Storyville and this golden age of documentary film making.

Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals.

The BBC4 documentary strand Storyville isn’t part of what is clearly a golden age of documentary film making, it’s the principle driving force responsible for bringing this age into being.

Since kicking off in 2007-08, Storyville has helped fund over one hundred documentaries, each one even more impressive than the last.

In the 2013-14 season there was The Gatekeepers where we heard from the last six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, reviewed earlier here. Plus the mythic Muscle Shoals: The Greatest Recording studio in the World, reviewed earlier here, and the fascinating Google and the World Brain on Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books, and what that might mean for the rest of us. And then there was the absolutely riveting The House I Live In, on America’s doomed war on drugs, and the way that their whole penal system has become little more than an elaborate excuse for institutionalised racism, reviewed earlier here.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

Then in 2014-15 there was Mugabe and the Democrats, the surprisingly moving Particle Fever: The Hunt for the Higgs Boson, and the majestic Searching For Sugar Man about the genuinely extraordinary singer Rodriguez, reviewed earlier here.

Here, very briefly, are four from the current 2015-16 season:

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land brings vividly to life quite how unimaginable life in Mexico has become. When his three neighbours are beheaded by one of the local drug cartels, the local doctor Jose Mireles decides it’s time to take the law into his own hands. So he and a few of his similarly desperate neighbours take up arms and set up the autodefensas.

And within a few weeks, he and his civic minded vigilantes are moving through the state, convincing citizens from village to village to join them, take up arms, and defend themselves against the marauding cartels.

Without wishing in any way to spoil the story, what happens next is all too predictable. It is staggering to witness quite how corrupt Mexico has become, at every conceivable level, from top to bottom. And quite how impossible it seems to be to free yourself from it. And although on the surface this isn’t a depressing film, the more you think about it, and you will think about it, the more dispiriting a place the world seems to have become.

A sobre Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

A sober Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

The six-day war: Censored Voices is very much a companion piece to The Gatekeepers above. When the celebrated novelist Amos Oz came back to the Kibbutz where he lived for so much of his life after fighting in the 6 day war, he and his fellow soldiers were so conflicted by what they had just been a part of, that they each recorded a series of interviews with one another so that they could air and explore that unease.

The basic question they asked themselves was, how can what was supposed to have been a defensive war result in the mass deportation of tens of thousands of people from their land?

Nearly half a century later, we watch as the elderly men listen to what their thoughts had been barely ten days after what many people at the time were celebrating as Israel’s finest hour.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

FBI Undercover seems like an innocuous enough tale. We follow one of the many very ordinary, and completely unqualified people recruited by the FBI after September 11th to root out terrorism. And then we follow the Muslim man he has been sent to trap. And suddenly, without anything actually happening, a young man’s life has been completely ruined.

If you’ve ever wondered how Daesh manages to attract its recruits, this will go some way to help explaining it.

And finally, Dreamcatcher: Surviving Chicago’s Streets follows a reformed prostitute as she walks the streets of Chicago bringing life-saving succour to her former colleagues. Which sounds hopelessly earnest and horribly dull, but is in fact incredibly moving. Brenda Myers-Powell is quite simply a living saint.

So often documentaries feel like something you ought to watch rather than something you’d like to watch. In reality, all of the above are unmissable. And if you can’t access the BBC iPlayer, get yourself a VPN.

It will take about 10 minutes to set up, but once it’s done you’re set. I use SaturnVPN. It’ll cost you no more than about $20 a year. It’s like Netflix for the intellectually curious. It’s the best investment you’ll make all year.

You can see the trailer for The Six-day War:Censored Voices here.

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David Simon’s latest TV series “Show Me A Hero”.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

David Simon read Show Me A Hero by New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin in 2001, and immediately approached HBO about adapting it for television. But he got sidetracked with the phenomenally successful and justly lauded The Wire, and then by Generation Kill and Treme. So it’s only now that Show Me a Hero has finally made it to our screens.

