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“Maison du Bonheur” Isn’t Just a Doc About Life With a Charming Parisian — It’s a Vacation

Fittingly, in place of a title card at the start of her 16mm delight Maison du Bonheur, Canadian independent filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz offers up a shot of a welcome mat. “Maison du Bonheur” it reads, inviting us into the home and the film. The former belongs to Juliane Sellam, a charming, chatty, vivacious astrologer who has lived in the same apartment in Paris’s Montmartre district for half a century. The latter is Bohdanowicz’s hourlong assemblage documenting a July visiting Sellam, studying her routines, taking in her talk, marveling at the gardenias in the windows, the blooms as dazzling as the July 14 fireworks we’ll see later.

The film is a portrait of a woman, 77 at the time of filming, and her home, dedicated to processes — behold Sellam’s recipe for bread for Shabbat — and striking still-life shots. Here are fruit and herbs in bowls before an open window, a breeze easing through them; here are the fashionable Sellam’s pumps and heels, a collection Galapagan in abundance and variety. Sellam speaks with enthusiasm as she waters her flowers, bakes a cake, gets her nails and hair done, or gives Bohdanowicz an astrological reading. She explains about how she refuses to leave the apartment without makeup, how much she loves not having had plastic surgery, how her late husband would buy her three or four pairs of shoes at a time. We see old photographs of Sellam in smashing gowns and watch her snack with her sister, both of whom must be gently told, when toasting each other for Bohdanowicz, not to look at the camera. (That camera: a hand-cranked Bolex.)

Bohdanowicz undertook the project without having previously met her subject, but for both the filmmaker and her audience, making Sellam’s acquaintance proves a rare pleasure. The cozy blissfulness of Bohdanowicz’s study might be suggested by a consideration of the film’s two moments of tension. One comes late, when Bohdanowicz has left the maison for a day trip to a Normandy beach, not far from a town where she once had lived, quite unhappily; on this excursion, she gets caught in the rain and shoots its glum patter on the sidewalk. (Sellam calls as Bohdanowicz schleps home on the bus, checking whether the filmmaker will make it back in time for dinner.)

That rainstorm is the darkest occurrence in the film, but Bohdanowicz does capture one brief moment of anxiety. Early on, Bohdanowicz, a stranger and guest and filmmaker, tells us in a filmed diary that she suspects that Sellam has heard the previous diaries she has shot late at night. You might tense up, as I did, at the thought of her host and subject listening in on Bohdanowicz’s own processes, on both her acclimation to sharing Sellam’s life and her thoughts on how best to capture it all. But rest assured, it’s one that something sweet comes of: What Sellam seems to have heard was Bohdanowicz lamenting that on this trip to Paris, she had not yet found an excellent pastry. Her host, the next day, remedies this, and it’s both delightful — and a little cruel — that Sellam gives us so much time to regard the dessert in question.

Maison du Bonheur
Directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz
Opens August 24, Metrograph

 

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“40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie” Reunites an Obscure Colorado Jam Band

If you were the co-creator of Two and a Half Men and an exec of The Big Bang Theory, you could look at your bank statement and maybe buy a yacht or two. Or you could do what Lee Aronsohn has done and make one of the warmer, friendlier vanity projects I’ve ever seen. From a certain perspective, 40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie is a commentary on how far money can go to recapture the spirit of one’s youth. Aronsohn (who is present as narrator) attended the University of Colorado–Boulder in the 1970s. The biggest band on the scene was Magic Music, a Crosby, Stills and Nash–esque acoustic folk harmony group. They were good! But for whatever reason, they never even put out an album. After six years, the guys went their separate ways, but Aronsohn (and other Colorado hippies of the era) never forgot the tunes. At his request, the band is getting back together.

The first half of 40 Years uses talking-head interviews and old photographs to detail the personnel changes and living conditions of this very dedicated “back to nature” outfit. The second half tries to resolve decades-long schisms using the most basic reality show techniques. But the big finish (a reunion concert, naturally) is surprisingly effective. Only a monster would begrudge Aronsohn for putting this all together. It doesn’t hurt that Magic Music really do have some chops.

