Dry Ground Burning
Documentaries don’t get much more hybrid than Dry Ground Burning, the new film from Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta. It’s a film about a gang of women in the Brazilian favela of Sol Nascente who elevate theft into a form of resistance, necessary to earn a living and survive Jair Bolsonaro’s urban war against the poor. Most of Dry Ground Burning focuses on three members of this informal gang and their work as gasolineiras — petrol pirates who tap into an underground crude oil pipeline, assemble the tools to refine it into gasoline, and then sell it to the motorcycle riders of the favela.
Much of the film is defined by sheer awe, the fact that we can barely believe what we’re witnessing. The women work in a gated encampment dominated by a bobbing oil well, endlessly pumping crude right out of the pipeline below and into cast-off metal drums collected for this purpose. How can a criminal operation not only be so overt, but so fully professional? Some commentators have compared Dry Ground Burning with George Miller’s Mad Max movies in the sense that they both depict a world in which industrial equipment is up for grabs, to be reassembled by small bands of privateers for their personal use. In Mad Max, of course, this is occasioned by the complete breakdown of society as we know it, and while this is not exactly the case in Brazil, Queirós and Pimenta lean hard on the metaphor, characterizing life in the favelas as a kind of 24/7 terrordome, beset by federal drones and fascistic armored police.
We meet many of the gasolineiras but mostly focus on Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), a tough-as-nails woman who has just gotten out of prison after nearly eight years; her half-sister and best friend Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who organized the oil piracy and whose fierce ethic of protecting her loved ones is guided by Christianity; and Andreia (Andreia Viera), who has formed the Prison Peoples Party (PPP) and is running for a parliamentary seat on a progressive, pro-favela platform. As this may suggest, Dry Ground Burning takes a perspective on the gasolineiras that may be controversial in some circles, namely that Brazilian society has broken down to such a degree that their activities are no more criminal than those of the federal government. Think about it: in Europe and North America, activism is destroying pipelines in order to prevent the production of fossil fuels. But in Sol Nascente, activism (and survival) takes the form of counter-labor, seizing the means of production away from the ruling class.
Considering the social and legal gray areas addressed in Dry Ground Burning, Queirós and Pimenta have applied radical filmmaking as a way to devise a form suitable to the specific challenges of the milieu. We see the gasolineiras pumping oil, selling gas by the liter, and defending their well against the cops. But all of this is staged, fictionalized in a manner that indemnifies the women against reprisal. These passages vaguely resemble Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films, in terms of their dramatic lighting and attention to filmic texture. But methodologically, Queirós and Pimenta are more in line with Roberto Minervini and his reconstruction of events based on the testimonies of his subjects. There are more obviously “real” segments in Dry Ground Burning, such as a lively church service and a pop-up dance club in an empty field. It is clear that some portions of Dry Ground Burning are fictionalized, with the participants performing characters who are essentially themselves.
The social and political environment Queirós and Pimenta are depicting certainly demands this wide-ranging experimentation. Indeed, I have never seen a film quite like Dry Ground Burning. At the same time, it often feels like multiple films in competition, different filmic approaches stitched together and, to some extent, rejecting the graft. This refusal to form a whole, the inability to “get the picture” as one would in a more expository documentary, is absolutely endemic to Dry Ground Burning and its fundamental project. This means that, to an extent, usual criteria don’t apply here. Nevertheless, the film is often sprawling and disjointed, which blunts the impact of its most remarkable passages. Dry Ground Burning is a truly experimental film, since its makers have to reinvent cinematic language to some extent just to approach the topic at hand. I think Queirós and Pimenta have provided some bold new pathways for hybrid documentaries, even if the final product reflects this spontaneous invention in both dazzling and deleterious ways.
Writer: Michael Sicinski
Hlynur Pálmason’s third feature, Godland, represents a massive leap in scale for the Icelandic director. Like his sophomore feature A White, White Day (2019), the film observes a taciturn lead as he is battered by myriad external forces amid an unforgiving landscape. But Pálmason has widened his canvas considerably, choosing to enfold this ostensible character study into the colonialist history of Denmark’s rule over Iceland, following a young Danish priest, Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), as he is sent over by the Church to establish a parish. This time around, the director has also given his film an intriguing historical hook: onscreen text informs us that Godland was inspired by seven wet plate photographs taken by a Danish priest, the very first to document Iceland’s southeast coast. Thus the film’s first hour, which follows the priest’s arduous Icelandic passage in the company of a hostile guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson, the lead of A White, White Day), imagines the conditions in which the plates were taken. This allows for a heightened contrast between the journey’s physical strain, which nearly kills Lucas, and the observational detachment of his eye as a photographer — as when the slaughter of a lamb is immediately followed by him going off “to find a picture.” The historical background also motivates the look of the film, whose 35mm footage maintains an unprocessed appearance (rough, rounded corners, specks of dust, and the like) closer to the images a 19th-century naturalist might have produced. For good measure, Godland also includes not one but two title cards (the first in Danish, the second in Icelandic) and a central character dynamic reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).
