Call it the anti-Disney effect.
While a rash of films such as Maleficent have tried to remake villains into sympathetic antiheroes, “Soda_Jerk: After the Rainbow,” opening September 19 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, has the opposite goal: to reveal the heart of darkness in the star of the family film The Wizard of Oz.
The 1939 classic helped Judy Garland—17 when she starred as Dorothy Gale—earn a permanent place in people’s hearts. Yet, as is well documented, her life wasn’t nearly as rosy as her character’s, a contrast the exhibit explores.
Soda_Jerk is the pseudonym of two Australian sisters who create “rogue historiographies” through digital video. Their take on Garland is the second in a series of three that stage encounters between stars’ younger and older selves. (The others focus on River Phoenix and on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.)
“After the Rainbow” combines scenes from The Wizard of Oz, a TV special in which Garland appears with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and her later films with clips from more recent movies like Donnie Darko and Planet Terror in an attempt to round out the traditional narrative of Garland as tragic heroine.
Chief curator Kathryn Wat hopes this approach will help audiences see Garland as not just another troubled star “but also someone with a great deal of strength.” Wat admits she discovered a lot from the exhibit about the actress’s portrayal in the media: “I’m an American, I know Judy Garland, I know The Wizard of Oz, but this was not at all what I expected.”
Conversely, the movie at the center of so many fond childhood memories may also take on a new hue. “The film is tinged with longing,” says Wat. “Dorothy is trying to get somewhere and can’t, and she’s missing her family. Even that movie, as much as we all love it, is shaped by a sense of loss.”
“After the Rainbow,” along with the museum’s “Total Art: Contemporary Video” (on view through October 12), is part of an effort to focus on women’s contributions to video. While female artists have had to struggle to catch up in traditional fields such as painting, Wat says video is one of the few areas in which both sexes have been equally involved since it became popular in the 1960s.
She sees Soda_Jerk’s installations as representative of that medium’s progress: “We live in a digital age, when images are spread almost instantaneously. The work [the women of Soda_Jerk] do and the process they follow spins around these questions of piracy and appropriation. Their point is ‘We’re not stealing it—we’re borrowing it and making something totally new.’ ”
Through November 2; $10; nmwa.org.
West End Cinema will run a weeklong retrospective of three films starring Robin Williams as a tribute to the actor and comedian, who died Monday at age 63. Starting Friday, the niche movie theater at 23rd and M streets, Northwest, will screen The Fisher King, The Birdcage, and Good Will Hunting.
Williams earned his third Academy Award nomination for his role in 1991’s The Fisher King, in which he played a homeless man who rescues a depressed, suicidal radio jockey played by Jeff Bridges. In The Birdcage, a 1996 adaptation of the French play La Cage aux Folles, Williams and Nathan Lane played a gay couple who attempt to deceive the deeply conservative parents of their son’s fiancée. Good Will Hunting is probably the dramatic role Williams is best remembered for, bringing him an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1998 for his portrayal of a Boston psychiatrist.
Williams’s death from an apparent suicide prompted his countless fans to spend Monday evening reminiscing about the hyperactive funnyman, whose manic, often random comedic style seemed to flow from an unscripted stream of consciousness. His mourners included President Obama, with the White House pushing out a statement in a relatively rare instance of Obama remarking on a celebrity death.
“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between,” Obama said, including a clever reference to Williams’s turn in Hook.
Two years ago, an unlikely person made a perilous journey almost seven miles underwater to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Titanic and Terminator director James Cameron piloted the 24-foot Deepsea Challenger to the deepest part of the ocean, and his record-breaking dive is the subject of a new documentary, Deepsea Challenge 3D.
The world doesn’t have many explorers anymore. The era of Jacques Cousteau and Sir Edmund Hillary and expeditions into the unknown has faded, mostly because there’s not much left that remains unexplored.
