Here are reviews of 6 documentaries that I saw in 2015:
Packed In A Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson (dir by Michelle Boyaner)
In 1924, painter Edith Lake Wilkinson was committed to an insane asylum and lived the rest of her life in sad obscurity. As a result of Edith’s commitment, her artwork never received the recognition it deserved. That’s the idea behind this documentary, which follows Edith’s great-great niece as she researches Edith’s life and tries to get the art world to acknowledge Edith’s talent. As an art history major, I really wanted to like this documentary but, unfortunately, it focused more on the self-important niece than on the artwork. Matters were not helped by a lengthy visit with a psychic who claimed to have “contacted” Edith’s spirit. For the most part, this was a missed opportunity.
Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014
This film takes a look at the hundreds of people who were murdered by someone using a gun during the Spring of 2014. Some of the cases are examined in detail while other victims only appear for a second or two, quickly replaced by another tragedy. The cases are recreated through 911 calls, news reports, and occasionally interviews. It makes for sobering and sad viewing though, at the same time, it works better an indictment of our sick culture than as a call for greater gun control.
Southern Rites (dir by Gillian Laub)
Photographer Gillian Laub comes down to Montgomery County, Georgia, in order to take pictures of the town’s first integrated prom. She sticks around to film the trial of an old white man who shot and killed a young black man. The film has good intentions and it’s obvious that Laub is convinced that she has something important to say that hasn’t been said before but, especially when compared to the superior and thematically similar 3 1/2 Minutes, it quickly becomes obvious that neither she nor the film can offer up any new insight as far as racism in America is concerned.
A Symphony of Summits: The Alps From Above (dir by Peter Bardehle and Sebastian Lindemann)
A Symphony of Summits, which is currently available on Netflix, is basically 94 minutes of aerial footage of the Alps. A Symphony of Summits was originally made for German television and the English-language narration track has a blandly cheerful, touristy feel to it that often doesn’t go along with the imposing images and the occasionally bloody events being discussed. (The history of the Alps is not necessarily a peaceful one.) My advise would be to turn down the sound, put on your favorite music, and just enjoy the beauty of the images.
Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop (dir by Erin Lee Carr)
Thought Crimes tells the story of Gilberto Valle, a New York Cop who, in 2013, was convicted, on the basis of comments that he made online about plotting to kidnap and eat a woman. Valle claimed that he was just sharing a fantasy and that he had no intention of following through. Eventually, a judge agreed with him and his conviction was overturned. This disturbing and creepy documentary features extensive interviews with Vallee (who literally made my skin crawl) and examines some of the darkest corners of the internet. Many times in the documentary, Vallee claimed that he would never actually hurt anyone and I didn’t believe him for a second. (As a cop, Vallee accessed the police database to look up info on a woman he was fantasizing about abducting and cannibalizing.) That said, Thought Crimes still raised some interesting issues about the internet as an outlet for fantasy and how seriously we should take it as an indicator for real world actions. There are no easy answers.
The Thread (dir by Greg Barker)
The Thread is a 61 minute documentary about the Boston Marathon Bombing and how a group of wannabe detectives used Reddit and twitter to wrongly accuse a missing graduate student of being one of the bombers. It’s interesting and occasionally cringe-inducing viewing experience, even if it really doesn’t offer up much original insight. (Documentarians are always quicker to bemoan the rise of new media than to seriously investigate why old media collapsed in the first place.) Among those interviewed about the rush to find a suspect is Sasha Stone, the founder and editor of AwardsDaily and yes, she is just as annoying and smugly self-important as you would expect. (Thankfully, they did not interview Ryan Adams.)