Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished

a-film-unfinished

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


A Film Unfinished (2010, Dir. Yael Hersonski) is a film about a film. It’s a film about the context in which a film is created, and how that affects the making, production, and legacy a film can leave behind. And furthermore, it’s a film which helps to pull the wool off of the eyes of anyone who implicitly believes documentaries because they claim to be the truth.

I’ll explain properly. The subject matter of A Film Unfinished concerns a documentary made by the Third Reich which was never finished, made between 1941 and 1942, and concerned the subject of the Jewish community living in the Warsaw Ghetto, an area in Poland that the Jewish community was essentially penned into, before being moved to various concentration camps to be mercilessly and systematically killed. The film, “Das Ghetto” was taken to be a fairly accurate, if undermined documentary which helped to capture the real life of these Jewish people. Undermined due to its obvious propaganda and political uses, but nevertheless a film which claimed a mantle of objectivity.

However, with the discovery of a previously undiscovered outtake reel, locked away in an archive somewhere, the true extent to which the film was staged and created began to unravel. Heronski, who combines this footage with in-depth research into the governing figures of the Ghetto, the testimony of the cameraman himself, and the testimony of Jewish people who were there. By holding her magnifying glass closer to the material, a new film is discovered. One which claims to be a simple truth, but is in fact an elaborately crafted lie.

But don’t all films do this, documentaries or fictions? Claim a reality, when they’re nothing more than elaborate constructs of separated fragments? Well yes, films are chopped up and edited, molded into worlds for you to get lost in, for you to believe in. Even this documentary, builds a world for you to flow through. What it does though, is expose how films can deceive you when they claim to be telling the truth. Fiction films, no matter how close the real world, still have that clear gap, that what’s happening is a story which isn’t true. But documentaries rarely claim that, documentaries stand in front of you and plant their flag in telling you the truth, scouring sources and trying to come to some sort of objective and balanced conclusions. Documentaries are arguments, designed to make you come down on one side of the fence.

And A Film Unfinished tears down the argument of Das Ghetto violently and furiously. The most potent way is arguably the scenes in which older residents of the ghetto, sit in a cinema and are exposed to the film’s reels. Their reactions, their commentary, filled with surprise and pity and disappointment as they watch fabrications constructed in front of them, is the film’s most forceful weapon against the propaganda machine. In a scene where it is explained that the Nazi’s construct a luxurious fake funeral attended by hundreds of ghetto residents (who were forced to be there), to portray the Jewish people as decadent and enjoying lavish ceremonies even in wartime, a resident cries out in the cinema “But Jewish people don’t even bury their dead in coffins!”.

Why is this in my Kino-Pravda series? Vertov claimed that the film camera, in assembling fragments could show a deeper truth than those seen just by the naked eye. That is true, but so is the opposite. The fragments assembled can construct deeper lies, can cement mis-truths and push agendas silently and secretly. In Hersonski’s film, the two choices fight each other. Das Ghetto seeks to tell a lie, to create a new “truth”. A Film Unfinished wants to reveal the truth underneath it, hidden away. More importantly, it provokes the idea that documentaries are not made by an all-knowing all-seeing God figure, that they are made by humans with ideas and agendas and the ability to craft the messy truth into a reality they’re happy selling.

You can choose to apply the same logic to Heronski’s film, but the difference is in Heronski’s ability to admit her subjectivity. She doesn’t claim to be telling the whole truth, admits that her scope may be limited and that we may never really know all of the complexities of that situation. But what she can claim, is a definite violent unmasking of the lies put forward by the earlier film. And what it does, is expose the dark underbelly in filmmakers, the ones who think that anything is accessible to them because they’re making films, that they’re somehow beyond or above reproach because all they’re doing is capturing what’s put in front of them. It reveals a truth that films can manipulate, lie and betray you to make you think a certain way.

And in a world where you’re constantly bombarded by media from all angles, all desperate to convince you that they’re right, it’s good to be reminded that no idea is ironclad, that you should be cautious in believing everything you see, and you should question it all. In doing so, you may not reach “The Truth”, but you certainly at least will be able to see through some of the more blatant and awful lies people try to make.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #6 – A Film Unfinished

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths

Author-The-JT-Leroy-Story-e1468956707139

Disclaimer: Before watching this film, I had never heard of anything pertaining to the JT Leroy Saga. I have never read any of JT Leroy’s works, nor any of the literature surrounding this literary scandal.

So with that out-of-the-way, and all attempts at establishing any credibility in being an expert on this matter scribbled out, let’s move on as to just what the hell is going on here.

I shall not reveal the whole eclectic saga, that was director Jeff Feuerzeig’s job in making this film. In short, Laura Albert, a woman, invented or channeled a persona into her being, that of one Jeremy ‘Terminator’ LeRoy, an abused boy who had endured prostitution, drug addiction, AIDS, a sex change (which is explained later) and vagrancy.She then wrote from this persona’s perspective, and became wildly well-known, courting fame and time in the spotlight for the searing, brutally honest fiction that was being written.

All this without a body, and without being real. Because JT Leroy didn’t exist, at least not as a physical presence on this earth. So Laura Albert recruited her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop to play JT Leroy. And it worked, from 1998 to 2005, JT Leroy was a real construct who swooshed around the celebrity and publishing world, accompanied by Albert in another persona she had created alongside the real Terminator story, a British woman named Speedie, and her boyfriend Astor (who was really her husband, Geoffrey Knoop).

