Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is an extraordinary new film that puts a perplexing story into the hands and mouths of its dubious subjects.
Now that The Dark Knight Rises has arrived, that’s it for superheroes on the big screen this summer. So I guess it’s time for us to look back and make claims as to which is the best. Or you can wait one more week and check out a last minute contender: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Yes, it’s a documentary, which is all the more reason to consider it.
Real life superheroes are very common to the cinema if you don’t care about fantastical powers -- and judging by the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, you don’t. I’m not talking about the kind of costumed wannabes we saw in last year’s Superheroes, either. In the past few months we’ve had crusading documentary subjects like Mohamed Nasheed of The Island President, the revolutionary masses of Tahrir: Liberation Square and all the brave servicewomen (and man) coming forward against sexual abuse in the military in The Invisible War.
But Ai Weiwei, the title figure of Alison Klayman’s Sundance-winning film, is potentially the most appealing. And he’s actually a bit like the title character of The Dark Knight Rises. He’s not terribly interested in being a big hero, he’s harassed by the police and he’s disposed of by his enemy for a lengthy stretch of time. He doesn’t wear a mask, though, and that’s part of why he is so important and also part of why authorities want to stop him. If your thing is to expose the truth, it’s appropriate that you too are exposed, even if that’s more dangerous.
There are a lot of things I can point out about Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry to make it sound like a good time at the movies for those who normally aren’t interested in documentary. There’s a cat who can open doors, people who call themselves “trained assassins,” a paternity scandal and a central figure who is surely the most audacious, "punk rock" artist since Banksy. Like Exit Through the Gift Shop, this film, with its profanely humorous and profoundly rebellious subject could easily be embraced by younger and broader audiences.
I shouldn’t have to exaggerate elements and elevate minor scenes in this film to woo fanboys and general moviegoers, though. I find it strange that people put so much weight on the "realness" of the Dark Knight films and thoroughly work over their themes and political allegories to find relevance. If you want a story that you can link to the Occupy movement, check out You’ve Been Trumped (opening next Friday). If you want something pertaining to the financial crisis with focus on a billionaire protagonist whose wealth is drained, go see The Queen of Versailles.
And if you want a genuine, flawed hero living in a recognizable yet still somewhat strange setting, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is perfect. Ai is the hero China deserves and the hero we need, an enjoyable character through whom we can access an understanding of the human rights concerns he addresses and himself faces with his boldly political artwork and activism. The doc is an issue film by proxy, presenting a biographical portrait that in turn looks at contemporary China and how the nation deals with dissidents and is revealing of other major offenses pertaining to the Beijing Olympics, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the surveillance and censorship of its people.
In his 50s, Ai is an older man but he’s a very hip hero with lots of wonderful toys that he uses in his heroic endeavors. Mostly he’s immensely present in blogging and social media, particularly Twitter (follow him @aiww, if you can read Chinese), which he uses to chronicle the good and the bad days of living as an outspoken citizen in China. He also uses cameras, both on his phone and the handheld sort, to capture images and videos, including record of himself being beaten by a cop. And he’s even a documentarian on his own, with most of his films made available free on YouTube (watch Klayman's favorite, in full, below).
One of my favorite aspects about Klayman’s film, as well as Ai’s and those of other underground nonfiction filmmakers in China, is the prevalence of a kind of standoff that’s more powerful than any in Hollywood movies involving guns. In these moments, someone from the government points a camera at Ai, or there’s a closed circuit camera set up near his home, and then the artist or one of his videographers aims his lens back. Really it’s not even a standoff in a stalemate way, because the second camera is always the winner, the act showing that documentation trumps surveillance by rendering it redundant and useless.
Okay, maybe I’m a rare breed that gets giddily geeky at things like reflexive and highly metaphorical scenes in documentaries involving multiple cameras pointed every which way. There was a time when obsessing over comic books and wearing Batman T-shirts was uncool, too. And if great docs keep coming out that can be almost deceptively sold to the mainstream by seeming like a real life Usual Suspects (The Imposter) or resembling a trashy reality show (Queen of Versailles) or featuring a truly super hero like Ai Weiwei, some of which may be nearing a level of bait and switch that would qualify as false advertising, then maybe one day docs will be as much a mainstream commodity.
No, that will never happen, anymore than China will fall at the hands of an artist or Gotham will be completely villain-free in spite of a caped crusader guarding its streets. But I’m never sorry for dreaming that films like this can and will be seen by millions.
Certainly Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is my primary theatrical pick of the week, and I should also put out my high recommendation of The Queen of Versailles, which I mistakenly left out of my last Doc Talk column. But not far behind is Planet of Snails, a rare nonfiction romance film that’s now playing at NYC’s Film Forum. Like Versailles, this seemingly simplistic doc from South Korean director Yi Seung-jun works well in holding a mirror up to its audience in spite of focusing on characters we wouldn’t expect to relate to. Here it’s a blind and deaf writer and his diminutive wife, who clearly have their physical obstacles but also have one of the most perfectly affinitive relationships ever seen. They’re a couple worth comparing your own marriage or partnership to, and the film is a wonderful, poetic portrait of true love.
The most obvious pick for a new DVD release this week is Jiro Dreams of Sushi, an already popular documentary about a renowned 85-year-old chef in Japan and his restaurant that’s supposedly worth flying across the world solely to eat at. Like the food on display in beautiful close-ups, the film is a sleek reminder that simple can be fulfilling, and maybe even brilliant. Jiro is this year’s Bill Cunningham, in a way, for being the most lovable and modestly charming documentary star of the year, not to mention his similar old age. And it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as VOD/digital as of yesterday.
But my true choice for home video recommendation this week is the less-known Last Days Here, one of my favorites at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, which profiles crack-addicted heavy metal singer Bobby Liebling of the ‘70s group Pentagram. To continue along with addressing crossover appeal, I liken it to a mix of VH1 and A&E since it’s a bit of Where Are They Now? and bits of Intervention and Hoarders. Don’t think it’s just another in a long line of docs that look at old, forgotten music legends who are now washed-up and/or insane. The story is engaging and emotional and funny in surprising ways. And I have to be honest: when I like a rock doc that means it’s something very special. Add it to your rental queue or radar, because it hits DVD next Tuesday.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.