Cinematic Romance: My Review of Liv & Ingmar

B Film history documentary

  • Directed by Dheeraj Akolkar

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann comprise one of the great teams in film history. Their collaborations include Persona, Cries & Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, and Autumn Sonata. As a romantic couple, they lasted only five years. But their artistic collaboration, and their friendship, lasted nearly 40, until Bergman’s death.

Dheeraj Akolkar tells the story of that romance and friendship (but not much about the collaboration) in this concise, interesting, but flawed 83-minute documentary.

Actually, Akolkar doesn’t really tell the story. He points his camera at Ullmann, and lets her do the talking. We occasionally hear Bergman’s letters to Ullmann, read by an actor, but there’s no question that this is Ullmann’s version of the relationship.

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And no, she doesn’t come off as angry, even though she has good reason to feel that way. The two met in 1965, when the famed director cast her in Persona. She was 25; him, 46. They were both married. But they fell in love on the set, and she became pregnant with his child. They divorced their respective spouses and she moved in with him on his private Scandinavian island.

She never uses the words, but it’s clear from what she says that Bergman was a domineering and abusive lover. He kept a close eye on her and severely restricted her ability to socialize with other people–even the close friends with whom they made great films. He was often cruel to her when shooting those films. That’s all the more shocking considering his reputation for keeping a happy set.

She eventually left him, but they remained friends, and she remained an important member of his repertory company. She became an international star, lived briefly in Hollywood, but was always ready to work for Bergman. She even directed Faithless, a film he wrote late in life.

Hallvard Bræin’s camera spends most of the documentary watching Ullmann’s face , imagestill attractive in her mid-70s, as she talks about her past. She speaks in English, which is odd for a Norwegian film about a Norwegian actor who spent most of her carrier in Sweden.

When we’re not watching today’s Ullmann talk, Akolkar uses clips from Bergman’s film to illustrate the behind-the-camera emotions. For instance, after Ullmann discusses the growing restlessness of their relationship, he shows us a scene (I’m not sure from what movie) where Ullmann and Max von Sydow have an argument at the breakfast table. The technique is effective, but also a little odd. We’re looking at von Sydow and hearing about Bergman.

Akolkar never identifies the films. If you don’t know them, you’re stuck wondering.

Which brings us to Liv & Ingmar‘s biggest flaw: It’s not much interested in Bergman’s and Ullmann’s work. What makes their relationship more interesting than Dick and Jane’s? The fact that they’re Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. What was it like to be directed by a cinematic icon–especially one who’s also your once-abusive ex-lover? But if Ullmann talked extensively about working together, it all ended up on the cutting room floor.

As the story of a love affair and a long friendship, Liv & Ingmar proves interesting. But it misses the main point. How, in the various stages of their relationship, did they collaborate on such great works of art?

Sweet Dreams: Drumming, Ice Cream, and the aftermath of genocide

C+ documentary

  • Directed by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman

This upbeat, everything-turns-out-okay documentary tries to tell three different stories in 84 minutes. While it has its high points, it doesn’t do justice to any of them.

The location, modern-day Rwanda not quite 20 years after the genocide, promises something fascinating and disturbing. In 1994, one of the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutus, took part in a massive genocide of the other, the Tutsis. This wasn’t like Germany’s Holocaust, where a special military unit did the killing and civilians could pretend they didn’t know. Vast numbers of Hutus, machetes in hand, searched homes, workplaces, and fields to slaughter their neighbors.

How can a nation heal from something like that? Death toll estimates reach as high a million people–20 percent of the population. More than 100,000 mass murderers are now imprisoned for their crimes. Today’s young Hutu adults, whose parents were murdered and who barely escaped with their lives, must live with young Tutsi adults whose parents are imprisoned for the most horrible of crimes.

What a great subject for a documentary!

But Sweet Dreams is only peripherally about the scars of genocide. It concentrates mostly on drumming and starting Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. On some level, that’s supposed to be symbolic of the country’s healing.

As such things go, drumming seems a better way to heal a nation than selling ice cream. The drummers belong to Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first and–according to the film–only women’s drumming troupe. They’re a great team, and a lot of fun to watch. And the members of the group becomes the film’s stars, telling their stories of the genocide and their lives afterward.

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But there isn’t all that much drumming in the movie. And I suspect that a lot of drama was left out, as well. For instance, early in the film, Ingoma Nshya founder Kiki Katese explains that drumming had always been a man’s prerogative–forbidden to women. Creating a women’s drumming group was an act of courageous defiance. But as far as what the filmmakers tell us, no one objected. Apparently, not a single male chauvinist remains in Rwanda.

