Tag Archives: Best Documentary

Cartel Land

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A buddy of mine likes to tell me that drug use is a victimless crime. For people who think like this, I give you Cartel Land,  an Academy Award nominated documentary that give us an up-close view of the impact of the drug trade by examining two groups of citizens trying to do something about it. It’s an amazingly intimate portrait that gives us a seldom seen perspective.

Cartel LandCartel Land attempts to make sense of the complexity of the drug trade between Mexico and the United States by focusing on two vigilante leaders – one on the Mexican side and the other on the American side of the border. By going micro, director and camera man Matthew Heineman is able to make real the abstract nature of the tragedy and absurdity of the so-called War on Drugs.

On the American side of the border, in Arizona’s Altar Valley, we meet Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American vet around fifty years old who has organized a small vigilante force dedicated to patrolling the border and stopping the movements of the Mexican drug cartels. It’s dangerous work, and Foley has skin like leather and clear blue eyes reminiscent of the mythological American Cowboy.

On the Mexican side, more than a thousand miles from the border in the state of Michoacán, we meet Dr. José Mireles, a physician from a rural community overrun by a cartel known as the Knights Templar. After seeing many of his friends, neighbors and family members beaten, raped and murdered by the gangs, Mireles took a stand against them, and on February 23, 2013 launched a vigilante effort called El Grupo Autodefensas that was initially very effective in turning back the tide of lawlessness.

Cartel Land
Director, Matthew Heineman

Heineman was allowed to embed himself in each of these groups, seemingly alone and armed with a light and portable camera rig that allowed him to participate in patrols and raids with the vigilante groups where he was often exposed to gunfire. By being approved by the leaders of each group, he was able to film interviews with principal participants and victims that paint a chilling picture of the high stakes each group is playing for.

Foley and Mireles are each dismissive of the desire of their respective governments (as well as the government on the other side of the border) in bringing an end to the drug trade. I must admit a cultural bias that makes believing in Mexican corruption an easier pill to swallow than what is either American corruption or at least callous indifference to the flow of drugs and people who are smuggled across the border with little resistance. But Foley and his band of militants have no such troubles.

To his credit, Heineman deals with the controversy that accompanies each of these groups.

In the American camp, Foley is presented as a clear-headed, fair-minded pragmatist, willing to climb into bed with survivalists, white supremacists and other fringe elements so long as they share the same objective, which is to protect the American border from what Foley perceives as the forces of evil – that is, the drug cartels. Heineman interviews one such individual who states without blinking that good fences are effective and necessary in keeping incompatible races apart. He also shows news clips that we’ve all seen that characterize the vigilantes in a negative light as violent, hateful people.

Foley himself is honest and open about his troubled past, which includes drug and alcohol abuse. But after a near-death experience some 20 years back, he’s now clean, sober and on a mission to make a difference. To put a dent in the universe.

Cartel Land
Dr. José Manuel Mireles

As for Mireles, it’s a trickier tale. When we meet him, Dr. Mireles is a handsome, mustochioed man nearing 60. Tall and graceful, with an eloquent and charismatic appeal to his neighbors. His appeals to one community after another to join his movement to put an end to the mindless violence of the cartels is like something from Hollywood.

And the people followed him.

As the Autodefensas cleared out one village after another, Mireles’ celebrity grew, which also drew the attention of not only the cartels but a nervous federal government, which must have worried about a popular uprising against it. I had a sense, watching Cartel Land, that Mireles was a goner, and right after the thought struck me, the description of the suspicious nature of a plane crash involving Mireles is revealed.

Without the galvanizing force of Mireles’ leadership, the Autodefensas spirals into chaos with counter-offensives from the cartels as well as corruption and in-fighting within the group.

To make mattes worse, Dr. Mireles is open about his weakness for women. At first, he’s shown first as a compassionate neighbor, then as a caring doctor and finally as a doting husband, father and grandpa, but we also see that “El Doctor” also has a thing for pretty young women, which becomes a perfect metaphor for the murky waters of the War on Drugs. Nothing is as it seems. Nobody is pure. Good and evil often co-exist within the same men at the same time.

On the first anniversary of the Auodefensas movement, Mexican president Enrique Peńa Neto made a slick maneuver designed to eliminate the threat of the Autodefensas movement while simultaneously appearing to support it by absorbing the vigilante group into the federal government and giving it legal status and a new name.