40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie
Directed by Lee Aronsohn
Paladin
Opens August 3, Village East Cinema

 

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‘Introspection Is Essential’: An Interview With Travis Wilkerson

It wouldn’t be easy to discover that your great-grandfather was a racist murderer. And it would definitely be difficult trying to uncover the truth behind his crime — and to learn something about the person he killed. In the new film Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, Travis Wilkerson digs into both his family’s past and into the history of Dothan, Alabama, the town where Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, in 1946, shot and killed an African American man named Bill Spann under mysterious circumstances. The movie is beautiful, brutal, and deeply upsetting — and it’s not like any other documentary you’re likely to see in this or any other year.

It also confirms that Wilkerson is one of the most important filmmakers working today. His 2003 feature debut, An Injury to One, a brilliant and infuriating look at the murder of labor organizer Frank Little in the town of Butte, Montana, is certainly one of the best American documentaries of the last twenty years. (J. Hoberman called it “a model of low-budget formal intelligence as well as engaged filmmaking.”) Over the past decade and a half, Wilkerson has put together a body of work that is increasingly innovative, confessional, and downright uncomfortable — both in subject matter and form. I talked to him recently about his latest film, its personal subject matter, and how his work has developed over the years.

 
When I first saw Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? at Sundance, it was a live, mixed-media presentation, where you sat in front of an audience and narrated and cued the whole thing. What led to your deciding to present it that way?

I’m really fascinated with methods that create new forms. And in this case, I was expressing something that was kind of intimate and challenging and awkward and uncomfortable. What is the circumstance in which that would have the most energy and charge?  I kept thinking about the idea of having a very difficult conversation with someone, and how if I’m in the room with them, that is a very different conversation than if on the phone or, god forbid, on Skype.

So, I was thinking about all that…and then two different times I was required as part of a grant to do a short five- to seven-minute presentation at an artists’ retreat. And both times I was planning to present a section of a film. Then, both times, in different iterations over two years, there was a technical flaw where there was some missing audio, and I was forced to improvise lines. I saw how the energy of the room changed when the kinds of subjects that I was talking about were being expressed directly. Because of the nature of this story, doing it that way had an immediacy and force that it wouldn’t if you could hide behind the screen.

And now it’s a self-contained film. What was the biggest challenge in turning it into a movie that could work on its own?

There were a few big ones. The absence of that energy in the room, the respiration, the pacing, my physical presence onstage — how you react to what I’m saying is different when it’s just me sitting onstage and you’re looking right at me. There was a certain electricity that would be absent. So, I thought: “Let’s take the essential aspects — the things that really seem to be energizing, challenging, provoking, and entertaining in its different iterations — and kind of distill it all down.” And then the key: What’s the voice? Because the voice was so driven in the live performance by the room and what I was responding to. Now, suddenly, I had this ability to do what I wanted it to be more like — which was kind of a whisper, like I was sharing something under my breath. Because there is a certain sense of shame.

And then something else that I feel better about with the film version: When I do it live, somehow my presence makes it harder for people to speak freely about apprehensions and challenges — because it’s always harder for us to be critical to someone’s face than behind their back. And so, the film rattles people even more than the performance does. Over and over again I’ll get feedback from people that suggests they’re wrestling with it somehow. And honestly that’s the abstract dream as an artist — that you produce something that forces people to reckon with something, and think about it afterwards, as opposed to simply liking it or disliking it.

Over the course of your career, I feel like your voice has gotten more vulnerable, and angrier.

My goal, or how I would express it, is that I feel it’s gotten a little more intimate and a little more sincere, which would encompass the full range. A little bit more self-critical, a little bit more haunted, a little bit angrier, a little bit sadder. With An Injury to One, the funny thing about that film…while there’s a lot that I feel really, really proud about it, when I watch it now, I’m just struck that it doesn’t reveal anything about the fact that I have this specific relationship to Butte, Montana, too — that I went to high school there, that my dad was working in the emergency room there. That my mom was involved in community struggles over environmental quality there. That, you know, there was a restaurant that I liked. And that I had a class relationship to the town. The whole film is about class relations, but there’s no acknowledgment of my role in that very hierarchical, very polluted, very corrupt world. I always think it looks like a really lovely film made by someone who just went to CalArts. Which is completely true! But I feel like the voice expresses that limitation — which is different from where I am now, where introspection is essential.

