Songs of Earth
On November 14, 2023, this year, the United States federal government released the National Climate Assessment, the latest report comprehensively spelling out the climate crisis’ projected risks and impacts. The prognosis isn’t pretty, with experts concluding it’s effectively too late to prevent many things from worsening over the next decade. The question of how to approach a “man versus nature” narrative today, given the complexion of our news cycles and the strains of doomerist pessimism spreading in our cultural zeitgeist, is an intriguing one. Typical conflicts of this sort invite thematic exploration into concepts like perseverance, the fatal avarice and ambition of humankind, and the destructive march of extractive, capitalistic empire — undoubtedly topics that a talented screenwriter could transfigure into compellingly topical dramatic fare.
In her latest film, the nature documentary Songs of Earth, Norwegian writer-director Margreth Olin aims instead for a hushed, contemplative mode of witness. The film’s setting of Oldedalen, the river valley part of Norway’s Vestland county, is as majestic in its beauty as it is almost alien. Between the extreme close-ups and wide shots of verdant hills, stark snowfields, pristinely blue streams, and treacherously steep shelves of rock and ice, the camera gorgeously communicates the sheer scale of the landscape’s impressiveness in one glorious wallpaper shot after another. Key to that magnificence is the near complete absence of any human presence, save for the native octogenarian, Jørgen, whom we follow as he traverses the terrain. Often, he is hilariously dwarfed by his surroundings, which he peers back at with a wholesome sense of appreciation and awe. In Songs of Earth, Olin conjures a thoroughly existential mood, yet layers it with a grounded peacefulness, the perfect tonic for the paroxysms of dread and bitterness cropping up across our “For You” pages and feeds. As the title would suggest, she strives for the sweetness of the lyrical, arguing that we ought to face the impersonal might of the natural world with a desire for harmony.
Observing Oldedalen through Olin’s eyes, the word that comes to mind is permanence. Contrasted with Jørgen’s frailness, the ledges, peaks, and summits are the towering facets of an immovable, almighty beast. The sound design sells this association, amplifying the gusts of the wind and the quaking rumbles, thumps, and cracks. Alternating and collaborating with an ethereal soundscape that erupts into symphonic strings, the sonic choices result in a sort of ode to the valley’s supreme splendor. There are notes of strangeness as well, aural reminders that nature is home to terrestrial forces as remote from our commonplace understanding as any cosmic marvel. But never are we meant to descend into abject terror. Still, Olin shows that the environment doesn’t hold back its brutality. Jørgen recounts his ancestors’ experience with the nearby Ramnefjellet mountain, which in 1905 killed his great-grandmother’s brother and brother’s entire family in a landslide. Jørgen speaks of the tragedy’s sad horror with a detachment that’s not callous but conscious. He has processed this historical trauma and taken from it an improved understanding of his place relative to the place he has called home. Songs of Earth makes continuous mention of old songs and sayings, snatches of poetry and religious ruminations on death and the soul, human traditions offering wisdom and healing, and reaching — through those — a sort of permanence, the comfort of the everlasting. Through this symmetry, the film summons a subtle force of its own, elevating its text to rousing effect.