Suspicious of this move, Mireles refuses to go along and stands alone against the government that has shown that it has little interest in doing serious damage to the cartels that have infiltrated its halls of power. Not long after, Dr. Mireles was captured and imprisoned. Today, he is in a remote prison in a kind of legal limbo with his health deteriorating as the Mexican government decides what to do next.

The last we see of Mireles, he owns up to his mistakes and unlike the two governments in question, takes full responsibility for his actions.

At the same time, the vigilante movement he spawned has devolved to the level of the cartels they were created to fight, with corruption, in-fighting and lawlessness their signatures. In this case, evil has won out. As we hear two times, from Mexicans on both sides of the fight, “For now, I’m the lucky one.”

Cartel Land
Tim “Nailer” Foley

Back in Arizona, things are a little better. Without a federal government out to stop him, Foley is adding to his numbers and can point to small victories as they regularly intercept small gangs of scouts who are the eyes of the smugglers. He characterizes his efforts as an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, which is okay with him. He’s in this for the long haul.

In the final analysis, I suppose that Heineman’s message is one of hope. Having seen what people can do when they stand up to tyranny, he has shown us that the cartels can be beaten as long as we have people like Mireles and Foley who are true believers with nothing to lose. For though they may be flawed, at least they can’t be bought.

After watching Cartel Land, I defy anyone to say that drugs are a victimless crime.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

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I went into Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom knowing very little about the conflict it describes. Maybe that was a good thing, because today at lunch I got an earful from my conspiracy theorist cousin about what a bunch of propaganda the film is. I don’t know if that’s true, but regardless of the facts about the protests of 2013-2014, director Evgeny Afineevsky has crafted a powerful story about a people standing up to injustice and paying a steep price for change.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for FreedomThe film, nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this year, is an insider’s view of the events that led to the forced resignation of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

In late 2013, as a deadline approached for Ukraine’s joining of the European Union, young people gathered in the city center of Kyiv to mark the moment and ensure that it actually took place. Yanukovych was well known for his desire to align with Russia, and as the deadline came and went without a signing of the paperwork, Yanukovych moved towards the feared partnership with Putin, triggering non-violent yet vocal protest that, over a 3 month period, escalated to the point of bloodshed, killing 125 protesters, injuring hundreds more and forcing Yanukovych to flee the country in the middle of the night to seek asylum in Russia.

Afineevsky’s footage takes us into the middle of the protester’s makeshift camp and acquaints us with many of the principal figures who marched and died during that momentous three month period.

The only talking head interviews are with the protestors themselves who recount their experiences and emotions as we see the images of what they describe. What started as primarily a movement of the young soon mushroomed and pulled in older generations – doctors, lawyers, bankers and even the military who were afraid of returning to the old Soviet ways.

Even after the government employed violent tactics that escalated over time, the movement only grew until it reached a point-of-no-return as the participants described the final bloody encounter with government forces.

Having sat through many documentaries covering unrest in decades past, it’s still strange for me to see images of people decked out in skinny jeans, hipster beards and contemporary clothing in a story as old as time itself. But as long as governments ignore the wishes of the people they represent, we’ll continue to see images like the ones captured in this powerful documentary.

It’s a one-sided telling of this story, for sure, that paints the protestors as freedom fighters, innocents and crusaders for a better tomorrow, and without knowing any of the opposing sides to this story, I walked away from this movie moved to the point of tears at the bravery and dedication of those who fought and died, as well as those who fought and have to carry on.

2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Gasland

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In 2006, a guy named Josh Fox received a letter from a company wanting to lease his land for the purpose of drilling for natural gas.  Fox lives in eastern Pennsylvania on a tributary of the Delaware River.  His parents bought the land, and with the help of some friends, they constructed the house that he calls home.

The letter described the Marcellus Shale deposit, that his house sat above, as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, extending from New York to Tennessee.  The company offered nearly $100,000 for the drilling rights, and piqued the curiosity of Fox, a banjo playing writer/director.  Gasland is the result of his curiosity.

Fox starts off by referring to his parents and their friends as hippies and playing an old black-and-white clip of Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land,” which is fitting because Gasland is structured like a folk song along the lines of Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.”  These references can be seen as a warning of where he’s going.

Gasland begins with a question, and leaves the tranquil woods of Fox’s home on a quest for answers, and like a good folk song, it tells the stories of common people – who look a lot like you and I – victimized by faceless companies with generic names like Encana, Chesapeake, and Williams.

