage contracts in Hebrew and a father’s World War II dog tag, with the word “Jewish” embossed on it, come pouring in as evidence.  Despite this, the issue of whether this is just an American team supporting Israel is raised, at one point.

What the film is really about, though, is what happens to these Jewish American players as a result of playing for Israel.  Some of them are religious, others not so much.  However, Margo Sugarman, the team’s Assistant General Manager, explains that the emotional aspect of coming to Israel is “a whole new ball game.”  The documentary also explores how Jews playing baseball might positively affect how people view Jews and, as a result, break down anti-semitism.

Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger have created a meticulous documentary that follows the team from its qualifying game (to get into the WBC) up to Team Israel’s final game (no spoilers here).  Their cameras are always in the right places at the right times.  Kramer, who also edited the film, keeps the story consistently interesting by balancing interviews with the players, managers and coaches intercut with game footage, media coverage, press conferences, background information, fan reactions and great “off the cuff” moments.  As pitcher Josh Zeid puts it, “No better stage. No better team.  It’s my favorite game in the world.  Why not play?”

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Quest (Seth Shire)

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December 8, 2017.  As a film critic who writes primarily about documentaries this may sound sacrilegious, but, I don’t usually care for “fly on the wall,” verite style, documentaries.  I am referring to documentaries that will show a situation and then leave it up to the viewer to interpret it. I gravitate toward documentaries that have stories, points of view and interesting subjects that make me care about something or someone.  Call me shallow, but I want to be guided through a film.  That having been said, I am a bit amazed, and, at the same time, quite gratified, that I truly enjoyed, and was very intrigued by, the new, verite style documentary “Quest.”  Read the rest of this entry

Jane (Wendy Moscow)

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December 2, 2017.  There’s no lack of documentaries about Jane Goodall and her lifelong work studying the wild chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania – but the latest one, simply called “Jane,” is astonishing in its depth, beauty and insight. Drawing from 140 hours of never-before-seen footage shot by Hugo Van Lawick for National Geographic, a contemporary interview with Dr. Goodall, and narration created from an audio recording of an earlier memoir, director Brett Morgen offers the viewer an immersive experience that the previous documentaries cannot match. Joshua Paul Johnson (Assistant Supervising Sound Editor), sound designers Odin Benitez and Peter Staubli plus a crew of six (!) re-recording mixers have much to do with this. Read the rest of this entry

Bombshell: the Heddy Lamarr Story (Seth Shire)

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December 2, 2017.  Multiple marriages, frequency hopping, scandals, dehydrated Coca Cola, nudity, a villa in Aspen, drug addiction, guided missiles, GPS, wi-fi, Bluetooth and one of the most iconic and beautiful actresses in Hollywood, from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, all come together in director Alexandra Dean’s fascinating new documentary, “Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story.” Dean has created a kaleidoscopic portrait of Lamarr, both as a drop dead gorgeous movie star and as an important inventor, whose work was the basis for guided missiles during World War II, wi-fi, Bluetooth technology, GPS and secure military communications to this day. Who knew? Read the rest of this entry

“Big Sonia” at the Quad, NYC (Seth Shire)

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Sonia Warshawski, the subject of “Big Sonia.”

November 18, 2017.  For this past two weeks this blog has been devoted to documentaries presented as part of DOC NYC 2017.  Therefore, I can only call it a wonderful accident of timing that one of my favorite documentaries from DOC NYC 2016, and the one that has stayed with me the most over the past year, “Big Sonia,”  will open at the Quad Cinema on Friday, November 17.  “Big Sonia” is not only a fascinating documentary with a terrific main character in Sonia Warshawski (yes, even documentaries must have great characters) but a documentary that should be seen in light of our current political climate. In other words, those who forget history will repeat it.
Sonia Warshawski is an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, who lives in Kansas City. She takes every opportunity to tell her story of survival.  She was in a series of concentration camps, from ages 13 – 19, starting in Poland in 1939. Sonia’s inspiration comes from having seen a modern day skinhead. She realized then that she had survived the Holocaust in order to tell others what had happened to her.

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