I was thinking so much about the way this idea is rendered on the national level — because I think our political leadership is literally incapable of introspection. Like, we have a president who is pathologically incapable of introspection. And that says something — that this sort of abusive approach to power cannot be self-critical. This impulse towards acknowledging the self, being critical, looking inward — it’s a way to look outward with better vision.

It also has something to do with how we consume politics and art. We think of ourselves always as observers — never participants. And in truth we are always participants; we’re just not willing to acknowledge it.

Yeah. I mean, democracy is enacted at so many different levels of society — and I don’t mean democracy in the sense that you get to vote or choose or have volition, but in which you are a player in the political life of the country. That’s a huge aspect of our society that we don’t really think about.

A scene from Travis Wilkeron’s “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?”

This progression of putting yourself more and more in these works — has it been an evolutionary process, or were there key works along the way where you made a conscious decision to go more personal?

I’m working with such minimal resources and I take on so many tasks myself that I am always thinking about these kinds of relationships. The first significant iteration of this “I’m really in the center of the frame” idea was the performance piece Proving Ground, which I did at Sundance in 2007, and at PDX I think in 2008. And then at dive bars in Los Angeles three or four times around that same period. I’d just set up in a corner on a pool table. I was wrestling with this question of my place in the frame, because I’m doing a lecture about the history of bombing campaigns, there’s rock ’n roll behind me, there’s looping violent images. It was a very aggressive, almost abusive piece trying to sort of shake people out of their indifference to violence associated with war. And in that work, there’s a series of three chapters where I go crazy — Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — where I just really pushed and got very emotive, loud music, intense punk rock, screaming. And yet there’s no acknowledgment of the obvious point — which is that my dad was in Vietnam and that he was already showing the earliest signs of health problems related to having been exposed to Agent Orange, which led to the cancer that killed him.

The next actual film I did was Distinguished Flying Cross, which is about my father’s experiences in the war. That’s the first time in a movie where I’m in the frame — because the film unfolds as a conversation with my dad. It’s a father sharing war stories with his adult sons. Part of what I’m wrestling with there is the way in which legacies of war and violence are handed down. But that’s the first time that I’m me and I’m there and I’m present.

And then the next longer film I make is Los Angeles Red Squad, which deals with the history of the anti-radical division of the Los Angeles Police Department, and it goes in the opposite direction — there’s nothing really personal, it’s a list of events and incidents and acts of violence. It was the first time I was trying to film Los Angeles, and I thought, “Well, I have to resist the clichés of filming Los Angeles, and this is an immense challenge because so many films have been made in Los Angeles. How does one do this?” So, I just refused to use anything approximating a traditional narrative structure. But then of course the film does what one would imagine without a normal narrative structure — the audience is awash in images, and distanced, and they don’t really get the point.

So, I actually decided to make another film in Los Angeles [Machine Gun or Typewriter?], with a lot of the same locations and stories and notions about the relationship of the landscape to the history of violence within that city. But I thought, “What if I did the exact opposite of the previous film?” I embraced structure and narrative and fictional elements, and I used a genre that would be associated with that city, which is noir. But I didn’t have any money at all; I made that movie for three hundred bucks. I had a part-time teaching job at Pomona College, and my wife was working her ass off as a landscape designer. That’s where, again, the method produced the form. “What is available to me?” Well, what was available to me was this pirate radio transmitter I’d had for a long time that I had never used for anything. I could use my voice, I could create characters and explore these ideas. It was initially a very practical choice; if I had an actor I could have easily worked with, I would have preferred it. But the film clearly reached people in a way that the previous ones did not.

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When it comes to this idea of the method determining the form: With Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, so much of it is about a failed investigation, which then informs the digressions that you have in the film — into Rosa Parks and the civil rights struggle and more. At what point did you know where the story was going — or rather, that the story wasn’t actually going anywhere, but that the film would?

