A young Syrian girl holds her country’s flag with widestretched arms and sings cheerfully into a camera. Behind her on the sandy Aleppo street, a demonstration takes place—freedom fighters, parents, Free Syrian Army generals and children exist as one here, marching to express a single plea: Get rid of Bashar al-Assad.
Then an explosion occurs. The camera drops. The demonstrators’ voices turn into panicked screams; the girl’s singing stops.
The 15-minute short, Not Anymore, filmed by activist Matthew VanDyke offers a heartbreaking glimpse into daily life in today’s Syria—a country that prior to having a shattered infrastructure, outpouring of refugees, and massive casualties in the height of civil war was a close-knit Middle Eastern destination decorated with historic architecture. “It is beautiful,” says Nour Kelze, a 24-year-old teacher-turned-freedom fighter and a producer of the film, “without that monster.”
The film follows Nour, a fearless and passionate Syrian rebel, as she braces the front lines of a conflict that has taken her job, her friends, and her country’s picturesque landscape. She’s now a war photographer. “Everyone is going to know what’s happening to us,” she says, wearing a hard hat and sneakers in place of her former “fancy dresses and high heels.”
Teenage is a different kind of documentary. It’s not an “issue” picture, trying to explain, investigate, or solve some big controversy. There are no talking heads and no narration by the filmmakers. It isn’t the story of a single person or event. So what exactly is it?
On its surface the film tells the story of the “teenager,” examining the role young people have played in culture, politics, and historical affairs since the advent of the term. Based on the Jon Savage book of the same name, it begins at the turn of the 20th century with the first child labor laws in the US, which freed young people to discover themselves. And so, adolescence was born.
From that launching point, the documentary weaves the tales of four representative teenagers from the first half of the century: the hard-partying Brit who became a cautionary tale, a Hitler Youth member manipulated by a dictator, a rebellious German captivated by overseas music and culture, and a black Boy Scout trying to find his place. They were some of the first true teenagers, and their stories of facing teenage problems are depicted through archival footage and diary readings.
But, the most important facet to the documentary is the mood it creates. Its soundtrack, by Bradford Cox of the indie band Deerhunter, is ethereal and spacey. Informative subtitles don’t pop-up onscreen to explain where a certain piece of footage is from or even who is speaking—the images simply come and go for viewers to make sense of themselves. It all serves to give the film an ambient, dreamlike quality.
One of the greatest strengths of the documentary format is its ability to personalize an issue, to tackle an abstract concept with characters and stories instead of figures and statistics. To many, the forced labor camps of North Korea are one of these issues—we know they exist, we know horrible things happen there, but we’re so far removed from them that their everyday relevance is diminished.
Camp 14—Total Control Zone seeks to change that. It tells the hidden story of one of these prisons, where barbed-wire fences contain lives that know only hard labor, hunger, and complete domination. The political prisoners here receive no pardons, and their sentences never end. The only way out is death, which can come at any time of any day, sometimes simply via the whim of a guard with an itchy trigger finger.
The film centers around a young man named Shin Dong-hyuk. Born in the prison camp, he grew up knowing nothing of the outside world. The idea of “freedom” was inconceivable—his life was built around starvation and fear, orders and beatings. That is, until he escaped at the age of 23 to China and eventually Seoul, South Korea.
Shin’s story unfolds slowly, as the initial mysteries of how he came to be born in the camp, what happened to his family, and his ultimate escape are revealed piece by piece. Flashbacks to his youth are portrayed through haunting animations—they’re sparse, static, and colorless but for the splash of the blood-red flags fluttering on the execution grounds.
You could be forgiven for thinking the Macarena isn’t exactly the cornerstone of cultural assimilation, but for teens at New York City’s International High School at Lafayette, the dance is indicative of the essence of American culture.
In I Learn America, filmmakers Gitte Peng and Jean-Michel Dissard follow a group of adolescent immigrants through high school, as they grapple with everything from civics homework to soccer practice to self-discovery. But the film’s main focus is how the students experience their introduction to a new society’s norms. In interview after interview, they recount personal anecdotes and struggles to the point where the movie starts to resemble an episode of MTV’s True Life.
