Film Reviews: May / June 2007

The Cost of Cruelty: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib; The Prisoner; or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair

(HBO; on DVD in June)

(Netflix/Red Envelope Entertainment; on DVD in June)

The infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos have already provoked their fair share of outrage. Two new documentaries go behind the shock of the images to reveal their political framework and profound human cost. While they are different in style and scope, Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s The Prisoner; or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair are valuable companion pieces to understanding the context and consequences of U.S. torture in Iraq.

As the definitive investigative report, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib lays out a methodical argument that strongly refutes the White House’s “few bad apples” explanation and shows — via declassified documents and interviews with U.S. guards — that soldiers were, in fact, encouraged by high-ranking American officials to torture prisoners.

If Ghosts provides a chilling, exhaustive account of moral turpitude and misguided authority, The Prisoner offers a more intimate glimpse into the life of one of its victims. One of thousands of Abu Ghraib inmates that even the U.S. military acknowledged had no reason for being there, Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas was first seen in Tucker and Epperlein’s 2005 film Gunner Palace as just one more civilian rounded up in a U.S. raid. The Prisoner puts Abbas center stage as he recounts his disturbing nine months in U.S. custody, where he was accused of plotting to assassinate Tony Blair.

To match the ludicrous charge, the filmmakers use comic-book-like animations to illustrate Abbas’ ordeal. Despite the movie’s air of dark, absurd humor, Abbas’ lingering pain is anything but funny. As he says, “I need peace.” — Anthony Kaufman


Romantico

(Kino International; on DVD)

“I’m doing this for my family,” says 57-year-old Carmelo Muniz Sanchez. “No other reason.” In this beautifully observed documentary portrait, Sanchez sings his heart out as a mariachi in the Mexican restaurants of San Francisco — when he’s not washing cars along with other illegal immigrants. Eventually, Sanchez returns to his hometown of Salvatierra, Mexico, where it takes him two weeks to earn what he can make in a single weekend in the United States. In between performances, he pedals the streets selling ices to children and worries about the fate of his daughter: For many girls, economic hardship leads to prostitution. Refreshingly photographed on 16 mm film and interspersed with evocative slow-motion images, Rom‡ntico is not just a poignant commentary on the plight of illegal immigrants, but also a poetic elegy for the hardworking man. — Anthony Kaufman


Wholphin No. 3

(McSweeney’s; on DVD)

There’s a place where God wields a rifle; ants hurtle skyward, propelled into flight with a snap of their jaws; and a debonair man, lost at sea, shares a raft of suitcases with a vacuum cleaner and a pregnant chicken. It’s a place where whales and dolphins mate, and for $40 a year you can find it in your mailbox. Welcome to Wholphin, McSweeney’s quarterly DVD magazine of oft-ignored films. The third release holds 12 shorts, from a three-and-a-half-minute clip of four men using a fence at the U.S.-Mexico border as a volleyball net (“Yeah Yeah. We Speak English. Just Serve.”) to a 49-minute Alexander Payne drama first screened at Sundance in 1991 (“The Passion of Martin”). Take that, Netflix. — Kristen Mueller


Music from the Inside Out

(Emerging Pictures/Docurama; on DVD)

“What is music?” Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra pause, fidget, and laugh uncomfortably as they try to articulate an answer to this seemingly simple question. But when documentary director Daniel Anker lets the music do the talking by capturing the musicians in rehearsal, backstage, and in their daily lives, they speak eloquently with their instruments. Filmed over five years and on several continents, Music from the Inside Out delves into the musicians’ personal stories and their musical passions, which extend beyond classical to bluegrass, salsa, and jazz. It’s an unpretentious peek into the lives of the orchestra members and a movie for lovers of all kinds of music. — Jenna Fisher


Manufactured Landscapes

(Zeitgeist Films; in theaters)

If you can, watch Jennifer Baichwal’s stunning new documentary on a big screen. It’s the best way to experience this portrait of Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky, whose famous large-scale photographs of “manufactured landscapes” — enormous sites ranging from Shanghai’s skyscraper city to the world’s largest dam — address the vast project of modern civilization and its devastating impact on the earth. Everything depicted in the film stretches farther, longer, and larger than expected, from immense Chinese dumping grounds of waste that evoke abstract expressionist paintings to endless Bangladeshi shipyards that resemble Dali-esque wastelands. Like Burtynsky’s work, the film is gorgeous and haunting as it follows the photographer’s journey through these giant industrial spaces. How long can humankind’s all-consuming path continue? As Burtynsky says, “If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.” — Anthony Kaufman


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