Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Documentaries
Canada is home to Hot Docs, one of the biggest and best international documentary film festivals in the world, and almost nothing worth seeing in factual cinema skips their notice.
That said, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest and best international film festivals in the world – period. The breadth of programming includes, of course, documentary cinema, and while the number of titles is clearly lower since Hot Docs more than admirably picks up that slack every spring, in the fall, TIFF screens its fair share of high profile docs. Most are world premieres with a few designated as North American premieres.
This section of my annual TIFF report focuses on five feature docs that screened during the 2013 festival, with subjects as diverse as a movie about a movie, a movie about a very famous beekeeper, a movie about Sir Edmund Hilary, a movie about international adoption and a movie about Jews presumably not being as funny as they used to be. You’ll find everything from the great to the good to the not-so-good and, yes, the ugly. So saddle up and join me on a cinematic horsy ride through the colonies, your ever-so-loyal Dominion of Canada, with my report on a mere smattering of documentary product that was on display at the majestic madness that is the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, 2013) *****
Alan Zweig made two feature films this year. The first was unveiled in the spring of 2013 at Toronto’s Hot Docs. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, it was inspired by his friend Ray Robertson’s book of the same name.
Zweig kept the book’s 15-chapter headings to structure his film – Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death – and then searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live. He shot and cut each story separately and laid them out in the aforementioned order. Each tale was honed to perfection in the cutting room first and then the transitions from tale to tale were finessed. At times these transitions were subtle and gentle, while others delivered my favourite kind of cut – the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. These cuts, when they work, are not jarring either – they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you’ve been winded.
This structural approach works just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of Dubliners by James Joyce and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It’s a literary structure that Zweig renders, quite astonishingly, into pure cinema. Each book has several great short stories that work fine on their own as such, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This cinematic application of Anderson and Joyce’s literary approaches are precisely the thing that, with this film, launched Zweig as a filmmaker into some kind of stratosphere.
Stylistic and structural leaps and bounds are one thing, but Zweig used them to make a film that brought together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
Zweig’s first feature-length documentary Vinyl (full disclosure: I was a producer of this film)
was not about the music, but rather, the obsessive collecting of the arcane platform the music was laid down to, the vinyl, the thing itself. As for the accumulation of vinyl, the film never resorts to the obvious – it’s not a film about what’s so quaintly eccentric about collecting, but what, in fact, is missing from the lives of those who do – Zweig’s included.
Then came I, Curmudgeon – the title should speak for itself. Of the numerous ’negative’ personalities (again including Zweig) who are examined, one of them (sort of) jokes that he genuinely fears that the first words his child will learn are ‘Mama’, ’Papa’ and ’Asshole’.
I especially remember that my own response to this moment was to chuckle with considerable health – a bit of the ol’ humour o’ recognition. While watching the scene, I remembered how cute I thought it was when my daughter at age two would, from her booster seat in the car, yell out as we drove – just like her road-rage-afflicted Daddy – ’MORON!’
Some time later I realised she was not referring to the idiot Toronto drivers as ‘moron’, but, in fact, innocently thought the word for ’car’ was not ’car’, but…’moron’. (Zweig once told me I was the most negative person he knew. I balked. Mostly because I thought Zweig was the most negative person I knew. He tempered his charge, though, and said, ‘No really, you are, but you’re in denial.’)
Zweig’s third feature doc was Lovable. Somewhat less infused with self-loathing, he decided to train his camera upon women who chose to remain single. Of course, at the time, Zweig was single and had been for some time – not by choice – and he was curious as to what would drive those from the opposite sex to choose that lifestyle. (Of course, making so much out of being single he couldn’t help but allow a few threads of delectable self-loathing to creep in.)
These first three feature docs comprise a sort of semi-intentional ‘mirror trilogy’, so named as Zweig, between his penetrating, incisive and often very funny interviews, appears on camera, but only reflected in a mirror. His reason for this – initially – was that it ’looked cool’, but he later revealed it was because he could manipulate the way he appeared on camera and even to himself as he confessed to hating his appearance.
Zweig’s fourth feature documentary was A Hard Name. He is heard off camera conversing with his subjects, but no more mirror. This had nothing to do with him – well, not completely, anyway. This turned out to be a film that never fails to devastate those who watch it. Zweig talks to a group of hardened criminals, ex-cons who never, ever want to go to prison again. These were men who’d spent most of their lives institutionalised in one way or another, but now do whatever they need to do to make sure they never put themselves in a position where they’d have to do time.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about ex-cons, but none like this. It is, first and foremost, a film about forgiveness – societal forgiveness of these men, to be sure – but mostly the courage it took for these ex-cons to forgive themselves and, in some cases, the individuals and institutions responsible for abusing them in their early lives. For his efforts, Zweig won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent to the BAFTA or Oscar. For once, it could not have gone any other way, and it didn’t. The picture that should have won Best Feature Documentary – won!
