Reviews of documentaries (part 4)

Continuing my marathon, in which I share mini-reviews of documentaries I’ve watched over the last two years or so. For this post, we’ll look at a variety of different subject matters.

Bus 174 (2002) (multiple directors)
Despite having to read subtitles for two hours, this was a very captivating watch. The filmmakers know what they are doing by maintaining the suspense about the hostage situation, while intercutting scenes about life in Rio for the homeless children and youths. It’s easy to empathize with their struggles, living on the streets with no support, the questionable police behavior, and the wretched conditions of prisons and juvenile delinquency facilities. Yet the documentary is not totally biased as the kids at times are quite evil in how they steal and threat to torch their victims if they don’t hand over their money.
If you’ve seen City of God (2002), this documentary is a good companion piece, which goes deeper and attempts to analyze what’s wrong in contemporary Brazil. How the kids feel like they are invisible and looked upon as trash. I didn’t expect the documentary to have such a profound effect on me and the way I look at Rio de Janeiro. See it.
Rating 8.5/10

Baraka (1992) (Ron Fricke)
Named after a Sufi word that translates roughly as “breath of life” or “blessing”. A collection of beautiful images shot in 24 countries on six continents over a 14-month period.
An attempt to capture the essence of life. A wordless documentary with ambient music by Michael Stearns. Probably the idea is that words can’t do the images justice. For nature, the religious rituals, and man’s destructive powers to speak for itself. Some viewers may find the approach with no voice-over shallow. I found it to be a meditative and moving experience. The aerial shot taken above the flock of birds is one of the most breathtaking, as are the sped up clouds, and the architecture. You can make parallels between the flock of flying birds, and endless field of man-made aircrafts. The assembly line of chickens a parallel to the busy subway exits.
The scenes in urban cities I thought were more beautifully captured at night in Koyaanisqatsi (1982), which focused strictly on America, while Baraka has a global reach.
Baraka takes you on a visual journey to exotic locations which you might not know about. A documentary that will be loved by those who appreciate beauty, and loathed by the impatient viewer who may find it too random and pretentious.
While there is social commentary about pollution and the rain forest, it’s also a life-affirming film in reminding us how magnificent the planet is, both what is already here and the man-made architecture. Watch it in the best picture quality available. If you are a photographer, this is a must-see.
Rating 8/10

Hawking (2013) (Stephen Finnigan)
While it does cover things we saw in the movie The Theory of Everything (2014), this 2013 documentary provides easy to understand summaries of his theories, narrated by Hawking himself. Also looks at his celebrity and how he deals with that. He says he wants the world-wide celebrity, he enjoys the media attention. Hawking embraces it which is not necessarily very good for the family and the children. This was a problem in his marriage.
Despite relationship problems, he is an inspiration to everyone for his determination to survive and achieve things despite his handicap.
According to Hawking, the universe came into existence all by itself, without the need of a god. His theory is it happened with the big bang, which he claims was the beginning of the universe.
Important Hawking theory in 1970:  When two black holes collide and merge, he realized that the surface area of the new black hole could only get bigger, it could never decrease in size. This revealed some fundamental properties of the universe, even though few physicists could understand it at the time. He was writing the rule book for black holes. He had been recognized as someone with great potential, now he had a discovery to his name.
Second discovery in 1974: Contrary to all previously held theories on black holes, he discovered that they must free particles like a hot body losing heat, this evaporation theory meant that a black hole could eventually disappear. Causing shock in the world of physics at the time, the discovery later became accepted and known as Hawking radiation.
Rating 7/10