Fox does a masterful job of finding and filming people so sympathetic that you never think to question their stories.  A couple are able to catch their tap water on fire with a lighter – as it comes out of the faucet.  Others have chronic illnesses that arose once drilling began.  They are as American as apple pie.  Fox also uses an effective Do-It-Yourself aesthetic that is both beautiful and deceptively amateurish, which underscores the underdog tone of the film.

As Fox travels further west, the density of the drilling increases to a point where he enters a geographical region known as the red zone.  This refers to red dots on a map, so thick they bleed together like a stain.  Remote places like Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas are portrayed not as idyllic escapes from the stresses of city life, but as polluted as a place like Los Angeles.

The cause of all this pollution?  Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking as it’s called.  It’s a process where huge quantities of water, sand, and chemicals are shot thousands of feet down into the ground to loosen the shale deposits and free the natural gas.  It’s a process that’s been in practice for decades, but the 2005 Energy Bill enacted regulations that, according to Fox, exempted natural gas drillers from safe drinking water laws, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and just about all environmental regulation.  At the center of this regulatory laisez faire was Vice President Dick Cheney and Halliburton, the company he once ran.

Along with the tales from ordinary folk, Fox brings out respected scientists, among them a MacArthur “genius grand” recipient, who voice dire warnings of polluted drinking water and air fouled by neurotoxins that cause a host of ailments such as sterility, loss of smell, loss of taste, and a variety of cancers.

It wasn’t until hours after I’d finished Gasland that I wondered about the accuracy of Fox’s claims.  I Googled the film and found many rebuttals to the film, from natural gas industry spokesmen as well as a few journalists, and the comments weren’t your run-of-the-mill polite disagreements.  Hardly.  Judging from the venom of the insults, Fox has touched a raw nerve made worse by the nomination of his film for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Rent Gasland then read the statements from the industry people and independent labs, and then decide for yourself whether we have anything to fear.  Even if Gasland is full of hot air, Josh Fox will have gotten you to think, if not act.  And that’s no small feat.

2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Exit Through the Gift Shop

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Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating peek into the world of what most folks would call graffiti, but others call street art.  The film, a surprise nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, has become a magnet for controversy, speculation, and curiosity seekers.

At the heart of the controversy is the film’s director, Banksy, the Garbo of the street art world.  I have no idea where Banksy ranks among street artists, but one thing is certain, he’s the shrewdest of the bunch at manipulating his image, much like Madonna when she was still relevant.  He’s shot like a whistle-blower or mob informant on the six o’clock news with an omnipresent hoodie pulled up and his voice lowered a few octaves.  Of course, this only adds to the mystery.

The controversies have to do with the authenticity of the film.  Some say it’s a hoax.  Others say that it’s not.  Many see the film as a commentary on the relationship between artist, audience, and commerce. There’s been a claim of plagiarism that could end up being part of an elaborate PR campaign to drum up interest in the film.  Whatever the truth of the controversies, one thing’s for certain – the movie is great.

Banksy opens the film by being interviewed, and he quickly introduces the co-protagonist of the story, Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles.

Guetta is a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ambrose Burnside, a voluble speaker with a goofy charm and infectious enthusiasm.  Guetta owns a thrift store in a bohemian neighborhood in LA, but an aimless obsession with videotaping almost every facet of his life led him to a cousin in Paris – known as Space Invader – who was part of the emerging street art phenomenon.  Guetta accompanied Space Invader on missions into the Paris night to bomb walls with his installations of mosaic recreations of Space Invader characters.

Meeting Space Invader and his friends was a turning point for Guetta, and a new obsession was born.  Back in LA, Guetta soon met Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who would become as famous for his iconic Obama poster (think the Obama-ize feature that was popular on Facebook for a while) as he was for his Obey campaign.  Fairey was a jumping off point for meeting and collecting other street artists, who didn’t mind having the friendly Frenchman along to document work that might take months of planning, hours of sometimes dangerous application, only to have it ripped down or painted over in a fraction of the time.

Artists are like trophies to Guetta, and the relationship between him and them is like observing a mutually beneficial relationship between parasite and host.  The bombing forays that Guetta documents are exciting and sometimes perilous, and that he shared in the danger earned him a place in their circle.  Over time he set his sights on Banksy, the elusive Englishman with the nerve of a cat burglar.  As Guetta pursued Banksy on his own, Shepard Fairey brought Banksy to Guetta’s backyard when Banksy visited LA and asked for a guide to help him find good walls to bomb.

It was a dream come true that led to an unlikely friendship, like Jimmy Olson and Superman becoming drinking buddies, and as the relationship is detailed, we also see the rise of Banksy as an international art commodity, having shows and being fawned over by the art world’s intelligentsia.