I’ve done these kinds of investigations enough times, and I know that what would be a sort of traditional film investigative narrative outcome, with a big reveal, has never been a part of my work. There’s something that feels very false to me about it — like there’s this singular, exciting detail that is discovered that gives you all this knowledge about a particular story. I’m much more interested in seeing the larger contours, and where they’re going. Early on, I thought that it was very possible I wouldn’t find out anything, because I know the way that information is destroyed by power and oppression. I wanted to make my most sincere effort to discover everything I could, and to be open to what I encountered. But I certainly was comfortable at all times with the outcome that it had. And, like, the week before Sundance, if the granddaughter of Bill Spann had called me or something, I would have addressed it in the film. I would not have erased that, at all. But I also understood that there was something about this specific destructive history that had produced this lack of concrete results — and that actually articulated the issues of violence and the power I was addressing.

In terms of the disparate elements in the film, I’m always looking for the relationship between two things that seem disconnected but may actually be connected. That interests me as a person, but in my work it is an absolutely essential element. So, I’m always casting the net, and I’m listening, and I’m intuitively sensing connections. Sometimes I have a very clear sense of why that would be, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s very visceral. But it depends what I’m working on.

When I was doing An Injury to One, I was connecting labor history to the environment, which wasn’t so common back then. In this case, it was about a lot of different things, but just seeing this region where that murder unfolded in the 1940s — this is right before the classic civil rights movement explodes. Right in the epicenter of it. And what the film suggests is that this is bubbling up. It’s happening in Abbeville [Alabama], it’s happening in Montgomery, it’s happening nearby. Of course, that must be related to why violence against black people was intensifying, and why someone might be charged for it, and why the charges might disappear — because [the authorities] feared the social anger and community work in the next town over.

There’s an unreconcilable quality to your stories, especially here. There’s no closure. Rewatching Did You Wonder…, I was struck by the way you express this visually. Your opening shot — it’s actually the same shot repeated three times in a row, going down a country road. I’m sure it was in earlier presentations of this material as well, but this time, I started actively to wonder why you’d repeat such a shot like that. And I realized, “Oh right, this is about the fact that we’re never going to get to that other side. We’re just going to keep going down this same damn stretch of road forever.”

Right. Or things are going to get really hard. It’s interesting you noticed it because you’re right, it was in the performance version. But in the transformation of the performance into single-channel, one thing that really became a stronger element is the notion of loops and repetition, and things repeating themselves — like a record skipping, so to speak. And people notice it more.

Being a person with a kind of Marxist outlook, I’d always historically bought into this idea that of course society is moving forward. I’m not saying that a proper Marxist would look at it this way, but a sort of college student–aged Marxist would have this notion. It may not be moving forward as quickly as it should be, but it has fits and starts, and fundamentally you assume there’s a sense of progress. I’m wrestling with that question right now. I feel like instead it’s a punctuated equilibrium — there will be a rapid change and then long periods of stasis that will be backwards almost. I mean, I revere the civil rights movement; I’m so grateful that such ferocious, intense, brilliant people fought so hard for what was right. But I also feel like there’s been a lot lost since that movement declined.

So, yeah, there’s forward movements and there’s backward movement. Loops. Sudden jumps forward and then things get beaten back again. I had such a sense of that in Alabama — a place where people had fought so hard. Today, it sure seems like Selma was punished pretty badly for fighting back. I was stunned by how much the town seems like it had been punched. It reminded me of Butte, Montana. It reminded me of Detroit. It reminded me of these places where there had been this tremendous movement that had fought really hard, and it really seemed like that community had been punished. That was really unsettling to me. You just feel this erosion of the things that have been gained. The South is full of that. But so is the whole country.