That is, except for the sea. As Cameron explains in his opening narration, we know little about the extreme depths of our own planet, so he partnered with National Geographic for an expedition to pick up the mantle. If the prospect of a Hollywood blockbuster director suddenly becoming a scientific explorer seems a bit off, the film goes to great lengths to show it’s for real.
Opening with reenactments of a young Cameron playing adventurer from inside a cardboard box, the documentary tracks his fascination of the ocean’s mysteries through his own filmography—first in 1989’s underwater sci-fi thriller The Abyss, followed, of course, by Titanic in 1997.
You may remember Cameron’s 12-year absence from feature filmmaking after that (finally broken by Avatar in 2009). What was he doing in the meantime? Undersea documentaries, actually—exploring a few famous shipwrecks, tracking down rare deep-sea animals with NASA scientists, and other aquatic adventures. In one scene, a question asked by Cameron’s wife—“Are you a filmmaker who does exploring on the side, or an explorer who does filmmaking on the side?”—becomes a central theme to his character.
Cameron’s childlike delight in sitting at the bottom of the ocean and watching all the “critters” float past gives a unique insight into a man usually accused of being among the most autocratic of filmmakers. “This is my church,” he says at one point, while cloistered in a cramped submersible under 16,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.
The rest of the documentary proceeds in a way not unlike a standard Cameron action blockbuster—the race against time to finish the project, the life-threatening risks, the against-all-odds final mission. That last part includes a cameo from Rolex watches—one of the expedition’s sponsors—in what could be one of the most absurd moments of product placement ever captured on film.*
But what, in the end, do we learn from this adventure? After all, it is a science expedition, but so much of the documentary’s focus is on Cameron that we don’t get the larger picture. There’s a perfunctory scene explaining how the trench might give researchers more insight into how tectonic plates affect volcanoes and tsunamis (and thus help us protect ourselves from them), but that’s about it. We see Cameron’s sense of wonder at all that he’s seeing, but the grander purpose is elusive.
But maybe that’s the point: that the depths Cameron sank to are still so mysterious and dark that this is far from the final journey. The director may have three Avatar sequels in production at the moment, but it’s plain to see where he really wants to be.
Deepsea Challenge 3D opens August 8 at West End Cinema, AMC Loews Shirlington, Regal Ballston Common, AMC Hoffman Center, and Rave Cinemas Fairfax Corner. Find Michael Gaynor on Twitter at @michael_gaynor.
*Okay, it’s too good not to explain: Cameron’s submersible includes a robotic arm used for picking up samples from the ocean floor. He’s sitting at the bottom of the trench when, out of nowhere, he decides to “check the time” by swinging the robot arm up to the camera and showing off—what else—a Rolex wristwatch strapped to the arm. Followed by a clearly forced comment about how it’s still ticking seven miles deep. Ha!
On Tuesday evening, Comcast and NBC Universal hosted a screening of the upcoming James Brown biopic Get On Up at the Newseum. The film, which opens wide August 1, stars Howard University alum Chadwick Boseman—currently best-known for portraying another African-American legend, baseball player Jackie Robinson, in last year’s 42.
The pre-show reception offered Southern-style food (fried-catfish sliders, cornbread muffins) and a deejay spinning Brown hits; as participants filed into their seats in the auditorium, they were followed by a brass band, who marched down the aisles playing instrumental versions of Brown’s hits.
Before the screening began, Touré, a music critic and host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, hosted a panel discussion with the film’s director, Tate Taylor—who also directed 2011’s The Help—Boseman, and Reverend Al Sharpton, who had a close personal relationship with Brown and, according to the panel, once acted as Brown’s manager.
During the discussion, Taylor revealed that the film was shot in 49 days in 96 locations in Mississippi. When Touré jokingly asked whether Taylor was vying for his “black card” by making Get On Up as well as The Help, Taylor joked right back that he already had one. (Get On Up reunites Taylor with his Help stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play Brown’s mother and aunt, respectively; The Help got Davis an Academy Award nod and Spencer a win.) Most of the questions directed at Boseman regarded how he managed to nail Brown’s distinctive walk and mannerisms; the audience at one point demanded to see Boseman demonstrate the famous stride, though he demurred. Sharpton shared a couple of anecdotes about the man he came to know so well that Brown began referring to him as “son,” including the story of when Michael Jackson attended a concert of Brown’s. After the show, Jackson moonwalked for Brown, who responded, “See that’s the problem: I’m here to get black folks going forward; you’ve got ’em going backward.”
