Documentary Dossier: THE LOOK OF SILENCE

*This is a reprint of our 2015 SXSW review.

In psychology class, you learn about the concept of diffusion of responsibility, a sociopathic event that explains that when more people are present or complicit in an unfavorable event, the less personally responsible that group will feel for its outcome. The public murder of Kitty Genovese – in which a woman was stabbed to death in NYC but not one neighbor alerted the police – is a tragic true-to-life example of this but no piece of fiction or nonfiction has better captured the ghastly phenomenon than Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Look of Silence. Read More


Documentary Dossier: AMY

Early on in the documentary Amy, Nick Shymansky, friend and one-time manager of the titular soul singer, reflects upon a time before her fame when she was very nearly forced into rehab. There’s a sorrowful, what if tone to his recollection, as he imagines that just maybe if she had been treated for alcoholism before fame took hold of her life, things could have been different. Read More


Documentary Dossier: FRESH DRESSED

Sacha Jenkins’
directorial debut examines fashion in hip hop as a means of freedom of individual expression and aspiration, as well as a mechanism of mass social control. It gives some insight into why a song that incessantly chants “Versace” for four minutes can clock over 12 million views on Vevo, when really (to quote Dr. Kanye West) “you not affording Versace”. None of us are. Read More


Documentary Dossier: THE WOLFPACK

New York City has nearly 8.5 million residents, and though it often feels like one is sharing a rush hour subway with a large percentage of them, the truth is that we know so few of our fellow citizens. High rises and condo buildings are cropping up every day; glancing at these ever-present walls of windows, one can’t help but wonder: who’s in there? The assumption being that you could, at any moment, find out, when the inhabitants step out for work or to pick up a carton of milk at the corner deli. The Wolfpack introduces us to one NYC family where just such an encounter was unlikely to happen – until very recently.

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Documentary Dossier: JODOROWSKY’S DUNE

Four critics were sitting in AMC’s Pacific Place Theater 7 when I walked in. It was instantly noticeable: a strange, syncopated rhythm of staticky beat-box. Kind of like the sound you hear when you rim the audio jack on a speaker system with your finger. The crackling and buzzing grew worse as we sat, until it was operating at about four beats per second. More critics walked into the cramped space, all to the same static, electronic concerto. Louder and louder it grew until even thoughts became inaudible. Then it stopped, and Jodorowsky’s Dune began.


Alejandro Jodorowsky is what results when lunacy is inbred with sadistic perversion. He’s an acid trip embodied. His ideas are just as wild. As you watch him throw his thoughts around, you can’t figure out if he disgusts you or thrills you. He’s reminiscent of the old homeless folk you run into on a public bus, the type that’s dying to tell you his crackpot theory: Jesus Christ is building a golden city in the sewer and George W. Bush killed Franz Ferdinand.

The French-Chilean director is teethy. A spritely 85 years old, his blindingly white grin is huge. His choppers spread from his mouth like a horse’s smile. His hair flops around as he gesticulates wildly, describing his imaginations and mental illusions. His “r’s” roll off his tongue with the weight of bowling barrels. But those bright pearly whites draw you in.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is about this man’s failed journey to create Dune, a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel of the same title. Early on, Jodorowsky tells us, “I never read Dune.” The film is more a face-to-face conversation than it ever is documentary. Jodorowsky and the crew he assembled to make Dune, as well as a clan of historians and filmmakers, sit in front of the camera to recount how Dune was never made. At one point, a cat wanders into the scene. He picks it up and just keeps going.

“What is the goal of life? It’s to create yourself a soul. For me, movies are an art, more than industry. And it’s the search of the human soul, as painting, as literature, as poetry.” Jodorowsky walks us through the history, about half the time in English, the rest in Spanish. He tells us he wanted to create a movie that causes an experience equivalent to that of an LSD trip. In Dune, he wanted to create a prophet.

He pulls a massive book—the size of two phonebooks—from his shelves: Dune is written in big white font on the cover, overlaying a drawing of a zebra-striped purple and yellow spaceship. Contained within this monumental bible are all the scenes, concept art, scripts, storyboards that were never brought to life. Drive’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, explains how Jodorowsky once showed him the book. “I’m the only guy who ever saw Jodorowsky’s Dune… Let me tell you something. It is awesome.

