Utne Reader Film Reviews: July-August 2008

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image by Jonathan Chang

Couchside Curator
P.O.V.(televised on PBS)
Navigating the television and Netflix listings can be overwhelming, which is why it’s nice to have a TV series that does its own sifting and sorting. The producers of P.O.V., the PBS independent documentary series, cull 15 films for viewers in its 21st season. From June to December, P.O.V. features a handful of documentaries showing how individuals fit or fight national stereotypes, an appropriate election-year theme.

Two films examine who is entitled to liberty and justice in the United States. Election Day (July 1) follows a jumble of activity at 11 polling places during Election Day 2004, showing that the promise of universal suffrage is still uneven in practice. The stories include an ex-felon’s first time voting, the plodding pace of voting in a predominantly black St. Louis district, and a determined Republican committeeman monitoring the polls in a Democratic ward in Chicago. The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (July 8) soberly unravels the shooting of a Texas teen by U.S. Marines. Along the Rio Grande, the native farming population is as fluid as the river separating families into corresponding villages on opposite banks. Sleepless, disoriented Marines were trained to see all border dwellers as potential drug traffickers, resulting in Hernández’s tragic death.

Up the Yangtze (Oct. 14) follows Chinese teen Yu Shui as she leaves her peasant family to work on a “farewell” cruise ship on the Yangtze River, which is about to flood because of the Three Gorges Dam. Far from stoic Confucians, the Yus and other Chinese commoners who are interviewed fight tears as they talk about the difficulty of sending children to work rather than to school and of forced relocation. As the Yus’ home sinks under rising waters in the film’s close, it’s uncertain whether they will stay afloat in their new urban surroundings. –Lisa Gulya

Here Is What Is
(Red Floor Records; on DVD)
“He wanted to dive in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid,” Bob Dylan wrote about Daniel Lanois’ approach to producing music. Lanois goes deep in the self-made documentary Here Is What Is, which explores his intense, personal style of making music as a producer and an artist. Whether he’s sitting at the control board or fronting a band, Lanois works by “feel” to coax new and unexpected sounds from performers and equipment. At once a purist and a meddler, he thrives on the vibe of a band playing together in the same room, yet takes enormous liberties with sound manipulation to create his sweeping sonic palette. The film benefits from psychedelic cinematography, generous performance footage, and an informal feel that reveals making art as neither mysterious nor elite, but the very stuff of life. –Keith Goetzman

Full Battle Rattle
(Market Road/Mile End; in theaters)
If it looks like Iraq, sounds like Iraq, and bleeds like Iraq, is it Iraq? Set in the U.S. Army’s war simulations in California’s Mojave Desert, the wry, provocative documentary Full Battle Rattle reveals just as much about America’s mislaid plans as any on-the-ground report from Baghdad. In following an Army combat brigade’s naive attempts to reconstruct and pacify a fake Iraqi village (complete with Iraqi Americans “acting” as Iraqi citizens), filmmakers Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss play a skillful hand: evoking the war’s horrors and humiliations through the absurdity of stagecraft. The bloody, eviscerated limbs of mannequin props, for example, powerfully suggest the wounded bodies that are banned from the network news. More Catch-22 than No End in Sight, Full Battle Rattle proves not only that truth is stranger than fiction, but also that the two are sometimes impossible to tell apart. –Anthony Kaufman

Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway
(Sublime Frequencies; on DVD)
Like most Sublime Frequencies releases, Musical Brotherhoods has almost no exposition. There are no voice-overs or superimposed maps explaining what to learn. Scrolling text sets the scene, and you’re hurled from the Moroccan coast to the ancient market of Jemaa Al Fna, an outpost of the trans-Saharan trade route. Goods attract crowds, and crowds attract artists, sorcerers, monkey handlers, and other wielders of spectacle. When night falls, musicians wheel out speakers and lights powered by car batteries and sear eardrums with punishing picking patterns on electric ouds, banjos, and mandolins. Onlookers clap and sing along, changing rhythms and melodies in unison and helping to build the ecstatic aesthetic of some of the world’s greatest street music. –Ty Otis

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
(Polari Pictures; in theaters)
What happens when a young, gay cellist from Iowa drifts to San Francisco, circa 1970? He begins an artistic odyssey in which he hooks up with people like Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, and David Byrne–and compared to them he is a strange, adventurous, and driven experimentalist. Or anyway, that’s the story on Arthur Russell, who died in 1992 but whose music is enjoying a resurgence. He played innovative contemporary music with the likes of Glass, then veered into rock ‘n’ roll, became a disco superstar, and finally retreated into a bedroom studio where he perfected solo “echo music.” The tender and appreciative documentary Wild Combination blends honest interviews with ample musical interludes. In the end, it’s hard to tell if Russell was a troubled genius, or just troubled. –Joseph Hart

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