In fact, the Rwanda pictured here seems a paradise of tolerance–pretty good for a country that was convulsed with the worst possible ethnic cleansing less than 20 years before.

So Kiki decides that, in addition to drumming, the group is going to launch, and run, Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. Most of the people there have never tasted ice cream. She pairs up with the owners of a Brooklyn parlor, and the group starts on their new endeavor. Of course you’re rooting for them, and you can’t help wondering about the difficulties ahead. A mechanical problem on the day before opening provides the film with a suspenseful climax.

Sweet Dreams is at its best when it ignores the rose-colored present and concentrates on the horrible past. The women’s stories horrify. The film’s best sequence takes us to a stadium for a national event recalling and mourning the horrible events. As images of the genocide flash on the jumbotron, people in the audience go into shock and have to be carried out. What are they remembering?

I wanted more of this. I wanted to go into depth about how a country heals after something like that. I wanted sustenance. But for too much of Sweet Dreams’ running time, I just got ice cream.

Great drumming, though.

Sweet Dreams opens Friday in San Francisco and Berkeley. It will also screen Sunday in San Rafael.

Did You Hear the One About the Documentary? When Comedy Went to School

B Documentary

  • Directed by Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank

I didn’t know it at the time (after all, I grew up in Los Angeles), but I was raised on Catskills Mountain humor. Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Buddy Hackett taught me to laugh. As I grew older, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Tom Lehrer took their place. Even today’s standup comics come out of that specifically Jewish, upstate New York tradition.

This sweet, nostalgic documentary looks at the culture, traditions, and comedy that defined the Catskills from the 1930s through the 1960s. As talkies and the depression destroyed vaudeville, upcoming comics had no place to practice and learn their craft. But New York Jews started vacationing in reasonably-priced upstate resorts to enjoy fresh air, outdoor activities, and entertainment. It was an opportunity for comedians to make a little money and hone their craft. And thus the art of stand-up comedy was born.

Directors Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank make the Catskills look like the perfect vacation. Pools, golf courses, dancing lessons, socializing (and possibly sex), plenty of good food, and rising stars to entertain you. Archival footage–much of it, I suspect, from promotional sources–emphasize the comforts and the beautiful mountains.

Like all documentaries covering recent history, When Comedy Went to School imagecontains a lot of interview footage, With those who were there telling you what it was like. Only this time, the interview subjects are amongst the funniest people alive. That may give you reasons to doubt what they say–you just know they’d pick the funniest version of a story over the real one. But it also makes for very entertaining anecdotes. I’m fighting the temptation to quote some of the best one-liners; I won’t. They depend to much on delivery.

This is a very short feature–only 76 minutes. It moves at a good clip and covers a lot of ground. But the filmmakers all but ignore one important side of the story: What did these comics learn in this "school." I would have enjoyed some talk about what does and does not make an audience laugh.

The movie made me want to vacation in the Catskills–but only if I could travel back in time.

The film opens in Bay Area theaters in Friday. (Note: I added this notice about an hour after the review went live.)

DocFest Preview

I’ve managed to preview three films that will screen at the upcoming DocFest (two of them Bay Area-based). Here’s what I thought of them:

A- Public Sex, Private Lives
Skip this movie if you’re simply looking for titillation. But if you’re really curious about imagethe performers who make a living (and apparently a good one) having sex–kinky sex, actually–on camera, this is a must. It follows the lives of three porn stars–Lorelei Lee, Princess Donna, and Isis Love–all of whom have gone from merely performing to taking significant part in the creative process. This sympathetic documentary looks at prejudice, how relationships work in the adult film industry (yes, people get jealous), what it’s like to be a porn star’s parent–or child, and the dangers of obscenity trials and Child Protective Services. All three subjects come off as intelligent and thoughtful.

Public Sex, Private Lives will play at the Roxie Saturday, June 8, at 9:01 and Wednesday, June 12, at 9:00. It will also screen at the New Parkway on Saturday, June 15, 7:00.