As for the movie? It’s very well-acted, the costumes are a visual feast, and the makeup and aging effects are some of the most subtle and convincing this viewer has seen in quite some time. But for a biopic, Get On Up is not very enlightening about its subject’s life.
The movie begins with a scene of Brown later in his life before flashing back to his troubled childhood and following him along his journey to stardom, though it occasionally jumps around in time without offering the viewer much to orient herself. Some exposition is skipped over, which is either a refreshing avoidance of spoon-feeding or a source of confusion depending on the audience’s prior knowledge of Brown’s story. The whole film is suffused with a surrealist glow that makes it even harder for those who don’t recall the specifics of Brown’s life to parse what’s based in fact and what’s a product of Hollywood-ized creative license.
To its credit, the film doesn’t shy away from the less-than-charming aspects of Brown’s personality: his egotism, his treatment of his band members. But some of the singer’s serious problems, including drug use, domestic abuse, and tax evasion, are touched on briefly and then never brought up again. The script is occasionally heavy-handed with its dialogue and symbolism (never more so than in a ludicrous car-chase scene later in the movie).
There are excellent moments, though. The concert scenes crackle with energy; all the performances used real recordings of Brown—and while Boseman may not have done the singing, he showed an impressive mastery of Brown’s signature dance moves. The delightfully deadpan Nelsan Ellis (True Blood’s Lafayette) is wonderful as Brown’s friend and longtime band member Bobby Byrd, and Dan Akroyd as record executive and pseudo-father figure Ben Bart brings plenty of warmth to his role. (Surprisingly, the generally hilarious Craig Robinson isn’t given much to do.)
Overall, it’s a softly lit portrait of a talented, complicated man. As Boseman said during the pre-show panel, “light and darkness existed in almost every moment of his life.” Get On Up is decidedly focused on the former.
Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.
Olympic diver Greg Louganis is best remembered for the worst moment of his career: slamming his head into the diving board at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
That shocking, near-fatal mishap became the prelude to a historic gold medal sweep, made all the more dramatic by Louganis’s then-undisclosed HIV status. But Cheryl Furjanic’s new documentary, Back on Board, goes beyond the headlines, offering a sensitive portrait of the greatest diver in the history of the sport.
The film opens on Louganis in 2011, now in his fifties and facing foreclosure. His seaside California home looks like a mausoleum to his glory days, piled with memorabilia for sale to the highest bidder. After winning five Olympic medals and 47 national titles—and despite making a second career of acting, writing, and public speaking—Louganis is on the verge of living out of his RV.
That’s partly because he was too trusting in his younger years, taken in by a series of bad business deals; partly because Americans are too quick to forget their Olympic idols; and partly, perhaps most significantly, because he was different. “I never got a Wheaties box,” Louganis says with a shrug. “Their response was that I didn’t fit their ‘wholesome’ demographic.” In other words, he was gay.
Louganis never felt comfortable in the diving world, enduring homophobic slurs and petty jealousies from his teammates. For most of his career he didn’t enjoy diving, and even wondered aloud “if it was really all worth it.” It wasn’t until Louganis’s HIV diagnosis in 1987 that he came to love the sport, as an “escape from reality.” He threw himself into training for the 1988 Olympics, all the while fearing he wouldn’t live to compete.
But Back on Board is less about Louganis’s past and more about his new sense of purpose. Cut to 2012, when he returns to the Olympics after a two-decade absence. Louganis is out now, mentoring a new generation of divers for the London Games, and for the first time in his life he feels welcome among fellow divers.
