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The End of Silverdocs, the End of the World

I was on the programming committee for Silverdocs this year, which has made the question of blogging a bit confusing for me—how do you review an event that you had a hand in creating? My answer for now is to review just those films I hadn’t yet seen in the programming process, those I did not vote on.

One of which was Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, in which the director continues on the path of the aging artist who no longer has patience for subtlety and now spells out his ideas for you in plain English. Or with a brick over the head. Back in 1971 Herzog made Land of Silence & Darkness, which is about people who are both deaf and blind, and I still think about the scene where the camera just sits, and sits, and watches a deaf-blind woman as she sits on her bed. The silence, to use a cliche AND pun, is deafening, as we watch her and ponder, where *is* she?

In some later films, as his patience wears thin, Herzog’s camera will linger on a person’s face, but in voiceover he’ll *tell* you what he thinks that person is thinking. And in Encounters at the End of the World, in which Herzog travels to Antarctica to photograph the breathtaking ‘ecstatic imagery’ of the landscape and interview its odd inhabitants, all tact is lost and he moves to damping down the sound while a subject is talking and coming on in voiceover to paraphrase and interpret what the subject is saying as he says it. At least he’s not hiding anymore the fact that he often invents scenarios in his “documentaries”; it’s almost as if he’s making a joke out of it. He does it twice in the film and the audience got a hearty laugh out of it. Much of the film is funny, in fact, which is another, more refreshing trait that has emerged in Herzog’s films as he ages. Most of his early films were deadly dramatic and bombastic, but he seems to have embraced the knowledge that enlightenment means lightening up (to quote that mad genius in his own mind, Mike Myers). In interviews he has always been hilarious while at the same time poetic and thought-provoking, and his films now embody that as well.

And nothing is funnier than the exchange in the film between Herzog and a scientist who studies and lives with penguins. “Can a penguin go crazy?” he asks the laconic man. And he clarifies, “I don’t mean that a penguin will suddenly think he’s Napoelon, but do penguins ever just get fed up with their colonies and leave?” And what follows is the most poignant sequence in the film, a film he vowed in voiceover would not be “another penguin film.” We watch a line of penguins waddling toward the sea in the distance, while one stops and seems confused for a moment, and then begins wandering off alone on a path toward the mountains, and as Herzog points out, toward certain death.

The parallel to humans is obvious, as Herzog has throughout the film (and indeed, throughout his career) been interrogating the various weirdos and “castoffs” who inhabit such an inhospitable place. And I think in his youth Herzog would have let that point make itself.

Silverdocs: Dust

A funny thing happened in the screening of Dust, a German film about the infinitesimal particles that we consider insignificant yet battle daily, in futility, to get rid of. I had high hopes for the film, as it seems there is such poetic possibility in this tiny disregarded stuff that is much stronger than us, more ubiquitous, and ultimately even lethal. When the film started, the projectionist had the wrong aspect ratio so the bottom portion of the film was cut off, leaving us able to see only about half the subtitles. We all sat for about 10 minutes wondering what the hell we were watching—we only got about every third sentence, and even then it was just a partial sentence, leaving me puzzled as to whether the film was so poetic I just didn’t get it or if something was missing. After I checked with the theater manager and they resolved the problem, I was glad to see that even with full sentences, the film does attempt poetry, and inspires thought—the images of the obsessive-compulsive housewife wiping down everything in her home, even the inside of her television, in a battle against dust; images of terrifying dust storms about to swallow whole towns in Oklahoma in the 1910s; and the image above, part of a sequence showing the impossibility of ridding the floor of all traces of a pile of red dust. These tiny particles seem to rule the world, even the universe, the film points out. But despite the Godardian narration, which constantly brought to mind the coffee cup scene in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, unfortunately the film is rather heavy-handed at times, forcibly making and repeating its philosophical points and pounding some of the film’s mystery—yes, I’ll say it—into dust. And it didn’t help that some of the more scientific explanations were too technical to be understood by the layperson, or perhaps just too dryly presented, and dragged on way too long. Overall the film provided plenty of food for thought, and I admire the effort and the intention, but would have preferred a bit more mystery.

Silverdocs: Head Wind


Leave it to me to get teary-eyed from a film about Iranians installing illegal Satellite TV dishes. But near the end of this film, which takes an often humorous approach to the proliferation of foreign TV programs and internet access in Iran despite the government’s tireless efforts to prevent it, two of the film’s subjects offer plaintive cries about the way the government’s restrictions are stifling their thoughts, their dreams, their desires. One is a former journalist whose paper was shut down by the government, who now operates a roadside tea stand where he offers free newspapers to his clientele, and the other is an underground rock musician who dreams of playing his music “above ground”, where he can be heard and not have to hide in a hole. The musician says he will continue playing underground, because such agitation, even if futile, is better than apathy. He will continue to play in opposition to the govenment’s plan to separate the people from their desires. (Sniff, sniff.) And the journalist searches the Internet every day for news from around the world, even though most sites he visits are blocked by the government days after he finds them. But he persists, saying that it helps him to still feel like a journalist, and not just a former one.

And yet, the film is not so simplistic as to claim that access to media will cure everything. We see families (who have illegal Satellite dishes installed) eating dinner around a TV set, staring trance-like at images of Christina Ricci and Hugh Jackman and not interacting with one another. And the very image of the technology itself—the crude dishes, the old TV sets, the antennae boosters—is ugly, marring the gorgeous Iranian mountainside.

But there are moments of transcendence. A man riding a donkey down a hill sings at the top of his lungs, as the film cuts to a television set showing a music video for the song he’s singing, offering us the source of the man’s inspiration, his dreams.

It’s Silverdocs Time Again

bf…and I’ll be there. I had the pleasure of previewing some shorts for the festival, the highlight of which is the newest from Jay Rosenblatt, the man who had me bawling my eyes out in the sheep-shearing scene of his Phantom Limb a couple years back at Silverdocs. We also studied a few of his films in my grad school classes, and images from the highly intense Smell of Burning Ants is still burned into my brain. This year’s offering is Beginning Filmmaking, in which he tries, and struggles, to teach his 4-year-old daughter Ella how to make a film. This is a very different film than his others, as it consists entirely of home-movie footage of Rosenblatt himself grappling with a child who clearly has her mind on other things. “I wanna make a movie about me eating a lot of candy,” she proclaims when her dad gives her a camera for her birthday. At every turn Rosenblatt tries to impart his wisdom about camera angles and focus, but Ella more often than not would rather be thinking about fairies. As Rosenblatt gets increasingly frustrated the film seems to transcend its ostensible subject of a father-daughter or teacher-student relationship and becomes a portrait of a man trying desperately to control the uncontrollable. “Listen to me.” “Sit down.” “Pay attention.” “Don’t lick the screen…” and on and on; in one scene the camera even chases Ella down the hallway as she runs from her father. In every scene Ella seems to outsmart her dad, or at least slip from his grasp. “Now, what does focus mean?” he asks her. “I’m out of focus…” she says, crunching on an apple. “What is light?” he asks. She touches his arm very lightly with her fingertip, whispering “this is light.” I stopped thinking of her as his daughter, or even as a child, and began seeing it as the monumental and ultimately futile struggle of head trying to control heart.

Another lovely little short is Shikashika, a dialogue-free film about the process of making Shikashika, or shaved ice treats. The film follows a Peruvian family whose business is selling shaved ice at a weekly market. Each week the entire family climbs a mountain in the Andes, hacks out a large chunk of ice, straps it to a donkey’s back and brings it back down the mountain, and takes it to market, where mom shaves bits off and douses them with sweet fruity syrup for eager customers. With beautiful cinematography, a lyrical structure, a happy family, and the gorgeous Andes, the film, like the shaved ice, is saturated with color.

Stay tuned for the next post, with a few more shorts and a profile of the features I’m looking forward to…

Where Has the Year Gone?

I don’t know but I didn’t think you’d be interested in hearing detailed fangirl analysis of my latest obsession:


So I haven’t blogged much. But expect a Silverdocs preview coming soon…