Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Documentary: A Film Unfinished (2010); The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2006)

I had a chance to see A Film Unfinished at the Cucalorus Film Festival back in November, and it was quite memorable in many ways.  First there is the strange immediacy of the footage itself, even though it is now decades old. There's something particularly unnerving watching direct documentation of the quotidian existence in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.  The film also provides a valuable lesson in the strengths and weaknesses of the image itself.  Many of the images are undeniably moving, but many of them need the memories of the survivors to help explain what is going on beyond the surface appearances. 

A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski, Germany, 2010, 91 minutes)
Netflix: This potent documentary uses a long-lost film reel to illustrate how the Nazis controlled images of Jewish life during World War II. Though the Nazis made a propaganda movie of contented Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, the missing spool exposes the truth. Director Yael Hersonski shows how the imagery was staged to distort historical knowledge and, with the aid of Jewish survivors' testimony, chronicles the horrifying reality of ghetto life.  Netflix link.

Fans of the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, Wisconsin will recall that The Real Dirt on Farmer John won both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Best Documentary in 2005.  It went on to general acclaim, including from Roger Ebert, who called it a "loving, moving, inspiring, quirky documentary."

The Real Dirt on Farmer John (Taggart Siegel, USA, 2006, 82 minutes)
Netflix: Filmmaker Taggart Siegel paints a fascinating portrait of a man who refused to yield. By transforming his farm into an experimental haven in the late 1960s, John Peterson attracted hundreds of artists, hippies and other political radicals. But when the agriculture crisis of the late 1980s led to the farm's eventual collapse -- and his neighbors publicly branded him a devil worshipper -- most locals thought he'd call it quits. They were wrong. Netflix link.

I was actually surprised to realize how long ago When We Were Kings came out; I guess great movies often seem like they came out just yesterday.  On the one hand this could be seen as "can't miss" material, since it has Ali in his flamboyant best.  But in addition to the raw footage shot during the days leading up to the "Rumble in the Jungle," this also features an intriguing analysis of the fight itself, clearly explaining the strategy and skill involved to those of us who are not fight connoisseurs.

When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, USA, 1996, 84 minutes)
Netflix: Legendary prizefighters Muhammad Ali and George Foreman travel to Zaire for the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight title bout in director Leon Gast's Oscar-winning documentary, which was shelved for two decades by financial and legal issues. Foreman was world champion, and Ali was supposedly past his prime. But this glimpse of Ali in the years after his moral opposition to U.S. military service showcases a sporting and cultural milestone. Netflix link.

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