How one responds to that latter comparison is a decent indicator of how one will take to Godland, since Pálmason has something of Anderson’s frustratingly opaque approach to character and psychology. In the film’s second half, which follows Lucas’ uneasy acclimation to the village he is to serve, Pálmason creates a veil of mystery around Lucas and Ragnar, whose growing enmity toward each other develops through a number of significant narrative turns. But he often neglects to position the audience in relation to this mystery, which renders his characters into mere chess pieces and the plot developments merely sensational. (Needless to say, the exploration of colonial history remains little more than a thematic signpost.) Still, Pálmason at least maintains a focus on delivering stark, elemental imagery: Godland often cuts away to natural detail for its own sake, includes numerous depictions of animal life, and, despite centering on a priest, maintains a resolute emphasis on the material over the spiritual. And the Icelandic director is in this respect consistent: the most notable flourishes in A White, White Day were likewise detached from narrative and firmly wedded to the environment. In a self-referential gesture, the time-lapse effect of that film’s opening shot, in which a landscape is filmed in a variety of weather conditions, reappears here no less than three times, clearly meant to underscore how the conflicts of human life are dwarfed by the enormities of landscape. Still, a touch of self-aggrandizement is far preferable to what Godland ultimately adds up to: a portentous journey of false mystery and thudding mechanism, a film whose aesthetic ambitions are, in the end, merely decorative.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
Project Wolf Hunting
A symphony of wanton destruction, writer-director Kim Hongsun’s new action-sci-fi-horror mashup is less a movie than a taxonomy of grievous bodily harm, an almost non-stop parade of viscera and spilt blood. Premiering in TIFF’s much vaunted Midnight Madness section, Project Wolf Hunting is, for a certain type of viewer, what one might refer to as a “hoot.” The setup is simple; after some negotiating between countries, Korea has extradited hundreds of criminals who have been on the lam in the Philippines. Airports are deemed a security risk, so officials pack dozens of the worst-of-the-worst onto a huge barge, along with a sizable police escort. If you’re thinking this sounds like Con Air, you’re right, although the similarities only go so far. Of course one of the gangster-types has arranged to take over the ship, his goons infiltrating the staff and initiating a break-out as soon as they enter international waters. It’s pure bedlam, as rival gangs and miscellaneous psychos immediately begin attacking each other, the ship’s crew, and the police in a free-for-all melee that occupies most of the film’s first half. After the dust settles and the sprawling cast has been whittled down, there emerge a few main characters: the insane Jong-du (Seo In-guk), a particularly vicious psychopath covered in elaborate tattoos (and blood; this guy bathes in the red stuff); cops Dae-woong (Sung Dong-il) and Da-yeon (Jung So-min), who are just trying to stay alive; and the mysterious Do-il (Jang So-mi), upholding the venerable tradition of Korean genre films having at least one certifiable heartthrob in the cast. After a series of increasingly brutal beatings, stabbings, and close-quarters shootouts, the remaining cast eventually assembles in the ship’s engine room for a final confrontation. Curiously, what would appear to be the climax in any other film happens here at the halfway point. That’s because Kim has decided to make his movie even more sublimely ridiculous, as a genetically engineered super-soldier (Choi Gwi-hwa) escapes his (its?) holding cell and begins running amok.