As soon as he heard it was going ahead, Paul Haggis signed on as director without having to see any of the scripts beforehand. And it’s not hard to see what might have drawn him to it, apart of course from the obvious fact that it was Simon’s latest venture.

Haggis wrote and directed Crash in 2004, which explores the complexities of race and colour brilliantly, and could have been a masterpiece if only they’d held out against tacking happy endings on to three of its stories, those of the detective’s mother, the shop keeper and the TV director.

Crash.

Crash.

One of the first things that leaps out at you when you start watching Show Me A Hero is its apparent artlessness. A great deal of time and effort has been invested in rendering it entirely transparent. So that instead of using the medium to mirror the subject matter, as they did with the amphetamine fuelled fidgeting of The Wire, and the laid back languid southern rhythms of Treme, what we get here is Strindberg’s dream of being presented with something as if we were the fourth wall.

So the late 80s that the story is set in is seen not as the sort of stylized, immaculately dressed era that something like Mad Men would have presented it as. Rather, it looks and feels exactly as it did when you were actually living in it. Utterly, unforgivably vile, and cheap in a somehow expensive way. That hair, those shoulder pads, and the way that everything, even the architecture, all looks thin, insubstantial and devoid of any real depth.

The Wire.

The Wire.

The story centres around Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor in America when taking up the reins at Yonkers, a suburb of New York City and a city in its own right within the larger state. For 5 or 6 years in the late 80s, its residents were up in arms over the social housing development that was being forced upon them against their wishes.

What’s so great about Simon is that he manages to keep his liberal sympathies in check without ever letting you lose sight of them. He focuses instead on showing us the multifaceted complexities that lie behind all apparently black and white issues.

There’s a reason the residents of Yonkers are so dead set against allowing public housing units allocated to black families into their area. Wherever that had been done before, the buildings that resulted all too quickly developed into Stygian centres for drugs and prostitution, and the organizational fulcrum for a network of petty, and not so petty crime.

Proponents of the scheme, which Wasiscko inadvertently came to front, said that that was only because of the way that those kinds of things had been handled in the past. That this scheme would be different (which, unusually, it was), and that in any case, they were only talking about a paltry 200 housing units.

Treme.

Treme.

I’ll not say anything more, other than that I just about managed to avoid looking up what the actual outcome was, so drawn in was I with the story, and so should you. But if you recognize the Fitzgerald quote, or know the book, you’ll know that the full quote is Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.

The one thing I can say is, and forgive me for sounding a little smug, but the whole sorry story is a dreadful reflection on that era and, dare I say it, America. Happily, the idea that the good people in the larger community might shun a minority to such a degree that they refuse to let them even live amongst them is, happily, not something that could possibly happen in this day and age. And certainly not in Ireland. Obviously.

You can see the trailer to Show Me A Hero here.

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BBC’s Arena celebrates one of the great modern film makers.

Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance.

Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance.

Nicolas Roeg has only made 13 films in total, but the first seven of them makes up one of the most important bodies of work in European cinema.

He began in the camera department, and by the 1960s he was the cinematographer on some of Britain’s most iconic films, working on Lawrence of Arabia, Far From the Madding Crowd and Doctor Zhivago, though he remained un-credited on that last one after a falling out with David Lean.

Then in 1970 he made his directorial debut Performance, which, unusually for a British film, he directed together with Donald Cammell. Roeg concentrated on the look of the film, and Cammell worked with the actors and on the script. The gifted but troubled Cammell then made Demon Seed in 77, but when the studio mangled their cut of his Wild Side in 1995, he committed suicide.

Julie Christy in Don't Look Now.

Julie Christy in Don’t Look Now.

Although the world of Performance is very much the one that Cammell inhabited, with its heady mix of the Mayfair set and gangster London, it looks and feels like a Roeg film. And the casting of Mick Jagger in one of the leads would be followed subsequently by Roeg with David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing.