Gates of Heaven (1978) (Errol Morris)
About pet cemeteries and the desire to build them. Roger Ebert championed this film and considered it among his great movies. For me, it was decent, but too unfocused to be great.
My feeling is the director got distracted and decided to just make a documentary about the people he met. Maybe that improvisation is a good thing, who knows. It’s also a film that may put people to sleep, as there is not much insight, and some of the interviews of elderly folks are a bit dull.
Can be watched as a portrayal of animal lovers, a warm-hearted message about the love the owners have for their pets, the painful loss, and how reuniting with animals in heaven gives the owners a degree of hope.
The other theme has to do with people who dropped out of their former jobs and decided to run a pet cemetery. The maintenance of the grounds is not really explored, instead Errol Morris has them talking about their life in very general terms.
I liked how the cemetery is divided into sections of companionship, devotion, memory and honour(for police dogs who died in line of duty). It’s a shame we aren’t shown footage of these cemeteries while the old man is talking about them. The director waits until the final moments of the film to show us images of the graves.
The old lady on the porch with the red apron and red hair was my favorite to listen to, even though her comments do stray off course with her talking about her grandson. For whatever reason, Errol Morris leaves the camera on, and she rambles. Many of the other participants are given less time to talk.
Another favorite was the guy with the trophies in his office who offers motivational quotes, although, again, it didn’t have much to do with loss or pet cemeteries, so I don’t quite know why all the stuff he talks about is included in the film.
Favorite quote: “I’ll climb Mountain Everest. Mountains don’t grow, but men always will”
Rating 6/10




Grey Gardens (1975) (multiple directors)
A cult classic and a precursor to Big Brother reality-TV, in which we follow a 54-year-old daughter living with her elderly mother, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. On the property, only caretakers and the occasional friend stop by.
The daughter yearns for freedom but stays because she is supported financially. Her three favorite things are famously the catholic church, swimming and dancing. Her mother is a bit controlling and likes to spontaneously sing. These two people shouldn’t fascinate and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off their eccentric behavior, which takes place almost out of time, outside the 70s. Reminded me of the song Man Out of Time by Elvis Costello.
Interestingly, the decaying mansion mirrors their bodies in decline. Yet they still keep their spirits up with the company of one another. The pair are experts at doing nothing. The daughter is bitter over missed opportunities in her youth and has a thing for wearing head shawls, which covers up her greying hair, and her changing outfits give the film a distinct visual look.
Her mother remembers the past fondly and talks of the men in her life in a very positive way, yet is overly critical of the men in her daughter’s life.
Favorite quote, in scene thumbing through old photos. “Did she look like a girl who had everything?”
Rating 8/10

They Call Us Misfits (Swedish: Dom kallar oss mods) (1968) (Stefan Jarl)
A Swedish classic, the first instalment of the Mod Trilogy. Similar to the Up Series, we see them gradually getting older. The second instalment is A Decent Life (1979), the third Misfits to Yuppies (1993).
So far, I’ve only seen the first one in which we follow rebellious, opinionated teenagers with long hippie hair. Hanging out with their peers at the subway, talking about getting high, yelling at strangers, and so on. The two male leads are colorful characters and quite entertaining to listen to.
 I heard about the documentary because it was referenced in We Are The Best (2013) in the scene when the girls are begging for money at a station. That film also takes its title from a piece of dialogue in They Call Us Misfits.
I loved the first 30 minutes, but the interviews that came next were a bit dry, and I liked the characters less as the documentary went on.
Even though I live in the same region, I couldn’t really identify with their life style of alcoholic parents, taking drugs, and having several girlfriends at once. It’s difficult to empathize with any of them despite their problematic upbringing. But then it is real life, and you have to take the positive with the negative in each person you meet.
The filmmakers are non-judgmental and just observe. However I think the documentary suffers from too many young people being interviewed, so isn’t as focused on the two leads as it could have been. The group situations were the highlights for me.
If this is all real and non-scripted, it’s amazing how naturel the participants are. It’s as if they forget the camera is on them in the group moments. I imagined they would behave in exactly the same way if the camera was off.
I think I’ll just read the summaries for the remaining two instalments. Wasn’t gripping enough for me to continue watching the follow-ups.
Rating 7/10