B- Edible City
Talk radio may belong to the right in this country, but documentaries definitely belong to the left. This piece of agitprop (or perhaps I should say agriprop) tells you way we imageshould all support the movement to grow edibles in urban environments, and let the people take control of their own food sources. I’m in complete sympathy with these goals (despite my pathetically brown thumb), and agree that for many reasons we need to shorten the space between food creation and consumption. But I would have liked more numbers on land available and how many people that land can feed, varied diet, and other issues. I would also have appreciated the thoughts of well-meaning people (not corporate hacks) willing to discuss the downsides (I assume there are some).

Edible City will play at the Roxie Saturday, June 8, at 5:00, and Monday, June 10, 7:00. It will also screen at the New Parkway Sunday, June 16, at 7:00.

C- The Pirate Bay Away From The Keyboard
This Swedish fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité documentary examines the trials around the controversial file-sharing Web site Pirate Bay. The stakes were high–copyright laws versus freedom of the Internet. The legal and moral issues are complex and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, director Simon Klose seems more interested in simple personalities than in the real complex issues at stake. The movie has its moments–a discussion of WikiLeaks, a drunken tirade–but mostly it’s just people being self-righteous. Although the film gives everyone a chance to defend their view, it’s clearly on the side of the pirates, and I expect a lot of youthful cheers and applause when it’s screened. And yet, despite a request in the credits to "Please share this film online," I had to enter a password to preview it for review.

The Pirate Bay Away From The Keyboard will screen at the Aquarius Sunday, June 9, at 9:00, and at the Roxie Saturday, June 15 at 7:00 and Wednesday, June 19 at 9:00.

Cambodia, India, and the Cloud: SFIFF Documentary Sunday

I saw three films at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Sunday–all documentaries. That wasn’t planned. It just worked out that way.

B+ A River Changes Course
Kalyanee Mam’s ethnographic documentary follows three struggling families in imagemodern-day Cambodia. And while no river literally changes course, the modern world forces the film’s protagonists to severely alter their lifestyles. Corporations are chopping down the forests, fishermen are getting smaller catches, and young people leave for the city in a futile hope of raising their families out of poverty. Visually striking and deeply sad.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before Mam’s post-screening Q&A.

A River Changes Course will not play the festival again. However, it is on the list of files that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor," so you may get a chance to see it.

B Salma
This is in no way a well-made documentary. It’s poorly shot, and often leaves you imageconfused about many details. But the basic story is so strong you can forgive it almost anything. Salma, a Muslim woman born in a small Indian village, was effectively under house arrest for 25 years–first by her parents and then by the husband she was forced to marry. Her crime? Being female and passed puberty. But while imprisoned, she became a famous poet, and then a successful politician, fighting (not surprisingly) for women’s rights. It was only after she was elected that her husband let her out of the house. I would love to see this story better told.

Salma won’t screen again this festival. I’m not sure if you’ll ever have a chance to see this film.

A Google and the World Brain
In this wonderfully entertaining documentary, Ben Lewis takes us through Google’s attempt to scan every book in every library, and the copyright lawsuits that at least for imagenow have derailed it. Along the way it covers privacy issues, other digital archives, and the magic of an old-fashioned, paper-based library. Among the people interviewed are Wired’s Kevin Kelly (who gave the Festival’s 2008 State of the Cinema Address), an executive from Google Spain (the American headquarters refused to cooperate), an angry Japanese author, and a French librarian who seems to personify every annoying stereotype of the snooty Gallic intellectual.

The film manages a light, snappy feel despite the serious undertones. Computer-generated cityscapes, a server farm built into what appears to be a medieval cathedral, and animated interview subjects keep it visually lively.

Lewis is clearly worried about Google’s growing power and willingness to violate your privacy. But Google and the World Brain is no simple piece of propaganda. Both sides in this issue are treated fairly.

Lewis was unable to attend the screening (he lives in England and he has a new baby), but he was interviewed afterwards via Skype. Some highlights:

"Three or four years ago, I became interested in a study of the Internet, around issues of monopoly, free market, and privacy. I was looking for a story."

He considered a story about music piracy, but "Nobody sympathizes with musicians. We assume they don’t make any money."

"Just as we’re entering this knowledge economy, the people who are making this knowledge are told that we’ll give it away for free."

"Google makes money from what we produce."

On Google’s response to the film: "They didn’t want to take part in it. After it came out, they said they were deeply disappointed by the tone of the film."

I saw the last festival screening of Google and the World Brain. It’s not on the likely-to-be-released list, which surprised me. With it’s lively and funny presentation, immediate subject matter, and reasonably happy editing, this is about as commercial as a documentary gets.