Then came the aforementioned fifth feature doc, 15 Reasons to Live and now, in the very same year, he premiered his sixth feature-length documentary film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But before I discuss When Jews Were Funny, you’ll note I’ve referred to all the aforementioned as Zweig’s ‘feature documentaries’, but if truth be told, his latest feature doc is actually his seventh feature film.
In 1994, Zweig directed his first feature. The Darling Family is a tremendously moving and superbly directed film adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths, and is an ambitious, powerful and sadly neglected dramatic motion picture that should have been seen and celebrated well beyond the brief shelf life it occupied. Its pedigree alone demanded far more attention than it received even in Canada.
Griffiths is one of the leading lights and true pioneers of Canadian theatre. She wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre, the hit show about Maggie Sinclair and her relationship and influence upon her very famous husband, the late, great Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The show played consistently to sold-out houses across the country. The Darling Family enjoyed a healthy, though milder box-office success than the incisive and bitterly funny satirical work about Canada’s First Lady. In many ways, though, The Darling Family might well be the play that Griffiths is best remembered for – no small thanks to a film that’s as fine an interpretation as any playwright could hope for.
Not only did Zweig brilliantly adapt this bleak kitchen sink two-hander – a sort of Canadian amalgam of gritty 1970s cinema and the ‘Angry Young Man’ genre from the UK’s 1960s New Wave – it starred its original theatrical cast, with Griffiths herself opposite the great Alan Williams as her co-star.
Williams, of course, was the legendary playwright and actor from the UK who was referred to England’s Hull Truck Theatre by none other than Mike Leigh, where he mounted his astounding one-man show The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati, a huge hit in Britain. When he brought the show to Canada after an extensive European tour, it grabbed the Land of Maple Syrup by the short hairs and played coast-to-coast to sold-out houses. Williams emigrated to Canada not long after, and became one of the Dominion’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Now considered one of its most stalwart character actors in film and television, he also had a stint on the faculty of the famed University of Winnipeg theatre program, wherein he nurtured a huge whack of Canada’s best theatre artists.
So here’s a film from a hit play with two of Canada’s best and most beloved actor/playwrights (not to mention a haunting score by eventual Life of Pi Oscar winner Michael Danna) and it came and went without a trace. It did, however, receive a to-die-for review by Canada’s leading film critic, Geoff Pevere, in the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, The Globe and Mail. Pevere delightfully suggested that The Darling Family was perhaps the ’most perverse date movie’ audiences would ever encounter, but in his estimation, an ideal date movie.
I can’t argue with his assessment. The Darling Family is an utterly harrowing 90 minutes that wallows in the roiling emotional torment experienced (in one mega kitchen sink) by a middle-aged couple verbally jousting on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child. As date movies go, it certainly beats Sandra Bullock clomping about with Ryan Reynolds.
Alan Zweig has always been about humanity, and all his work has been infused with compassion. The subject matter (save, perhaps, for 15 Reasons to Live) might – to some – suggest otherwise, but it’s the surface darkness, the often mordant wit, the unflagging care he takes with his subjects, his refusal to let any of them off easy, and his determination to dig deep into the marrow of humanity that places him at the forefront of the world’s master filmmakers.
He’s a great interviewer – probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational – and this, if anything, characterises a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it’s one of many reasons why it’s impossible not to be riveted by them.
He’s got an original voice as a filmmaker, in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s his voice – you know, the one lodged quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig: a perverse blend of Eeyore in the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons and a craggy been-there-done-that cigar-smoke-throat-coated Borscht-Belt stand-up comic. And secondly, ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig’s original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of subjects and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique.
What he does with his filmmaking is to collect his subjects. Yes, he collects people; he steals and hoards their images (Stealing Images is the title of his classic short drama that won the very first TIFF Best Short Film prize in 1989) with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes. BUT unlike the inanimate objects he normally collects, he can’t purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store. They belong to him. Through his films, Zweig gets to keep them forever, not just for himself but also for the world.
If there’s any difference between his 2013 films and his previous work, it’s that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. In 15 Reasons to Live, there is one key departure: he tells each person’s story separately without the documentarian’s crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects’ lives, stories and perspectives.