So the labyrinth was pretty complex, and the labyrinth was pretty well embraced. Her books sold, and she was the toast of the cutting edge, with Savannah even engaging in a passionate affair with Asia Argento. But all good things come to an end, and an exposé in 2006 by one Warren St. John in The New York Times collapsed the house of cards.

Make no mistake though, the house of cards is not truly laid out here. That’s not to denigrate the film, it’s just that the film is doing a very different kind of thing that a regular documentary might angle for. This is not an investigation, this is Laura Albert’s confession, her account of it all. It is a serious unraveling of her perspective of how it all went down, the puppet master behind the board locked into an unceasing performance. The supporting cast of this film circle tangentially at best, only their to provide light context and not much more. And that’s okay, the film is delving into the mind of Laura Albert, a mind which spawned JT LeRoy.

And there’s a lot to it. Drama and betrayals, affairs and desperation, the truth and the lies becoming so indistinct that you should be riveted by it. But of course, that depends on your point of view. If that seems vague, I’ll put it another way. Half of the importance of the story is simply because she’s not just deceiving regular people, but because she’s deceiving celebrities. Laura actually tells us at one point, that she knows she’s made it when she illustrates the ‘Bono’ talk that Savannah as JT got from you guessed it, Kings Of Cool, Bono from U2.

Cool is always nebulous, and always notorious to pin down, very subjective. But the anti-U2 sentiment is fierce among people my age, and I can’t ever remember a time when anyone even remotely discussed Bono as cool who wasn’t over 30. Bono, for anyone who even vaguely pays attention, represents the shallowest of cools. He’s probably a top bloke, but U2 have never been anywhere near the cutting edge of cool, and belong somewhere along the great “Stadium Fillers” genre.

I mean, U2 diatribe aside, the credence given to Laura’s story rests on the fact that the elite incestuous celebrity circles welcomed her, and the fact that she suffered great trauma in her life. The second bit is very valuable, but the first bit is basically a very indulgent walk with all these famous people who really like JT LeRoy, and how cool it was that all these cool people liked her. And the deception runs deep. Albert would make (and record) all calls she made as JT, so she’d live vicariously through Savannah, as Savannah would have these experiences with the cool-illuminati, an affair with Asia Argento, chatting with Gus Van Sant, ambiguous happenings with actor Michael Pitt, and much more, Laura would chat as JT to them.

And you know…cool I guess? Like it just doesn’t really move me much. It’s like her actions are meant to be far more grandiose because she’s deceiving celebrities. And that only works if you buy into celebrities being better than other people. Which I do not. We’d all like to live that fantasy, of well-known, very successful people telling us that they love us, our work, our personality, ourselves, I understand it, and I understand what drives that. But her actually getting to live out her fantasy is not something that can really be enjoyed, maybe only by her and the conspirators involved. Because you can’t live vicariously through Laura Albert, because you know she’s lying. It’s so far removed that all you can do is watch the journey slowly unfold passively.

I’m rambling here but bear with me. The title talks about the ‘Truths’ in this film. Camus says in his seminal work The Myth Of Sisyphus “In psychology as well as logic, there are truths but no truth.” He’s referring to the inability to perceive the whole world from all sides, so we can’t really know the details we’re working with. The same can be applied here. We can never really know the whole story, because the whole story depends on multiple people, with internal dialogues and psychologies, that we can never really draw the boundaries in it between what’s true and what isn’t. Albert specifically denies that it was a fake, because LeRoy is real to her. In fact she states that she suffers from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

This is the stuff I find much more interesting. The reveal of JT LeRoy’s ‘hoax’ is really interested, because the reaction to it was so damning. People implicitly believe that what they see or read or listen to is true. You have to, its logically ruinous to assume everything is a lie. There could be no truth if everyone was lying. And people took it for granted, but they were also so willing to believe the story, so desperate to accept her truth, because even though the books are published as fiction, we always assume that fiction is molded from the human channeling the world around them, and when stories are told with such uncompromising brutality, when they involve such hard times of human suffering, when those trapped in ivory towers see such earnest hardship, they marvel at it. They marvel at the human audacity to take good from the bad no matter how rough it might get. Especially those who are protected from it.

I feel like the film is both too long and too short. Or maybe its just focused on the thing I don’t find interesting. The film seems to wrestle with two tracks, the track of recounting the whole sordid affair, as a train of well-known faces walk through, their intimate conversations of real life played in voyeuristic scenes where tapes roll, and the other track which revolves around authenticity, authorship, and the blurred lines between fiction and fact, and truth and lies. because the best lies are inspired by the truth, but the truth does its best to expose lies. Laura Albert suffered, and she channeled it, however indirectly into her writing. And even if she didn’t suffer, she had the capability to imagine and create it. But the thing people seem to get upset about is her creation spilled over into reality, and somehow people were deceived by that. Well art influences life and vice versa, and Laura just took it to an extreme. Her whole life became a performance.

Which is both brilliant and horrible. Because I don’t think she can stop. And with a film of the whole story in the works, it looks like the sharks desperately seeking salacious stories won’t either. A maddening cycle of trash. Waiting for someone honest to come along.

The only thing for me to do is to just shrug and move on. It’s not all that interesting anyways. It kind of fucked me off if I’m honest.

-Alex

 

Author: The JT Leroy Story – A Tale Of Two (Three, Four, Five…) Truths