 

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Preview POV’s Documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart”

On Monday evening, the PBS documentary series POV (in collaboration with Latino Public Broadcasting) will premiere Cecilia Aldarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart, a deeply emotional investigation into the story of the director’s uncle, Miguel Dieppa, who died of AIDS-related complications in the Eighties. Aldarondo draws on a wealth of archival material (love letters, home movies, audio clips, old photographs) to evoke Miguel’s life, from his childhood in Seventies Puerto Rico to his time as a creative in New York City, where he pursued a career in the theater and eventually penned an autobiographical play, Island Fever. Miguel’s bohemian lifestyle became a point of acute conflict between him and his mother, a devout Catholic who disapproved of his homosexuality.

Reviewing the doc for the Voice from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Nick Schager called it “exceptional” and declared it “one of [Tribeca’s] most profoundly affecting” entries that year. To watch Memories of a Penitent Heart on PBS, check your local listings or stream it on PBS.org. Below you will find an exclusive clip from the movie.

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Preview POV’s Oscar-Nominated Documentary “Joe’s Violin”

In Joe’s Violin, which makes its national broadcast premiere tonight on PBS documentary series POV, Joe Feingold, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, donates his beloved violin to the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls. It falls into the hands of Brianna Perez, a 12-year-old in the seventh grade. Although the two come from different walks of life, a friendship blossoms. Kahane Cooperman’s film, nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 2017 Academy Awards, illustrates how an object can bring two people together, all the while carrying memories and meaning.

Joe’s Violin essays Feingold’s turbulent past even as it follows his violin’s second life, in the arms of Brianna, the daughter of Dominican immigrants. The short will be broadcast by PBS documentary series POV, television’s oldest platform for showcasing independent nonfiction films, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. To see the full film, check your local PBS station’s listings or stream it on PBS.org.

Watch two exclusive clips from the documentary below.

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True Crime Doc “Santoalla” Captures the Feud Between the Last Families at the World’s End

Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer’s quiet, immersive true-crime mystery doc opens with video more terrifying than fictionalized “found footage” horror ever manages: A man is walking through the rubble and ruin of the abandoned village of Santoalla, in the mountains of the Galicia region of northwestern Spain. We see, from the perspective of his camera, stone homes bucked and broken, the only life around his own shadow on the dirt path. He turns a corner, the sun flares across the lens, and suddenly a thin man steps forward, wielding a pole or a bat. “You’re going to do it now?” a voice asks, offscreen. “In front of the camera?” Before the questions are fully spoken, the thin man is swinging his weapon.

Santoalla is the story of a Danish couple who got away from it all by relocating to a place everyone else had left — and then got caught in a decade-long feud with the only other family in town. While the Danes, Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, establish a farmstead and tend to their livestock, the only Santoallans left, the Rodriguez family, insist that in their village, you can’t just go moving rocks that aren’t on your specific property. In 2010, after years of tension and a legal battle involving money owed to the town’s residents by a logging company, Verfondern went missing after driving off for supplies. Pool was left to wonder: Did he crash over a cliff? Abandon her to a new life? Or might a Rodriguez have murdered him?

We get the answer, eventually. Despite that opening, and the potential of a crime, Becker and Mehrer’s film is more about place and silence than it is about tension or psychology. When the truth is revealed, don’t expect much about the specifics of the case. Instead, what compels most here is new footage of the town and its handful of residents, especially the sight of Pool, in the ruin she and Verfondern made into a home, taking care of herself, her garden, and her animals. Wandering the crumbled city, she’s a ghost made flesh, keeping at it after all other life has fled. We meet Verfondern in vintage human-interest news footage about the couple’s project to create what he called “a Noah’s ark” in a depopulated urban space reclaimed by nature; we also see him in footage shot by him and Pool — playing his guitar, laboring on their home, grousing about those neighbors. It’s chilling to realize how their odd intractability has snapped something in him. There’s no one else in that town, but it still wasn’t big enough for all of them.

