It’s film festival season in Montreal, and I have seen quite a few films.
I am often struck by how much it takes to make a really excellent doc. A good subject or a worthy cause are only the most basic starting points. A good story is one step better, but far from a guarantee of a good film, telling the story is the challenge. Great characters, good… but how will they be developed? what changes will they go through? will we really get to know them? And then there are all the questions of framing, movements, soundscape, texture, pacing…
Two of the films I saw in the last few weeks really stand out (in addition to the one I wrote about in the last post.) At the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma I saw Music From the Big House, directed by Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, Roadkill, Highway 61.) It’s the story of how Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli performs with several bands of inmates at Angola Prison, a U.S. maximum security penitentiary in Louisiana.
Ten years ago Chiarelli had been on a road trip in the American South, looking into the history of the blues, and happened upon the prison. It took years to develop the relationships needed to make this exceptional film, a story not just of prisoners and music but of redemption. Chiarelli was at the FNC screening and spoke in a totally honest and very touching way about her feelings about the inmates – murderers and rapists – she had gotten to know, and about her contradictory feelings about the question of forgiveness.
And the other day, at the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, I saw an amazing Danish film about the war in Afghanistan, Armadillo. It follows young Danish soldiers to a forward base in Helmand where they patrol and eventually engage in combat with the Taliban.
The film is masterfully made, very close to the characters, beautifully shot, colorized in a way which strengthens a pervasive feeling of unreality. And this is the cinematic equivalent of the thousands of secret memos about the war released by Wikipedia.
Never has war seemed so confusing and futile. The young soldiers naively spout the official line about protecting civilians and fighting evil, even as the suffering civilians tell them that their presence carries a heavy price. The camera captures the confusion and fear they experience in a hostile environment far from home, accentuated when their comrades are killed or wounded.
And when they finally score a victory against the Taliban, killing five of them in a ditch – shooting wounded soldiers which is against the rules of war – their victory celebrations seem misplaced and even sinister. This must be the best war film I have ever seen.
Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.