CinemAN Film Reviews Week 4: Oscar 2014

In my family Academy Awards ceremony was always something of a holiday, minus presents. We anticipated it in excitement making our predictions. Given the time difference between Baku and Los Angeles, we would wake up at 5 a.m. (for the record, nothing else can wake my family before 10 a.m.) and watch the ceremony until 9 a.m.. Several times my brother and I skipped school and were late to work for that reason. What can you do, a family holiday is a family holiday.

With 86th Academy Awards ceremony around the corner, CinemAN reviews had to concentrate on the nominees. Thus, I present you the first week of Oscar 2014 reviews - nominees for the best documentary feature. 

***

20 Feet From Stardom - United States, 2013

Director: Morgan Neville

Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and others.

What if your Spanish teacher was one of the Ikettes in the 1970s, toured with Mick Jagger, and was featured on Playboy’s cover? What if your housekeeper was the voice behind popular records sold under other names? 

They are backup singers, the underappreciated breed of the music business food chain - a topic no one ever talks about. They are legends in their craft: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and others. Most of them are African-American and most of them came out of the church choir, the same school that gave the world Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and many others. But life was not equally kind to everybody.

They made attempts to leave the shadow of their legendary employers to make it on their own, but reality took over. The only exception was Darlene Love. In 2011 she was included in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, and the event was featured in the documentary. 

Director Morgan Neville interviewed Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and others stars, painting the picture from different angles. His narrative is smooth, moving from one story to another, using chronology for a matrix. He fills the film with tons of beautiful music and lets his characters remember and reminisce over the wildest years of their careers. 

We learn that Merry Clayton was pregnant when she sang Gimme Shelter with Rolling Stones in 1969; that the voice behind The Crystals’ He’s a Rebel record is actually Darlene Love’s, and she also sang that “Christma-a-a-as, baby please come ho-o-o-me” song we heard in all the movies and department stores; and that backup singers prefered to work with British bands and singers because they gave them freedom to sing and be themselves.

The film is about the backstage of success, those who did not make it to the top. It shows the whole complexity of the music business, where a lot depends on your luck, the era you were born into and the people you work with. It turns out talent is not enough. It takes discipline, persistence, consistency, luck, right people and a big fat ego that only a handful of people have. 

Neville draws a parallel with the new generation of backup singers through Judith Hill, a young singer trying to make it on her own now. Hill was supposed to be Michael Jackson singing partner during his last "This is It" tour, when the legendary singer suddenly died. What the film didn't show was her remarkable appearance in the season 4 of The Voice as part of Adam Levine's team. She was eliminated close to the final to the shock of her coach and many viewers. 

This film was a treat to my soul-loving Motown-fed ears – it made me laugh and tear up, it got me upset and comforted me. It left me wondering about racial representation in the business and whether chances for success depend on the singer's ethnicity and background. I would love to know more, but what I already learned was enough food for thought. From now on every time I watch a live concert, I’ll be looking at the people 20 feet behind the singer.

Watch it for your taste’s sake / Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When your heart sings.


The Square (Al Midan) - Egypt, United States, 2013

Director: Jehane Noujaim

Stars: Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan, Magdy Ashour and others.

The Square is centered around the lives of Egyptian activists during the ongoing political struggle that started in 2011.

We meet young revolutionary Ahmed Hassan, who fights in the name of democracy; Magdy Ashour, who was detained and tortured for being a member of Muslim Brotherhood in president Mubarak's regime; Khalid Abdalla, who was raised in Scotland, made a successful acting career starring in films like The Kite Runner, United-93 and Green Zone and who moved back to Egypt to join the resistance; young filmmaker Aida El Kashef and the square's singer, bard Ramy Essam. All of them want change, but their visions differ.

We see them walk all nine yards - from determined to throw president Mubarak, to hopeful when he resigns, upset with the army, angry with the Muslim Brotherhood for hijacking the revolution and once again mad at the generals for taking over the rule. We see them scared for their lives and their country over and over again and we share their idealistic passion to find the single right path that would work for everyone. More than anything else, we see the bravery that makes them fight for the greater good.