Walkabout, his first film proper, was next in ’71. A startlingly original take on the clash of civilizations as a white boy and girl are left to fend for themselves in the Australian outback after being abandoned there. But it was Don’t Look Now in ‘73 that really caught the world’s attention.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christy are in Venice trying to come to terms with the death of their child. The film unfolds with an elliptical, almost casually poetic moulding of time, and it is this more than anything that characterizes Roeg’s work.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

This strikingly lateral, almost anti linear sense of time, and one of the most memorable and grown up sex scenes in modern cinema woke the world up to a serious European film maker.

The Man Who Fell To Earth followed in ‘76, Bad Timing in ‘80, Eureka in ‘83 and then Insignificance in ‘85. All are criminally over-looked. They each manage to be dazzlingly original in their look and feel as they tackle existential themes with a deft lightness of touch. Intellectual depth explored with visual brilliance, panache and originality, so that form and content perfectly merge.

Teresa Russell in the criminally overlooked Insignificance.

Teresa Russell in the criminally overlooked Insignificance.

If you’ve yet to see any of them, lucky you, it’s all ahead of you.

Castaway was something of a damp squib in 86, but Track 29 in 88, scripted by Denis Potter was a return to form. But his film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches in 90 was another mild disappointment, falling somewhere in between a children’s and a grown up’s film.

And that alas is pretty much it. There have been three films since, but they are hardly worth mentioning in the context of what had come before. And ever since, Roeg has been talking to various producers and financiers about making a comeback. So the Arena profile, aptly titled It’s About Time on BBC4 was something of a mixed blessing.

Gene Hackman in Eureka.

Gene Hackman in Eureka.

On the one hand, it was finally some sort of recognition for, arguably, the most important, and certainly the most original film maker that Britain has ever produced. On the other, if felt like an admission of defeat as far as any future projects are concerned.

Watch the Arena profile. And then treat yourselves to one of those first seven films of his.

Rather like David Bowie’s six albums between Young Americans and Scary Monsters, those first seven films of Roeg’s manage to be at once extraordinarily varied and yet visibly, distinctly crafted by the same brilliant hand.

In the meantime, here’s the trailer  for Don’t Look Now. And this by the way is how you cut a trailer. Every studio head in Hollywood should be forced to watch this at least once a week.

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“The Jinx”, unmissable and horribly addictive.

"The Jinx"

“The Jinx”

First things first, there’ll not be any spoilers here whatsoever. To deprive anyone of the constant stream of surprises and guilty pleasures this six part documentary continually serves up would be a veritable crime.

If ever anyone asks you, what’s a cliff, all you need say is, episode 5, The Jinx. I had to forcibly refrain from watching all six one after the other, and to somehow constrain myself to but two episodes in a row, over three weekends.

I won’t talk about any of the actual story, apart from what is revealed in the opening 15 minutes of the first episode.

There, we hear of a dismembered body that was discovered off the coast of Texas, and how, almost within minutes, one Robert Durst was arrested after he was stopped blithely driving about town with a newly purchased hack saw on the back seat of the car. Not in the boot mark you. On the seat.

Capturing The Friedmans.

Capturing the Friedmans.

Durst it transpires is the eldest son and heir of the Durst empire, one of the most powerful property dynasties in New York. One World Trade Center is one of numerous buildings the family have on the island of Manhattan. Neither was he a stranger to controversy. His wife had mysteriously disappeared 18 years previously, and many of her family suspect his involvement.

When it got to trial, he explained that although he had indeed killed and chopped up his next door neighbour, he’d killed him accidentally, in self-defence. And that he’d only chopped him up afterwards as, well, how else do you dispose of someone you’ve accidentally killed, and whose death you could easily find yourself being wrongly blamed for?

The subject confronted; the reveal.

The film maker and subject; the reveal.

Needless to say, the story made all the papers, not least the New York Times. Mesmerised New Yorkers watched as one of their own appeared at the centre of one of those stories that people like him would normally look down their noses at from an Olympian height.