TT3D: Closer to the Edge (2011) (Richard De Aragues)
About the Isle of Man’s unique road racing history, the rivalries of the motorcycle riders, and the fans who visit.
Having a camera on the front of the motorcycle really does take you right there and gives you a sense of the speed and danger. As I didn’t know the outcome of the races, this gave it added suspense. Guy Martin is quite a character and we follow his preparation and participation in the annual event.
In interviews, you get to hear what makes these guys tick. The will to compete, despite so many injuries and casualties in the race over the years, is amazing. I didn’t see it in 3D.
Rating 8/10

Nanook of the North (1922) (silent film) (Robert J. Flaherty)
Considered cinema’s first documentary feature. Depicting the Canadian Inuit Eskimos. A pioneering work that was notoriously difficult to make. Not only did Flaherty have to deal with the freezing cold. Back at home, the film reel literally caught fire, so he had to start over. Which he did.
What stayed with me the most was the smiling face of Nanook the Eskimo, who despite adversity, has to find food and shelter for his family in the tough conditions of the Canadian Arctic. You see how they build an igloo, go fishing, hunt for seals, and so on.
Nanook laughs with glee as his listens to a record player, the technology is totally alien to him. With no other choice, the Eskimos have got used to the harsh lifestyle. I would probably die in few hours in that environment!
A unique ethnographic time capsule. Not quite as authentic as it appears, the filmmaker staged a few sequences for the sake of entertainment value. Was picked up for distribution in 1922, proving an enormous financial success. Now almost a 100 years old, it has aged well.
Rating 7.5/10

Seen any great documentaries recently? Have you watched any of these? As always, comments are welcome

8 thoughts on “Reviews of documentaries (part 4)

  1. Of these, I'm most curious to see Bus 174. You sold me once you mentioned City of God. I would also love to see Hawking. I think. I didn't much care for The Theory of Everything, but I'd still check it out. TT3D also sounds interesting.

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  2. Bus 174 kept me engaged because I didn't actually know what the outcome was, unlike other docs on news events.

    Baraka has pretty pictures, but that's it. It's not really a movie or a doc.

    I agree Gates of Heaven probably started as a “hey, let's film some people talking about it.” Yes, the old woman was the most amusing part, but it's a perfect example of how the doc is more a collection of interviews than it is something focused on topic.

    Grey Gardens was interesting. I felt the daughter was actually playing up to the camera, trying to be more eccentric or “la de dah” than she was.

    Nanook of the North definitely has held up. Yes, it staged some things, but pretty much all early docs did, and some even do today. Flaherty decided to do his next doc, very similar to this one, in Tahiti. I probably would have, too.

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  3. @Wendell: Bus 174 is a great doc, suspenseful and enlightening. The Hawking doc fleshes out a couple of his theories in an easy to understand way, and also talks about his celebrity. I trusted what was said because it was Hawking himself who spoke.
    TT3D: Closer to the Edge was entertaining, a topic I knew nothing about.

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  4. @Chip:
    Bus 174: Agree on that

    Baraka: Whatever you want to call the film, I enjoyed the experience and felt the images (like a poem) had an implicit message.

    Gates of Heaven: Yep, he just let the camera roll and good things can happen when you do that. As a documentary about the topic it was flawed with too much off-topic material.

    Grey Gardens: The daughter was lonely so that’s probably why she was playing to the camera and wanted to attract attention. I wonder whether the directors perceived her as likeable or just eccentric.
    According to the 10 min retrospective Return to Grey Gardens(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqwuSFj7wMg) that was how the two women always talked to each other, although take his words with a grain of salt as he is biased and put in the position of defending his own film.

    Nanook of the North: Went to Tahiti? haha, I think I would do the same and go to a warmer climate

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  5. @Alex Withrow: Think you are referencing this quote: ”That raccoon did that to my new wall. Isn't that terrible ? They'll have the whole house down soon”
    They talk about the mansion needs fixing but are probably too lazy to do anything about it! The director said he had to use anti-flea spray when he visited. The two women just didn’t care.

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