Tag Archives: documentaries

God Knows Where I Am

God Knows Where I Am

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 14 April 2017

Venue: Bertha DocHouse Screen (Curzon Bloomsbury), London

Directors: Jedd Wider, Todd Wider

USA 2017

99 mins

Tickets are on sale via the DocHouse website

***** out of *****

There is plenty of drama in the directorial debut from noted producing brothers Jedd and Todd Wider, but make no mistake, this is a documentary.

There is a deep mystery that unfurls in God Knows Where I Am – sometimes scary, often creepy, but eventually giving way to something much deeper than the surface details. Like most evocative whodunits, the picture becomes a whydunit and exposes, not unlike great film noir (and modern neo-noir), something far more desperate and downright insidious. There is plenty of drama, but make no mistake, this is a documentary.

Sadly, too many filmmakers forget about the power of poetry in cinema. This is especially endemic in documentary work that’s limited to imparting facts, and/or becomes so wrapped up in ‘story’ (demanded by narrow, vision-bereft commissioning editors) that no matter how proficient the films are about the issue and/or subject matter at the centre of the work, they are ultimately bereft of genuine artistry.

God Knows Where I Am opened in the US on 31 March 2017 and is released nationwide by Bond/360.

There is no such problem plaguing God Knows Where I Am. The picture is an absolute heartbreaker and a good deal of its success is directly attributable to its pace, style and structure, which yields a film infused with all the qualities of the sublime. I challenge anyone to not weep profusely at several points within its elegiac 99-minute running time.

The picture reimagines the last weeks of Linda Bishop, an intelligent, sensitive middle-aged woman found dead in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Existing only on rainwater and apples from a bountiful tree, she felt trapped by dangers which threatened and frightened her to such a degree that she was unable to leave the comfort and shelter afforded to her by this lonely enclave. Eventually, as the apples ran out and the unheated house was battered by one of the coldest winters on record, comfort gave way to agony and agony gave way to grace.

Directors Todd and Jedd Wilder have constructed their film using a seemingly endless series of gorgeously composed and lit shots (gloriously mastered on FILM by cinematographer Gerardo Puglia), with many of the dolly and tracking shots moving with the kind of slow beauty Vilmos Zsigmond employed in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. These haunting images, many of which are so stunning they’ll be seared on your soul for a lifetime, are accompanied by off-camera readings from Bishop’s journal by actress Lori (Footloose, Trouble in Mind, Shortcuts) Singer. Singer’s performance here is astonishing – she captures the pain, desperation and even small joys in Bishop’s life during these sad, lonely days with a sensitivity and grace linked wholly to her ‘character’. This is no mere narration or voiceover – this is acting.

The aforementioned sequences are interspersed with actual 8mm home-movie footage of Bishop as a child, who was once bright, happy and full of promise. The filmmakers also wend interviews into the film’s fabric with such figures as Bishop’s adult daughter, various friends and relatives, and a local police detective and medical examiner – all of whom contribute to the mystery that unfolds with spellbinding dexterity.

In addition to the cinematography, the key creative elements in the picture are simply astonishing. Editor Keiko Deguchi creates a gentle, yet always compelling pace that contributes to the poetic nature of the film (and a few dissolves so powerful that each one knocks the wind out of you) while Paul Cantelon, Ivor Guest and Robert Logan have created one of the best scores I’ve heard in any documentary. Elements such as sound, art direction and visual effects are on a par with the best cinema can offer.

This is great cinema and certainly a contender for one of the best documentaries of the new millennium. It captures profound poetic truths about homelessness, mental illness and loneliness, which are rendered with such artistry and sensitivity that this is a film for the ages.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 January 2015

Distributor: Sky Vision

Director: Nick Broomfield

USA, UK 2014

105 mins

British documentarian Nick Broomfield – aka the man with the boom (and bumbling persona) – returns with this incisive look at the grim realities of life in South Central Los Angeles.

Broomfield is best known for his 1990s documentaries, including Kurt & Courtney and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, while his investigation into an Iraq massacre, Battle for Haditha, drew much praise in 2007. His films, which tend to feature him in front of the camera as much as behind, spawned a host of imitators (Michael Moore and Louis Theroux among them). Now a sprightly 66, he’s back pacing the streets, of grimsville South Central, or else driving a black Mercedes, with son Barney (off camera) and local junkie come good, Pamela Brooks, in tow. Ms Brooks guides the Broomsfields around the poverty-stricken neighbourhood, and steals the show.

On the face of it, Broomfield’s film appears to be examining the murder trial of one Lonnie Franklin Jr, arrested in 2010 and charged with the murder of 10 prostitutes and transients, stretching back 25 years. However, it soon emerges that the number of victims could ‘run into hundreds’ as Broomfield himself points out, during his sobering voice-over introduction. As he and his small crew meet Franklin’s friends and neighbours, Broomfield wonders how on earth this behaviour could have gone undetected for so long (DNA links Franklin to the murders). He soon finds an LAPD indifferent to the welfare of the poor black communities affected. Drug abuse, particularly crack, appears to be rife.

The narrative takes an increasingly grim turn as Franklin’s neighbours and friends call Broomfield back (after initial encounters) to recall disturbing incidents in Franklin’s house that they had previously brushed off. Hence Franklin goes from Mr Nice Guy to Mr Weirdo pretty quickly. We hear of his horrific abuse of his victims (with his son, Chris, apparently observing through a peep hole). Hundreds of photos of unidentified women in compromising positions are found on his wall. There is the strong suggestion that he dumped many of the bodies in the local tip, where he used to work.