And just in the nick of time, too. For all the bloodshed on display, the beatings do eventually become repetitive. Arterial spray and smooshed brain matter are rendered in lovingly detailed practical effects, a nice change of pace in this era of CGI-everything. But there aren’t really characters here, despite Kim’s efforts to give all these people a few traits to differentiate them. Once the grotesque monster arrives, all bets are off, and what we thought were main characters are dispatched with wild abandon. There are a couple of flashbacks — one explains the origins of the super-soldier, the other Do-il’s tragic backstory — as well as a ludicrous conspiracy plot involving a pharmaceutical company that created the monstrosity in the first place. By the final reel, multiple super-powered soldiers are engaged in hand-to-hand combat, tearing the ship and each other apart with their bare hands. It’s a lot, maybe too much. There isn’t a square inch of the ship that hasn’t been covered in crimson red or piled with bodies and torn limbs in hideous tableaux. It’s disgusting, probably even offensive to good taste. But like the early 2000s wave of Japanese splatter-punk titles such as Meatball Machine, Tokyo Gore Police, and Machine Girl, it’s all so cartoonishly garish that it becomes absurdly funny. See this one late at night and with a raucous crowd.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a film as bifurcated as its title suggests: Documentarian Laura Poitras attempts to intercut a broad-ranging, linear biography of artist Nan Goldin, told largely through Goldin’s own still photographs with narration, with scenes of Goldin’s activist work in 2018 with an organization she founded called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) which targeted Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family to hold them responsible for the opioid crisis. There’s a third, smaller part to this film’s structure, and it has to do with Goldin’s memories of her elder sister, Barbara, who was institutionalized at a young age and eventually committed suicide. Reviewing a trove of materials — journals, medical documents, and other personal effects — Goldin comes to the realization that medical malpractice and social stigmatism played enormous roles in her sister’s death, as did the abuse of authority figures that she herself once trusted. Poitras, then, aims to use the quite large scope of her documentary to thread this needle: To show how Goldin’s life has been defined by an interconnected series of public and private crises, and how at seemingly every turn our institutions have failed and Goldin’s trauma (expressed through her art) has accumulated.
This is a very ambitious film. Unfortunately, only portions of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed play to Poitras’s particular strengths. As Poitras proved with her two absorbing portraits of Edward Snowden (Citizenfour) and Julian Assange (Risk), she has a knack for turning complex legal and political minutiae into taut, procedural-oriented cinema. And so the passages of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed focused on the various protests staged by P.A.I.N., and specifically the surveillance that Goldin and her associates find themselves subjected to as a result, are right in this filmmaker’s wheelhouse. However, even those sequences suffer from having to share space with the other half of this film — the cross-cutting structure kills the momentum and pacing of the present-day struggle. The larger issue with the retrospective narrative that Poitras weaves through this film, though, amounts to something of a conceptual failure. Goldin’s narration — which covers some fifty years of bohemian living in Boston, Provincetown, and Manhattan — is paired with a slide-show aesthetic that explicitly nods to Goldin’s own medium. Some passages of this film are actually direct excerpts from Goldin’s exhibited slide-show works, notably 1986’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. But other parts merely mimic that aesthetic with Poitras’s own assemblage of photographs, and also with one crucial difference: the narration. Goldin’s slide shows were often projected with soundtracks, but the specific histories of the photos, at least, were not explicated. The photos here are deprived of that crucial interpretive element, and instead presented in a context that tends to betray their power.
By the final section of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the connection between the two halves of the film, and why encompassing so much history is important to its goals, becomes clearer, and it’s further elucidated by one painful observation from Goldin: “the wrong things are kept private in society, and it destroys people.” But there’s an unexplored tension in that quote and how it directly relates to Goldin’s crusade against the Sacklers, since a large part of P.A.I.N.’s platform (and a goal they ultimately accomplish) is to have the Sacklers’ names removed from the art museums that their pharmaceutical empire helped fund. Near the end of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, and in fact just after the scene featuring the aforementioned quote, Goldin admires a plaque at the Metropolitan Museum of Art whose dedication has been changed from “the Sackler family” to “private donors,” celebrating the former’s erasure. And however one feels about the move in different spaces of society right now to remove the name and likeness of justifiably reviled people, if you open this theoretical door, by putting these two scenes so close to each other, you should walk through it; that Poitras doesn’t speaks to just how thinly spread her attentions are in a film that’s trying to cover far too many things.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
The Blue Caftan
Maryam Touzani’s The Blue Caftan, like many movies of a similar ilk, has nothing but the best of intentions — though, that’s about all it really has going for it, save for a few solid lead performances. Saleh Bakri and Lubna Azabal are Halim and Mina, an elderly Moroccan couple who manage a local caftan store in Salé. The two hire a fresh-faced apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), to assist them with the shop’s day-to-day activities; you see, the couple has fallen behind on their massive backlog of orders, as they employ traditional hand-sewing techniques as opposed to relying on a machine. Considering how many people demand that they speed up their arduous processes, these must be the most sought-after caftans in all of Morocco — that, or there just simply needs to be some/any contrived reason for why Youssef enters into the picture. Either way, Halim, a closeted homosexual, begins to take a strong liking to the young man beyond a student-teacher relationship; Mina, respectful yet understandably a little shaken, is forced to come to terms with her husband’s true identity. But by how much can one really say anyone comes to anything resembling a hard truth here? The film moves so languidly that any potentially devastating emotional blows have been softened: The first time Halim and Youssef even begin to verbally profess their love for one another, we’re already halfway through the coy film. One could call it being deliberate with your pacing, but since not much has really occurred beforehand — other than what took about two sentences to sum up — it’s more Touzani stalling the drama before it actually has time to begin complicating itself.