Louganis’s story reflects, on the most superficial level, the progress of gay rights in America. In the space of three decades he has gone from being ostracized by his teammates and grilled about his sex life on national television to getting married to his partner last year. The documentary invites, but doesn’t belabor, this long view of history, focusing instead on the diver’s individual experience. Coming on the heels of a recent spate of films about the early years of the AIDS epidemic— Dallas Buyers Club, HBO’s The Normal Heart, and the riveting documentary How to Survive a Plague— Back on Board feels like a minor, deeply personal part of that larger narrative. It has plenty of feel-good triumphs for the sports biopic fan, and each of Louganis’s graceful, seemingly effortless dives is still a nail biter all these years later. But the film never sacrifices the man for the legend.
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Every Femen protest unfolds the same way. An unmarked van pulls into a public square, and a group of svelte, topless women emerge with flowers in their hair, breasts bare except for the painted slogans: “Freedom For Women,” “No Political Rape,” “Pope No More.” They shout and hold up signs. Sometimes they break things. But they are invariably dragged away by police, kicking and screaming.
The 2013 documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel goes behind the scenes of Femen, offering a candid and complex look into the private motivations of its members. Since the organization’s founding in 2008, Femen has evolved into a global media sensation, with activists waging “topless jihad” in England, Turkey, the United States, and beyond.
In her feature-film debut, director Kitty Green gets startlingly close to her subjects, catching glimpses of bruised knees, painted toenails, and clutched teddy bears that reveal more than Femen’s battle attire. Her interviews linger just long enough in silence to extract the truth lurking behind each rehearsed sound bite. With no narration or intertitles to orient the viewer, the documentary uncoils like a dramatic thriller—one that raises more questions than it answers.
The women of Femen call themselves “sextremists” and, more controversially, feminists. Inna and Alexandra, two of Femen’s most visible members, explain that they are fighting the post-Soviet sex trade, showing the world that Ukraine is a “country where naked girls protest, not sell their bodies.”
“Nobody takes a woman seriously, but everyone wants to look at women,” Inna says. That’s why they use their bodies, pale and statuesque, to send the message.
In spite of these noble intentions, the reality of Femen’s work is far more complicated. When the women are not picketing outside civic buildings and accosting heads of state, they are shilling for lingerie brands and posing for high-glamour photo shoots. One former member, Irina, reveals that Femen did not protest topless in its early years. She left the organization when nudity became part of its platform, when Femen sacrificed “girls who don’t have the figure” to promote its sexy, provocative “brand.”
Seen in this light, the protests begin to look more routine, like intricately choreographed publicity stunts. One particularly shocking demonstration centers on an overweight woman in a G-string—the “sex bomb”—while her thinner comrades, fully clothed for once, shout “Danger! Danger!” around her. Initially the woman says she is proud of her contribution to the cause but admits, in the end, that the others “position themselves” as feminists but see her only as the butt of a joke.
Meanwhile, in scene after scene, Femen members receive calls and instructions from a man named Victor, who looms over the operation like a disembodied Charlie—and over time, the women chafe under his leadership. Victor’s role in Femen isn’t explored until the film’s climax, a tense, no-holds-barred interview with the patriarch at the head of this antipatriarchal movement.
Still, the film eschews any facile conclusions about Femen. Women who appear ditzy or naive in one instant expound eloquently on gender politics the next. Rightly or wrongly, the group’s tactics draw attention to feminism around the world—and throw the protesters’ lives into very real peril. Whether Femen fights exploitation or exploits its own members, whether it is a feminist movement or an elaborate form of self-delusion, it has given all these women a sense of purpose in life.
Screening Saturday, June 21, 9 PM at Goethe-Institut.
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When Edward Snowden sat for an interview with NBC News last month, it took the Obama administration about 15 seconds after the primetime special ended to trot out high-ranking officials to call—yet again—the former National Security Agency contractor a traitor. Public opinion doesn’t favor Snowden, either, with an April poll showing only 24-percent support for his leaking information about the NSA’s global eavesdropping programs to journalists.