In the original Norwegian, Olin’s film is aptly titled Fedrelandet, meaning “Fatherland.” Jørgen, who is Olin’s father, is the documentary’s human centerpiece, with his wife and Margreth’s mother, Magnhild, along as a minor, supporting presence. Jørgen reminisces about his upbringing and community, banters and dances with Magnhild, remarks on the grandeur encompassing him, and otherwise enjoys the slow, solitary passage of time. His hikes are divided across four chapters, each corresponding with a season, beginning with the blossoming of spring and concluding with the clean slate of winter. It’s a temporal journey that reflects the progression from life to death, all the more poignant considering his advanced age. He isn’t afraid of death, however, and accepts his inevitable end without bitter or arrogant protest, citing the natural succession of one generation to the next as a plain fact of life. Jørgen’s musings comprise the narrative backbone of Songs of Earth, and as such provide the film with a loose, meandering, and at times recursive structure with only the most basic chronological thrust. The spotlighted information lacks much of any compounding architecture, instead surfacing more extemporaneously, as if to evoke the liberated flow of a free verse poem. Mileage, then, may vary for a viewer depending on how sturdy of a story thread they prefer, as well as whether they feel the film starts to see diminishing returns with the excess of nature shots. Regardless, Olin has a stirring, elegiac film here, its strengths found not just in its images and tones, but also its essences. The shots of crumpling glaciers in its final stretches reacquaint us with the present, suggesting that no matter our mythologies, our ecosystems, like our loved ones, are far from truly permanent fixtures. We ought to be grateful, then, for what little time we have. — TRAVIS DESHONG
In the Rearview
The result is a quietly devastating act of resistance amid tragedy, as the film lingers not so much on particular families or even particular stories, but imprints the muted cacophony of emotions undertaken on their journey into memory. Relief from imminent death is painfully undercut by parents and children alike grieving for the dead and tussling with perpetual anxiety, although it’s the shell-shock and numbness that induces the greatest devastation — a little girl no longer speaks after her apartment was bombed, and another girl on the same ride attempts to cheer her up with cartoon drawings, despite being brutally acclimatized to the sound of planes: “We’ll die, that’s all.” The little girl responds with a smile and a small wolf’s howl. Here, Margaret Atwood’s pithy aphorism, that “war is what happens when language fails,” may be inverted and generalized to describe the impossibility of communication, even relation, between those who suffer and those who do not… [Previously Published Full Review] — MORRIS YANG
Time Bomb Y2K
Movies stamped with the HBO Documentary Films logo tend to fall into a very specific category of non-fiction image-making — a baseline level of competency, some slick graphics, and a certain aesthetic conservatism. Pedagogy is the name of the game, presenting facts in an easily digestible format and offering a broad survey of whatever subject is at hand. Marley McDonald and Brian Becker’s Time Bomb Y2K fits snugly into this mold, chronicling the build-up to the turn of the millennium and the fears, grounded or otherwise, that an apocalyptic event might occur at the strike of midnight.
Constructed entirely out of archival footage, the film deals specifically with the “Millennium Bug,” a programming shortcut that used only the “19” part of “1900” as a baseline for coding. The problem, as it is described here, was that when computer’s clocks switched from 1999 to 2000, there would be, or at least could be, a complete communication breakdown as computers assumed a return to 1900 instead of recognizing the change to 2000 (this was programming’s “original sin,” as one commentator ominously put it). As several people describe here, the worry was never so much about the failure of people’s personal computers, but rather the interruption of necessary infrastructure, air travel, and, most ominously, the world’s nuclear arsenals.
Beginning in 1996, McDonald and Becker paint a rosy picture of the then-burgeoning Internet: low-res, rudimentary video chats are cutting-edge tech, Bill Clinton gives press conferences about laying millions of miles of cable to connect the world, and brief clips of sci-fi movies show how ideas about virtual reality and cyberspace were already permeating the mainstream (a young Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic screaming about getting on the Internet is quite funny). TIME BOMB Y2K doesn’t have a main character, but a man named Peter de Jager, a former IBM employee and self-styled “Y2K Paul Revere,” becomes something of a functional throughline here, popping up on contemporaneous news programs to warn of impending disaster.
Clocking in at a breezy 80 minutes and change, Time Bomb Y2K is loosely structured as a countdown, moving from ‘96 to ‘97 to ‘98 and leading up to the stroke of midnight, 1999. Given the overall brevity, the film can only briefly touch on a wide swath of people and their various reactions: religious fundamentalists trumpet the impending Rapture, while survivalists bunker down and stock up on goods while gun sales skyrocket. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as there is plenty of footage of mutual aid meetings and community groups brainstorming how to help the disadvantaged if the worst should come to pass. The film highlights a key irony of global interconnectedness, an irony we still live with today, no closer to solving: people can communicate and share information like never before, but can also become isolated and checked out from society. It’s a warning that pops up in several scenes over the course of the film, which ends on a hopeful note of new beginnings and fresh starts.