SFIFF Saturday: Koreans in Japan, Geek Nostalgia, and a Surreal Documentary

Here’s what I saw Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

B Our Homeland
For second-generation ethnic Koreans living in Japan, going "home" was once very important–even though "home" was the living nightmare of North Korea. In this calmly imageheart-breaking drama, a man in his early 40s who migrated to a Korea he’d never known 25 years earlier, returns to Japan and his family for a three-month medical leave. He’s withdrawn and frightened, perhaps because of the tumor eating his brain, but more likely because he’s spent most of his life in a place where there are choices and doubt are not allowed. He must adjust to his family–including his true-believer Communist father–and they must adjust to him.

Autobiographical, Our Homeland is told through the eyes of his much younger sister, Rie–a stand-in for writer/director Yang Yonghi.

But many of the film’s cultural and political aspects are opaque to those not already in the know. I wasn’t even sure what year–or decade–the film was set.

You’ve got one more chance to see Our Homeland at the festival: Monday, 1:00, at the New People Cinema. There are no plans for a regular American release.

B- Computer Chess
This reasonably funny mockumentary follows a computer chess tournament in 1980. imageAssorted geeks and nerds (including one "lady") show up at a hotel to test their hardware and software’s chess skills. The winning algorithm will then face an actual human chess master. To add color, a bizarre new-age group has its own gathering at the same hotel. The whole thing is shot in standard-def black-and-white; it looks awful but that’s the point. The jokes range from the clever to the obvious, and I have to admit that most of the audience laughed more than I did.

I saw Computer Chess’  last festival screening. However, it’s on the list of films that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor," so you may have your own chance to decide how funny it is.

A The Search for Emak Bakia
In 1920, surrealist artist Man Ray made a short film called  Emak Bakia. In the Basque language, that means something like "Go away!" or "Leave me along!" Far more recently, Oskar Alegria set out to discover the short’s history, inspirations, imageand locations. (As I write this, I have yet to see Man Ray’s original; I intend to fix that soon). The result, The Search for Emak Bakia, is an appropriately surreal documentary. In addition to conventional detective work–such as looking for a house with the right columns in the front–he follows a plastic glove blowing in the wind and turns his research to clowns on what could only be described as a irrelevant (but interesting) whim. Amongst the more conventional detective work, he finds an old woman who lived in the house as a young girl. The result is much more than informative; it’s magical.

After the film, Alegria stepped in front of the screen for Q&A. Some highlights:

"I loved the mystery [of the original film's creation]. If you see Man Ray films, you can’t see where they were made. I love mysteries, and mysteries have to be good if you want to make a long film."

"This is my first film and my last. I’m a journalist."

"When I was following the plastic glove, that’s not being a journalist. I had to put aside the journalist and be guided by chance."

About the woman: "We were trying to find the same house at the same time, using the same method, without knowing each other. And now we have become friends. She’s now 95 years old."

On its commercial prospects: "This is not a commercial film…I don’t want to make money with it."

"My mother taught me to have faith in magic."

You’ve got two more chances to see The Search for Emak Bakia this week. It plays the Kabuki Monday at 8:45, and the New People Cinema Thursday at 3:30. Since you’ll probably never get another chance to see this picture, I’d make it a top festival priority.

The Source Family

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos

Hippies, drugs, free love, meditation, spiritual quests, and Los Angeles-based vegetarian restaurants. You’ll find all of that in The Source Family. For me, the movie was downright nostalgic.

No, I was never a member of Jim Baker’s “family,” called The Source and the subject of this narratively-driven documentary. But I lived in LA in the early ’70s–a young, long-haired vegetarian in love with almost every aspect of the hippy culture. I ate at Baker’s restaurant, The Source, many times, and worked for a year in another LA vege eatery, Natural Fudge. I hitchhiked a lot in those days and met all sorts of people. I’m amazed that I never even heard of this group. (If I had heard of them, I would not have joined. Even at that age, I knew enough not to put total faith in a guru.)

Baker was a World War II vet with a history of violence and a good track record in the restaurant business. He started The Source, a very successful vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip, in 1977. (Remember the scene near the end of Annie Hall where Alvie and Annie meet one last time at an outdoor restaurant? That was The Source, years after Baker had sold it.) He began experimenting with different religious traditions, and molded them into his own. Soon, he and his followers were living in a rented mansion and running the restaurant together.

