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More Documentary Reviews and Film Noir Previews

Documentary features are beginning to come into their own, not only on the festival circuit but in selected commercial cinemas as well, as more and more perceptive moviegoers, tired of paying ten dollars a shot for mainstream mindlessness, are beginning to look for films that actually have something to say. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was a real ground-breaker when it was awarded the top prize at Cannes two years ago, the first time a documentary film was so recognized at this topper of all festivals. It then went on to become the biggest documentary box-office hit ever. Since then more and more full length documentaries have been showing up at many festivals and Seattle was a prime example of the appeal their
intelligent programming can exert. Altogether SIFF screened around thirty
full-length documentary features on a wide range of topics, most of them enthusiastically received, often at full houses. I managed to take in a goodly half of them myself, and the following are brief notes on some which struck me as so outstanding or unusual that they really deserve to be widely seen, would be seen to advantage at any major festival, and definitely have general audience possibilities. Running times are indicated to assist potential festival programmers in their planning.

"The Orange Revolution", USA, by Steve York, RT 106 minutes. The stolen presidential election in the Ukraine in 2004 and the Power of the People to intervene. Director Steve York is an old pro in the business of political documentation with a long career in television including many Bill Moyer shows. This, however, is his first doc made specifically with the large screen in mind. The broad scope of the film and the brilliant way it is shot and put together makes of it almost a thriller where truth is stranger
-- and more exciting -- than fiction. The media at the time showed stark photos of opposition candidate Vladimir Jushchenko after he was poisoned by the establishment (read “Gov’t Gangster) side to get him out of the way, but survived with his face terribly disfigured. Jushchenko went on to campaign heroically and eventual win the somewhat more honest new election demanded by the Ukrainian people. In York's film there is also much footage of Jushchenko before the poisoning showing what a handsome, charismatic, and vastly popular figure he actually was. He had the aura of a rock star and, interestingly enough, Ukrainian rock bands were a major element of the demonstrations in Kiev's massive Meidan Square. Besides being an exciting historical documentation of a very recent series of events "Orange Revolution" will resonate strongly with the American electorate which sat in front of their TV sets helplessly as Mr. Bush stole the American presidential election in 2000!

"The Champagne Spy", (Israel, RT 91 minutes), by Nadav Schirman. An Israeli secret agent poses as a Nazi in Egypt and so completely fuses with his cover identity that he finds it impossible to adjust to real life and return to his family when his mission is completed. The career of the champagne spy (so called because of the high society playboy life he led during his espionage years) is seen primarily through the eyes of his son, now himself a middle aged man, who recounts the pain he went through knowing so little about his father and the double life he led. This story is really much more about the effect of the agent's double life on his family than on the ins and outs of espionage itself. With a few changes it could easily be a fiction film and nobody would be the wiser. Says director Schirman, "When I was making it I kept feeling that this was much more of a drama than a straight documentary. With this I think I'm through making documentaries. My next film will be a feature drama." The film screens next at the Los Angeles Film Festiva and VARIETY reports that “Collina Films has signed writer-director Nadav Schirman to pen an English-language adaptation of his documentary "The Champagne Spy." -- Mazel Tov! – but do we really need an “English version?

"The Fever of' 57", USA, RT, 92 minutes, (World Premiere), by director David Hoffman traces the immediate aftermath of the first Russian space launch, SPUTNIK, which set off a feverish space race and brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster four years before the Cuban Missile crisis. Among other things, besides being a great Cold War document, featuring Dwight D.
Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev and their contemporaries, this film provides an entirely new view of President Eisenhower, as a former war maker whose main objective as president was to preserve peace even if his image was slightly tarnished by misunderstanding in the process. In my generation the Eisenhower years were often cynically referred to as "the eight years the White House was empty'. From Hoffman's film commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik we learn that, acting very shrewdly behind the scenes and unable to take credit for it because of state security issues involved, "Ike" almost single-handedly staved off a nuclear war. An excellent documentary of the Atomic anxiety at the height of the Cold War and a memorable portrait of the period.

