For Your Documental Health
Well, ladies and gentleman, we’ve made it to our third round of documentary films, and I hope everyone so far has found at least a couple worth checking out. If there are any subjects or films you would like to see represented in an upcoming post, please feel free to say so in the comments below! Now, on with the documentary films.
Taking its name from Biblical sea beast, Leviathan is part documentary and part art-house fever dream. With its experimental use of filters, oblique camera shots and heavily filtered sound, it shows the toils of commercial fishermen aboard a boat in the seas off of New Bedford. There is no narration to speak of, and the infrequent dialogue of the fishermen on board is mixed so low that they might as well be a world away. Instead, your ears are treated to the ominous hum of the droning boat motor, the sloshing of the tumultuous sea, and the sickening wet slapping of wriggling fish as they buck about on the deck. These combine with surreal visuals that resemble something out of a Lovecraftian nightmare. Film grain and super-saturated filters lend a cosmic eeriness to everything in the pre-dawn darkness of the opening shots as the stout cables of the winch resemble the tentacles of Cthulhu as they retract from the ocean’s depths. Once the sun rises, the men set about the gory task of beheading and gutting the captured fish, and you feel the squelch of every chunk of viscera that falls to the floor. It’s not pleasant, but it’s effective.
In the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch, audiences are shown the lives of the various crew members aboard fishing trawlers and are introduced to their struggles, triumphs, and personalities. Leviathan features a several-minute-long unbroken shot of one of the crew members slowly nodding to sleep as he watches TV, and an episode of Deadliest Catch is audible as it goes to commercial break. He doesn’t speak, we are not given his name, and he doesn’t make eye contact with the camera. In this way, Leviathan is a very holistic look at the world above a fishing boat, albeit a very skewed one. We watch moribund sea life flounder about, and it calls to mind the toll that fishing takes on wildlife. Through several layers of manufactured fuzz I hear the familiar churning riff of Mastodon’s “Iron Tusk” (from their album Leviathan) and the camera levels on the wrinkled brow of a sailor and the tough veneer of his wind-whipped skin; I think of what sort of person ends up in these harsh conditions and what sort of life to which it is the better alternative.
While this documentary is unflinching in its unique audio and visual style, it also leaves a lot up to its audience in terms of the take away. I’ve shared a couple of my thoughts that came to mind, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say those were the messages of this film. This film comes from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, a group seeking to unite aesthetics and ethnography, the latter being a method of research where a group or culture is observed from the point-of-view of the culture itself. If this is the intention, then Leviathan is a success, because one of these elements cannot really be separated out without compromising what makes the film successful. The film gives the sensory experience of what it is like to be these fishermen, and in some shots, the fish that they catch, but without the artistic choices to enhance that experience, the effect would not be as powerful. This film is not for everyone. If you’re looking for a litany of educational anecdotes and enlightening facts, you’ll need to look elsewhere, but if you’re feeling daring and intrigued by what new frontiers are being explored in documentary film making, Leviathan fits the bill.
Muscle Shoals (2013)
I realize that there’s been quite a focus on music related to Motown on the blog, and this is in part because so many great documentaries related to the style of music have been released lately. I must continue on this tangent, but this time we’re leaving the Motor City behind and heading to the deep South, to the idyllic shores of the Tennessee River and the small town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When I say small, I mean small. With a population of just over 12,000, the uninitiated may find it shocking that the likes of the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, and Lynyrd Skynyrd have all boarded planes and made their way down to this shady hamlet in order to cultivate the unique sound that arises from Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios. Muscle Shoals tells the little-known story of how this unique Mecca for recording came about in the late 1950s, and the cast of characters that still operate in the town to this day.
It’s difficult not to find the story of Rick Hall compelling. He is one of the three men responsible for starting FAME, but he is clearly the one with the drive that has carried it forward to this day. You can imagine that the man who is able to create an iconic, successful, and creatively unique studio is full of ambition and clever ideas, but what really struck me about Rick Hall is that he is a man who is driven by his unfaltering bitterness to prove the universe wrong. Throughout this film, Hall tells various anecdotes from his personal life, nearly all of them unfortunate. He has lost so many people to sickness and accidental deaths, and the sheer weight of the tragedies that would cause most to crumple and resign has forged in him something entirely different, a drive for success.
Of course, one man does not a studio make, and the other group of luminaries might be more familiar from a verse in “Sweet Home Alabama,” although you might not have realized who was being referenced: “In Muscle Shoals they got the Swampers.” The Swampers are the backing band that grew out of FAME studios and are recognized for having a looser, funkier style of playing that many artists found so appealing. Like the Funk Brothers out of Detroit, much of their distinctive sound arose from a group of young men who knew very little about professional musicianship coming together and working off of each other to form a truly unique sonic fingerprint. I absolutely love the idea that the sound sought by the legendary Motown Records to revitalize their biggest stars’ careers was simply not something that could be created from bringing in veteran session musicians.
This documentary is composed of some well maintained archive footage, interviews with many of the still-living players in this tale, and stock footage of what the quiet town of Muscle Shoals is like today. There are countless amusing anecdotes involving some of the biggest names in rock n’ roll history, and plenty of musical accompaniment. If you love music but don’t know the story of FAME studios, you owe it to yourself to check out the story of Muscle Shoals.