This studied approach works well whenever Bakri and Azabal share a tender moment together (both actors provide a lot of emotional grace to some rather one-dimensional characters) but flatlines whenever it supposedly begins to enter into a taboo subject matter. Thematic underpinnings of class, gender, and modernity creep up every once and a while, but are buried so deep into the text that they become an afterthought; this is the type of thinly-conceived film where everything that happens is divorced from a larger outside world (the only thing Halim and Mina ever seem to talk about it what’s happened a few scenes previous), where every dramatic element’s employment is to only further the narrative inch-by-inch until we crawl right up to the ending. Which, you’d have to be a stone not to get a little teary-eyed over, at least in its abstract — but it also completely simplifies what should be a complex relationship dynamic. For as much as the film’s premise suggests that a litany of tough questions will arise, with a series of even tougher answers to follow, Touzani is never interested in asking anything that could possibly upset her audience. All the thorny particulars of this The Blue Caftan have been trimmed away, resulting in a bland “crowd-pleaser” that spins its wheels for far too long.
Writer: Paul Attard
Ever Deadly opens with an unbroken seven-minute shot of katajjaq, or Inuit throat singing, featuring musician and writer Tanya Tagaq and performance artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory in face-to-face formation, and composed in a tight close-up that frames only the women’s heads. It’s a thrilling sequence, as the artform is likely unfamiliar to most and unlike most general conceptions of music, guttural in form and feeling almost anarchic as you follow the duet through. The performers move to match the performance’s flow, their faces tilting and moving around each other — sometimes touching, sometimes breaking into smiles — in a kind of physical emulation of their sonic shared act. It’s a fittingly singular and thoughtful way to open a film about an artist as singular and thoughtful as Tagaq, and Ever Deadly proceeds according to this unpredictability, sliding between biography, essay film, and concert doc at any moment.
Unfortunately, as co-directed by the artist herself and Chelsea McMullan, the film suffers from a lack of focus, despite its idiosyncratic tendencies. Following this opening sequence, Ever Deadly navigates Tagaq’s personal history, features several extended sequences of her riveting musical performances, and even indulges that familiar documentary favorite — animated sequences set to poetic voiceover (here, Tagaq reading excerpts from part auto-fiction, part poetry novel Split Tooth). The result is a messy assemblage of necessary rhetoric and personal excavation, but without the sense of any real throughline. Which, of course, isn’t to suggest that the documentary form needs to be saddled with such reductive constraints as a “narrative” so to speak — indeed, by and large, such works are better for their absence — but there’s simply no organizing principle here to hold the disparate parts together. Various scenes hold immense power and conviction in isolation — particularly ones that recount a broader cultural history through personal experience — but too often these elements feel disconnected, as if Tagaq had a checklist of discursive waypoints to hit but no clear conception of how to make them speak to each other outside of pure personal portraiture — which is perhaps authentic to the way we all would narrativize our own lives given the opportunity, but which doesn’t make for a focused vision for viewers.
Even the segments that capture Tagaq’s live performances, which are the most viscerally thrilling moments in Ever Deadly, fail to translate adequately to the medium. Effectively communicated is the immersiveness that is part and parcel to a Tagaq performance, the haunting, enveloping atmosphere that her sonics are able to create and cast, but that experiential quality isn’t fully realized for film. There’s never the sense that the viewer is occupying the same space as the listeners at these performances, a tall order to be sure, but one that must necessarily be the primary objective of shooting something like this. Indeed, these sequences of the film would perhaps be stronger were viewers to close their eyes, which is both a testament to Tagaq’s singular skill and a death knell for a work of visual art, something of an inverse of those documentaries that would be better without the intrusive narrativizing of remarkable visual expression. There’s no real energy even to the way these scenes are rendered, but instead just an overreliance on close-up and a lot of revolving around a sweaty and admittedly mesmerizing Tagaq. But force of presence isn’t enough to compensate for how haphazardly all of this is cut together or how messily its various threads are woven. There’s a great film that could be made about Tagaq, one that more elegantly centers her and her artistry within a larger socio-political discourse and landscape and leverages the alternately primal and sensual viscerality of her work to more impressively filmic ends. Ever Deadly is not that film, and despite often proving fascinating on a scene-by-scene basis, the lingering impression is that of co-directors flummoxed by how to successfully package their material.
Writer: Luke Gorham