When Jews Were Funny might well be the picture to finally put Zweig over the top, and if there’s any filmmaker who deserves this more, I can’t even begin to imagine who they might be. His entire output is ripe for discovery beyond North America, and frankly, even within his own country.
A common question from some of the more befuddled subjects in the new doc goes something like: ’Is this about being Jewish or comedy?’ A fair question, but frankly, in the sense that Jews and comedy seem to be inextricably linked within the very ethos of North America, it’s probably safe to say it’s about both. In fact, it sometimes seems like the entire Ashkenazi diaspora was solely concentrated in Canada and the USA, where the seeds of stand-up comedy as we know it today were sown during the early part of the 20th century.
The sufferings that led European Jews to the ’New Land’ are incalculable. Yet, Zweig’s film proves (or at least confirms to the converted) that North American humour would not exist without Jews and, in fact, would not be as brilliantly funny and distinctive as it is without the influence of non-Jewish European prejudices, ethnocentrism and hatred foisted in their direction.
Through the subjects Zweig interviews, When Jews Were Funny furthermore presents the perversely provocative and vaguely horrific notion that without purges, pogroms and the Holocaust, the world might well have been bereft of the stand-up style and genius of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and the list goes on, for a light-year or two at the very least.
As a film, I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen its like before. I could, of course, probably say this about all of Zweig’s films. The fact of the matter is that they are endowed with the surface tropes of the documentary genre, but he continually subverts all expectations and plunges you into the least expected territory and in a style uniquely personal and finally very much his own – so much so I predict that we’ll eventually see new generations of filmmakers drawing from his approach and using it as a springboard for their own work. This, of course, is what all great art inspires, and Zweig is poised perfectly to do this.
On its surface, When Jews Were Funny features an off-camera Zweig interviewing a wide variety of stand-up comedians who share one thing beyond their profession – they’re all Jewish. He begins his journey with some of the greatest surviving legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby. It’s this old guard who reject Zweig’s theories about Jews and humour almost outright, though all of them, via his interview style, come round to acknowledging the Jewish influence upon humour, save perhaps for Jack Carter who seems fairly steadfast about refusing to concede.
Watch a clip (Shelley Berman) from When Jews Were Funny:
While the sweet Shelley Berman never comes out and agrees, his separation of humour and Jewishness starts to move closer in proximity, especially during a joyously heart-rending moment when he delivers the very thing Zweig is really searching for, and why Zweig equates Jewish culture with comedy in the first place. It’s one of those extraordinary moments we can thank cinema for – and when it comes, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The middle-aged and younger comedians are occasionally confused by what exactly Zweig is looking for (though a number of them ‘get it’ immediately and expound upon it brilliantly). The extraordinary thing, though, is that the journey Zweig takes us on, and that we take with him, happens during his conversations. If he has an agenda, he never shows it, and in fact, it’s as if the process of making the film – the journey itself – is what allows Zweig (and the audience) to discover the wisps of those things that haunt all of us.
When you grow up, you equate popular culture of that specific time with your own ethnicity, your own religion, your family, your community, your values – all those things that shape and mould you – with what comes at you from a television, radio, movie screen, record player, magazine or newspaper, and all those you hold dear – mothers, fathers, siblings, extended family, neighbours, friends – are, yet again, inextricably linked.
Most of Zweig’s subjects confirm this. A few of them are absolutely captivating when they do so.
David Steinberg full-on addresses the very nature of suffering experienced by the Jewish people and its relationship to humour when he declares: ‘The thing that helps humour is oppression, the thing that kills humour is assimilation. If you’ve had a great childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’d make a lousy stand-up comedian.’ He also makes the point of how funny his own family was – his dad and aunt, for example, would switch to Yiddish and shoo the kids out of the room for fear they’d hear the filthy jokes emanating from their mouths.
David Brenner echoes this. He describes his dad as someone who was funnier than the entire range of great comedians put together, and tells a great story about how he’s been taught that humour exists in everything. The fatherly advice here is that to do this, one must make use of a ’third eye’, or as his dad termed it, ’the Funny Eye’ – that thing you use when looking at anything. Needless to say, the example Brenner provides is hilarious.
In fact, there isn’t a single subject who isn’t funny in the film. Almost all of them tell one or two specific jokes, but most importantly, when they’re addressing the topic at hand, they’re equally hilarious. Howie Mandel slays us with his description of how Jews can never betray themselves by feeling good; how they need to shovel every morsel of suffering into their soul when they try to say something positive, so that their faces contort into hideous grimaces, not unlike someone with the worst case of constipation imaginable as they attempt to squeeze a rock-hard turd out of their tuchus.