"Souls Without Borders", the True Story of the Lincoln Brigade", (USA/Spain, RT, 52 minutes) is a project conceived by Anthony Geist, professor OF Spanish here at the University of Washington, and co-directed on the technical side by Alfonso Domingo of Spain. This is a tribute to the 2,800 left-wing American volunteers who left Depression era America behind in 1937 and went off to fight in Spain against Franco and Fascism in the Spanish Civil War. A new look at a legendary, yet not very well known, aspect of the local war that was to become the prelude to WW II and is still regarded as the last of the "romantic" wars. Since one side was Fascist (the Franco Nationalist Rebels, supported by Nazi Germany and Italy) and the other, though supposedly democratic (the Republican "Loyalists") was supported by the Soviet Communists, no matter which side you were on you were "in the wrong". However, everybody with any sense of morality knew that the Loyalist side was the right side. Unfortunately, because of postwar Red smear political contamination, the American volunteers were basically ostracized upon their return to the States. In the film many of the original Battle sites, Jarama, Belchite, Teruel -- are revisited by the elderly survivors as they recount their experiences. Having no prior military training and poorly armed they were cut down like flies, but even today, all of them claim that if they had it to do all over again -- without hesitation they would. This is a rich Historical film (in spite of its relatively short RT of 52 minutes) and a stirring tribute to those who laid down their lives in order to do the right thing when everybody else was looking the other way..

"White Light-Black Rain", USA. Directed by Japanese-American Steven Okazaki, RT 86 minutes. "Nanking" (reviewed in a previous report) showed the monstrous brutality of the Japanese in China in 1937. This film shows the horrible price innocent Japanese (and Korean) civilians paid for the sins of their military leaders. Many films on this topic have been made in the past, but this one, with numerous interviews with now elderly Japanese survivors and also Americans who worked on the bombs and were in the B-29s that delivered them to target, sums the whole story up and says just about all there is left to say about it. Extremely well made with a perfect balance between archival footage and live interviews this one is an instant classic of the Atomic Age.

"Miss Gulag", USA, Russia, RT 80 minutes. Maria Yatskova gets behind the scenes of a Beauty contest in a Siberian women's prison and in the process reveals some of the cracks in post Communist Russian society. This smart, and smartly edited, documentary follows three women serving time in Russian prison camp UF 91-9, where the setting is bleak, the sentences crushing, and the only upbeat occurrence is an annual prison beauty pageant. Director Yatskova tackles a lot in a lean 80 minutes; everything from the fall of Communism to Russia’s miserable infrastructure is explored. And while it's all undeniably depressing (actual quote: "I know the meaning of utter misery; in Russia, it's normal"), Miss Gulag also has an endearing, if meager, sense of hope") -- Quoted from Bradley Steinbacher.

"I Have Never Forgotten You -- the Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal"
(Richard Trank, USA, 2006, 105 minutes) is the unwieldy title of a truly fascinating documentary which might just as well (in fact much more aptly) have been called "Simon Wiesenthal -- Tracer of Lost Nazis" -- or just plain "Nazi Hunter". Wiesenthal died in Vienna in 2004 at age 90 plus, a lifetime during which he survived the Holocaust, then spent the rest of his life relentlessly tracking down escaped Nazi war criminals in order to bring them to so-called 'justice'. His most famous catch was Adolph Eichmann, whom he traced all the way to Argentina, then had him kidnapped by the Mossad and brought back to Israel to stand trial for his part in implementing the German "Final Solution" -- the mass murder of the European Jews. The film traces Wiesenthal's entire life from the Ukraine to the camps to post-war Vienna, and what emerges -- oddly -- is not the picture of a vengeful Jewish James Bond -- but quite the contrary -- a mild mannered middle-aged man with a mission in life which he quietly pursued in order to set things as "right'
as they could ever be set. In later years in Vienna, where he had chosen
to settle with his wife after the war, he was often grossly lambasted by the shamelessly Neo-Nazi Austrian media, to the point where his wife urged him to leave. But Wiesenthal decided it was here, in the eye of the revisionist denial storm, that he had to stick to his guns even though he was very much a Persona non Grata. (In the film he speaks in German most of the time).
But the film ends on an upbeat note when he is greatly honored at a Vienna synagogue in this horribly hypocritical anti-Semitic city on his ninetieth birthday. Well, Simon finally had the last laugh, but this film is no laughing matter -- simply a blow-by-blow account of one of the strangest lives of the XXth century. Not to be missed.