It’s almost quaint to revisit two decades ago, given what we know now about dis- and misinformation, as well as the rise of social media. Ultimately, Time Bomb Y2K can’t quite overcome the sense that it’s merely a nostalgia piece; people too young to remember or not yet born will only get a partial understanding of what 1999 was actually like. A truly zeitgeist-minded thinker like J. Hoberman might’ve come up with something more substantial with this same material, or forward-minded filmmakers like Chloé Galibert-Laîné or Kevin B. Lee for that matter. But what we do have are glimpses of well-known figures like Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, and Putin, which suggest some of the trials to come in the 21st century. And while the filmmakers never even hint at 9/11, anyone old enough to remember the Millennium Bug would surely be aware of the defining event that was less than two years away. We didn’t know how well we had it, in other words. — DANIEL GORMAN
Lakota Nation vs. United States
Lakota Nation is a clear-eyed and incendiary unpacking of the ouroboros logic of the country’s fundamentally racist, colonizer historiography. As the title implies, this documentary is most specifically focused on the history of Lakota peoples, particularly their relation to the Black Hills of South Dakota as a cultural and spiritual mecca, but it’s still effortlessly illustrative as a synecdoche of the larger Indigenous history of displacement and dehumanization at the hands of white American hegemony. It follows, then, that the portrait the co-directors present isn’t only one of persecution and persistence on the part of Indigenous populations, but also a mining of the white rage — to connect this to another recent, essential work of sociological inquiry — that has existed and bloomed since the United States’ founding. But the duo are also savvy enough to keep Lakota Nation from slipping into a purely academic exercise… [Previously Published Full Review] — LUKE GORHAM
They Shot the Piano Player
The legacy of a venerated musician comprises the myriad testimonies in They Shot the Piano Player. Colleagues and family of Francisco Tenório Júnior share personal memories of a nearly forgotten figurehead in the Bossa Nova scene whose meteoric rise was brutally curtailed by his disappearance in 1976. The tragic intrigue of Tenório’s story is regaled through animation, an effective device in many a docudrama in the new millennium, yet one which can’t distract from other creative decisions made by the filmmakers. Chief among these liberties is foregrounding a fictional journalist as the audience surrogate. Jeff Harris (Jeff Goldblum) recounts, to a rapt audience at The Strand, the saga of uncovering Tenório’s identity after serendipitously stumbling upon his discography. His journey takes him across South America, from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires, the latter the site of Tenório’s disappearance. Harris is the Jerry Thompson to Tenório’s Charles Foster Kane, piecing together disparate accounts to form a portrait of a charismatic, 20th-century iconoclast.
But William Alland’s nondescript anonymity is hardly synonymous with Goldblum’s recognizably arrhythmic cadence, a distraction which only accentuates Harris’ monotonous function in expressing slack-jawed indignation toward the dark history of military dictatorships in the region. Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal emphasize the psychic toll that life under these repressive regimes had on their interview subjects, who frequently describe Tenório as an apolitical artist merely looking the part of a bedraggled communist. Yet for all their poignancy, these testimonials are inadequately contextualized within their expansive geopolitical milieu by Trueba’s script. Indeed, the directorial duo adopts the narrative of artmaking as a process burdened, rather than enriched, by political consciousness. The cross-pollination between Bossa Nova musicians and the European and American media of the late 1950s bolsters a romanticized historiography, one that includes a first-time viewing of Jules and Jim sending Milton Nascimento into a creative frenzy. If the seasoned aesthetes of mid-century pop culture aren’t beguiled by now, the explicit evocation of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the film’s English title should dispel any ambiguity over the intended key demographic. Adherents to Godard’s radical period should just be grateful there’s a fleeting reference to Breathless.