Filmmaker Tom Berninger hasn’t amounted to much in life, and he knows it. A pudgy, Chris Farley-esque, shaggy-haired misfit whose hobbies include listening to heavy metal and making mini slasher movies, Tom catches a break when his older brother, Matt, lead singer of indie band the National, invites him to come along on the group’s world tour to “help out.”
Tom, who up until that point has been living in the basement of his parents’ Cincinnati home, takes this as an opportunity to make a documentary, and the awkwardness that ensues is frequently cringe-inducing but also charming, endearing, and relatable to anyone who’s ever had a sibling they just can’t quite live up to. To no one’s surprise, the best parts of the footage quickly become those based around Tom, the bumbling, beer-swilling, often-buzzed “director,” who asks such remedial questions of the hipster band members that they all need a beat before they realize he’s actually serious. (One example: Tom asks his brother if he ever “gets tired onstage” and, in a moment that veers into Spinal Tap territory, asks the band’s drummer, “How many drugs, and what kinds of drugs, have you done?”)
Initially, Tom thinks he’s signed up for a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll party tour, but when he discovers the sedate Brooklyn-based band is way more into sipping wine than slamming Jack Daniels, he’s disappointed, to say the least. So he keeps getting in trouble, screwing up little tasks, and drinking too much of the band’s booze, all the while turning the camera on himself to capture just how bad he is at all of this “work” stuff. It’s almost enough to make viewer suspect the whole thing’s a Joaquin Phoenix-esque hoax. At one point, Tom complains to Matt about being picked on by his boss, the tour manager, who repeatedly tells Tom to put down the camera and get his job done. “It’s like they think the only reason I’m here is because I’m your brother!” says Tom. To which Matt responds bluntly, “The only reason you’re here is that you are my brother.” It’s a slap in the face, but obviously one in a lifelong string of misplaced expectations and comparisons. Through the rough-cut footage of the concerts, it quickly becomes clear that Matt, nine years Tom’s senior, is a naturally gifted star. He’s dramatic, cool, dynamic, a quintessential lead singer. As for Tom? He’s a roadie—on a good day.
The shootings at Columbine High School. Wes Craven’s Scream movies. These are the all-too-familiar cultural touchstones referenced by the teen killers in the utterly chilling beginning of Lost for Life, a world premiere directed by Joshua Rofé. The documentary, which examines the question of whether it should be legal for juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole, begins with 16-year-olds Brian and Torey plotting to kill a classmate—seemingly just for kicks. Rofé reenacts the crime through photographs and actual video shot by the two boys both before and after the murder. It’s shocking and horrific, and makes the film’s goal of garnering sympathy for murderers seem well-nigh impossible.
But Rofé does an admirable job. Many of the convicted juveniles he interviews were abused as children; one, who spent more than 20 years in prison, was involved in a gang from a very young age. In one scene, photographs are shown of a young boy with his mother and stepfather as the man that boy became describes how he killed them; later, as he recounts the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at their hands, the same photographs are shown, imbued with a new air of menace. Among the questions raised: What does it say about America that when innocence is corrupted and the system fails to help children who need it, they’re forced to pay with their whole lives? Should children not be given a chance at redemption?
There are no fancy corner offices to be found in Dawn Porter’s documentary about the career paths of public defenders in the South. With a mission that mostly focuses on lessening the penalty for the majority of cases that come across their desks (these lawyers see a 90-to-95-percent guilty plea rate), these attorneys operate in a subset of the legal system that doesn’t offer the glitz of TV courtrooms.
While the cases and clients in the film are somewhat stereotypical for a documentary about the many problems within the US legal system, there are scenes throughout that create a compelling narrative arc. Rather than focusing solely on the clients, Porter hones in to examine the lives of lawyers who work for paychecks that barely make a dent in their law school loans.