Bob Einstein (AKA ‘Super’ Dave Osborne) might be the only comedian interviewed who seems utterly humourless, especially since he accuses Zweig on camera of not knowing what he’s talking about, not knowing what he wants and, at one point, not even listening to him. That said, the very conflict – the meeting of two great curmudgeons, if you will – is supremely enjoyable and yes, it’s funny.
Watch a clip (Norm Crosby) from When Jews Were Funny:
‘Jews own humour and I’m proud to say that that’s true,’ says Steinberg, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried who astutely points out that Jewishness is so often muted. He states that all of the characters on Seinfeld are clearly and obviously Jewish, but that the show (and so many others like it) goes out of its way to pretend that the characters are not Jewish. Gottfried’s incredulity on this point is knee-slappingly mordant. He points out that even if a Jew converts and changes his name, he’ll still be herded into ‘whatever mode of transportation is available to be taken to whatever mode of extermination exists.’
This is a great film – brave, brilliant and personal – but (and that’s a big ’but’) its power is ultimately in its universality. Ultimately, I think there are three core audiences for this film, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily exist in separate vacuums. They might be different, but they’re all going to be infused with the same spirit.
The most obvious target would be almost anyone of Jewish heritage. I do, however, say ‘almost’ because there appears to exist a minority of this ethnic group (or, if we must, religion) that might not appreciate Zweig’s picture. Though, frankly, it’s probably a minority of one.
Allow me to explain.
I had a shocking, though telling and funny experience during the 2013 TIFF. I was scanning the humungous schedule boards displayed in the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see if I could squeeze a seventh film into what was supposed to only be a six-film day. A lady stood beside me, also scouring the board. Noticing my media badge she said, ‘I’m looking for something I can take my 80-year-old mother to tonight, but I don’t know what to choose.’ I immediately recognised the distinctive North Toronto (a huge Jewish enclave of the city) timbre in her voice.
‘Have I got a picture for you!’ I beamed ever so Eureka-like. ‘When Jews Were Funny!’
I could almost taste the bile spewing from her as she spat out, ‘Alan Zweig?’
‘Yeah, Alan Zweig. It’s his new picture. You’re not a fan?’
‘A fan? You ask if I’m a fan? I hate Alan Zweig!’
‘What’s to hate?’
‘What’s to hate? His kind of Jewishness and how he represents the Jewish people is offensive.’
She admitted she had yet to see the film, but based upon previous work – none of which has any ‘Jewishness’ save for Zweig, a Jew who happens to be the filmmaker of said ‘offensive’ films – she explained that he was among many Jewish people in the entertainment business who didn’t offer what her idea was of what it really meant to be Jewish.
‘Well, what is that?’
‘What does it really mean to be Jewish?’
‘You have to ask?’
I didn’t answer. Instead, I bravely suggested Zweig’s film might surprise her.
‘No!’ she said, as if banging the final nail herself into Christ’s flesh. ‘It’s not for me.’
Like I said, a minority of one, no doubt. It did, however, warmly remind me of the scene in Zweig’s movie when Howie Mandel does a hilarious riff on how all Jews answer questions with questions.
So, aside from Jews, the second big audience will probably be anyone – goyim, that is – and especially, I think, those of some manner of Eastern European persuasion who belong to the generation that grew up with the stand-up comedians popular during the 1950s and 70s. As a number of subjects point out, much of the humour is dependent upon the distinctively Yiddish cadence in the delivery, one so familiar to Eastern Europeans that it creeps not so subtly into their own ‘delivery’.
Finally, the third audience will be anyone who loves great movies brimming with insight, humour and the eternal quest for those defining elements of one’s past that now seem gone forever, save for one’s memory of them.
And it’s this journey that is the most profoundly moving element of the film, one that pretty much anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race or religion will respond to. We are all haunted by those things that shaped us in our youth and the reality of how everything changes – fleeting, flickering ghosts that wither away and dissipate before us. When Jews Were Funny is a film that makes us long for those things that were once tangible, but now reside only in our spirit. If anything, we’re all His children and I can think of no better way to share in this collective desire to clutch at our past with dear life through the very special eyes of His chosen people.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) ***
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film.
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro, 2013) ***
Jody Shapiro is a genuine creative producer and ‘Odd’ might well be his middle name. Working with Guy Maddin in the latter stages of the great surrealist’s career, Shapiro also became Isabella Rossellini’s chief collaborator on her Green Porno series.
Shapiro is clearly a natural to lovingly document the life of Burt Shavitz, the bearded hippie whose face adorns ‘Burt’s Bees’ health-store products. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time. The camera loves him, and his low-key irascibility allows Shavitz to engagingly spin his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper. With assistance from the woman he loved, the company grew to gargantuan proportions and the shy country gentleman became a brand.