While it comes short of surveying the political nuances of its cosmopolitan milieu, They Shot the Piano Player admittedly gets some mileage from nostalgic spectacle. As in their previous project Chico and Rita, Mariscal and Trueba most thrillingly mine this vein with a bold palette that vivifies the past as a living memory for its caretakers, even as the animation’s movement remains quaintly rudimentary. There’s a coequal thrill in hearing a recording of “Embalo” awash in primary colors and seeing those same musicians, cast in the more detailed shadows of the present, play an intimate elegy for their lost friend. The affection both filmmakers hold for Bossa Nova’s pioneers yields some powerful gestures as some of Tenório’s closest friends and family struggle to articulate his absence; their words illustrate distinct attempts to collectively continue living in the wake of the military dictatorship. “I remember the movement of the house more than I remember him,” Elisa, one of Tenório’s adult children, remarks. It’s a poetically plainspoken observation that most trenchantly encapsulates the film’s urgent ambition to probe the paradox of living with the memory of ghosts. As their mother Carmen observes, she was never registered as a widow since her husband’s body was, after all, never officially recovered.
The cold bureaucracy of these state-sanctioned categorizations remains sadly relevant. Yet far too much of They Shot the Piano Player is spent having its guiding characters bluntly telegraph the emotional reaction expected of the audience. Trueba and Mariscal are banking on the nostalgia of American baby boomers weaned on Bossa Nova to educate them on an occluded tragedy. It’s a gamble whose earnest motives can only mask the inelegant bum notes played too often. — NICK KOUHI
Confessions of a Good Samaritan
Lane’s previous documentaries are known for taking a particularly askew approach to incendiary subject matters, including presenting a sympathetic view of the religious organization/First Amendment concern troll organization the Satanic Temple, and, even more inflammatory, critical punching bag and smooth jazz musician Kenny G. But the filmmaker’s body of work is arguably working against her here, creating expectations that the film will present some sort of counterintuitive thesis for the viewer to consider when much of the film plays like an earnest act of advocacy, all but urging people to consider altruistic donation themselves… [Previously Published Full Review] — ANDREW DIGNAN
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s 2018 documentary, was a visually stunning document of a truly impressive feat: Alex Honnold climbing the entirety of El Capitan without any ropes, harnesses, or other climbing equipment. But what elevated Free Solo, beyond the incredible images it captured, was the figure at its center. Honnold, a then-31-year-old with few cares in the world beyond his next climb, boasts a personality that takes up the entire screen, even when he exists only as a speck on the massive rock he is scaling. Since Free Solo, Honnold has been the face of rock climbing to the uninitiated, and few climbing documentaries that have come in Free Solo’s wake conclude without at least a cameo from Honnold — the resident expert witness.
Ashima, the latest in the growing canon of climbing films, features a similarly larger-than-life character. Ashima Shiraishi was 14 years old when she became only the second woman to conquer a V14 boulder problem. For those who don’t frequent their local climbing gym on a regular basis, suffice it to say that such an accomplishment is incredibly impressive; less than 0.01 percent of climbers have completed a V14 problem. But it isn’t Ashima herself who seems to burst from the film’s images — it’s her father, Poppo, a charismatic figure who dominates the screen even when the film’s central subject is the ostensible focus. With no prior climbing experience, Poppo became Ashima’s coach when she showed promise in the sport. A former Butoh dancer, Poppo uses the techniques he employed in his dance to teach Ashima climbing essentials like self-discipline and mental fortitude.
And so, Ashima isn’t only — or even necessarily — the story of a young girl accomplishing a seemingly impossible feat, but a more humble tale of the eternal struggle between fathers and daughters. It would have been easy for director Kenji Tsukamoto to lean on stereotypes in seeking to capture and communicate this dynamic, but he details Ashima and Poppo’s story with a notable nuance. Poppo is strict and pushes Ashima beyond her limits when it comes to climbing, but he’s also clearly loving and supportive. It’s a fine line that Tsukamoto toes through showcasing small but significant moments; in one moment, Poppo tells Ashima that “there’s zero chance” she will complete the V14; in another, he attentively and gently helps her practice her TED talk. In other instances, Tsukamoto lingers on moments like Ashima descending into a giggle fit or not realizing she has chalk dust on her nose while speaking, never letting the climber subsume the child, and keeping this fundamental innocence always within the audience’s view.