Yet Snowden’s actions remain popular, and while he holes up in Moscow, his former employer is the subject of more scrutiny than ever. Whistleblowers might be damned, but the whistles they blow are popular.
Silenced is not designed to leave the viewer seeing middle ground on what happened to its three subjects. These people got screwed for their actions, and badly. Director James Spione spares little in showing how financially and emotionally wracked the government’s response can leave a whistleblower.
Spione trots out three well-known cases: Jessalyn Radack, a former Justice Department lawyer who disclosed ethical violations by the FBI about the interrogation of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh; Thomas Drake, the former NSA executive who exposed faults in the agency’s surveillance efforts; and John Kiriakou, a former CIA operative who went public with information that US agents tortured al Qaeda prisoners.
All three informed their fellow Americans about the more ungainly sides of national security; all three suffered for it, consequences that Spione is occasionally heavy-handed in driving home. For a documentary that takes place in the shadows, there is little subtlety in the storytelling. In case the audience needs a reminder of the national security state, the opening credits take place over a montage of the 9/11 attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Spione, presumably convinced he needed to amp up the drama, hired actors for black-and-white reenactments. It’s an unnecessary tactic; there’s plenty of emotion in his subjects’ stories. Radack confesses that she suffered a miscarriage in one of the many sleepless nights caused by her former employer’s dogged inquisition against her. Drake, facing one of the only four prosecutions under the Espionage Act against an individual in US history, becomes so undesirable in his chosen field, he can only find employment at the Apple Store in Bethesda.
Kiriakou has it worst. Drake burned through more than $1 million on his legal defense, and eventually had most of the charges against him dropped. But Kiriakou, with a wife and two young children, got real jail time. Silenced picks up as he prepares to enter prison for 30 months beginning February 2013. After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou spiraled so deeply into debt, he learned that by the time he faced sentencing, his family qualified for every public assistance program offered by Arlington County.
Radack, Drake, and Kiriakou all pay dearly, but they also have new roles. Radack now works for the Government Accountability Project, advising federal whistleblowers like Drake and Snowden; Drake, when not tinkering with iPads, is a sought-after activist against the surveillance state; Kiriakou is waging an aggressive campaign from his jail cell to get a pardon from President Obama. All of it is in the service of better government, not anarchy.
It’s wrenching stuff, that doesn’t necessarily need all of Spione’s extra flourishes. But the point is still delivered: Industrial whistleblowers are often celebrated for alerting us to corporate malfeasance. When it’s national security, they’re damned.
Screening Saturday, June 21, 7 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.
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No one can argue that clean water, and access to it, is a pressing global health issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. As repeated early and often throughout Slingshot, more than a billion people lack access to safe water.
The film shows multiple clips of women, children, families clearing trash and debris in order to collect water to bathe or cook with; and as you watch a child scoop trace amounts of water from a tiny puddle of mud just to capture whatever he can, it’s impossible not to remember all those times you left the faucet running a few extra seconds while brushing your teeth. The stark images and statistics are a reminder that those TV commercials appealing for just ten cents a day are barely scratching the surface.
Slingshot makes compelling arguments, and is worth watching as both as an exploration of the potential solutions to this crisis and as a celebration of the extraordinary life of Dean Kamen. His name may not ring a bell, but his inventions certainly will. Anyone in DC during the summertime will have seen packs of tourists whipping around the Mall on Kamen’s most (in)famous creation, the Segway.
Kamen is a fascinating figure that few outside the tech world probably know, which is a shame. Many mock the Segway, but Kamen’s contributions to science and medicine through developments in dialysis and robotics is stunning, and listening to him balance his passion to see the clean water solution succeed (the film is named for the water distilling machine he creates) with the business and cultural realities on the ground both excites and frustrates.
Still, after multiple viewings of Slingshot, instead of questioning the film’s ability to move the needle on the clean water issue, I was instead left questioning its pacing.
To put it in scientific terms, the documentary is two parts Kamen, one part water.