You’d expect a documentary about an early 70s LA-based cult and hippy commune, centered around such a charismatic leader, to be an exposé–names like Charles Manson and Jim Jones come to mind. But The Source Family is a surprisingly the_sourcebalanced view of Baker’s “family.” Told almost entirely from the point of view of former commune members, the film paints a largely positive picture of early new age spirituality and anti-materialistic idealism. Decades after his death and the commune’s end, many of his followers still think of him as a holy man and refer to him as “father.”

Yet they, and the filmmakers, don’t hide his shortcomings. The hero worship went to his head–and to a less intellectual body part. Although his original rules for the group sanctified monogamous marriage, he took on multiple wives and put together a harem of very young, female admirers. Wille and Demopoulos don’t shy away from these negative character traits, or the disastrous decisions that left the community broke and despised in Hawaii.

Structured like a three-act narrative feature, The Source Family tells its story efficiently and engagingly. And musically–The Source had its own band, whose old recordings drive the movie’s soundtrack. If you’re interested in alternative lifestyles or new religions, or are just nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius, you’ll want to catch this one.

When I saw this documentary at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, it was called simply The Source. You’ll find more about it at SFIFF Report: Vegetarian Restaurants, Hippy Communes, and The Source. It opens Friday at the Roxie.

SFIFF Sunday: Fishy Documentary & Resisting the Nazis

Much of what I end up watching at the San Francisco International Film Festival is a matter of pure serendipity. I pick the film that’s about to start playing. But there are also times when I very much want to see a particular movie.

Saturday afternoon and evening, I did one of each. And serendipity won.

After the Animated Shorts screening, I took a longer-than-usual break, skipping such promising titles as Big Sur and Big Blue Lake for a documentary on fishing that had received some interesting buzz.

Big mistake.

D Leviathan
One could make an fascinating and informative documentary about a fishing boat that plows the choppy waters off the Massachusetts coast, but Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel chose not to. Leviathan consists almost entirely of badly-framed close shots of objects, waves, pieces of the boat, and so on. You get some idea that imagelife is difficult and dangerous on these boats, but that’s conveyed in the first five minutes. There’s no narration and we never get to know any of the men we fleetingly see (there are far more close-ups of dead fish than living humans).  With the exception of one shot near the end, we never get a sense of the vessel as a whole. The film contains some visually striking shots, but it lingers on them way too long, turning visually striking into boring. I’m happy that people push the cinematic art with daring experimentation, but sometimes, the experiment fails.

You have two more chances to miss Leviathan at the festival. It’s screening tonight at 8:45 at the Pacific Film Archive, and will be back at the Kabuki on Thursday, May 9, at 5:30. Amazingly, Leviathan is on the Festival’s list of films that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor."

After that torturous experience, I randomly picked a movie starting at the right time, and found a gem:

A In the Fog
Think of this as a rural, Eastern European version of Army of Shadows. In Nazi-occupied Belorussia, two resistance fighters set out to execute a man whom they believe is cooperating with the Nazis. Things don’t go as planned, and the three men imageare trapped in ways they didn’t expect. Each man gets his own flashback, which tells us more about him and how he ended up in such a dangerous line of work. Writer/director Sergei Loznitsa (adapting a novel by Vasil Bykov) creates a suspenseful story in a way that’s unknown to today’s commercial filmmakers. He rarely cuts and moves the camera sparingly, giving us the chance to examine the characters and their environment as they work through their impossible situation.

Unfortunately, I caught the Festival’s second and final screening of In the Fog. But it’s been picked up by Strand Releasing, and will play in American theaters. Don’t miss this one.

SFIFF Friday: Chilean Black Comedy, Russian Whodoneit, and American Rockumentary

Here’s what I saw at my first almost-full day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. I caught all of these films at the Kabuki.

B- Night Across the Street
Writer/director Raúl Ruiz was dying of cancer when he made this strange, surreal comedy. Not surprising that it’s all about death. A moderately elderly man faces retirement and a seemingly pre-ordained violent death with a matter-imageof-fact calmness. Such calmness permeates the film and adds to its deadpan humor. Beethoven and Long John Silver pop up, mostly in scenes of the protagonist as a young boy. In the film’s funniest moment, Beethoven disrupts a movie screening. Ruiz lit almost the entire film with an amber glow coming from one side of the screen–as if everything was shot at what photographers call golden hour. Wonderful at first, Night Across the Street eventually drags. Had it been a half hour shorter, it would have been a much better movie.

