Vividly illustrating Australia’s devastating “Black Summer” wildfires, which raged off and on from June 2019 into May 2020, Eva Orner‘s new non-fiction film Burning attempts to document a horrific event while engaging with the thorny political questions surrounding climate change. Using footage of protests surrounding the 2019 COP25 conference as a structuring device, Orner threads together numerous talking heads into a scathing indictment of the governmental neglect and corporate malfeasance that has hindered progress on climate change policy every step of the way. The film is bracing in its righteous anger, but Orner’s attempts at covering such huge swaths of information in such a brief running time sometimes suggests a Cliffs Notes version of a much larger, more complicated project.
Orner begins with Greg Mullins, a former Fire and Rescue Commissioner who recounts Australia’s long history with damaging bush fires. Alongside archival footage of firemen battling raging infernos, Mullins explains how catastrophes once thought to be once-in-a-decade occurrences have become more and more frequent, and how ill-prepared people are to do battle with them. He explains how previously bad fires would typically last for a week; this one lasted for over three months. Interviews with author and scientist Tim Flannery give more background on the overwhelming evidence of climate change directly affecting our everyday lives, as well as the differing levels of catastrophe to come based on 1.5 degrees of warming versus 2 degrees. Orner also interviews journalist Marian Wilkinson, who offers a brief summation of current Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s craven attempts to dismiss or otherwise ignore climate change while insisting on coal as an essential pillar of the Australian economy (indeed the film goes out of its way to paint Morrison as a Trumpian figure). There’s also young climate activist Daisy Jeffrey, on hand to explain the efforts of the current generation to hold elected officials accountable for their actions — or, as in this case, their inaction.
Burning is a noble call to arms — a purposefully blunt, didactic tool that one could imagine being a useful pedagogical sledgehammer. Unfortunately, it’s not much of an aesthetic object. Orner has remarkable footage of the fires, much taken from personal phone cameras and the like, which elevates the film beyond being a simple PowerPoint presentation. But the constant cutting between this footage and the same handful of talking head interviews makes the film feel somehow smaller, less expansive in scope. The film ends with some horrifying numbers — five million kilometers of land, roughly the size of Europe, burned during “Black Summer” — and an urgent call for action, a perhaps futile gesture as the just-concluded COP26 conferences have produced yet another round of empty, vague gestures and non-binding, unenforceable carbon reduction goals. Burning warns that time is running out without fully grappling with the possibility that it might already be too late.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
From the outside, Peter Nicks’ documentaries follow in the path of Frederick Wiseman’s institutional portraits. Nicks’s first, second, and third films (The Waiting Room, The Force, Homeroom) correspond to the subjects Wiseman arrived at for his second, third, and fourth (High School, Law & Order, Hospital). Critics have casually linked the two and called Nicks’ approach vérité, and all of this suggests the term and the affinity are baseless, or at least inexact.
The largest gulf between Nicks’ approach and Wiseman’s is surely how they conceive of knowledge. For Nicks, who structures Homeroom like a yearbook — generational distinctions, student events, and major clubs take center stage in all the sequences that precede the COVID-19 outbreak — meaning can be approached at face value. Vérité here seems to mean that there aren’t any location tags, voice-of-god narrators, or staged interviews. But, as in an extended TV news report, Nicks finds analogues for all of these conventions: establishing shots, radio snippets, and, conveniently, the to-camera addresses of student Instagram broadcasts.
Wiseman famously said that he enters an institution without doing advance research: though they don’t all bear this out equally, his films are the evidence of what he has learned. Nicks, on the other hand, is aligned with the majority of documentaries that receive distribution in North America: that is, those meant to back up a stirring takeaway. Though the film settles on a handful of recurring subjects, its main character is Denilson Garibo, a student director on the Oakland Unified School District board, a passionate orator advancing a community cause. Months before the pandemic, the call is to “Cut the police” that patrol and endanger school halls rather than approve a proposed budgetary diminishment of student services.
What’s amazing, though, is how little Nicks and his team are able to capture. I mean this not in terms of access or of the likely hundreds of hours that didn’t make it into the film’s final edit, but in terms of students’ experience (the film is not concerned with teachers or other school staff). By fitting its idea of an education to coverage of events that take Garibo on a heroic journey, the film narrows school life into the restoration of faith in a political process. (The few in-class scenes are depicted as inessential: the rare moments where instead of conveying a distinct speaker’s voice, the film leaves the clamor of diegetic sound intact.)
