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Woodard Reports: Cornered by Corners of the World

Our Critic’s Thoughts on Documentaries and Hilarity


In an era of sound-bite bitten diminution of attention and deeper understanding about the world, not to mention the corporatization of media, the independent documentary medium can, in the ideal, take on increasing importance in terms of how we connect with global realities. Questions of journalistic fairness and filmmaking aptitude aside, documentaries can take us into global corners and specific topics we’d otherwise be oblivious to, or foggy on, at best.

Getting straight info on recent protests in hot regions is problematic and perilous, but the idea of a grassroots, peoples’ journalism has been empowered by cell phone cameras, YouTube, Skype, and Twitter, which have all changed the game. That accounts for much of the power and also clandestine reportage in director Manon Loizeau’s fascinating film Letters from Iran, attempting to paint a picture of the tragic “Green Revolution” in Iran, when hopes for change in the Iranian regime in 2009 were dashed by a fiercely oppressive crackdown.

Student activist leaders were arrested and many killed and wounded in protests, while other young dissidents were sent to secret prisons, effectively torture houses. The film gathers its sources and celebrates the very raw realness of the street-level footage.

Meanwhile, on the Russian front, Putin’s Kiss, from the Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen, is another example of a doc offering a window on a political subject little known in the west. On a less severe level, the tale told also concerns the machinations of a controlling regime, this being that of Vladimir Putin, and the Putin-supportive Nashi organization, aimed at rallying youths in opposition to the Putin opposition. The tale of a dogged — and endangered — anti-Putin journalist and a Nashi acolyte, a woman who “kissed” Putin, who begins to doubt the moral authority or intentions of the organization, becomes a central, personalized story within the larger context of the post-Soviet political machinations in a country we know too little about.

RANDOM NOTES: Amidst the blurring swath of impressions and details encountered in the course of a festival-going day (and night), certain moments stick to the memory.

On the tearduct-flushing front, for instance, two titles stand out, and both relate to the tender, fragile relationships with children. The American film about a struggling single mother in Vegas, Think of Me, certainly one of the best of the fest, tears at us and pulls us into a world of pressures and temptations, made exponentially more complicated and emotionally stormy with the presence of a young, innocent child in the mix.

Twiggy, Emmanuelle Millet’s quite fine French film about a young pregnant woman determined to give up her baby for adoption upon entry into the world, slowly builds its story around a passionate birth scene. It’s a study in cool dramatic understatement keyed around the unexpectedly powerful, cathartic and tearful few minutes in the birthing room.

In both cases, the inherent emotionality of the premises are treated with art and care, making subtle what could easily plunge into the pool of bathos. We cry without the usual Hollywood manipulations involved.

In my experience so far, the most laugh-out funny haha moments have included the shoo-in crowd pleaser sensation Starbuck, sure. The plight and follies of a sperm donor who would be a super dad shores up plenty of French farcical comic content. But in a more surprising depth charge of hilarity, we have James Caan in the otherwise well-meaning but stylistically wobbly Adrien Brody vehicle Detachment, directed by Tony Kaye.

To its credit, this entry in the inspiring-teacher-in-the-inner-city-high-school-jungle genre gives some due screen time to the realities of teachers in the trenches, the pressures of the post-“no child left behind” bureaucracy, and the challenges of student body. But the most memorable moment comes when Caan, a cynical but wise veteran teacher, lapses into a wild mockery of a student’s half-indecipherable gangsta threat. Laughter in unanticipated places is laughter of the truest kind.

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