Jehane Noujaim shows it all.

She transfers us to the streets, where real people, just like us, try to take charge of their country. Going beneath the superficial media coverage, we see real people dodging bullets and real people dying in struggle. We see a funeral, tears of a devastated father. We see Ahmed injured and Ramy tortured, and hold our breaths hoping they survive.

She invites us to the heart of the revolution - kitchens and living rooms filled with cigarette smoke, where the planning and discussions take place. She shows us discussions on the streets, where visions collide into loud arguments. Square (al midan) is not just a roundabout, it is also a platform where people share their opinion. It is where pluralism is exercised. Noujaim's greatest illustration of the necessity of the perfect balance is Magdy and his story.

She shows the real picture of many revolutions, where the uprising carried out by one group, is claimed and taken over by dozens of others; where plans don't work out and change turns out to be for worse. "We are looking for conscience," says Ahmed speaking of the leader the country needs. 

From the technical perspective The Square is not flawless: sound jumps up and down in some moments, the quality of the picture is not perfect, and the white credits on a bright background are sometimes impossible to read. However, it somehow only adds to the refreshing sincerity of the film. Noujaim gives us the perspective we would have if we were in Egypt, fighting side by side with the brave few. Let's face it, nothing about it would go perfect.

I can't say what exactly went wrong in Egypt, and I don't know when it will get better. What I can say for sure is that with individuals like Magdy, Khalid, Ahmed and many others, there is hope. And perhaps that hope will make for a great sequel.

Watch it for your taste’s sake / Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When want to understand Egypt.


Cutie and the Boxer - United States, 2013

Director, writer: Zachary Heizerling

Stars: Ushio Shinohara, Noriko Shinohara, Alex Shinohara and others.

Cutie and the Boxer is the story of a Japanese-born New York artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara and their 40-year-long marriage. They met when Noriko was only 19 and moved to New York City to pursue her dream - painting. She met Ushio, a poor but known artist, and they instantly fell in love. Soon they were married, had a child and were still poor.

In this touching documentary Heizerling offers a closer look at the marriage of two artists and their complicated relationship. It is surprisingly intriguing and easy to follow. 

Noriko, who put aside her painting to take care of Ushio and his career, as well as their son Alex, confesses in her regrets. Many of us will recognize our mothers and grandmothers – talented women, who were too young and too in love to choose their dreams. Those, who got attracted to the authority of a man to forever live in his shadow. Those who stuck with their choice, but always questioned whether it was the right one. Despite the inner turbulence, she stays loyal and somewhat affectionate to her husband.

Ushio is not a bad guy. He lives in his own world where his art is the priority. He never made enough money because he stayed loyal to what he loved and kept waiting for those who would appreciate it. His art is his burden, "We are the ones suffering the most from art..." he admits to his friend and weeps in a home video of a drunken get-together. He is far from being an ideal husband from a conventional point of view, but he loves Noriko, even though he does not say it much. 

The narrative is masterfully built to give the viewer bits of information throughout the story, and with different means. One of them is the animation of Noriko's autobiographical sketch called Cutie and the Bullie, in which she describes key factors of her life with Ushio.

Unlike the reality, in the sketch she is bigger and muscular and she fights the Bullie. She fights back for all the times he hurt her feelings, did not let her accomplish her dreams and made their love story too hard and painful. She also realizes looking at the complete sketch, that in spite of everything, she would not change a thing.

She describes them as two flowers in one pot - sometimes there is not enough nourishment for both of them, but when they blossom they do it together. Cutie and a Boxer is an intimate and dramatic overview of a very regular marriage with its ups and downs and one big complication that makes it unique - two artistic natures in a closed space.

Watch it for your taste’s sake / Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When regular marital problems are too boring.


