Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Documentary: Waste Land and the Meaning of Work

Today's entry is inspired in part by the arrival of Waste Land to Netflix Watch Instantly.  Coincidentally, I had also scheduled an entry today on foreign documentaries, specifically focusing on examples by filmmakers better known for their fiction films.  Even though I have not seen Waste Land yet (I have now put it in my queue), I'm confident that it will play off of these other suggestions in interesting ways in that each explores the significance of work and the transformational power of art.

Waste Land (Lucy Walker, Joao Jardim, Brazil, 2010, 99 minutes)
Netflix: Renowned artist Vik Muniz embarks on one of the most inspired collaborations of his career, joining creative forces with Brazilian catadores -- garbage pickers who mine treasure from the trash heaps of Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Gramacho landfill. In this Oscar-nominated documentary, the catadores prove to be unique and surprising individuals in their own right, waxing philosophic as they impart a valuable lesson about what society discards. Netflix link.

As mentioned above I have not seen this yet but I'm looking forward to it based upon what I have read.  The film won the 2010 audience award for best international documentary, as well as awards from Amnesty International and the Berlin Film Festival.  Interestingly, the film received a 100% Tomatometer critic rating at Rotten Tomatoes (based upon 62 reviews), and a 90% audience rating. I'll be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on the film in the comments section below.

The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000, 78 minutes)
Netflix: Inspired by Jean-François Millet's famous painting "Les Glaneuses," filmmaker Agnes Varda strikes out with just a hand-held digital camera in search of the modern equivalent of Millet's grain field gleaners. She finds her quarry at dumpsters, outdoor markets and roadsides across France. Varda's no-holds-barred documentary about scavengers and recyclers is an insouciant treat from beginning to end, with an unexpectedly obtuse perspective. Netflix link.

Varda is perhaps best known for her fiction features (her classic Cleo from 5 to 7 is available on Watch Instantly).  The Gleaners and I is a pure delight, a quirky, contemplative, highly personal documentary that takes gleaning (scavenging and recycling) as a starting point for a broader meditation on life, work, and the passage of time. While the film is not shot as informally as its premise would like us to believe, Varda does indeed seem liberated by the possibilities of digital filmmaking, and her energy and curiosity is completely contagious. Also available is Varda's more recent documentary about her life and career, The Beaches of Agnes

The Five Obstructions (Jorgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2003, 87 minutes)
Netflix: Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, a leader in the Dogme 95 movement (which eschewed artificial lighting and props and promoted digital video), is legendary for his one-of-a-kind approach to moviemaking and the memorable fruits of his labors. In this collaboration with fellow director Jorgen Leth, von Trier challenges Leth to remake his 1967 movie The Perfect Human and documents the entire process, allowing viewers to see two geniuses at work. Netflix link.

Even if you are not a fan of von Trier's other work (but you should be, and several of his other films are available on Netflix Watch Instantly), this match of wits between von Trier and his mentor, Jorgen Leth, quietly evolves into a fascinating examination of the healing powers of artmaking.  As von Trier and Leth engage in a kind of gamesmanship over restrictions to be placed on Leth as he remakes one of his most famous short films, you slowly realize that they have been playing a completely different game the whole time.  The five remakes contained in the film will also inspire you place some arbitrary restrictions on yourself, pick up a camera, and go and make something.   

The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1974, 44 minutes)
Netflix: Acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog trains his lenses on Walter Steiner, a man with talents for carving both wood and snow. A champion ski jumper, Steiner shattered the sport's many milestones, pushing himself to the limits with each attempt. Herzog captures Steiner as he sluices through the ice in a delicate and dangerous dance. Yet off the slopes, the athlete chooses to invest his time in a deeply contemplative, meditative hobby. Netflix link.

Werner Herzog is another filmmaker better known for his fiction films (if you haven't seen it yet, you should check out Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans with Nicholas Cage).  There are several Herzog documentaries on Netflix Watch Instantly, but I chose this one despite the fact that it might not initially seem to fit today's theme.  Walter Steiner was best known as a world-class ski-jumper, but the title suggests that there is more to him by labeling him as a sculptor.  Like many of Herzog's fictional characters, Steiner is someone who pushes himself to the limits of what he is doing. The question for Steiner becomes whether he wants those risks to define him as a person. By the end of this short film you start looking at ski-jumping very differently, beyond the sport and competition, and see it as a kind of art form. 

I look forward to your responses and feedback in the comments section below.  --JLK

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