One scene features a room full of public defenders at a support group meeting—much like one their clients would be court-ordered to attend—where frustrations about innocent clients, moral obligations, and personal lives all emerge as topics that bring these lawyers to the verge of tears.
The obvious question is what motivates them to continue down this career path, and Porter offers a lesson in the history of public defenders dating back to the civil rights movement—the ones who fought hard in court to ensure justice was served for individuals sent to jail for sitting at the diner counter or the front of the bus.
Before online petitions and social media made it as easy as the click of a mouse, to protest in America could mean facing professional, social, and financial ruin, as well as a possible prison sentence. Bill Siegel’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks at a tumultuous period during the incomparable fighter’s life, when as an already divisive figure, he stood his ground, affirmed his faith, and protested against what he saw as an unjust war. But by seeking to cover the many different facets of Ali’s life, the film often seems to zigzag over the highs and lows of his career without finding its focus.
The images and the quotes from newsreel interviews with Ali in the ’60s and ’70s certainly reinforce the narrative of a life spent struggling with issues of race and religion, but the additional attempts to frame these events within a larger context come up short. The opening scene from a British talk show reveals Ali listening to host David Susskind refer to him as “a simplistic fool and a pawn,” while the fighter remains utterly cool and expressionless. Nothing from the film’s present-day interviews can match the composure Ali expresses in that single 30-second clip.
The movie explores Ali’s conversion to Islam, the changing of his name (from Cassius Clay), and his bold decision to protest the Vietnam War and to face prison time rather than enlist. The reaction it engenders is stark and undeniable, and Ali faces constant pressure to defend and explain himself. In a brutal Floyd Patterson fight, Patterson refuses to call him anything but Cassius Clay, so Ali strategically pummels him for 12 rounds.
We have the benefit of hindsight to enjoy watching Caucus, A.J. Schnack’s new film about the Republican primary race in the months leading up to the 2012 Iowa caucus, but it’s also possible we could have used a little more time to get the taste of deep-fried butter and Godfather’s Pizza out of our mouths.
Not that there aren’t moments in the film that, almost shockingly, the passage of time has all but eradicated—Tim Pawlenty flipping pork chops at the Iowa State Fair, say, or Sarah Palin strutting around in a tight white T-shirt and stoking the speculation embers into a veritable conflagration. That was back in August of 2011, when Michele Bachmann was—now somewhat unbelievably—Mitt Romney’s fiercest competitor, tooting her campaign bus horn over and over again (it starts to feel like a metaphor) and winning the Ames straw poll that same month.
Schnack documents all the eccentricities of the leadup to Iowa in infinitesimal detail, from the way Bachmann tenderly pats an elderly woman’s shoulder and coos at her to Mitt Romney’s statement that corporations are people (my friend). His camera is everywhere—sometimes improbably so. He’s in the lobby filming while an Iowa state representative complains to a Republican that the Fox News hosts at the previous night’s debate were too critical of the candidates. He’s there when Herman Cain hands a woman his business card, leaving both giggling. And he pans in on Ron Paul attempting to close a car door for what starts to feel like an unfairly long time.
The sight of an all-white, all-male panel discussing issues that affect women is, sadly, not unfamiliar in these times, whether it’s the House Oversight Committee debating contraceptive insurance coverage, or a Judiciary subcommittee proposing a nationwide ban on abortions after the 20-week mark, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying about sexual assault in the military. But there’s still something shocking about the CSPAN footage of Anita Hill testifying to a Senate committee about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas in 1991. Led by none other than Vice President Joe Biden, and featuring an all-star lineup including Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, and a distinctly uncomfortable Ted Kennedy, the panel seems to approach Hill with attitudes ranging from bewilderment to barely concealed rage.
Anita is Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock’s tribute to Hill, 22 years after she polarized America. Mock follows Hill around her Brandeis University office (the words “Speak Truth to Power” are framed on her wall) and explores in detail the case that made her both a household name and a national target. The film opens with a lingering shot of a telephone, followed by the audio of a now-infamous voicemail left by Ginny Thomas in 2010. “Good morning, Anita Hill,” says the voice. “I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”