Santoalla
Directed by Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer
Oscilloscope Pictures
Opens July 19, Quad Cinema

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Pamela Yates’s Guatemalan Trilogy Concludes With “500 Years” and a Triumph for Good

Justice prevails at last in 500 Years, the third documentary in Pamela Yates’s Guatemalan trilogy, a work hitting screens 34 years after the first installment, 1983’s When the Mountains Tremble. That courageous film revealed, in horrific combat footage, the little-reported genocide that a U.S.-backed Guatemalan government waged against indigenous Mayans in the country’s western highlands; more than a hundred thousand Mayans died. Decades later, Yates’s stunning footage became evidence in the survivors’ case against José Efraín Ríos Montt, the junta leader behind the attacks that destroyed more than six hundred villages. Yates’s follow-up, 2011’s gripping Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, examined efforts to bring Ríos Montt to trial, which included gathering the stories of Mayan witnesses — and the filmmaker herself searching through her 1982 outtakes for incriminating video. As a member of Guatemala’s congress, Ríos Montt enjoyed immunity from prosecution through the second half of the Aughts; at the completion of his term, in early 2012, he at last was indicted.

Yates’s new film returns to the highlands, gathering the testimony of Mayan activists and survivors before leaping into Ríos Montt’s 2013 trial, proceedings that prove heartening and horrifying. More than one hundred Mayans describe the executions of their families as Ríos Montt himself stares into nothingness, sometimes refusing to make eye contact with the judges. His lawyers, cruel and theatrical clowns, storm out of the courtroom, denouncing the trial as illegal. One tells the judges that he’ll imprison them someday. Ríos Montt speaks only once, a final statement before the judges retire to deliberate. His message echoes that of every tyrant ever accused of a crime: There is no evidence. (One bizarre detail here might stir fear in American hearts: After the truth-denying leader’s first conviction, his poised adult daughter, as immaculate in her couture as she is in her parroting of his lies, announces her own bid for the presidency.)

There are mountains of evidence laid out by the prosecutors and, on-screen, by Yates. The trial, of course, is a triumph and a disaster, the eventual verdict undone by another court. But that painful revelation is followed by legitimate revolution. An emboldened press and a government watchdog group reveal to the public the extent of the ruling class’ corruption, a scandal rising right up to President Otto Pérez Molina, himself a key figure in the ’82 murders — and a proponent of turning the Mayans’ lands over to mining and hydroelectric companies.

The final reels follow a people’s uprising and the ousting of Molina, rare good news in a land (and a series of films) haunted by the violence that the powerful have always felt free to visit upon the powerless. The template for today’s issue-oriented documentaries is to showcase a devastating and intractable problem but then suddenly, in the final moments, insist that we should be hopeful, that everything will be better if we the viewers visit the right website and chip in a couple of bucks. Yates’s films, like the world itself, have no template — they’re messy, rich with feeling, liberated from simple theatrical structures, always honest about what is possible. That one of hers ends with hope is a gift.

500 Years
Directed by Pamela Yates
Skylight
Opens July 12, IFC Center

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Netflix’s Gorgeous, Despairing “Chasing Coral” Bears Witness to the Planet’s End

In February of 1995, Charlton Heston called Rush Limbaugh’s radio program to read from Jurassic Park — the book, not the movie. In his best Old Testament boom, Heston declaimed a speech about man’s hubris that Michael Crichton had written for Dr. Ian Malcolm, the chaos theoretician played on-screen by Jeff Goldblum. It opens with this: “You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity!” It peaks with this: “We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try.” The lesson, both actor and talk-radio host concluded, was simple: It is the height of arrogance to assume that human activity could alter so vast and ancient a system as our planet. For years afterward, Limbaugh — the man who demonstrated how wildly profitable it could be to poison the minds of white America — would play the tape on Earth Days or whenever Al Gore was in the news, essentially asking his millions of listeners, Who you going to believe, most scientists around the globe, or Moses himself and this one scientist that a novelist made up?

Crichton and Heston didn’t live long enough to see what such humility has wrought. In 2016, rising sea temperatures killed 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. In Jeff Orlowski’s new film, Chasing Coral, the scientist and reef specialist Charlie Veron — born in 1945, three years after Crichton — throws a pained look at a millennial marine biologist and sighs, “I’m glad I’m not your age.” During the 1980s, the decade in which Crichton wrote Jurassic Park, Veron never believed that the majestic reef he studied and showcased on television could be in existential danger; now, he looks stunned at what humanity and climate change have wrought. His hope isn’t so much that the reef to which he dedicated his life might still be saved; he hopes instead that outcry over its death might at last spur the world to act to prevent the loss of coral elsewhere.