Night Across the Street has two more screenings scheduled, at the Kabuki this Monday at 6:00, and at the Pacific Film Archive on Saturday, May 4, at 6:30. It’s also on the Festival’s "Hold Review" list, which means that it will likely receive an American theatrical release.

A- The Daughter
A serial killer is lose in a small Russian town, targeting teenage girls. That’s not a good time for Inna to go through the usual problems of adolescence. What’s more, her mother is long dead, imageher stern father is cold and strict (although there is a sense that he loves her), she’s responsible for her little brother, and her new best friend is a "bad" girl out to seduce the local priest’s handsome son. The film uses the mystery genre to  take us on a tour of post-Soviet Russian life as the protagonist and the community deal with raging alcoholism,  religious conflict, and corpses turning up in the mud. While in many ways deeply depressing, The Daughter also celebrates the resilience of youth, the genuine magic of first love, and the healing power of humanitarian religion.

One big problem: The subtitles appear to have been written by someone who barely knows English. Bad grammar and malaprops  provide unintended laughs that take us out of the story. If you watched Hong Kong films in the 1990s, you know what I’m talking about.

The Daughter is not expected to receive an American theatrical release. But you have two more chances to catch it at the festival. This Sunday at the Kabuki at 1:00, and at the Pacific Film Archive Monday, May 6, 9:00.

A Twenty Feet from Stardom
Now I know why almost all backup singers are African American. They learned to sing in church. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocalimage texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton ("Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!"), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without getting credit for it ("He’s a Rebel"). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) prop up among the talking heads, but this time, the spotlight points to the artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice as a musical instrument.

After the movie, Tata Vega and Merry Clayton came out and sang for us, followed by a brief discussion with the filmmakers. Some highlights:

  • Merry Clayton: All of our fathers were ministers. We were in Church all the time. We lived that. We knew that God was in charge.  I didn’t start cursing until I met Ray Charles.
  • Director Morgan Neville: Church was the perfect training for the phycology of being a backup singer. You learn to serve a greater good.
  • Merry: Darlene Love was the mother of us all. We all love each other and support each other.

Twenty Feet from Stardom will not screen again at the Festival. But it will receive a full theatrical release in June.

The Central Park Five

A documentary

  • Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon

In 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. New York’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation. Their confessions contradicted each other, and they all contradicted the physical facts. What’s more, none of their DNA could be found near the crime scene. Yet they were all convicted, and spent many years in prison before the real culprit, also incarcerated for other crimes, confessed.

Ken Burns made The Central Park Five (with two collaborators), but it is unlike any other Burns documentary. The events it chronicles are recent–and not entirely over. Burns’ usual, slightly nostalgic style would have been totally inappropriate for a story UNITED STATES - AUGUST 18:  Accused rapist Yusef Salaam is escorted by police.  (Photo by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)that feels ripped from the headlines, so he went for a tougher, grittier style. No movie stars supply the voices of long-dead historical figures. There’s no voice-of-God narration. The camera never glides over still photographs, although Burns does use that signature technique sparingly with court illustrations. And, of course, this is a theatrical feature, not a multi-part PBS miniseries.

But in one way, this is very much a Ken Burns documentary: It focuses on American racial issues. Burns has always been fascinated with our country’s original sin, slavery, and it’s still searing after-effects.

Burns and his collaborators start with a grim view of New York City in the 1980s. The crack epidemic had turned the city into a teeming cauldron of violent crime. The white, often affluent population was terrified, even though the vast major of victims, like most of the perpetrators, were black or brown. The city seemed ungovernable.

In that atmosphere, this particular rape produced shockwaves, and offered a high-profile way for the police to prove their worth. According to The Central Park Five, the police pressured and intimidated the scared, young boys into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Once they had the videotaped confessions, the prosecutor made sure the boys were convicted first in the press, and second in court. Needless to say, their parents couldn’t afford the type of lawyers who could have gotten them off.

Not surprisingly, the police and the prosecutor (who made her reputation on this case) deny these charges.  The only legal investigation into police misconduct here found them innocent of all wrong-doing, but that investigation was conducted by the New York City Police Department. Neither the cops nor the prosecutor agreed to be interviewed for this film.

The five themselves, all extensively interviewed, come off as intelligent, decent men who have suffered from the theft of their youth. Their personal stories (which are hardly tales of angels), and the stories of people close to them, give The Central Park Five heart. The rush to judgment that ruined their lives gives the film a sense of purpose.

Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got to where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is.

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