Jodorowsky’s goal is to rape our minds, he says, and slowly, he inseminates you. What starts out as a lunatic’s ranting soon becomes an exploration into the soul’s deepest crevasses. Brave director Richard Stanley tells us that Dune’s the greatest movie never made, and we have a hard time believing him. Then, we see Dune.

A design by H.R. Giger for Jodorowsky’s Dune that was incorporated in Alien

Just as he somehow recruited famous artists Pink Floyd, H.R. Giger, Michel Seydoux, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali (who requested $100,000 a minute), Chris Foss, Jean Giraud, and even forced his own son to do years of martial arts to star in the film, he sucks you into his cosmos. What begins as an impossible dream becomes an insatiable reverie. Jodorowsky becomes the drug, the hallucinogen that pulls you into his world-bending soulscape. He’s Alfonso Cuaron with Jules Verne’s imagination and Hitler’s ambition.

Somehow, he fits all the pieces together, and then everything falls apart. As written, Dune would have been 14 hours, it would have cost millions, and no one wanted to finance it. We weren’t ready. We weren’t equipped. We weren’t worthy.

Hollywood told Alejandro he couldn’t join in the fun. You can’t play with us, Hollywood said. Little did they know, he built the playground. The woodchips and tree scrap they were rolling around on? His design; his team of artists and writers and producers went on to work in the industry, infecting the film world with Alejandro. Movies like Alien, Blade Runner, The Matrix, any sci-fi or blockbuster film, they’ve all been influenced by Jodorowsky’s failed dream.

Jodorowsky—this insane old perverted Spaniard dripping with crazy—pulls the world as we know it apart and then forces it back together with his hands, like an accordionist rending the world with every note. Dune was some sort of calamity, a virtual reality, a rift in time, a temporal split of magnanimous proportions. Jodorowsky broke the universe into two when he set about making his film; we’re just living in the reality where we got Star Wars instead.

So the playground carries on, not with him but within him. Somehow, he became the prophet he set out to make. Shine us with your light Alejandro. How glorious it is!

When Jodorowsky’s Dune ended, it was as if my mind was set free. Not so much as a spiritual or metaphysical awakening, just an awakening to the mind and soul. I couldn’t stop thinking. Jodorowsky had convinced me just like everyone else who clung to this doomed project. His charm, his conviction and passion, somehow it opened my eyes to the world. I began to rethink everything. Maybe that static beat-box had a purpose. Maybe that was Alejandro’s way of communicating to us, of implanting that initial seed, of reaching through space and time. Maybe that was an alternate universe Jodorowsky trying to connect. “Hello? You can hear me?”

Jodorowsky raped my mind. And I loved it. Yeah. Or maybe that’s just the Stockholm Syndrome talking.


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Documentary Dossier: THE SUMMIT

“The Summit”
Directed by Nick Ryan
Starring Christine Barnes, Hoselito Bite, Marco Confortola, Pat Falvey, Niall Foley, Stefan Grossniklaus
95 Mins

K2 is the second highest peak on Earth (after Mount Everest) and by far the most difficult to summit. It has a staggering casualty rate of one in four. Nick Ryan’s The Summit tells the story of an infamous 2008 expedition where 11 of 24 climbers were lost. Ryan makes the audience aware of these statistics early on in the documentary, helping to shape an acute sense of foreboding as we hear virginal tales of these excited climbers over sinister music. Unfortunately the film’s strong start is spoiled by haphazard editing that trumps its initial sense of excitement and leaves the viewer in disbelief that the run time is only 95 minutes.


As far as educational value goes, the film certainly doesn’t skimp. Grand in scope, it lays out every detail about what makes this the hardest climb in the world as well as the history of the mountain, and what exactly has gone wrong to result in so many deaths. If the goal is to learn as much as possible about K2, this is a good starting place. Outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers will be pleased, as this film is clearly aimed towards those who can relate to these methodical adrenaline junkies.

There are many methods of scaling a mountain, Ryan tells us. Some (such as a group of Korean climbers) move in large teams, while some move only in pairs. Many rely on oxygen and a Sherpa, while others use neither. What they all have in common is that they are extremely experienced climbers, contradictory to some early news reports on the underlying tragedy.