Local community leaders, including Margaret Prescod, head of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, prove particularly insightful. Some of Franklin’s former conquests (who managed to get away) relive their ordeals. Yet the LAPD remains silent, beyond a PR-driven press conference that hails Franklin’s arrest as a victory for law and order. They bluntly refused, apparently, to be interviewed.

Broomfield never actually questions Franklin’s guilt (which is reasonable, given the evidence against him). But he does throw a spotlight on this impoverished part of a famously wealthy city, demanding to know why the police investigating these serial killings did so little, for so long. As Prescod quite rightly says, if the victims were white women in Beverly Hills, the LAPD would be all over the case in a flash. It is a striking and powerful film, and certainly one of Broomfield’s best for quite some time.

Ed Gibbs

Room 237

Room 237 (The Shining)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 26 October 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Rodney Archer

USA 2012

102 mins

Subtitled ‘Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts’, Rodney Ascher’s diverting documentary features a group of obsessives ranging from eccentric to out-and-out whacky expounding upon their theories about the Stanley Kubrick film in voice-over. Those are illustrated by an artfully assembled montage of graphics and manipulated clips from the film, together with well-chosen odds and sods from Western cinema in general and Kubrick’s oeuvre in particular, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Curtis’s work. Ascher does his damnedest to make it visually and aurally interesting, and lets his chosen voices speak without judgement.

Most of the speakers were disappointed by their first encounter with the film, but went back to it on VHS, on DVD, on Blu-ray, watching it over and over, convinced that a cinematic master with an IQ of 200 couldn’t just produce an overly mannered misfire, no, there had to be more to it than that. They started to map the geography of the Overlook hotel, read the posters, props and set decoration for clues, and assume that continuity errors must be there for a reason. The result suggests that what The Shining was really about was, well, take your pick: the Holocaust, Greek myth, American ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the genocide of the native population, and, my personal favourite, Kubrick apologising for his part in the faking of the moon landings by Apollo 11. This is Great Movie Mistakes as seen by people who don’t believe in mistake, chance or coincidence, and how much you enjoy it is going to be dependent upon how long you’re prepared to indulge their company – 102 minutes is a stretch.

But it says something about the reputation of the man and his cinema that this film, and doubtless hours more like it could be made. I can happily believe that he read the book Subliminal Seduction about hidden messages in advertising and interviewed Madison Avenue executives about how they worked. Maybe some of the weirdness in The Shining was the result. Who knows? But in his massively extensive research and attention to detail, the Kubrick of legend was just as obsessive as any of the contributors to this film. If, y’know, slightly more hinged.

As one of the unseen says at one point, ‘Kubrick is thinking about the implications of everything that exists!’

Mark Stafford

Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life

Into the Abyss

Format: Cinema

Dates: 30 March 2012

Distributor: Revolver

Director: Werner Herzog

USA/UK/Germany 2011

107 mins

‘I know the hearts of men. And that is why I am a director.’

Werner Herzog handles grim matters in his work as a whole with genuine love and familiarity, and the quote above is no flippant boast: he does fully identify with his subjects and their suffering. He is, however, rarely sympathetic, and instead reveals humanity in the materiality of being human. The honesty of the flesh, the absurdity of the sacred, the enduring equivalence of meaninglessness that all men share. Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life finds its foothold here. In this documentary about life on death row, Herzog does not linger on eviscerating questions of guilt versus innocence. Instead, the film is concerned with the banality of the immanence of death, the curious paradox of denial and commitment in the mind of the living-about-to-be-dead, and their strange hybrid communities where the families of criminals and their victims overlap to create an unwilling and unwanted extended family in mourning.

Herzog’s hallmark co-option of melodramatic sentiment also serves as an eccentric form of comedy, buoying his scrutiny of human ethics. In the film, he claims that as a German who survived the Second World War, and as a ‘guest’ in America, he has no position of moral authority from which to condemn the American judicial system. Even this statement contains a playful double meaning. Conversely, the state-mandated philosophy surrounding the execution of condemned men is curiously clumsy and archaic. There has seemingly been some attempt by unnamed governing bodies to address the praxis of execution, and the extent to which the prisoner is conscious of its ‘variables’ as relative factors in his own mortality - when, where, how. Of equal or greater concern, though, is the extent to which these devices are used to shield the executioners (known collectively in Texas as the Tie-Down Team) from the very terms of Herzog’s tongue-in-cheek allusion to state-sanctioned killing in Germany, as is the problematic role of a shared religious faith as a coping mechanism for victims of crime, criminals and representatives of the state apparatus.

There is currently an accompanying series of one-hour episodes airing on Channel 4 that deal with other death row inmates and their trajectories towards death. Herzog is quick to point out that he has spent no more than 60 minutes each with any participant in the film and the TV series - having measured time allocated to his interactions with people who have lost a loved one, either to crime or to prison, against the constraints of time allotted visitors of death row inmates as determined by state correctional facilities. The film is often cold, lacking the wild outbursts of violence and madness Herzog is known for, but it is also darkly funny in its peculiar earnestness. Its purest moments are those that show emotions clearly groomed for the camera, rehearsed and played out in their entirety. Oddly, it is in the most manufactured and rehearsed demonstrations for the camera that the visceral conflict of the situation reveals itself; in tears unshed – glimpsed or swallowed, rather than in the choreographic design of yet-unbaked cookies and dead bodies in a suburban American household.

Emily McMehen