The film’s funding might explain some of this: it’s produced by Davis Guggenheim’s Concordia Studio, which is backed by major Democrat funder Laurene Powell Jobs. But it’s also, more generally, a fallacy of “kids are the future” thinking to privilege the most adult-like behavior and sentiments that can be found among the young. In Wiseman’s approach, even his most overdetermined structural conceits leave room for individual scenes, allowed to play out with a condensed theatricality, to disturb and annoy and surprise. For Nicks, everything is predicated on a generalized hype that peaks in star moments like a closing montage set to the slam poetry of Edgar Galvez, a student finally granted his spotlight after the pandemic canceled the school’s production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights (in which he was set to star). In this way, Homeroom foregrounds particular students and their passions, but unquestioningly follows the received wisdom of high-performing achievement.
Writer: Michael Scoular
One of the many tensions in American life exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic is the stigmatization, or worse, that many in this country place on Asian Americans. The new documentary from Debbie Lum chronicles one stressful senior year for a class of overachieving (largely) Asian American students at San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School and, since it was shot prior to the pandemic, it’s both spared the burden of grappling with some of the more overt racism that’s been in the news since COVID started, while also benefiting from the heightened awareness of Asian racism that those headlines have brought to the forefront of cultural discourse. That said, the now obvious urgency to have hard discussions about the derogatory and dangerous stereotypes that Asian Americans are subjected to makes the affable, audience-friendly tone that Lum favors for Try Harder! feel like a missed opportunity.
It’s an irony seemingly lost on Lum that her limited engagement with the handful of students she interviews in Try Harder! doesn’t do much to break them out of the stereotype which she acknowledges that college admission boards view them through: We mostly see them in classrooms, studying, discussing school with parents, or in one calculated scene that breaks them out of that sphere, busting moves to Rich Brian at a school dance. The general lack of scope on any individuals’ life here might have been an invitation for Lum to delve deeper into the disconnect between Lowell’s old-fashioned, grade-centric approach to college prep and the university system’s rapidly changing criteria for admission, or even the more fundamental failures of the latter to creatively vet applicants. But generally, that isn’t the pathway Try Harder! chooses; instead, the film falls back on the neatly packaged, audience-pleasing narratives of its individual students, with Lowell ultimately viewed as an appropriate catalyst for assimilation into a collegiate status quo that you wonder if Lum even finds particularly in need of reassessment.
A better film would really hold an institution like Stanford’s feet to the fire: In a display of casual, but still blatant racism that’s recounted by one student, a Stanford recruiter, when pressed about the extremely low acceptance rate of Lowell applicants, is quoted as saying, “Do you want everyone at your college to look the same?” And while Lum certainly demonstrates at least an understanding of, and a frustration with, the systemic racism that Lowell seniors are forced to navigate as they weigh their college options, Try Harder! registers as less a probing reflection of its sociopolitical environment than a carefully groomed product of its filmic context, with forbearers like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom very much in its sights — because Lum also knows full well that “looking the same as everything else” can mean a tried-and-true path to commercial success for this surface-level, Sundance-bowing documentary.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over
A recent episode of Saturday Night Live included the latest iteration of a recurring sketch, “The Dionne Warwick Talk Show,” which parodies Warwick’s latter-day pop-culture presence as a Twitter wag, taking quizzically bemused, gentle potshots at current music stars. As portrayed by SNL cast member Ego Nwodim, Warwick ran through a rapid succession of interview guests — including fake versions of Miley Cyrus, Jason Mraz, and Post Malone, along with the real Ed Sheeran — and then haughtily declared, “I’m tired of interviewing people who are not icons,” before introducing her final guest, the real Dionne Warwick. The warm and enthusiastic reception she received at her appearance was proof, if you needed it, of how beloved this artist remains. The fake Warwick asked the real Warwick, “Dionne, why are you perfect?” Warwick imperiously responded, “Darling, I’m not perfect. I’m just very, very good.”
Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley’s gushingly uncritical documentary, is a feature-length answer to the question posed to Warwick in that SNL sketch. Heilbroner and Wooley — the latter of whom co-wrote Warwick’s autobiography and children’s book, and scripted an upcoming Warwick biopic — don’t even attempt to make a visually or formally interesting film. This is about as standard as doc packages get. The only slight structural variation on this rigid norm is that the film weirdly opens with a montage of scene clips that are repeated later in extended form, so it basically functions as a self-contained trailer.
You will search in vain for any sort of analysis or insight into Warwick’s work and personal life that goes deeper than her Wikipedia entry. In fact, Wikipedia would probably be more informative about certain details of Warwick’s story. Her family life, for instance, is barely discussed, other than her sons opining about what a great mother she is. Also, her roundly mocked involvement with the Psychic Friends Network, as well as the financial mismanagement that forced her to declare bankruptcy, is similarly just barely touched upon. This all smacks of a thoroughly authorized portrait, one that allows not a millimeter of space for anything not approved by its subject.