While presenting a compelling argument for why his technology has the chance to dramatically alter the future of access to clean water, the film often kills its own momentum by refocusing the camera on Kamen to examine some aspect or another of his personal life. As he arrives at a technological breakthrough with the Slingshot, we break for a talk about his highly successful FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) conferences. Just as the research group starts a pilot project, we step aside to hear about Kamen’s father’s art career. As we learn of potential partnership with Coca-Cola to distribute the Slingshot machines, the film hits the pause button to deal with a death in Kamen’s family. All of these moments, and many more, are worth exploring, but there never appears to be a connective thread as to why and when the breaks occur.
A theme Kamen returns to often is time: how little each of us has of it while alive, and how we choose to spend it. He yearns for a time machine, and viewers will wish he had one, if only to continue realizing the amazing ideas in his imagination.
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American cyclists won every Tour de France from 1999 through 2006—until, of course, they were revealed as drug-fueled frauds. The past few decades of professional cycling have been filled with so many phonies, it’s sometimes difficult to remember there was an era in which riders pedaled across the Alps under their own steam.
Thanks to those phonies, such as Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis, and, of course, Lance Armstrong, we have to go back 30 years to find a cycling story not built on a dubious narrative. And with Landis and Armstrong exposed as cheats, the lone US cyclist to win an honest Tour de France remains Greg LeMond, whose strained friendship and longtime rivalry with the French legend Bernard Hinault is the heart of Slaying the Badger.
LeMond emerged in the late 1970s as one of those phenoms with athletic traits so rare, one forgets he didn’t win his first Tour de France until 1986. LeMond’s levels of speed, endurance, and aerobic capacity had never been seen in any cyclist, much less any Americans, who until LeMond were non-factors in major cycling competitions. Director John Dower retraces LeMond’s emergence, his marriage at 19 to his high-school girlfriend, Kathy, and their youthful move to Europe so LeMond could hone his skills with the real pros.
The action picks up when LeMond falls in with La Vie Claire, a legendary cycling team anchored by Hinault, also known as the “Badger” for his sneering demeanor and hyper-aggressive road moves. (Among the archival footage is the 1984 race between Paris and Nice in which Hinault, encountering protesting shipworkers blocking the route, dismounts from his bike and starts punching the demonstrators.) By 1985, Hinault was looking to join the small group of cyclists with five Tour victories, but at that point, LeMond was hungry for his first. The teammates struck a deal: LeMond would support Hinault in ’85, and Hinault would return the favor in ’86.
At the risk of landing on the Badger’s list of journalists with whom he won’t cooperate: He’s a lying bastard. Hinault barreled through the 1986 Tour seemingly set on winning, culminating in an obnoxious climb of the Alpe d’Huez in which he went into attack mode with no competition to actually attack. LeMond caught him, and even though the pair finished the stage hand in hand, there was no real renewed partnership. In archival footage taken after the legendary stage, Hinault slyly hinted that even though the plan was for LeMond to win, the 25-year-old American could fall ill or get injured.
Hinault’s official explanation for his moves was that he was actually trying to wear down the rest of the field to allow LeMond to emerge on top. It’s a flimsy excuse in the archives, and it doesn’t hold up in a contemporary interview with Hinault. But that was the La Vie Claire way. The team’s coach, Paul Köchli, feels the same. He ordered LeMond to hold back in ’85, only to institute an every-cyclist-for-himself strategy the following year.
LeMond today remembers the rest of the ’86 tour as a survival game, even to the point of only eating food purchased by Kathy or his parents, and hearing rumors that 80 percent of the field was actually backing Hinault. Andrew Hempstead, another American signed to La Vie Claire, compares the LeMond-Hinault partnership to a fratricidal betrayal.
LeMond won in 1986, but even with the titular Badger slain, he faced far greater struggles. A hunting accident in early 1987 kept him out for two years. His second tour win, in 1989, when he took the lead in the final stage is a more improbable victory than the first, and certainly an uplifting story, but not as momentous.
