Documentary Times Three

It’s been a bit since I’ve been to the movies. Like, a week and half or something? Which is forever in my world. But I went to a whole handful of flicks in very quick succession for a week or so…so I guess it evens out. And now, I’m finally posting about what I saw.

Let’s call it better late than never.

One Saturday a few weeks ago, I booked myself a documentary double feature: Blackfish and Twenty Feet from Stardom, in that order. Which is worth mentioning, because had it been the other way around, I definitely would not have enjoyed myself as much as I did. While both are satisfying, insightful docs, one is a sad, scary statement on our entertainment-at-any-costs culture. The other, a feel-good music history lesson that leaves you singing along. The next week, I used the last of the free movie passes I’ve acquired here and there to see The Act Of Killing. I got in for free; it’s worth every dime of your ticket.

The month after I graduated college, I went on a family vacation to Alaska. We went on a breathtaking boat tour off the southern coast of the state, watching porpoises (porpoi?) and seals and even whales swim in the distance. Until then, I’d only ever seen whales at Sea World San Diego on trips to visit my dad. After Blackfish, I can never imagine endorsing that “amusement” chain with a single penny. The story of one whale with a history of attacking, maiming and even killing his handlers, it’s one of those Everyone Must See This kinds of films. Built around footage from surveillance cameras, performances gone wrong and news reports recounting a litany of attacks over years and years, the film is anchored by the honest and often gut-wrenching interviews with former trainers. I love animals as much as the next gal (except for Sarah McLachlan, I suppose), but I wouldn’t consider myself any kind of activist. This doc is enough to make me reconsider.

About a week before Sundance started back in January, my manager assigned staff to work the various events so that, should press arrive to cover them, we’d be there to liaise as needed. This, of course, also meant a chance to attend some pretty cool festival events, including one featuring John Paul White (one half of The Civil Wars. My manager was (is!) basically amazing, knew I was a fan and scheduled me that event). The other concert I ‘worked’ was after the premiere of Twenty Feet From Stardom, the documentary that shifts the spotlight from the headliner to the back-up singers.

The women featured in the film performed a few songs each, but it was their live Lean On Me that brought the house down and, standing next to one of my closest friends, had me in tears (this is the event, but the sound DOES NOT do the moment justice). Of course, being there meant I missed seeing the actual film, so I made a point to find this one when it opened. And I am so glad I did. Though not without its flaws (fairly short on substance for a film so long, honestly), it makes up for any gaps by sheer feel-good factor. Music you love, some of the best behind-the-scenes stories from legendary albums, and an introduction to the women who for decades have made so many acts sound complete.

I had heard not a peep about The Act of Killing and then it was what everyone was talking about. Just like that. Not there, then everywhere. And not middling praise, or divided opinions. Every single tweet, post, article, review I came across said unequivocally, go see this film. I did, on a Tuesday night. The screening sold out, and the two hundred of us in the theater sat there, mouths agape, eyes wide as we tried to process what we were seeing on screen. The structure is entirely original, which is extremely hard to do in documentaries, and the story – portraits of the men who, in the course of a single year, executed a genocide of over one million people and live to brag about it – is as captivating as it is disturbing.

Where it really goes right, though, is in its humanity. The filmmaker convinces his subjects to let him film as they recreate scenes from a genocide, and yet even they are not immune to the emotions this visit to the past conjures. I don’t know what docs are in the pipeline for release yet this year, but I would not be surprised if this one sweeps every award it’s nominated for.

At this late in the game (posting about these so long after I’ve seen them), I’m not sure what’s still in theaters in your area or not. If you see that they are, all are worth your time. Just do yourself a favor and bring a friend; for two of these, you’ll need the support system. For the other, a duet partner.

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