The oceans are warmer, of course, because our release of carbon dioxide has thickened the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, trapping heat that once would have bounced out into space. The seas absorb much of that heat, sparing those of us on land from radically increased temperatures — but not sparing coral, which after steeping in too-warm water blanches white and then dies. One scientist in the film notes that if a human body increased in temperature as much as sea water has in recent decades, that body would die, too. He knows what Crichton and Limbaugh don’t: The true humility is the honest attempt to understand our place within the systems of our planet, and to strive not to upset them.

Rather than just a globe-trotting report on the crisis afflicting our oceans, Chasing Coral is about ad man Richard Vevers’s efforts to find a way to focus us on the problem. Orlowski (Chasing Ice) tracks a race to document rather than one of discovery, with a team of scientists and photographers traveling to endangered reefs to capture, with time-lapse cameras, the bleaching of coral and the death of the vibrant ecosystems that thrive around it. (The scientists continually compare coral to forests and cities, the point being that marine life depends upon it — and many of our lives, too.) At first, Orlowski’s reliance on reality TV–style interviews about process and emotions struck me as indulgent padding, but by film’s end their necessity is clear. We watch this crew emerge from the depths stunned and shaken, their hearts ripped open by their work: bearing witness to the slow death of a world.

The film is a devastating success, moving in its beauty and wrenching when that beauty withers: Acres of coral waste away to chalky ash before our eyes. Charlie Veron and the team dare to exhibit some hopefulness, a belief that the loss of the reef might spur our species into taking action to limit emissions at last. It’s not easy to be roused by the cheery final minutes, as the thrust of the rest of Orlowski’s documentary is our species-level obstinance. The film climaxes with images to weep over, reminders that the Earth’s rhythms aren’t as slow and mysterious as we might prefer to believe — that the true hubris is to believe that we’re incidental to those rhythms. The movie’s on Netflix; demand that people Limbaugh’s age watch it, too.

Chasing Coral premieres July 14 on Netflix.

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The Musicians of “Mali Blues” Mix Modern Politics With Traditional Sounds

The steady, stinging pluck of Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni, the traditional, lute-like African stringed instrument, suggests dust hitting your face on a Sahel wind at dusk, when the day at last starts to cool. An innovator within his tradition, Kouyaté has rigged his ngoni’s cowskin body with pickups and a wah-wah pedal, tingeing that wind with psychedelia, with distortion and drone, an electric blast from the Niger Delta. In his playing the meditative meets the rhapsodic, the ancient ways edge toward the Western pop that long ago grew out of them. Tragically, senselessly, rather than being officially celebrated in his homeland, Kouyaté, like all the great Malian musicians featured in this doc, finds himself unable to play in large portions of it. Fundamentalist Islam has spread, and with it a Shariah injunction against secular music and dance. Lutz Gregor’s film, as beautiful in its photography as the desert blues Kouyaté plays, tracks four Malian musicians in the weeks before 2015’s Festival of the Niger in Southern Mali. There, the great world-pop singer Fatoumata “Fatou” Diawara will for the first time sing in the country of her birth. Before that marvel of a performance, Diawara will travel the country, despairing and defiant: In a village, before an audience of a dozen women, she sings a vigorous plea of a ballad exhorting them not to mutilate their daughters in the name of circumcision. Also speaking truth in a land whose leaders fear it is rapper Master Soumy, whose rhymes denounce extremist Islam, and guitar hero Ahmed Ag Kaedi, who with the other featured musicians records a stirring multilingual protest song and video. First-time feature director Gregor never imposes a narrative arc on his subjects; instead, we meet them, hear their hopes and their fears, and then savor performances of singular beauty, power, and invention.