LeMond appears in a body brace in his contemporary scenes, a result of injuries he sustained in a car crash shortly before Dower started filming. Otherwise, he appears to be in fine shape, if a little heavier over the years. But he’s more attuned than ever to his legacy; the remnants of his hunting wounds leave him at greatly elevated risks for stroke and heart disease, and with American cycling in disarray after Armstrong and Landis, LeMond remains unchallenged in his influence on the sport.
Slaying the Badger doesn’t linger on Armstrong, thankfully, but he does bracket the film. LeMond wanted to believe Armstrong, his successor as the great American cyclist and improbable cancer survivor, but couldn’t, given the evidence he knew. Aware that he would be brandished a villain if he bashed Armstrong when the chemically improved Texan won, LeMond recalls his official line was, “It’s unbelievable.”
It was a cagey sentiment, worthy of the Badger himself, but one that makes us long for a less fraudulent era. Hinault might be a duplicitous jerk, but he and LeMond gave us great races honestly.
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One of the key questions for any documentary is about the camera itself: How much does the presence of that video camera affect the world immediately around it? Does it change the actions of the people it’s recording, alter the outcomes of the scenes it’s capturing?
But there’s also the question of the man behind the camera. How does it change him?
Point and Shoot is a meditation on these questions and, at its heart, a wild and dangerous coming-of-age tale. Winner of Best Documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it tells the story of Matthew VanDyke, a lanky, socially awkward outcast whose desperation to become something greater takes him on a journey from his Baltimore hometown to the deserts of North Africa and finally to the 2011 Libyan revolution against Muammar Qaddafi.
And the impetus behind it all is the video camera. Despite VanDyke’s oddities—his lack of friends, his crippling obsessive compulsive disorder—the beginning of the documentary shows how similar he is to many of his generation. He grew up idolizing action movies, tales of adventure and greatness committed to celluloid. But, jobless and aimless after graduating from Georgetown, he can only live out this double life through more movies and video games. He’s haunted by a desire to do something “extraordinary” but seemingly powerless to do anything about it; call it “millennial syndrome.”
So he decides to go on an adventure. Taking a cue from an rugged Australian travel documentarian, VanDyke buys a motorcycle, packs a video camera, and sets out for North Africa on what he calls a “crash course in manhood.”
The first leg of his reckless foray is replete with corny machismo, clumsy cultural interactions, and brash motorcycle stunts. He even invents a new on-screen persona—“Max Hunter”—in a blundering attempt at transformation. But no matter what he does, he’s still the same awkward kid from Baltimore; the two incompatible identities collide when his OCD causes a motorcycle crash and lands him in a hospital with a few broken bones.
But then something changes. The documentary, directed by Academy Award nominee Marshall Curry, soon reveals itself to be an expertly constructed bildungsroman when VanDyke finds himself on a true path toward transformation. He meets Nuri, a Libyan and self-described “hippie” whose friendship sends VanDyke to the front lines of the foundering rebellion against the country’s powerful dictator.
The struggle for freedom he witnesses (and films) changes something in VanDyke. Curry asks pointed questions in the talking-head segments that intercut VanDyke’s own recordings of the conflict, and he meticulously shows the audience how his subject’s false swagger evolves into genuine devotion to the uprising’s ideals.
VanDyke’s footage is incredible. He captures not just the battles and bomb blasts, but quiet moments such as the meal before a desperate assault, lingering on the resignation in the freedom fighters’ faces. Soon he faces his own internal conflict as he races through battlegrounds with a camera in one hand and a machine gun in the other. “Am I a filmmaker, or am I a fighter?” he asks himself at one point.
The dilemma is a central theme of the documentary’s story as it builds to a thoughtful and thrilling conclusion. Curry has crafted an incredible tale of growth and transformation that is at once global and intensely personal. VanDyke set out with his camera to do something “extraordinary.” This documentary shows what sacrifices must be made to truly get there.
Screening Friday, June 20, 7:15 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.
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