“Kiki” [Original Review]
Now more than ever, we have to celebrate and support safe spaces for queer and trans youth of color who face a terrifying world. “Kiki,” a film by Sara Jordenö, does just that, bursting onto the screen with a larger-than-life energy and vitality, but never shying away from the very real issues at hand. The film explores the vogueing and ball scene in New York City by way of ambassador/collaborator/activist Twiggy Pucci Garçon. Come for the dancing, the vogueing, the costumes, the balls, the music by Qween Beat, the delight in physical expression; stay for the moving life stories of the film’s subjects, the community organizing and activism. In many ways a 2016 “Paris Is Burning,” “Kiki” builds on the legacy of that film while also course-correcting — there’s a sense of historical context, and an honoring of predecessors along with a focus on real issues of homelessness, violence, and suicide that most importantly includes and celebrates the participants as authors and collaborators in the work. But also: vogueing. Get ya life.
A galvanizing work from filmmaker Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army”), “Trapped” is a vivid primer on the ongoing process of chipping away at abortion rights in the United States. Anti-abortion legislators know that overturning Roe v. Wade will be nigh impossible, so they have taken a different tactic with T.R.A.P. laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers), increasing regulation piece by piece to make the jobs of abortion providers harder and harder. Porter brings a sensitivity to this controversial topic, showing the doctors and clinic operators to be caring, tender healthcare providers, who are nonetheless some of the toughest and most tenacious people out there fighting the good fight for women’s health and reproductive rights. They are often religious, spiritual people, always community-minded and entirely self-sacrificing, who are called to put everything on the line just to help women get through their toughest moments. The situation seems dire (it is), but there are small victories to be celebrated, and an inspiring streak of defiance that allows for a small flicker of hope in face of impossible odds.
“Newtown” [Original Review]
Kim A. Snyder takes on an impossible topic in “Newtown”: Just how is a filmmaker supposed to capture the senseless, violent murder of 26 people, including 20 small children? With a focus on three families who each lost a child in the massacre, Snyder creates an intimately, brutally honest work that captures the exquisite beauty and inherent terror of parenthood. She smartly understands the unspeakable nature of this event — many of the first responders, doctors and police officers she interviews are rendered speechless — and she doesn’t attempt to show or describe any details in the film. Instead she focuses on the ways in which the families deal with the crushing grief. “Newtown” is primarily an argument against forgetting, against disassociating: It makes us feel the pain again, so that we might get angry again, so that we don’t ever forget. In a film that could become intensely agenda-based, Snyder focuses on the personal, which is inherently political anyway. It seems unlikely that anyone could walk away from the searing emotional pain seen in “Newtown” without seriously questioning how we might have been able to prevent this incomprehensible tragedy.
“Hooligan Sparrow” [Original Review]
Nanfu Wang’s documentary about the radical Chinese women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan, aka Hooligan Sparrow, is about the woman herself, but it’s also about filmmaking as a dangerous, radical act. It can be all too easy to become inured to the freedoms artists and creators enjoy in certain countries, and while Wang’s film captures the difficulty that Sparrow faces in attempting to speak out about the oppression of women in China, “Hooligan Sparrow” also captures the enormous obstacles that Wang herself faces as a filmmaker there. Chronicling a summer when Sparrow was driven from her home for her protesting a sex-abuse scandal in the city of Hainan, we see her repeatedly harassed and threatened by government-hired thugs, attacked by neighbors, arrested, jailed, and unable to find a safe haven for herself and her daughter. Wang’s film has a rough-hewn quality to it that underlines the dangers in making art, and in exposing government corruption and abuse. She stitches together footage from cell phones, hidden-camera surveillance glasses, her own equipment, and captured audio to create a full picture of their harrowing ordeal, making “Hooligan Sparrow” a vital example of filmmaking as risky political act.
“Cameraperson” [Original Review]
One of the most unconventional and surprisingly emotional documentaries of the year, “Cameraperson” is a theorizing of documentary itself. Made up of outtakes from some of the films that accomplished doc cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has worked on over the years, (films like “Darfur Now,” ‘The Invisible War,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “Citizenfour,” among many others), Johnson calls “Cameraperson” her memoir — an autobiography of her time behind the camera, and the interactions she has with people during the filmmaking process. It makes the camera not just personal, but a person, with emotions and empathies and anxieties. It re-imbues the personal into the format of documentary, reminding us that yes, there is always a human capturing this; it’s not objective, but at least partially someone’s subjective experience. Through the film, we understand who Johnson is as a person, artist, mother, daughter, and friend, though we barely see her on screen. And as we get to know her, we understand how her personality informs the way that she uses her camera and how her subjects relate to it. This experimental, sometimes abstract film is intensely heartfelt, and asserts the importance of the perspective of a unique individual in the process of filmmaking, to yield possibly the very best documentary of the year so far.
There is a wealth of recent non-fiction filmmaking out there that is more than deserving aside from this list of 20, and a couple of further titles we’d have liked to have added include: searing juvenile-offender doc “They Call Us Monsters“; excellent, urgent climate change doc “Time to Choose“; terrifically high-energy dance doc “Contemporary Color“; loving portrait of independent New York artist Robert Cenedella “Art Bastard“; and”Strike a Pose,” the irresistibly moving story of what happened to Madonna’s Blonde Ambition dancers after fame.
We should also mention “Author: The JT Leroy Story“; Michael Moore‘s “Where To Invade Next“; North Korean kidnapping doc “The Lovers And The Despot“; Jim Jarmusch‘s film about Iggy Pop and The Stooges “Gimme Danger“; and Frank Zappa doc “Eat That Question” as films we also recommend, albeit a little more coolly. And we should point out that the highest-profile casualty of us having limited time is probably “Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures,” a film none of us have had a chance to catch up to yet, but we will. Have you seen any of these or have any other non-fiction films caught your eye this past six months? Let us know.
with Oli Lyttelton, Nikola Grozdanovic, Kevin Jagernauth & Rodrigo Perez