One of the people whose attention was grabbed was the film maker Andrew Jarecki, who comes from a similarly moneyed background. And after he had made his startling directorial debut, the brilliant Capturing the Friedmans in 2004, he decided that his next project would be a fictionalised version of Durst’s travails. But he was determined to do so from an avowedly neutral position. After all, what if he really is innocent? Unsurprisingly, the film that resulted, All Good Things was something of a damp squib.

The master.

The master.

But when then he was asked on the mandatory promotional tour what reaction he would like his film to produce, he replied that he’d love to hear what Durst himself made of it. And sure enough soon after, Durst rings, telling him he really liked the film – as damning an indictment as any film could wish for – and would he be interested in interviewing him?

And so Jarecki recorded a genuinely exclusive interview with the man who had hitherto refused to give his side of the story, to anyone. And from that interview – or interviews – Jarecki began to piece together the two different versions of his past, that he and his accusers both insist is what really happened.

So from a mixture of recorded interviews, both video and audio, police transcripts, some especially artful, dramatic reconstructions and a slew of interviews with most of the protagonists, the two contradictory versions of his past unfold before our eyes.

"Bitter Lake", the latest film essay from Adam Curtis, this time on Afghanistan.

“Bitter Lake”, the latest erudite film essay from Adam Curtis, this time on Afghanistan.

A few critics, AA Gill most notably, have complained that it’s impossible for us to trust Jarecki precisely because his film is so artfully put together.

But that surely makes it even more of a pleasure, albeit a guilty one. It wonderfully mirrors and intriguingly reflects the very subject it charts; truth and lies and the different ways we all interpret the same events, in much the same way that Capturing the Friedmans did.

I mentioned Orson Welles’ charming film essay F For Fake in my review of Adam Curtis’ similarly visually literate All Watched Over by Machines Of Loving Grace here. Like that, The Jinx is a captivating companion piece to what should have been Welles’ legacy. Except that, criminally, nobody noticed F For Fake. It somehow managed to pass everybody by. No one’s likely to make the same mistake about The Jinx.

You can see the trailer of Capturing The Friedmans here, and for The Jinx here.

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“The Gatekeepers” an Amazing Window on Israel.

Ami Ayalon, now in the Israeli Knesset.

Ami Ayalon, now in the Israeli Knesset.

In the week when the new Swedish government announced its intention to recognize the state of Palestine, and after the back bench British MPs made a similar show of public support, last weekend’s screening of the BBC Storyville documentary The Gatekeepers made for timely viewing.

This is one of those films that you feel you ought to watch, rather than one you actually want to see. And like so many of those, it turns out to be absolutely riveting.

Directed by the Israeli Dror Moreh, who was inspired by Errol Morris’ extraordinarily revealing interview of Robert S. McNamara for The Fog Of War, The Gatekeepers is an extended interview with the last six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet. Remarkably, it’s every bit as revealing as the film that inspired it.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

For the last 35 years, these six men have been in charge of Israel’s internal security. And watching them grapple with their consciences whilst bemoaning the refusal of leaders on either side to seriously engage with their opposite number was fascinating, depressing and ultimately somehow hopeful.

If only, you couldn’t help but feel, it had been some of these men who’d been running the country instead of the ones who were actually elected. One of them has indeed now joined the Knesset. We can only hope. The message from all six of them was unanimous. We must engage. We need to talk. You can’t secure the state of Israel without acknowledging the fate of the Palestinians.

Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals.

This is yet another in an ever more impressive rostra of docs form the Storyville team. If you haven’t already, watch Searching for Sugar Man (reviewed earlier here), Muscle Shoals (here) or the amazing and sobering The House I Live In (here). In fact you can pretty much watch any one of their films. It’s the most consistently impressive strand of documentary film making anywhere in the world. You can see the Gatekeepers trailer here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.