SFF 2010, Day 2: 2 Lands, an Oath and Bill Paxton

And so we begin the serious task of marathon film festival viewing. Running around Sydney in the rain, eating whatever one can and keeping the engine going with coffee. This is business time folks...
 
THE OATH
 
Abu Jandal is a taxi driver in Yemen but that wasn't always his job. In the late 90s he used to act as Osama Bin Laden's personal security guard. This interesting documentary follows Jandal and lets him in his own words discuss his current and previous lives. Laura Poitras covers the story with a perfect sense of structure and pace. She lets Jandal speak for himself and over the course of the film's running time shows him making numerous contradictory statements.
 
Jandal is a perfect character for a documentary, he is charismatic and loves the spotlight, maybe a little too much. One slowly begins to wonder what his motivation is in appearing in all these interviews. There is a strange duality to Jandal and the mystery over his motives is never resolved by Poitras resulting in one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
 
There are some quiet moments that capture the mileu of middle eastern life beautifully. One scene shows Jandal arguing with a customer over a taxi fare. A beautifully endearing moment familiar to anyone who has travelled in the middle east ends with Jandal accepting the customer's estimate because he 'swears to God' it is true.
 
Poitras structures her film brilliantly using the imprisonment in Guantanamo and trial of Jandal's brother in law as a tight framing device. This sub plot tackles important issues surrounding the dubious milatry trials of the people America is holding in Guantanamo. Poitras has done a great job with this film, it gets a definite recommendation from me.
 
WASTE LAND
 
Hmmmmmmm.... Hmmmmmmm.....
 
Disclaimer: All 3 other people I saw this film with absolutely loved it! No reservations.
 
I had major problems with this film. By the end of it I was quite uncomfortable, even more so when the audience gave it a very audible round of applause. Vik Muniz is a photographic artist who travels to the biggest landfill in the world (situated in Rio De Janeiro) to create portraits of the people who live and work in the garbage. His photographs are of portraits he creates out of the recycled materials that these 'pickers' spend their lives scavenging to make a living.
 
Immediately when Muniz's group arrive at the landfill you can see their surprise as they are confronted with a community of seemingly very happy and content people. They earn decent money (relatively mind you) and are all happy with their lot in life (or at the very least, content). This must've been quite the opposite of what the filmmakers and the artist expected as they then spend the rest of the film creating a situation where a group of people in this community become quite discontented with their situation.
 
Of course many would already disagree with my reading of the film. At one point we see a revealing discussion between the artist and his helpers about this very issue. One of them claims that the communities growing dissatisfaction with their lives is not their doing but rather a sign that they were always in denial. I was squirming in my seat. Rich artist travels to poverty stricken community, uses the people to make his art and covers his ass by appearing to help these struggling people. Yes, he donates a significant amount of the proceeds to helping these people sure. But were these people unhappy in the first place?
 
It ends on a very strange note with the artist talking about how much he has grown as a person, realising he doesnt need his material possessions to be happy. On the other hand, the people he meets in Rio all seem to strive to have what this artist has. Its a strange and troubling contradiction. At the end of the day it's up to the individual to make his own mind up while watching this film. As I previously mentioned the other 3 people I saw this film with all found it to be an uplifting experience. They felt this artist helped these people and contributed positively to their community which was most definitely the film's intention. That's not the film I saw though. I saw a film with a rich, bougeoius artist fucking with some poor 3rd world people who were pretty content before he arrived. That is what I felt watching it and I'm not going to lie to you or myself about that.
 
 
GAS LAND
 
This is an important film to be sure. One of those rare documentary experiences where you are constantly asking yourself, “How do I not know about this?”. Josh Fox explores the dangers and problems with natural gas drilling after he himself gets a letter in the mail informing him that the property his childhood home is located on has been selected as a spot to drill for natural gas.
 
The film layers experience upon experience of Americans who have had their water contaminated from the process that industry uses to drill for natural gas. There is some truly fascinating information passed out in this film. It is horrific seeing how flawed the drilling process actually is. As Fox travels from place to place in America he paints a comprehensive portrait of an industry that is blatantly polluting the atmosphere, contaminating the water table and literally poisoning people. This isn't one or two isolated incidents but rather a systemic flaw in the way big business is harvesting nartural gas. 
 
The film itself is not without its problems though. As Fox travels from place to place the film becomes increasingly repetitive. The same story is told over and over. While certainly this has a cumulative effect it also results in a degree of boredom halfway through. I felt this would've worked better as a 50 or 60 minute doco rather than an 105 minute feature. I hate to admit but Fox's lack of filmmaking experience does diminish his greater goal. Having said that though, this is a vitally important film. I havent felt this blindsided by a film since The Corporation and because of that I must recommend it. These stories need to be heard and believe me, once you have seen someone set their kitchen faucet alight due to gas contaminated water you will be stunned and angry.
 
NEAR DARK
 
“We keep odd hours”. I love this film. Seen it a few times now but nothing beats a big screen and an enthusiatic audience. Bigelow's second best film (after Strange Days) and a classic Bill Paxton performance make this a fun end to a rough day of documentaries.
 
TIDBITS
 
 
  • Iphone ticket scanning is working at the State theatre and the George. The system works!!
  • It is slightly frustrating that the Dendy is so far away from the other venues. Makes it a little difficult to run between sessions. You need 15 minutes to spare and a taxi rather than 5 - 10 minutes and a sprint.
  • The kinks in the projection rooms are definitely getting ironed out and it is good to see but the problems with the digital projection of The Oath was very frustrating. It was fixed promptly though and that was good to see.
  • Stop raining Sydney! You are making my feet wet!

Comments

hahaha.. i watched Strange Days and Near Dark a few months ago.. didn't realise that they were by the same director. Near Dark is timeless but Strange Days has aged pretty disgracefully.. its like Keith Richards without the oil change. I fkn love that late 90s future fluronoir shit. so cheap and horrible.. its like thrift store futurism.

I will admit I haven't seen Strange Days in a few years. The future did look bright back in the 90s :P