Film Reviews

Documentary film reviews by DER staff and friends

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ELITE SQUAD, A Movie To Die For

After winning the top prize (the Golden Bear) at the Berlin Film Festival, and coming from 5 sold out screenings at Tribeca, we were treated to an under the radar screening of Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha’s The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) at the Harvard Film Archive last night (5/5).

It had been over a year since I last had contact with Jose. He and I had been collaborating on a documentary film about anthropologists, inspired by a very controversial book “Darkness in El Dorado” that caused a near riot at the American Anthropological Association’s Annual Meeting the year it was published. The controversy involved perhaps the most widely studied indigenous group of people in the world, the Yanomamo of the Amazon. Our company (DER) happens to hold the copyright to the largest film record, starting from “first contact”, of those people.
I first met Jose here when his break through film, the documentary “Bus 174″ was screening at the Boston International Film Festival. That film was widely acclaimed, and for a documentary, had the rare honor of being picked up by a theatrical distributor, Think Film. At the time I hadn’t realized it (I don’t think Jose did either) this film has become the first in what he now says, will be a trilogy.

At Harvard last night, there was a line of people that had to be turned away from the theater. Standing room only. I spied Jose, wearing what looked like the same faded blue baseball cap he wore when he was shooting interviews in my living room a few years ago. He was leaning against the wall, waiting to be introduced. I waved at him, he came over and hugged me, whispering that he had met with someone in NY who had promised to give him the money to finish our film. I felt a wave of excitement, anticipation and gratitude that I was lucky enough to know one of the most brilliant, young filmmakers in the world today.

The audience understandably consisted of a large number of Brazilian students and academics. This was HARVARD after all. There was a loud din with the hum of Portuguese being spoken all around me. The film is subtitled. It has gotten a huge amount of press, in the NYTimes and everywhere it has screened so far. Jose is articulate, but says few words in the intro saving his incise intellect for the Q & A after.

The theater darkens and the total assault on our senses begins. The core of the film is about BOPE, an elite squad of police trained to the level of Navy Seals in our country. They are intended to counter the corruption and collaboration between the regular police and the drug lords in the favellas of Rio. The audio track is masterful as we feel sucked into the world of bullets and mayhem that epitomizes the “war on drugs”. There is blood, a lot of blood. There is torture that made me reflect immediately on Abu Ghraib. But above all there is moral ambiguity. The questions that ask who is responsible for all this when apparently none of the characters seem to be in control. None of them have what philosophers call “free will”. They are all trapped in a system that we can identify as “the State”.

Theoretically, we should find most of the characters in Jose’s film reprehensible, but we don’t. They are sympathetic, we feel for them, even as they kick and beat and twist plastic bags over the heads of the punks and thugs they are sent out to hunt down and destroy.

The film has been misconstrued as an “action film” in the manner of Bruce Willis. It is anything but. It is an ode to our elemental inhumanity, our powerlessness when the policies of governments create environments that we have to evolve to fit, in order to survive. It is a complex structure that rises to the highest level of “Art” with a capitol “A”.

By the end of the on-rushing two hours I was limp as a dish rag. Stunned, I sat in my seat wondering what to make of what I had seen. Two academics, (whose names and specialities I have forgotten) start the dialogue about the film with Jose. He is thoughtful and respectful of all reactions. He has heard it all by now. He tells how he originally started to make a documentary about this subject, an outgrowth of his work on BUS 174. But soon he realized he could get himself killed, following BOPE on their excursions into the slums. So, based on his many interviews with police and with the Bope, he constructed the narrative script for the film. Before it actually was released the Brazilian government and the cops sued him to prevent the film from screening, but the public had already seen pirated copies of the film and demanded it be shown. It was released, to wild acclaim, and the lawsuits seem to have faded away.

Jose is fearless. Like all greatest artists, he takes risks that no others dare to do. His intellect seems to be able to embrace far reaching ideas and weave them together in a coherent whole. The resulting work may be approached and perceived at many levels. For some, it may always remain simply an action film. For others, it is a meditation on what it means to be human.

Elite Squad is sceduled for theatrical release in this country in September 2008. Go see it if it appears in a theater near you.

Posted on May 6th, 2008 in Film Reviews, News | No Comments »

The Axe in the Attic

My business is distributing documentary film, so one could say watching films is “work” for me. Most of the films I see in a theatre setting are at film festivals when I’m scouting for new titles to acquire, but last night was one of those times when my partner and I went to a premiere of a new documentary just for an evening out - dinner and a movie.

The film in question, The Axe in the Attic, had been getting a lot of “buzz” locally, as much for the back story, how/why the film was made, as well as who made it, even before the screening last night as the opening film for the International Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Filmmaker Ed Pincus had his heyday in the 1960’s and 1970’s when he was part of the fast growing cinema verité or “direct cinema” movement. There was a nexus of creative filmmaking activity, right here in New England back then that involved the founder of my company John Marshall, his friend, French filmmaker Jean Rouch, Fred Wiseman, DH Pennebaker, the Maysles and others. It had been a good 20 years since Pincus had picked up a camera. He’d “retired” to reinvent himself as a farmer in Vermont. It took the much younger filmmaker, Lucia Small, to coax Pincus back behind a camera. Small’s last film, My Father the Genius, had a very successful festival run and she was ready for another project.

It was back in August of 2005 as Lucia watched the shocking events of the Katrina catastrophe unfold on her TV screen, that she grabbed her camera and started filming the TV…Then she and Ed banded together a few months later, on a road trip, to somehow get beyond the sound bites, and the hardened, iconic images that the media imprints on our brains, to connect with the people behind the tragedy.

The last film I had seen about the Katrina disaster was Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. It was a film that tried to give us the big picture, to connect the dots so we could better understand why events unfolded as they did and as a result, while his film successfully did that, I felt something was missing. Some callous folks may say “oh, not another Katrina film”, lets put all THAT behind us and “move on”. What The Axe in the Attic does is connect us in a very emotional, real way with the human destruction, the irreparable aftermath, the toll on health, and the psyche, not only for those who continue to shoulder the brunt of it, those whose homes, families and lively hood were obliterated, but also the toll this event has taken on the rest of us, we who bare witness. And it is the filmmakers, who in their naivete start out, trying to be objective, who represent the rest of us in this messy, heart wrenching film.

Pincus and Small were totally unprepared for what they encountered, the massiveness of the destruction, the continuation of the staggering ineptitude of our government, and that the poor Americans affected by this are now in far worse straits and it ain’t getting any better for many of them. The stories we hear are both new and old. The fact that FEMA is still out there doing their dirty work is almost beyond comprehension.

For me one of the most powerful moments in the film occurs in their car when Pincus has his camera aimed at Small as she drives. She is talking and she stops and you feel the wave of helplessness wash over her, and you feel with her the sense of powerlessness that seems to underscore much of the film. Not that people aren’t trying, not that the human will to survive and overcome isn’t presented, it is, the struggle goes on every day for thousands of these folks, now scattered to the winds. But in that moment, in the film, it is as though Small channeled those feelings directly into my heart. She seems to unravel before our eyes.

The story ends with a black screen, and an epilogue, that catches us up to the moment as to the whereabouts of some of the key characters whose voices were heard throughout the film. It is not a happy ending. We are left only with our feelings and thoughts and the desire to do whatever we can to repair this festering wound to our fellow citizens and to our country.

Visit the film’s website:

reviewed by Cynthia Close, Executive Director

Posted on January 17th, 2008 in Film Reviews | No Comments »

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