Ryan uses documentary footage to show the camaraderie between nations at base camp, the competition between hopeful climbers trying to ascend, and the ultimate moral problem that faces climbers: whether to save yourself or try to save an endangered climber. We are told that an unspoken climber’s code is that you save yourself, and you cut your rope if you are endangering your fellow climbers. Just as climbing methods differ between nations, the approach to this moral question differs, showing some to be unapologetic in saving themselves at all costs, as well as those who will wait around, at great risk, to save a friend. Through this lens, the film gives a very three-dimensional look at a great deal of climbers.

Real footage from the event blends seamlessly with the occasional reenactment, to set the record straight on an event that became a real-life Rashomon. Multiple conflicting stories from the survivors saturate the media for months. This, of course, begs the audience to question the authenticity of The Summit’s account. If it was so chaotic up there, how is the film’s chosen account any different? However, this aspect of the story isn’t brought out until very late in the film, and it feels rushed. In fact, pacing is the film’s greatest weakness. Much like a climber looking to tackle the K2, this film has the most difficulty on the way down.

While trying to balance interviews with survivors, documentary footage, and footage from a much earlier climb by the first group to conquer K2, The Summit loses steam fast. As soon as you feel yourself becoming invested in a story, before the payoff, the film shifts gears. It does this repeatedly, and while it can be a good technique, the documentary fails to build enough sympathy for the characters to achieve the intended goal. It jumps around far too much, as the audience waits for everything to connect in a way that justifies the film’s tangential wanderings.

As The Summit pays homage to each fallen climber in a still frame of their picture, birth date, and death date, after each death occurs on screen, it seem like more of a memorial service than a film. The entire thing felt like its intended audience was the bereaved. On this very particular level, it was a success, but it doesn’t offer very much for your average film goer. Here it breaks from Kevin Macdonald’s excellent Touching the Void, which managed to maintain a fantastic sense of tension and character investment. Some of The Summit’s most heavy-hitting moments, such as a grieving widow breaking down in tears, recounting the death of her husband, come well after the film has lost all momentum, completely obliterating the potential of such a scene.

It seems insensitive to trash this film because it was not “entertaining” enough, as it is thoroughly devoted to the facts of a relatively recent tragedy. But when a story such as this doesn’t make you grieve for innocent lives lost, it is a failure. It is a problem of severed impact, something that was apparently lost on the editing room floor.

The footage is there, it just needs coherence, which proper editing could provide. An argument can be made, that the editing style was supposed to make the audience feel the confusion of the climbers, but a documentary needs to document clearly and The Summit does not. Climbing fanatics and family members of lost hikers will probably enjoy this film regardless of its faults, since it is packed with detail, but the rest of us will be left cold.



Documentary Dossier: BLACKFISH

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Documentary, Drama
90 Mins

A documentary thrives on three elements: diligent research, visceral impact and well-structured organization. Going down that list, Blackfish can take solace in a big black check through each. Although I wasn’t as knotted up as the woman wiping a torrent of tears from her eyes for a good 75 percent of the film sitting next to me, the weighty subject matter, hard hitting questions and inviting narrative structure make this a documentary that is not to be missed.

Documenting the life of a single killer whale who takes his genus name all too seriously, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite invites us to explore not the life of a monster but the journey of a tormented soul. In true documentarian fashion, Cowperthwaite takes us to the beginning of the story so that we can better understand the perceived transformation of one docile creature into a man-eating beast.
At the mere age of two, Tilikum is chased down by a flock of seamen working as orca-capturers in nearby Puget Sound. Cordoned off from his mother and roughly hauled into restraints, the young Tilikum jolts in self-aware terror. All the while, his family surrounds the sidelines, separated from their children by fishermen’s nets, wailing away in obvious displays of affectionate grief. In these moments, Cowperthwaite begins to trace the deep-seeded emotional complexity of the Orca species while winning over our sympathies and our curiosities.

Bringing in a neurologist to examine the structure of an orca brain, we’re told that the orca limbic system (an neurological structure linked to emotion) is far more complex and advanced than those found in humans. Because the limbic system is connected to emotional response, this shows an unparalleled emotional complexity residing within the orca species. Research going above and beyond like this, matched with well-timed placement within the film, makes the ensuing ordeal all the more horrifying.

