Monday, February 01, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Documentary Roundup

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015): This is nowhere near being an objective account of the Euromaidan protests that swept Ukraine beginning in late 2013, and anyone looking for a detailed account of the socio-political issues that inspired them would be well advised to look elsewhere. What Winter on Fire is, however, is a blow by blow, street level account of what was going on with the protesters themselves. Initially angered by the pro-Russian president's backing out of talks to join the European Union, Ukrainian citizens of all ages convened in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to peacefully protest this move and call for a continuation of talks. Netflix commissioned cameras to be filming 24/7 at the very beginning of the protests, which means the entire event was captured on film, either through a documentarian's lens or through a protester's smartphone. What this also means is that you can pinpoint the exact moment things fall apart, as police storm the square and begin beating unarmed and nonviolent protesters.

I already said that this film makes no effort to be objective; the filmmaker's sympathy lies only with the protesters, who the film posits as brave freedom fighters putting their lives on the line for what everyone in Ukraine wants. There's not really any mention of an opposing viewpoint, although there were plenty of Pro-Russian protests as well. As with all things, you should try to remember that every stance has an opposing view that may be just as valid. It's best not to view this film as an idealogical statement, but to see it as a you-are-there document of the horrible mistreatment these protesters had to suffer through. Fair warning; the violence is brutal, and you will watch a few people die. Roger Ebert once said that what made him cry in movies was kindness, was seeing someone in the film do something selfless for someone else. I thought of that as I cried during this film, watching people race out into gunfire with nothing but a wooden shield to protect them in order to try and help the wounded to safety, no matter which side of the fight they happened to be on.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015): I did not know much about Nina Simone before going into this, although I've owned a compilation of her music that I love quite a bit. I knew of her personal life mostly through her civil rights era activities, and to be honest I wasn't really that interested to know more. Nothing against Miss Simone, but I'm past the age where I would read articles and interviews and histories about my favorite artists, and nowadays that stuff just doesn't interest me as much. I worried a little about my lack of Nina Simone knowledge going into this documentary, because often biopics, particularly those about celebrities, tend to assume a little bit of familiarity with their subject. they expect you to know a bit about their career already, and sometimes rely on that information to fill in some gaps they might not have the time to completely get into.

What Happened, Miss Simone? started out a little worryingly, beginning with a concert late into her career that would be infamous to Simone devotees, but didn't quite land with the same impact for me. She is an electric performer, but seems to be bristling during the performance, viewing the audience as adversaries and stopping mid-song to call them out for presumed slights. The film then jumps back to Simone's early childhood and follows a more standard musical-biopic mold, checking off all of the boxes these things require. I'll admit I wasn't really enjoying the first half of this documentary, which I felt was a bit too standard, and gave no indication of Nina Simone the person. We here the pertinent details, but there isn't much more than a glimpse of what the human being behind the public persona is. About halfway through, however, things cohere a bit more, and it's clear that the film's lack of defining Nina Simone isn't a weakness, but perhaps a strength. Nina Simone was someone who always felt uncomfortable with fame, who felt regret at a career that it seems she felt was a bit beneath her (her original goal was to be a classical pianist, not a, as she puts it, pop singer). Her involvement in the civil rights movement brought some of that angst to the forefront, and she began to wear her bitterness and sadness more openly. What Happened, Miss Simone? is an exploration of the question asked in the title, and it never quite answers it. The film reveals Nina Simone to be a complex, possibly unknowable human being, as much a mystery to the people who knew and loved her as to her fans.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Paris is Burning (1990): This is the type of documentary I really gravitate towards; the type that has no real agenda beyond introducing you to a small, unseen lifestyle or community. Paris is Burning is a snapshot of a certain subculture of gay life in late 1980s New York. Following a handful of colorful individuals as they prepare for and compete in drag shows in and around Harlem. Drag in this context doesn't imply any sort of gender mixing, but instead a costume in general, with the winner of the competition being the one who best embodies the 'realness' of their role. The film has no villains, no heroes, not greater message it's trying to make. Although the spectre of AIDS hangs over the proceedings, this has more to do with our current perspective on that period of time. Instead Paris is Burning's goal appears to be simply to provide a showcase for the various flamboyant individuals who make up the drag circuit. Dividing themselves into Houses, their lives revolve around strutting and performing, and everything else they do is simply to help them get ready for the next show. Their costumes are pieced together from whatever they can hustle for, or whatever they're quick enough to steal.

Late in the film, one of the participants, Venus Xtravaganza, is found strangled to death in a seedy motel room. That is an undeniably tragic loss, as Venus' Pollyannaish dreams and unflagging energy provided one of the brightest spots in the film. Her death is the closest this film comes to making a statement, as it explicitly acknowledges the danger inherent in this lifestyle, particularly in this time and this place. But then the film moves on, life moves on. Some people succeed (Willi Ninja in particularly is shown making a name for himself as a choreographer), others continue competing, hustling and surviving.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

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