Free China: The Courage to Believe (2011)
This wouldn’t be a post about documentaries without including at least one film that features some shocking revelations, and Free China: The Courage to Believe was that film for me. This latest film from Michael Perlmen (Tibet: Beyond Fear) uses the personal narratives of Jennifer Zeng, a former Communist party member, and Dr. Charles Lee, a Chinese American businessman, to illustrate the persecution and horrible human rights abuses that are taking place today in China. You may have heard of Zeng in 2005 when she released her book Witnessing History which also details the events she witnessed as a political prisoner. Why was she imprisoned? She was labeled a threat because she practiced Falun Gong, a spiritual practice which had taken quite a foothold in China during the 1990’s. Falun Gong involves meditation and practicing qigong exercises, slow, controlled movements that emphasize restraint and control of the body. This doesn’t sound like a particularly dangerous practice, so there must be something dangerous behind the philosophy of Falun Gong, right? The three central tenets of Falun Gong are truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. Separate from many Buddhist practices that often emphasize isolation, “Falun Gong adherents are required to maintain regular jobs and family lives, to observe the laws of their respective governments, and are instructed not to distance themselves from society.” Why then was Zeng imprisoned?
With the extreme popularity of Falun Gong in China, the Communist Party became wary when the number of practitioners surpassed the number of party members. Moreover, Falun Gong practitioners preferred only loose organizational groups, and refused to unite under one central group that would ultimately be subject to the control and philosophies of the Communist Party’s wishes. What resulted was the declaration of Falun Gong practitioners as heretics and a smear campaign that quite literally made claims akin to “Falun Gong practitioners eat babies.” Of course, such a popular brand of philosophy could not have fallen so quickly without a swift and serious threat of imprisonment, and many resisted the urge to continue practicing for fear of their well-being. Sadly, many practitioners like Zeng continued to practice in secret, and as the government scoured private emails for evidence of illegal activity, Zeng found herself torn from her home and infant daughter. All of this is horrific in its own right, but the real horrors are the allegations of the black market organ trade that arose from the imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners. With prisons full of healthy Falun Gong practitioners who abstained from smoking and drinking, some have come away from imprisonment with rumors that organs were being harvested and sold from some of the prisoners. While China’s official response has been to deny all such allegations, human rights groups continue to push for further investigations into the matter.
As a film, Free China: The Courage to Believe is inherently compelling because the story being told is such a saddening display of human cruelty, and one that is still ongoing. While it is admittedly only one side of the story, the experiences of Zeng and other prisoners are hard to ignore. Because most of the events happened behind closed doors, there is little to show of many of the events which the film covers except for news footage and what the Chinese government allowed to be filmed. Thankfully, the film forgoes re-enactments of the events; the few still photographs of the condition of prisoners are graphic enough to make the point. I feel like awareness of the issue is ultimately more important than this documentary as a piece of film making, and so I’d encourage everyone to learn more in whichever way you see fit.
A Man Named Pearl (2006)
Documentary film-making can expose the ugliness of the world, but thankfully it can also highlight its beauty. This refers not only to the exquisitely composed topiaries of Bishopville, South Carolina with their interesting confluence of geometric shapes, but also the man who created them, 68-year-old (at the time of filming) Pearl Fryar. Fryar is a man who wears many hats, and one of those might as well be that of a wizard as he seems to coax life out of plants in ways that baffle even professional horticulturalists. He is also a loving husband, father, tinker, artist, church-goer, and inspirational speaker to anyone who wants to hear about how he’s managed to build a garden that has brought visitors from far and wide to the sleepy town of Bishopville. A Man Named Pearl features many of Fryar’s neighbors, as well as the man himself telling the story of how his garden came to be and the transformational effect that it has had on the town.
What makes Pearl’s story so inspirational actually has little to do with the gardening, and this is something that Pearl recognizes in his own life. While it is impressive that he was able to build a green paradise starting from the discarded plants of local greenhouses scrap piles, the message Pearl wants to communicate is not one of the value of gardening. At one point he reflects that there is no greater feeling than seeing something that you have done have a positive effect on another, and in this way you really start to see the psychology of Pearl Fryar. He spends hours of every day tending to his plants, guiding groups of students on tours of his grounds, instructing neighbors on tending their own gardens, and maintaining various plots about town, but the greatest outcome for him is seeing the sense of community, joy, and purpose he fosters in the community.
Fryar’s story is one that inspires you to strive to become great at something, and illustrates the value that it has to those around you. This film tends not to dwell on anything negative for too long. The film hints at how difficult it is for a black man to engender good will in a predominately white Southern town, and that part of this might have initially contributed to Pearl’s drive to transform his lawn, but the film makers certainly don’t dwell on this facet of the story. There is genuine warmth and humor to the stories told, such as Pearl and his wife recalling their courtship or the bus full of church ladies who take notice of what great shape Pearl is in. For a much appreciated pick-me-up, make sure to give A Man Named Pearl a watch.
Have you seen any enjoyed any of the films above? What about films with similar themes? Did you absolutely loathe and of my choices? Make sure to tell us in the comments below, and please share with your friends if you enjoyed the read.