Since the young orcas are the only ones suitable to capture (as shipping costs are quite obviously the first and only concern) there is no regard for the larger, elder ones. Those caught in the nets are sliced open, stuffed with rocks and tied to anchors. Their unsightly (and considerably illegal) corpses are then sent discreetly to the bottom of the ocean. Cowperthwaite has somehow uncovered video evidence of this sad state of affairs and her superlative ability to seek out and appropriately harness this footage is unmatched.

What Cowperthwaite was not able to get footage of, she has broadcast with animated recreation. Rendering the capture of Tilikum in post-amateur animation is not strictly a necessity but it adds a narrative course that if missing would invoke a sense of lost chronology.  Under a self-imposed weight of incumbency, Cowperthwaite revels in fierce levels of detail, revealing and recreating all that she can. In this perseverance to disseminate the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Blackfish stands out from amongst the documentary crowd.

The young but fast growing Tilikum is next sent to Canada to perform at Sealand of the Pacific, where he spends the majority of his time in a 20 foot by 30 foot pool shared with two other foreign orcas who take to chastising and bullying him. They often “rake” his blubbery exterior – essentially stripping his flesh into bloody ribbons with their teeth. As Tilikum suffers, his captors grow rich. As his “cellmates” rake his flesh, his captors rake in the money. The bottom-of-the-barrel standards are shockingly poor and we watch helplessly; mystified and dazed in a stupefied horror.

When one Sealand trainer slips into the tank, she is brutalized and murdered with eyewitness accounts placing responsibility on the male bull with whom we are already familiar: Tilikum. Seizing the opportunity to make some money on the way out, Sealand of the Pacific ships the dangerous orca off to the Disney World of ocean parks; Seaworld. These are the conspicuous beginnings of a whale, which has now wracked up a body count of three to perform to this day and yet continues to perform.

In an attempt to peek behind the curtain, Cowperthwaite shifts her focus onto the corporate structure of SeaWorld and their backwater tactics of secrecy, collusion, and irresponsibility. This is an organization that knowingly deceives park-guests, employees, and advocacy groups, asserting that orcas in no way pose a threat to their trainers. In some regard, they’re right, as there are no documented cases of orca-on-human violence documented in the wild. In captivity however, the number of assaults are staggering. The real shock is not in the data though but in the willingness of the corporate giant to sweep it under the rug.

In this wheelhouse of misinformation, only disaster can follow. Taking the accounts of various former SeaWorld trainers, Cowperthwaite correctly points out how they, nor their captive animals, are the ones to blame. These trainers are passionate about the animals they work with and are deceived into participating in a tremendously vicious cycle where they must literally put their lives on the line if they wish to continue working with the animals.

From SeaWorld’s perspective, there is no need for concern about employees’ safety regardless of the fact that they’re working with 5000 pound giants. Furthermore, all responsibility from a resulting “accident” should rest solely on human error. Even though their claim is blatantly preposterous and illegitimate, they continue to dictate the circumstances of work expectations and, after accidents, courtroom dealings. Regrettably, it took the death of a renowned coworker, Dawn Brancheau, to bring the issue into the limelight.

But even advocates for humane treatment of the captured orcas and the neglected trainers don’t have a tangible solution in mind. The problem is set and in a self-perpetuating cycle. These domesticated orcas have no place to go, as they cannot be released into the wild without an ardent rehabilitation regiment, while their caged interactions are barefaced ticking-time-bombs. It’s a problem without an obvious solution and one that seems to be charging onward.

What Cowperthwaite manages to do best with Blackfish is to not demonize her subject Tilikum. While this could have been a field day for euthanizing the undeniably violent creature, it is instead a case for his defense. As one advocate rightfully says, “How would you feel if you were trapped in a bath tub for 20 years?” Both provocateur and informant, Blackfish highlights out the blood in the water and invites the sharks to swarm. While Cowperthwaite doesn’t strictly call for an up-in-arms boycott of SeaWorld, I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt. As both a moral defense of its subject, an intelligent debasing of the SeaWorld corporation and an elegantly made piece of film, Blackfish walks on water.