Where Free Solo functioned as an exercise in grandiose image-making that centered a grandiose figure, Ashima revels in the power of smaller, more intimate experiences, with Poppo’s bombastic presence tempered by a grounded tenderness and intimacy that Honnold exhibits as a subject. Ashima’s mother talks about fertility difficulties, Poppo tells Ashima “we all need to overcome being self-conscious and wanting to hide” — Tsukamoto understands that these details that may seem insignificant are an inescapably compelling part of a person’s story, and Ashima, rather than competing with other works to reflect the grandeur of extreme sport, is made all the better by ensuring these little, modest moments remain at the fore. — EMILY DUGRANRUT
In fairly rote style, Titley alternates between footage of the show and interviews with Nasubi and Tsuchiya, both grappling with their involvement with the show. At times, Nasubi’s answers are played to Tsuchiya, who seems to process his words with benign acceptance. And this is how the majority of The Contestant plays out; lambasting the divide between good and evil, between the exploitative and the exploited in a media age that demands the compulsive disclosure of all facets of our lives with everyone online. This approach, ultimately, offers nothing new… [Previously Published Full Review] — CHRIS MELLO
The Spectre of Boko Haram
The documentarian’s camera — more often than not — observes, investigates, and deliberates in media res. The past, then, is either recounted through a detached academicism that turns stories into statistics or evoked through limited perspectives that aren’t wholly informative but are, in their supply of personalized information, at least memorably so.
Cyrielle Raingou’s first feature-length documentary, The Spectre of Boko Haram, is a sobering portrait of terror and warfare normalized in the Kolofata village on the Nigerian-Cameroonian border, told through the perspective of three children living there. It doesn’t rely on introductory and closing titles to inform us about the specifics of the war. Instead, Raingou reveals the enduring effects of Boko Haram — a militant Islamic terrorist organization — to us in the same way the kids know about them: intimately but hazily. We follow Falta Souleymane, a young and impressionable local girl who lost her father and grandfather to a suicide bombing committed by two men (presumably of Boko Haram) because they believed Falta’s father wanted to steal their chicken. In parallel, the film focuses on two brothers, Ibrahim and Mohammed Alilou. Separated from their parents by Boko Haram, the brothers escaped their terrorist camps, only to be relocated by Cameroonian soldiers to Kolofata. Their story, contrary to Falta’s strictly disciplined life, is of perpetual movement. Together, however, they both seem to communicate the pervasive feeling of dislocation, confusion, and tension caused by the conflict between Boko Haram and the Cameroonian military.
Raingou’s formalism materializes this distressing feeling. Throughout the film, her direction collapses any discernible difference between the quotidian and the specter of impending violence. Falta’s retelling of what happened to her father over a bonfire is framed to a foreground of erupting flames covering her small face; the echo of gunfire is consistent but hardly disruptive for any of the locals; the view outside a noisy classroom is that of a lurking soldier, seemingly ready to fire; the same classroom hosts a discussion about making scientific models devolve into creating weapons of mass destruction. The teacher, then, casually tells all his students: “Forget objects of war. Objects of dispute. Let’s make something we see in our daily lives.” The Spectre of Boko Haram repeatedly shows that the students are doing just that. Innocence isn’t being lost here; it already has been. And that helpless feeling, more than any well-researched, statistical retelling of Kolofata and the terrors of Boko Haram’s warfare with the Cameroonian army, lingers. — DHRUV GOYAL
Little Richard: I Am Everything
I Am Everything might well succeed in familiarizing a new generation with Little Richard — how much a younger and less lenient audience will be willing to forgive his homophobic heel turn is another question entirely. The film is less likely to offer them any new insight into the mechanisms that made his sidelining, as well as the sidelining of many others before and since, possible. The injustices that Cortés’ doc highlights deserve to be reiterated, but the film’s failure to introduce new ideas into that conversation will likely doom it to irrelevance… [Previously Published Full Review] — FRED BARRETT