Life During Wartime: Iraq in Fragments
(Typecast Releasing/HBO Documentary; in theaters; on DVD this spring)
In this stunningly photographed documentary, director James Longley cuts to the heart of the war in Iraq and reveals its multifaceted nature. The award-winning film, shot between 2003 and 2005, supplies a vision of a country that has been split into three different sections-Sunnis in Baghdad, Shia in the south, and Kurds in the north-and that few of our leaders have been able to grasp.
The first chapter follows a young boy, Mohammed, at work, at school, and wandering through the golden-hued streets of the capital. Through voice-over, Mohammad relates poignant bits about his life: his father's imprisonment, the boss who loves him like a son (but who actually berates him), and his dreams of flying away. The second act, more overtly political, shifts to Najaf, where a sheik and follower of Moqtadr Al-Sadr preaches the evils of America and prepares for a regional election. We see self-flagellating Shia marchers and armed men beating and arresting alcohol vendors. "Is this democracy?" residents complain.
For the final, most lyrical section, Longley journeys to a small Kurdish village where gorgeous plumes of smoke waft into the sky from a brick factory. Longley's camera follows another boy, learning, working, and playing in the snow, and an elderly Kurdish gentlemen who states, "The future of Iraq will be in three pieces." While that may be the case, Longley's associative style never preaches. Amid a rash of Iraq documentaries, this one stands apart, both in its beautiful images distinct from the nightly news and in its profound portrait of a people at a crossroads. -Anthony Kaufman
THE SOUNDS OF RIO: Brasileirinho
(Milan; on DVD)
Wailing brass instruments and seamless, arching guitars play the main characters in this documentary about the uniquely Brazilian music style called the choro. A precursor to the bossa nova and the samba, the choro (roughly translated as "cry" from Portuguese) mixes European waltzes with Afro-Brazilian rhythms to create a timeless yet nostalgic sound. Finnish-born director Mika Kaurismaki, who looked at the history of Brazilian music in the film Moro no Brasil, captures the rhythmic atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro by letting the music do the narrating. While Brasileirinho occasionally falls into cliche, the sentimentality fits the context of the music. The famous samba singer Elza Soares sums up the film with the line, "Carinho nao e ruim," or, "Tenderness isn't a bad thing."
AN UNREASONABLE MAN
(IFC Films; in theaters)
Ralph Nader may be the most contentious figure in contemporary American politics. The consumer advocate turned third-party candidate blasts past his critics and remains single-mindedly focused on rehabilitating America, whatever the cost to himself and his allies. This combination of honor and controversy makes him a fascinating subject in this heated, informative documentary. Co-directors Henriette Mantel and Stephen Skrovan recount Nader's groundbreaking achievements, from putting seat belts in cars to helping enact the Clean Air Act, but they also offer a portrait of an opaque, obstinate man. While his icy resolve may be off-putting, the filmmakers ultimately stand by their man, opening the movie with a proclamation from George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man." -A.K.
EL DOCTOR, JOY STREET & ASPARAGUS: The Wonderfully Strange and Surreal Animation of Suzan Pitt
(First Run Features; on DVD)
Little dialogue graces the films created by painter and animator Suzan Pitt. Her forte is in intricate detail, emotive color, and sheer imagination, as evidenced by these three kaleidoscopic shorts compiled and released on DVD together for the first time. Disparate styles set them apart: clay animated and painted three-dimensional sets in Asparagus, stark photographic backgrounds in the nightmarish Joy Street, and the striking use of sand and scratch animation in El Doctor. Viewed in succession, though, the films, whose production spans three decades, are all like-minded works of vivid visual poetry, bursting with surreal and sometimes disturbing images. The experimental nature of Pitt's films makes for an eyeful, but a look at the bonus interview with the animator helps elucidate her bold art. -Jenna Fisher
(Koch Lorber; on DVD)
The opening salvo in this French hit at Cannes '06 is deceptively serene. After asking his wife, Agnes-a striking enigma worthy of Hitchcock-whether he should remove his mustache (she says no), our protagonist, Marc, does just that. It's a flawlessly shot bit of bourgeois fantasy: the lazy morning bath, the pristine porcelain, the soothing classical music. It's also the last sane moment the de-mustachioed Marc will enjoy during the gleefully disorienting duration of this film. No one notices the shave, a response that at first irritates our hero and then, when those closest to him claim he never had facial hair, drives him mad. Or does it? It's never clear whether Agnes is pulling the strings or Marc's Kafka-esque flight is pure hallucination. It's a trip worth taking, though, and one that viewers will take to their dreams.