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Wednesday, Jun 30, 2010
Some of the most deeply emotional films at this year's Silverdocs couldn't help but seem like stories somewhat created rather than simply observed.

The invisible hand behind the camera was very prevalent in two of the most touching films at Silverdocs; whether or not this was an issue depends on how you like to take your nonfiction filmmaking. Both Steam of Life and Familia were gripping works that maybe had little in common besides their potent emotionality and Scandinavian directors (Finnish in the former, Swedish the latter), but it was hard to escape the sense that the stories being offered up had been shaped all too readily for the viewers.


Mika Hotakainen and Joonas Berghäll’s comic Steam of Life is less a documentary than it is a dry comic rumination on the pains and pleasures (mostly the former) of life, all set within the Finnish saunas where a succession of naked and sweating men tell stories in between beers. The locations are as different as the men themselves, from the functional municipal saunas where two seemingly homeless men grouse about their lives to the jerry-rigged one fashioned out of a rustbucket trailer in the backwoods. One man even fashions a sweat chamber out of a glass phone booth at a country crossroads.


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Tuesday, Jun 29, 2010
Who really cares if Han Solo shot first? The passionate protesters in this nerdcore documentary do – and they make a credible case for why it matters.

It’s a love-hate relationship, this thing that Star Wars fans have with the father / creator of so many of their space opera fantasies, and one that director Alexandre O. Phillippe deftly explores in his winning documentary on the subject. The crowd at Silverdocs’ East Coast premiere of the film was suitably keyed up for a film whose makers reportedly screened over 600 hours’ worth of fan-created Star Wars videos, remixes, remakes, and animations.


Fortunately, instead of simply playing to the series’ constituency and parsing the differences between, say, a fan film that utilized Lego stop-motion animation or lo-fi live-action reshoots, Phillippe delves into what it is about Lucas that drives his followers so insane and how much he should care. In between the choice nuggets of YouTube-culled videos that constitute the film’s mosaic background, Phillippe intersperses interviews with a gallery of people holding strong opinions on the subject, from nerdcore rappers to fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman to obsessive toy collectors (a particularly cursed fan subset) and everyday fans who still can’t handle the existence of Jar Jar Binks, or really any of Lucas’s second trilogy of films.


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Wednesday, Jun 16, 2010
How does idealistic legislation get nitpicked into nothingness?

The final entry in the ambitious twelve-part television documentary series How Democracy Works is a much more pragmatically delivered thing than its overly idealistic title might suggest. The last best chance refers to the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s fight in 2006 to pull together a “grand bargain” between the Democrats and Republicans to craft a solution to the country’s roiling immigration debate. Everyone knows that it failed, the drama in Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson’s film (which began the story in part two of the series, Mountains and Clouds) comes from watching how the bargain falls apart.


In a word: politics. Although revered as the grey eminence of the Democratic party, and somebody with great pro-immigration bona fides from his landmark 1965 legislation that got rid of many of the old racial quotas, Kennedy was either unlucky or just critically mistaken to have pushed this through in a mid-term election year. The cameras spend most of their time hanging around Kennedy’s offices as his team pushes and pulls to first craft a compromise bill that will placate both conservatives and pro-immigration activists.


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Tuesday, Jun 15, 2010
That Angola prison is nowhere you'd want to be comes through clearly in Vadim Jean's film about three possibly innocent prisoners there – but why precisely they should be set free is blurrier.

Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were all prisoners in Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary in 1972, when they were convicted of murdering prison guard Brad Miller. Afterward they were thrown into solitary confinement where the three had, by the time this film was made, spent a total of one hundred years. The three had been in for smaller crimes, robbery and the like, but because of their involvement with the nascent Black Panther Party and subsequent agitating for better conditions at the prison, they were seen as good candidates for the murder.


Vadim Jean’s vividly directed film makes the argument that not only were Wallace, Woodfox, and King (the so-called “Angola 3”) all framed for the guard’s murder, but that their time in solitary confinement constitutes one of the most clear violations of the Constitution’s proscription against “cruel and unusual punishment” as can be found in modern America. It’s a handsomely done work, with great footage of Angola – presented as a corrupted cesspool of systematic degradation and corruption – in decades past backgrounded by a stellar classic funk soundtrack and forceful narration by Samuel L. Jackson.


It’s unfortunate, then, that Jean fails to make a stronger case for the Angola 3’s innocence. His documentation of the horrors of Angola in general and solitary confinement in particular are powerful enough and nearly inarguable, and his recounting of Robert King’s arduous legal fight for release is dutifully handled. But while Jean sows plenty of doubt about Wallace and Woodfox’s guilt, he never lands that final, necessary, and critical blow.


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Monday, Jun 14, 2010
Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, about 4.7 million Iraqis have fled the country. Less than ten percent have returned.

One of the most recurrent and unsolvable problems of the modern world remains that of the refugee. Almost nowhere is their plight more pressing than in the cities of Jordan and Syria, where millions of Iraqis fled in the years of chaos and internecine bloodshed that followed the United States invaded. Nathan Fisher’s heartfelt documentary shows what these refugees are going through after the initial shock of moving to a new country and finds that for the most part, they are in limbo.


A large percentage of Iraqi refugees are from the professional class, as evidenced in the subjects whom Fisher follows: a female medical researcher, a voluble and well-known Baghdad chef, an engineer, and a likeably enthusiastic English teacher. Almost none of them can find any work in their adopted homes. A clown troupe, two of whose members were murdered back in Iraq, now perform for fellow refugees while they wait to receive United Nations certification. One shame-faced family is forced to send their young son out on the street to sell food to kids his age who are going to school.


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