Arts & Events
The documentary category is consistently one of the few categories in the Academy Awards in which every nominee genuinely seems to be worthy of the attention. This year’s nominees were all high-caliber films whose selection can hardly be questioned. The winner, however, was An Inconvenient Truth, its high visibility and great cultural impact perhaps earning greater recognition for the film than its inherent quality would merit. Jesus Camp, for example, was more compelling, and Iraq in Fragments was a unique artistic triumph.
And there were many films of great style and substance that didn’t even make the cut. Thus, here are five documentaries released last year, all now available on DVD, that were easily worthy of nomination. Complete reviews for all of these films can be found in the Daily Planet’s archives at www.berkeleydailyplanet.com.
Probably the best of the lot is The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a fascinating and poignant examination of the life and career of a musician and artist tormented by manic depression. The film uses Johnston’s own art, films and audio diaries to document his journey from suburban Boy Scout to cult legend, a journey that has all the trappings of folk music mythology: devils and demons, divine revelations, wayward road trips, traveling carnivals, mental breakdowns, plane crashes, a “lost year,” falls from grace followed by triumphant resurrections.
Johnston’s story is one of salvation through art. He believes he has lost his soul to the devil in pursuit of fame; he believes that he is damned, yet is actively and forever seeking redemption. The film is both inspiring and heartbreaking, a stylish yet simple and effective portrait of an extraordinary artist. The DVD comes with plenty of extra features, including footage from the film’s premiere at Sundance, Daniel’s famous solo radio drama and a reunion with Lori, the unrequited love of Johnston’s life.
Shakespeare Behind Bars goes behind the scenes at Kentucky’s maximum security Luther Luckett Correctional Complex to document the rehearsal and staging by inmates of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Volunteer director Curt Tofteland selected the play because of its themes of forgiveness and redemption, knowing these concepts would resonate with his cast.
The picture this film presents is disarming; the prisoners are articulate, intelligent, charismatic and educated, making for a film that is not just moving and entertaining, but genuinely funny. Prison would seem an unlikely setting for a movie of such warmth and compassion, humanity and joy.
Cowboy Del Amor is a quirky film that spotlights an obscure man in an obscure trade: Arizona resident Ivan Thompson makes his living by driving lonely American men across the border in search of Mexican brides. The inherent misogyny of the operation is unsettling. The men, it seems, are looking for docile Mexican dolls to sit by their sides, to come live in their homes and to generally behave themselves, while the women are looking for respect, love, security, equality and, perhaps most importantly, a shot at the American Dream.
Despite the charisma, kindness and humor of Ivan Thompson, the film is permeated with a certain sadness—the sadness that comes with the acknowledgment that life is not a story with a fairly-tale ending, but a series of compromises, of people making do with what they have. And the sadness is compounded by the realization that for these women, their only path to independence is through dependence on a man; and that these men, being American, believe that they can simply buy the happiness they’ve thus far been unable to find.
The Road to Guantanamo presents the harrowing tale of the “Tipton Trio,” three Englishmen of Pakistani origin who set out for their native country so that one of them could get married there. On the way they were picked up in a raid in Afghanistan along with a group of alleged Taliban soldiers, arrested by the Northern Alliance, turned over to the American military, and eventually shipped off to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were systematically humiliated, beaten, abused and degraded.
Though the story is told primarily through dramatic re-creations, the action is interspersed with news footage and interviews with the Tipton Trio themselves, creating an interesting documentary-narrative hybrid.
Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos tells the story of soccer’s arrival in the United States in the late 1970s, when a media mogul set out to make the “the beautiful game” a national phenomenon.
In the mid 1970s, Steve Ross and a few partners created the North American Soccer League and recruited Brazillian legend Pelé to draw attention to the fledgling league. Thus began a circus of soccer, media relations and mayhem that consumed the city of New York and took the world of American sports by storm for several years. The documentary features interviews with the major players in this drama (with the notable exception of Pelé himself), but what makes this film so entertaining is the fact it is not a calm, dignified documentary of talking heads, but rather a back-and-forth battle of words, with each man stepping before the camera with an axe to grind in an effort to put his own particular stamp on the story of the Cosmos.