 

Mali Blues
Directed by Lutz Gregor
Icarus Films
Opens June 30, IFC Center

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“The Reagan Show” Treats the Gipper Like He’s the Movie Hero He Fancied Himself

Asked late in his presidency how his background in Hollywood might have proved useful in his last and longest public performance, that beaming septuagenarian Ronald Reagan replied, “There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do this job if you hadn’t been an actor.” As with many of the Gipper’s utterances, it’s no easy feat to tease out the difference between quip and thought, between crack screenwriting and true belief. The new archival doc The Reagan Show purports to examine the fabulistic photo-op that was the movie star’s administration, studying his White House’s attention to imagecraft.

In its sprightly opening minutes, Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s film stirs laughs and small insights: Witness the Gipper, at his Santa Barbara ranch, serving as something like the second-unit director of his own photo shoot. “I’ve got an idea for another picture,” he says, grinning goonily in his cowboy shirt — clearly he loves this shit. His brainstorm: Nancy, who already has expressed some distaste at being coerced into horseback riding for the cameras, will stand in front of a scrawny tree, protecting it from Reagan, who will pretend to be trying to hack at it with a chainsaw. She demurs, at first, until he reassures her — the chainsaw won’t be on.

Those tree photos — awkward, clownish, decidedly un-epochal — never penetrated the public consciousness. But his fleeting inspiration might be the most revealing moment in this doc’s reels of new and little-seen footage. Here is Reagan as child and mythmaker, as cosplay cowboy and presidential auteurist, his staging of a George Washington tree-chop scene duded up in John Ford drag but playing as B-movie comedy. If the American right were still pushing to put the Gipper on money, this might be the image to pick.

The Reagan Show offers other winning behind-the-scenes moments captured on White House cameras, from which the administration sourced its steady release of upbeat B-roll. We see Reagan record multiple takes of a campaign ad for his “friend” John Sununu, then running for governor in New Hampshire, but the president, to his mild exasperation, can’t make all those us and ns in the candidate’s name come out right. Reagan carps, “Why the hell is his name — ” before the footage cuts out and the next attempt begins, just as it might have on Dick Clark’s concurrent TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes. Another scene finds Reagan cracking a joke at one of those pardon-the-turkey Thanksgiving ceremonies; when it doesn’t land, he says, “I think maybe I came in too early,” as if he’s on set and everybody might let him keep trying until he gets it right.

President-as-performer is no fresh insight, of course. Working exclusively in collage mode, without present-day narration, Velez and Pettengill strive to link their footage to the now. In a vintage ABC This Week broadcast, Sam Donaldson warns of a day when presidents might first need to be TV stars, and it’s perhaps inevitable that we see Reagan vow to “make America great again.” That Trump, in his bad-cover-band way, seized this message is less an indictment of Reagan, “the TV president,” than it is of the Republican Party since 1988: Trump, a salesman, merely nicked effective copy from the last president the GOP base can admit lasting affection. Nothing in the film suggests persuasively that Reagan paved the way for Trump’s debasement of the party and the office. For all the pitilessness of his agenda, Reagan the salesman harked back to Knute Rockne, All-American while peddling a gleaming Tomorrowland; Trump only hearkens to an idea of Reagan, to talk radio’s most perverse Gipper fan fiction.

CNN produced the film, which means you can’t expect it to dig deep or advance an argument. After that lightly provocative start, The Reagan Show settles in to a narrative driven not by fresh archival finds but by TV news reports. It breathlessly recounts the history of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, arranging the old footage for narrative suspense, not revelation. At times an idea threatens to form up — the filmmakers seem to want to suggest that Reagan’s actorly craft proved instrumental to negotiations with the Soviets — but the video history lesson barrels right over it. I appreciate that the film reminds the world that conservative hardliners opposed Reagan and Gorbachev’s disarmament treaty, but The Reagan Show milks the treaty’s last-minute Senate ratification for climactic drama, not letting on that the vote was never truly in doubt. (The final tally: 93 for, 5 against.)

The president himself might have appreciated how the final reel here plays out. Asked at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal if his administration was washed up, Reagan promised that he planned to observe advice he’d picked up in Hollywood: “Save something for the third act.” Rather than reveal a showman, The Reagan Show in the end imitates one.

 

The Reagan Show
Directed by Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill
Gravitas Ventures
Opens June 30, Metrograph