There’s melancholy to the tale since Burt was not happy with corporate life, and his love life dissipated. He sold his shares in the company and his ‘brand’ for peanuts. He continues, however, to make a decent living doing personal appearances.
Shapiro wisely bounces between the solace of Burt on his farm and the genuine adulation he receives during live appearances. This simple, but effective, juxtaposition presents the contrast, conflict and two sides of the coin that is Burt Shavitz. It’s essentially a sweet, funny and loving portrait of a man, his dog and his bee farm. He occasionally trots out to do a horse and pony act at trade shows and malls, but he enjoys the adulation afforded him by the fans and, most of all, his fees allow him the privilege of living most of his life the way he likes it best – in solitude among hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013) **
Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 is the thrilling subject of Beyond the Edge. Alas, the picture falls short of its potential, in spite of considerable technical wizardry and clearly exhaustive research. Unrestricted access to archival material (including gorgeous 16mm colour footage, Alf Gregory’s legendary 35mm stills and what seems like every audio interview with the participants that’s ever been laid to tape) makes the film’s failure all the more frustrating.
Three key elements extract their toll: the filling in of blanks with newly shot dramatic recreations (ugh!), the abominable 3D, and the over-zealous attempts to match colour for the myriad of audio-visual materials. That said, the 3D is especially problematic. It’s maddening how the moronically polarised 3D glasses darken everything to distraction. Where this hurts the most is in the historical motion picture footage and stills, the colours of which are so vibrant that in 3D they pale in comparison. Just try popping the glasses off periodically (during any picture in 3D, frankly) and you’ll see how egregious the process is.
For the overall colour grading, an extreme post-modernist approach would have been far preferable to matching and muting the colours. State of the art, however, seems to have been the ruinous goal. A film that pushed aesthetic boundaries rather than technical ones might have been far more vital. I’m sure a boundary-pusher like Sir Eddie might have even agreed.
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Edge :
The Dark Matter of Love (Sarah McCarthy, 2012) *
I wanted, but ultimately could not, respond to this tale of love and bonding between three Russian orphans (among the last to be allowed adoptive parents from outside Russia since Vladimir ‘Just Call Me Uncle Joe’ Putin outlawed international adoption) and their new Apple Pie American family.
Seeing these Russian kids flung into an America that spun the world into a major financial crisis and various wars, an America that seemingly learned nothing from the chaos created by its political and corporate leaders and, worst of all, that sense of gaudy consumerism coming to life on-screen before my very eyes, all conspired to make me wonder what that movie would have been like to see instead of this one – which, sadly, is not very good. The Dark Matter of Love is supposed to be a story about kids who need love, want love, but have never experienced love. How do you give love to a child that doesn’t know what love is? Well, it’s not rocket science – with great difficulty and patience.
The American family in question are clearly fine and generous people with plenty of love to give. We see their frustration at not getting love back, the jealousy experienced by their biological daughter and the overall turmoil that building a new family unit results in.This is all undermined by the regrettable accent placed upon the ludicrous application of certain psychological principles rooted in the film’s title – that love is a matter of science, and that in extreme situations such as this, one must turn to medical professionals. From a strictly moral standpoint, I had problems swallowing this. For my liking it’s all too typically Dr. Phil (the famous reality TV talk-show shrink who presents a hugely rated barrage of suffering Americans and offers all manner of platitudinous pop-psychology to ease the pain).
Worse yet, the film emphasises the gobbledygook of a duo of scientists and trains its camera on them as they watch footage of the family trying to cope – spewing their babble as if they were bloody sports commentators – treating the emotional gymnastics of the family as if they were engaged in a particularly strenuous football match.
The film never really allows us an opportunity to experience what could have been a very moving documentary involving a genuine dilemma faced by thousands, if not millions of families. There is, or was, a great movie in here. In fact, it could have been one of several movies far more engaging and vital than this one proved to be.
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013) ****
Ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris’s exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, the veteran filmmaker hits his new subject with tough questions, attempting to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that – truth, that is – appears to be on display here.
With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he’s letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he’s letting you know the cat’s still in the bag, and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag’s indeed in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or discrepancies. We’re witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin-doctor and, even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world – ever. Here’s a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:
‘All generalisations are false, including this one,’ he proclaims.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ he opines on weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, in Iraq.
Watch a clip from The Unknown Known:
Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film’s title): ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing.’
The whole movie is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we’re ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies – or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if he knows we don’t believe a word.
The man has no shame. None. He could have been a president.