It may be harder to sell a documentary in the contemporary industry climate, but some docs are so provocative, produce so much chatter, that they find comfy homes challenging minds and perspectives in theaters and living rooms. This week, two such docs that have treated festival audiences to intrigue, disgust, and laughter, debut in theaters: Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher's "October Country" and Erik Gandini's "Videocracy."
First, we'll take up Palmieri and Mosher's doc about Mosher's eclectic and eccentric family. Pop Matters' Cynthia Fuchs glows about the film, "Introduced as a 'collaboration' among filmmaker Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher, and Mosher’s relatives, the movie is a lovely, lyrical meditation on family ghosts, on the implacable effects of the past on the present. Covering a year in their lives—from one October to the next—the movie uses mid-autumn’s stark poetry to suggest the family’s haunting by ghosts."
Slant's Joseph Jon Lanthier describes the film the best he can in his 3-out-of-4-star review, "It feels odd to describe a near-DIY documentary about the shifting familial values and lingering personal demons of Middle America as nothing more than an unequivocal visual triumph, but there's a distinctively, and hauntingly, dehumanizing quality about the graphic approach of 'October Country'...the film organizes intimate interviews, baroquely autumnal landscapes, and still-life shots of domestic bibelots into a narrative that follows the tortured arhythms of the Mosher clan with artful grace. The result is undeniably a beautiful object, but it is an object: Embracing the visual serenity requires a challenging emotional cost that might be the film's most intriguing aspect."
Viewing "October Country" in relation to Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" and Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb," Michael Koresky, writing on indieWIRE says these filmmakers "correct Jarecki’s inelegance with their surprisingly stirring new film...a visually remarkable and thematically unpretentious peek behind the doors of one upstate New York family." He goes on to explicate, "It’s to the great credit of Mosher and his collaborator and partner Palmieri, a music-video and commercial director, that each of the family members are depicted with grace and genuine fascination: there’s matriarch Dottie, big-hearted yet naive and helpless in the face of years of her children’s bad choices (and an unrepentant foster mom to the increasingly wayward problem child Chris); dad Don, a reticent Vietnam veteran and former policeman; daughter Donna, a single mother with two children, the older of whom, Danael, already has lost custody of her own baby; the younger, the prepubescent Desi, has a good nature and almost preternatural gift for zeroing in on her family’s emotional deficiencies, evidence that she might end up well-adjusted."
Andrew Barker in Variety vehemently disagrees with Koresky's characterization of the film as sensitive. "One of the two directors is a member of the immediate family, though his existence goes curiously unmentioned in the film. His presence protects the project from charges of exploitation, though at times it's hard to explain why the subjects are spilling their guts to a camera and not a sympathetic therapist. Montages of the Moshers' dilapidated dwelling introduce a note of queasy voyeurism, which later comes to a head when a very young girl is prompted by one of the directors to speak about her own molestation. Here one is torn between anger at the fact of the girl's victimization and anger at the filmmakers for not having the decency to turn off the camera."
Opening a the IFC Center this Friday, the Italian documentary, “Videocracy,” has been causing quite the stir back in Italy for its allegation that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s controls all forms of media in Italy. Directed by Erik Gandini, who Screen Daily has touted as Italy’s answer to Michael Moore, the controversial documentary was released by Fandango in Italy last September. However, Berlusconi's Mediaset channels and public broadcaster RAI refused to show trailers for the film, only further adding to Gandini’s thesis.
Response to the film varies from incisive to obvious. Joshua Rothkoptf sings the films praises in Time Out New York, dubbing the film a “stunning, eerily atmospheric expose.”
Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter offers a less gushy review, but still greatly favors the picture. “It isn't a pretty picture of Italy that emerges, and it is probably overly pessimistic, granted that there are still a certain number in Italy who vociferously resist Berlusconi's television-land. However, the archival images speak volumes about the seachange that has come over the country in the last 30 years, from the early breakout shows of housewives stripping on TV to the incessant parade of dancing hopefuls vying for a chance to show off their bumps and grinds as TV showgirls.The film's opening montage of these images, coupled with Johan Soderberg's menacing score, creates a sickening sense of household pornography that is hard to forget. Most of all, TV's power to manipulate young Italians' images of themselves comes across as something that will have a lasting impact far into the future.”
In Screen Daily, Lee Marshall writes that the film pulls of the feat of being a “documentary horror sci-fi set in the present.” Marhsall says the film ultimately succeeds “because deft editing, astonishingly revealing interview footage and some real gems garnered from the archives keep the audience engaged, but also because this scenario is sadly a long way from fantasy.”
Nick Schager of Slant Magazine is less enthusiastic in his review. “Gandini's film has an unwieldy free-form structure that occasionally mucks up its central line of reasoning, and though his snapshots of everyday citizens infatuated with the boob tube can be mildly compelling, the director often fails to create a convincing sense that his selected examples are representative of the population at large. Nonetheless, via TV-clip imagery and expressionistic sequences set to muffled, disorienting sound design, he smartly traces a connection between Berlusconi's own cult-of-personality and his TV stations' T&A-drenched hits.”
While Variety’s Boyd Van Hoeij finds major faults in Gandini’s depth of analysis. “The facts Gandini does offer include nothing that couldn't be gleaned from a two-minute Internet search. In his English-language voiceover, the helmer often mentions "the TV of the president" and other vague terms without backing them up or talking about their inner workings. Ironically, the docu often has more in common with reality TV than with a documentary proper.”