Still, this is a pleasant and comfortable watch, and a welcome reminder of the remarkable achievements of this talented artist. Warwick’s 1960’s run of singles with songwriter/producers Burt Bacharach and Hal David include some of the greatest pop songs ever recorded, especially 1964’s “Walk On By,” a brilliantly executed, string-laden expression of heartbreak. Warwick’s groundbreaking efforts to collapse the barriers between R&B and pop, expanding the reach of, and career possibilities for, Black singers and musicians, are appropriately celebrated. Also, one can’t help but admire her decision to donate all the profits of her collaborative single “That’s What Friends Are For,” a massive #1 hit in 1985, to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), to Warwick’s own financial detriment. (Even more remarkably, the film credits Warwick with forcing Ronald Reagan to utter the word “AIDS” for the first time in public, in association with this endeavor.) Ultimately, it’ll be left to others to give Dionne Warwick the full, comprehensive appreciation she deserves, but in the meantime, this’ll have to do.
Writer: Christopher Bourne
The Forgotten Ones
It seems fair to suggest that The Forgotten Ones is a film for the Western Jews, communities of the diaspora, a collective lost to the Zionist campaign that has raged for decades. But, it’s not a work that forces them to contend with these internalizations of Zionism — indeed, it shirks this conversation rather bluntly — and it instead operates as a film that positions white supremacy at the core of the culture’s so-called “promised land.” It sees said promise galvanized by an Ashkenazi base, organized to reject the racialized groups of Sephardim, Beta Israeli and, as the film’s title highlights, The Forgotten Ones, the Mizrahi, groups of Jews from surrounding Arab countries. Through the film, directed by Michale Boganim, we glean a collage of fractured perspective, jumping from city to city (locations that were once orchestrated to be the self-built ghettos for these minority groups of Jews, built atop the land of exiled Palestinians), as we listen to anecdotes and personal histories from a collection of individuals. And while these stories are maddening, and while these accounts do work to demystify the utopian vision of Zionism, Israel as land of Milk and Honey, it’s simply not enough.
The Forgotten Ones, while carrying the weight of an oppressive history with good intentions, remains distanced from the dialectics necessary to fully grasp the hierarchical systems constructed within this white-supremacist ethno-state. While acknowledging the internalizations of racism and the state-fuelled wish for Mizrahim to estrange themselves from their neighboring Palestinian populations, the film fails to reckon with the fact that regardless of these systemic practices by the state, any Jew remains in a position that benefits off of the occupying forces, to the detriment of and continued violence inflicted upon the Palestinian people. Further, it remains a fractured portrait of talking points. The film’s subjects condense their whole lives into a few minutes, into quotes that can be remembered and cited as examples of racial violence. And therein lies the biggest issue with a pre-conditioned common understanding of digestibility and accessibility in the runtime of expositional documentary films; 90 to 120 minutes is no time at all to gain a remotely honest depiction of its subject matter. Yet, it’s quite often that we are confronted in the West with these exact types of films, wishing to address decades or centuries of violence and dehumanization in the span of mere minutes. What does this do to the stories entrusted to the filmmakers? Is it responsible to allow these narratives to become the endpoint to a series of ellipses? It feels like little more than rhetoric tourism. Take, for example, the films of Wang Bing, the brilliant Chinese documentarian who all too well understands the failures of the expositional form. His work realizes the necessity for full-bodied encapsulation, negating conventional structures of efficiency to offer, instead, a truth that realizes 1:1 parity, one that allows the story of the one who tells it to be edited only by the very mind who speaks it.
Of course, this is a matter of discourse as we grapple with the dialectics of the form, an ongoing debate of what narrativity precludes in documentary. The Forgotten Ones shirks any dialectical approach to history, instead focused on the immediacy of emotionality, on the reaction of a Jewish ignorance to the racial violence enacted on fellow tribespeople. But does that present enough of a utility? Is it worth it in the long run to play such a short game? I’m not sure that the film, in the form that it here exists in, at least partly flattening Mizrahi history and, coming after social uproar in response to Israeli violence against Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and the Gaza and the ’67 Occupied territories, is as sharp a political tool as it hopes to be. Of course, I am speaking as an Ashkenazi Jew, whose history is not being displayed here, and so perhaps my own positionality clouds the urgency that others might find here. In either case, the discussion of how we can responsibly represent and exhibit our history, of course, rages on.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind