One of two notable documentaries out this week follows in a big trend of late, that of competition-based films. Sure, it’s a genre, one I addressed last week in my “Make Believe” review, but it’s a genre that seems to be popping out a lot of examples right now. Of course, I already mentioned “Louder Than a Bomb” already in that review, referring to it as “‘Spellbound’ with poetry.” Since then, I’ve been made aware of the upcoming film “Jig,” which follows an Irish dance competition. I’m sure it’s not the last comp-doc we see this summer, let alone this year. They’re so easily dramatic, comprised of interesting subjects and — depending on the type of contest there is — usually a built-in market.
“Louder Than a Bomb,” though, has better than a built-in market for its competition’s theme. More of its audience will not be poetry fans or specifically slam poetry fans. They’ll come for the heartwarming focus on inspiring teens expressing themselves through writing and performance (just as they loved the other new inner-city high school poetry doc, “To Be Heard,” at DOC NYC last fall). As one kid says at the end of “Louder,” “the point is the poetry.” That is, in this particular comp-doc, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses because the point is that the kids are doing something, specifically poetry. Still, the point could just as well be boxing or spelling or basketball or Irish dance, I guess. The real point is the positive solution in general.
Documentaries are too commonly about problems, but both “Louder Than a Bomb” and the other notable new doc, “The Big Uneasy,” focus primarily on solutions. For the former, it’s fairly straightforward. If you have a troubled home, write about it and maybe perform that writing on stage. Or simply express yourself, find mentors and find like-minded souls from all races and backgrounds. It’s the most basic of solutions for any bad aspect of life. Expression as therapy. The only thing I wonder is how often poets, specifically of this type, come out of happy lives.
One of the film’s main characters, a very likable and very talented boy named Adam, comes from a home that seems the opposite of troubled. His parents are loving and supportive and the entire family seems the type that definitely sits around making each other laugh and feel good even when the camera isn’t rolling. So where does his need for an outlet come from? Well, he’s a bit of a dork and has been tormented for being the only Jewish kid on his soccer team. Different than being in the violent inner city of Chicago, but still worth pouring out your soul for. Really, we all have problems relative to our own lives. Perspective is a bitch at times, but even the most privileged persons need to express themselves when necessary.
Speaking of which, Harry Shearer has directed a documentary about the 2005 New Orleans disaster. I call it that rather than the Hurricane Katrina disaster, because the worst of the disaster was not about the storm so much as the human error that led to the city’s flooding in the hurricane’s aftermath. This is precisely what “The Big Uneasy” concentrates on, too. Shearer has help from celebrity friends like John Goodman, Brad Pitt, Wendell Pierce and Jennifer Coolidge, as well as a number of academics and engineers to go over the true causes of the catastrophe. It’s not a well made film, really. It’s the sort of doc where interview questions are posed by Shearer or Goodman before each talking head answers them. And most of the time Shearer seems to be awkwardly holding a camcorder an inch from his face while trying to read cue cards off screen (talk about uneasy).
But what the film lacks in aesthetic favor (some of the map animations are decent, at least), it makes up for in loads and loads of information. Not that this is truly a good thing for a film, either. Much of the content is better consumed in text form where you can really go over it with great concentration — not while trying to place that voice-over narrator as ‘Bunk’ from “The Wire.” Still, I appreciate that Shearer and friends aren’t totally just out to blame the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers and complain and be done with it. We’ve seen the disaster and been over all the faults, and much of the basics of the levee failure blame game has been talked about before. Besides, pointing fingers has apparently gotten many whistle-blowers fired or otherwise caused problems for them job-wise (actually, this is one of the more intriguing and upsetting aspects of the doc).
Now what? It’s been almost six years and the important thing today is to make sure it doesn’t happen again — something actually quite relevant right now. And there is a lot of time devoted to solutions and improvements going forward. Of course it seems, as in most cases, that there’s much debate as to what is the best way to go (I’m siding with those efforts proposed by Dutch engineers, myself). I won’t say what any of them are, though. That’s the whole point of you seeing this kind of documentary, to get the information from them (man, I hate when doc reviews tell you the main pieces of a film’s content, as if docs can’t be spoiled). Or, like I said, a lot of the info in the film might be better sought in more text-based media. I don’t know where, though, so for many the film is a fair starting place.
I just want to point out that this year I’m noticing more than a few docs focused on positive solutions rather than problems and causes. “The Interrupters,” the Chicago-set violence prevention doc directed by “Hoop Dreams”‘ Steve James is the best example. And I also like the positive themes (if not the entirety) of “Buck,” which emphasizes how animal training advice can apply well to humans, too. These films are more akin to the message of “Louder Than a Bomb” than the more specific issues in “The Big Uneasy,” but let them all together be an influence on the tone of future documentaries. Even the upcoming annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival seems less depressing this year than last, which may be a good sign that the doc community is already experiencing a more positive outlook overall at the moment. Let’s keep it up.
“Louder Than a Bomb” is currently playing in NYC
Recommended If You Like: “Hoop Dreams”; “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam”; “To Be Heard”
“The Big Uneasy” is now playing in limited release with other dates to follow through the summer (see here)
Recommended If You Like: “The Age of Stupid”; “Cool It”; “Darfur Now” (and other celebrity-led cause docs)