Guetta’s entre into the world of the street artists was that he was a filmmaker.  The funny thing is, no one ever called his bluff until Banksy finally asked him to put together the long-promised street art documentary, in part to show critics that he hadn’t sold out and that street art was about more than hype.

Guetta never planned on turning his thousands of hours of film into an actual movie.  The cassettes were merely boxed, stored, and forgot about.  Guetta’s movie, Life Remote Control, convinced Banksy that his friend was no filmmaker.  Banksy convinced Guetta to return to LA and pursue art and have a show so that he could take over the project and make a proper film.  What he made was the story about what happened when an eccentric Frenchman tried to make a documentary about Banksy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is part shaggy dog story, part buddy film, part quixotic adventure, and finally, a snapshot of the various talents who prowl the streets of the world’s cities, leaving their mark on the walls of those cities, if only for a short while.

Thierry Guetta is as fascinating a figure as Banksy in that they are complete opposites.  It’s a shrewd move by Banksy to frame his story this way.  As secretive as he is, Guetta is like a negative image, all open and forthcoming.  Where Banksy is cool, Guetta is a dopey tag-along, a sort of kid brother to the artists he adores.

There’s one final surprise in Exit Through the Gift Shop, where Banksy seems to be making a statement about the art world that amounts to biting the hand that feeds him.  Perhaps it’s an attempt to buy back some of his street cred.  Or maybe it’s just good entertainment.  Either way, after seeing this movie you’ll never look at graffiti the same way again.

2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Restrepo

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Sports announcers often use military analogies to describe the athletes and action they cover.  Players are referred to as warriors and heroes, and games as battles and campaigns.  I never served in the military, so the silliness of such comparisons slip past me, most of the time, unnoticed.  Restrepo, a documentary covering a year in the life of a platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley reminds me of how ridiculous it is to compare pampered athletes to soldiers serving anywhere and underscores how far removed we are, as Americans, from the hardships faced by our fighting troops.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger, the film’s directors, were embedded with the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during their 14 month deployment in one of the most hotly contested pieces of ground in our current war in the Middle East.  The footage they captured, both on their own and from the soldiers themselves, is stunning in its intimacy with the day-to-day details of soldiering in the 21st century.

The style of the film is similar to D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which covered Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  There is no talking head narration.  The only framing comes from interviews done with about a half-dozen of the soldiers after the tour was completed.  And so it is that we are dropped into the midst of these men and witness camp life, from the horsing around that breaks up the monotony of repetitive chores, to the chaos of the frequent ambushes that take place when squads are out on patrol.  It doesn’t get any more compelling than this.

As censorship in feature films has grown more lax and special effects have gotten more sophisticated, film makers have made movies that seem to get it right, but after seeing the real-time reactions of soldier in the midst of an ambush, without the aid of slow-motion and jump-cuts, I begin to see just how big a gap there is between the Hollywood version of war and the real thing.

The most intense scenes in Restrepo deal with an operation called Rock Avalanche, a multi-day foray into Taliban controlled territory.  Interview footage with the surviving soldiers is intercut with footage shot during the various engagements with locals and an ambush where the Taliban seemed to come at the soldiers from every angle.

One Sergeant – Rice – is shot twice, once by a rocket propelled grenade launcher, which leaves him covered in shrapnel wounds.  His descriptions of the scene and how he figured he was living his last moments are humbling to witness.

Not long after Rice is hit, another Sergeant – Rougle – is killed in action.  Witnessing the reaction of one soldier to the news of his death, I felt like I shouldn’t be seeing this – that it was too personal and none of my business.  That said, Hetherington and Junger treat the situation with respect, all the while letting us see how each of a few gathered soldiers responds to the knowledge of this loss then regroups to deal with the situation at hand.

By cutting out the familiar sounding generals, commentators, and Afghani apologists, we are left with only the accounts of the soldiers who fought in the Korengal valley – from their captain down to the specialists who followed his orders.  It’s as intimate a portrait of military life as we’re apt to get, and over the course of the film, as we hear from about a half-dozen of them as they try to process the intense fighting they’ve just experienced, it’s impossible not to care for these guys, to hope and pray that they make it back home and are able to get on with their lives and enjoy the freedom they’ve purchased for us.

Hetherington and Junger leave the spin to us, and for that we should be grateful, for the images and insights that are passed on to us would be shamefully cheapened by politics.

My rating: 9 of 10