Dirty Wars - United States, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Yemen, Somalia, 2013

Director: Rick Rowley

Stars: Jeremy Scahill, Nasser Al Aulaqi, Saleha Al Aulaqi and others.

Dirty Wars follows Jeremy Scahill, famous investigative reporter, national security correspondent for The Nation and a recent add-on to Glenn Greenwald and Pierre Omidyar’s multi-million project The Intercept, on his quest to uncover the darkest sides of the war on terror.

In his years-long research he found out about thousands of civilian casualties of the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan and beyond the declared war zones. Travelling outside the designated "green zone," Scahill meets a family, which was attacked by the elite military unit unit JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) and lost several of its members, including two pregnant women. The surviving men were taken into custody and interrogated for days. Research takes the journalist outside the declared war zone, to Yemen where he meets the family of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen turned enemy of the state, who was killed in a drone-strike. He goes to Somalia, where he traces American anti-terrorist operations and deals that the American government cut with local warlords. One of them, Mohamed Afrah Qanyare even calls America “war masters” and “great teachers.” 

Scahill's findings are very important on both national and international scale. The War on Terror has gone too far, but only a few of us are aware exactly how far. It is important to talk about the implications of the war and challenge pseudo-patriotic notion that any means are acceptable. They are not.

While Scahill's investigation is remarkable, Rowley did not let them speak for themselves. His film is clustered with dramatic and at times manipulating effects. Extensive use of dark filters and dramatic music were too distracting from the facts. It reminded me of Russian crime shows, which are scarier than the stories they tell. It is not the case here, so there is no need for the overwhelming effects.

Regardless of its cinematic qualities, Dirty Wars is a must-watch for those who want to think for themselves and have all the facts. 

Watch it for your taste’s sake / Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When not afraid of the truth.


The Act of Killing - Denmark, Norway, UK, 2012

After a military coup in 1965 the government of Indonesia used death squads made out of gangsters and military groups to massacre supporters of communism, meaning ethnic Chinese and anyone who opposed the new regime. Supported by the West, the government murdered over a million people. 

A man named Anwar Congo was one of those killers. With the support of the paramilitary group called Pancasila Youth, he and other subjects of the movie participated in killings of around 1,000 people. As the military group is still in power almost 50 years later, the killers are praised as heroes. Many of them are still alive.

Congo, is the center of the documentary. He doesn't shy away from explaining his killing technique in detail and with enthusiasm. "It's like we were killing happily," he says.

In a genius directing move American documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer challenged the killers to reenact the massacre they committed for his film, thus providing his viewers with a unique opportunity - to hear the killers' side of story.

It worked better than I could ever imagine. Oppenheimer found a perfect subject, Congo, who has seeds of doubt deep in his heart, whether the atrocities he caused were necessary. It takes him seconds to snap out of the doubt though - his country and his people praise him for what he did.

He is accompanied with a younger member of Pancasila Youth, Herman Koto, the kind of intriguing supporting character most feature writers dream of creating. He is overweight, obnoxious and confident in anything he does. 

Their vanity is Oppenheimer's biggest weapon - they are happy to tell their story. The killers thoroughly work on the plot, making sure it is interesting for families, despite excessive violence. They enthusiastically film scenes of interrogations and torture with the help of make-up and costumes. They cast women and children for the gut-wrenching scene of a burned village.

They do all the work while Oppenheimer interviews them and their buddies in the process. He shows us footage from the Pancasila Youth's meeting and films sexist remarks of their leader. He introduces us to the most bizarre TV show in history, where the hostess laughs speaking of the killed Chinese in a celebratory manner. The movie has one of the most unforgettable climaxes and endings, which I will not describe in order not to spoil the impression. It must be watched and felt.

According to IMDB trivia, during the film showing in Berlin a viewer said it was "like having SS officers re-enact the Holocaust," which is in my opinion the best descriptions of this extraordinary documentary. The Act of Killing is one of the most unusual, bizarre, scary and powerful documentaries I have ever seen. 

Watch it for your taste’s sake / Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When ready for something extraordinary.