"Still Alive -- a Film about Krzysztof Kieslowski", directed mostly in Polish by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, RT 81 minutes. This is a very well constructed biography of the great Polish director who gave his all to film and worked himself to death at the age of 55 (in 1994). The film consists half of interviews with the people who worked with him, colleagues, actors, technicians, etc., and the rest footage from real life where the director speaks for himself -- plus clips from his films. What emerges is a many sided picture of one of the most dedicated and talented filmmakers of the last third of the past century. For those who know this wonderful director only from his final four films (The trilogy, "Red, White, "Blue" and "The Double Life of Veronique"), of special relevance to westerners will be the interviews with French actress Juliet Binoche (Blue) and Swiss actress, Irene Jacob, star of both “Red" and “The Double Life". As the breathtakingly beautiful Ms. Jacob has more or less disappeared from screens since then, I was particularly interested in seeing what she looks like now.
No longer so breath-taking, but still, not bad for her present age. One can imagine that Kieslowski must have fallen for her himself to put her in two of his final four films. This is one of the best Director portraits I have ever seen.

"Ten Canoes", Australia -- RT 92 minutes, in Ganalbingu (!), An ABORIGINAL LANGUAGE, and English narration. Not exactly a documentary, but, in a sense it is. A fascinating one-of-a-kind anthropological fiction film reconstructing what aboriginal life was like in the swamplands of Northern Australia a thousand years ago! In the film dialogue is uttered by real aboriginal actors as co-directed by Dutchman Rolf de Heer and aboriginal Australian, Peter Djigirr. English narration was supplied by David Gulpilil, a celebrity aboriginal actor who first came to notice in Nicolas Roeg's "Walkabout", 1972. All of the actual dialogue, however, is in the local -- language, surely a screen first. The cinematography on location in the real tribal swamplands is beautiful and mesmerizing. A discovery and an unclassifiable film not to be missed if it ever comes your way. The motto of this year's SIFF IS "Find True Film" and "Ten Canoes" is narrative fiction as true as it gets.

In early July a week long Noir festival will be held here sponsored by Film Noir Guru, historian and enthusiast, Eddie Muller of San Francisco. Muller has written several books on the subject and is a champion of the preservation of films of this unique film style – basically crime melodramas churned out quickly in the forties and early fifties to feed a certain market yearning for hard-boiled action, hard-boiled (but not not hard-core) sex, hard-boiled dames, and less phoniness than the usual Hollywood “A”
pictures with all the big stars. Noir had its own set of stars, its own morality, and its own dark vision of life in the city at night. When these films were discovered by the French critics of the fifties they were quickly labeled as “black movies” (film noir) and the name, which fit almost like a glove, stuck like glue. Today these films have a new following of teir own and have become canonized as an important part of the Hollywood mid-century tradition.

As a prevue of the upcoming Seattle Noir Festival Mr. Muller presented two little-known classics of the genre, back-to-back on a single night, which this turned out to be one of the most enthusiastically received programs of the entire SIFF. The films in question; (1) "The Big Combo", 1955, starring Cornell Wilde (as a cop! – a decade after he became famous playing Chopin), a toweringly evil Richard Conte, (and a dazzling platinum blonde by the name of Jean Wallace. This is vintage Conte, easily his most memorable screen creation, as the sinister and sadistic “Mr. Brown. There is an early appearance by Lee van Cleef (of later Spaghetti Western infamy) as one of Mr. Brown’s homosexual henchman, and the garage torture scene of the chair-bound cop (Wilde) served as the template for Quentin Tarantino’s ghastly torture scenes in “Reservoir Dogs” years later. (2) "The Damned Don’t Cry", 1950, with Joan Crawford and Noir icon, Steve Cochran, directed by old Hollywood veteran Vincent Sherman who died a few years back at age 99!. While this is one of Crawford’s lesser known vehicles this is the one where she wrote the book on Femmes Fatale – a ball-buster from the sticks of Oklahoma who will stop at absolutely nothing and use (i.e., castrate) any male who falls for her to get to the top of the heap. In this case it’s the Las Vegas big time mobster heap – and everybody except Joan gets theirs before it’s over in a wild and wicked final shootout.

Robert Alton’s astonishing black/white photography in “Combo” was described by Mr. Muller, who introduced the films in person, as “like a three dimensional woodblock come to life”. Jean Wallace who was something of a poor man’s Lana Turner, only more svelte, did nothing much later in a handful of films by her then husband Cornel Wilde, but she is an amazing eyeful in this one. One of the characteristics of the “noir” genre is the crisp, wiseacre, pulp fiction type dialogue, which at many points brought gusts of appreciative laughter from the blissfully absorbed audiences.
Fourteen more noir classics will be presented here in Seattle between July 6
and 12th in a package entitled “Noir City”. That should make it worth
while hanging around this Emerald City for a little while longer.

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