Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sundance Channel Documentaries

Ever since my co-worker alerted me to the fact that I get the Sundance Channel as part of my digital cable package, I've been watching a lot of programming there. Lately I've been recording a bunch of one-hour mini-documentaries. Here is a field report, starting with the best of the lot.

The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories *****
Directed by Andrey Paounov

Bulgaria, 2007, 58 minutes
In the Bulgarian city of Belene, everyone talks about the “zanzar” problem — a particularly vicious mosquito with a very painful bite. Perhaps the reason everyone talks about mosquitoes is to avoid thinking about the past, and the dark history of what happened on a nearby island during the Communist era. With a delightful eye for the eccentric, the unexpected and the tragic, Andrey Paounov (Georgi and the Butterflies) presents a witty and disturbing documentary about a haunted corner of the world and its colorful inhabitants. (Sundance Channel capsule)

I love this documentary, which I caught while flipping through channels one night. Though at first I wasn't sure what it was about - or even if it was a documentary - because of the way it jumps all over the place, like a jigsaw puzzle that asks the viewer to put the pieces together to form a whole.

What an unusual film - I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it (well, maybe Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida). It feels, as one commentator put it, less like a doc and more like a series of set pieces staged by Wes Anderson - or Antonioni, for that matter. Maybe that's because it has a dreamlike quality to it and, while recording real people, it definitely chooses to stage them ahead of time to maximize each "set piece." It sure ain't Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall verite style, that's for certain. But director Andrey Paounov does achieve some of the most stunning images I've ever seen (a horse galloping around an abandoned prison, cheerleaders with pom-poms and cowboy boots performing pro-nukes choreography inside a dour meeting room, Belene's lone Cuban citizen playing his guitar outside a dormant nuclear power plant, children chasing after a truck that engulfs them in pesticide, etc.) I don't know who his DP was, but he/she has quite an eye, as the framing is imaginative and the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful.

Images from The Mosquito Problem:

Belene's lone Cuban serenades the power plant

Todor Pdrnikov plays Chopin on a rinky-dink piano

The scenes at the former concentration camp (or "re-education camp" as it was known under the Communist regime) turned prison on Belene Island are the film's strongest. It's like a ghost town, home to a horse, a pig, some dirty pigeons, and a lone prisoner, Ahmed Hasanov, a murderer who seems to be a pretty mellow fellow. Oh, and it's also home to hosts of mosquitos! (Which seems unavoidable, as Belene is situated on the mosquito-friendly marshy banks of the Danube river.)

Apparently Bulgaria's switch from Communism to Capitalism brought promises of employment for Belene's citizens at a much-ballyhooed power plant (locals even engraved the nuclear power plant logo on buildings and restaurant dishes), but the plant - which at one time had thousands of workers from the former Soviet Bloc and friendly communist nations like Cuba and Vietnam - was never completed. Construction was halted in 1990 in the wake of a national economic crisis; the plant's demise kept the townsfolk in limbo, while Belene's population dwindled to under 10,000 inhabitants. That's the socio-economic-political backstory to the film, but I found it most interesting in its celebration of the individual eccentrics. Like the pianist who talks about why Chopin was the most Slavic of composers, or the daughter of a prison guard convicted of abusing prisoners who talks about how much she loves her mother.

According to his bio, director Andrey Paounov was born in 1974 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and has worked "as a bartender in Prague, a cook in Washington DC, a gardener in Toronto, a boom operator in New York and an accounting clerk in San Francisco." He graduated from the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2000. His first documentary feature, Georgi and the Butterflies, won the Silver Wolf at IDFA in 2004. The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories is his second feature-length film. And without a doubt a buzz-worthy one.

French Beauty ** 1/2
Directed by Pascale Lamche
France, 2005, 68 minutes
As essential to France's mystique as its wines, haute couture and cuisine is its place as the defining home of female beauty. Filmmaker Pascale Lamche examines how French film actresses have projected a unique je ne sais quoi -- described as an allure combining delicacy, luxury and intelligence -- that has captivated generations of cinema audiences around the world. Providing their own insight into this Gallic riddle are icons of French cinema, including Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Tautou and Jeanne Moreau. (Sundance Channel capsule)

French beauty Audrey Tautou

I love French actresses - Bardot, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Stephane Audran, Audrey Tautou, Jeanne Moureau, et. al. - so I was looking forward to this. But while it sounded great on paper, this French doc was guilty of poor execution and a half-assed focus. And its list of actresses profiled is rather selective - and recent. Bardot's in there at the beginning of course, but where are Emmanuelle Seigner, Anouk Aimee, Julie Delpy, Virginie Ledoyen, Isabelle Adjani and others? Halfway through, the doc shifts its focus to French models, like Jane Birkin's daughter Lou Doillon, who made the switch from modeling to acting (hardly a radical transition, especially in Asia, where many pop stars and models are also movie stars). Disappointing, but I did enjoy seeing the "other" Birkin daughter (from her relationship with French director Jacques Doillon), who unlike her step-sis Charlotte Gainsbourg, looks just like her Mom. Which is to say, a total babe!

Lou Doillon & Jane Birkin

In the Mood for Doyle ** 1/2
Directed by Yves Montmayeur
France, 2007, 54 minutes

Doyle: Obviously Living The Life

Just OK doc about the best cinematographer in Hong Kong - and possibly the world - Christopher Doyle, a scruffy-looking middle-aged Aussie beatnik who dresses like Keith Richards and has been described as an "Asian Jack Kerouac." Doyle is a Western ex-pat living in Hong Kong (that's actually his apartment that Faye Wong inhabits in Chunking Express) and is totally immersed in Chinese and Asian culture, like T. E. Lawrence was with Arabia and the Middle East - refuting Kipling's "never the twain shall meet" adage about East and West cultures. In fact, Doyle famously married a Chinese woman, but she's never referenced and the beautiful young woman by his side and in his house in several scenes is never identified in the film.

Definitive Doyle: Scene from "In the Mood for Love"

Unfortunately, this French documentary is every bit as unfocused as its subject (Doyle may be a brilliant cameraman but he talks in stream-of-conscious bursts like a drug-addled, ADD-afflicted space cadet). As a result, this rag-tag affair jumps all over the place, from Doyle's rambling pop-cultural takes on "The Asian Way" of life to directors Fruit Chan and Olivier Assayas talking about him and Hong Kong filmmaking in general. Doc almost exclusively focuses on Doyle's work with Hong Kong's Godard, director Wong Kar-Wei, who Doyle worked with on Chunking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood For Love and 2046, and - unfortunately - wastes time showing him working on lame Western horror movies like Lady in the Water with M. Night Shyamalan (who looks like a dopey college kid next to the grizzled vet Doyle). Last Life in the Universe, the Thai film he worked on with director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - and arguably his greatest cinematography to date - isn't even mentioned, though we do get to see one clip from his follow-up with the director, the unseen-in-the-West Invisible Waves. And this despite the film opening in Bangkok, where Doyle shows off some of the neighborhoods where he shot footage for In the Mood For Love.

Still, anything about Chris Doyle - whose life is every bit as interesting as his work - is better than nothing, so I enjoyed this short look into his world. I just wanted more of it.


Blogger 1minutefilmreview said...

Nice write-up.

3:36 PM  

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