JWR Articles: Film/DVD - For Your Consideration 2014 - Best Documentary (Directors: Rithy Panh, Steve James) - December 31, 2014

For Your Consideration 2014 - Best Documentary

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Two real contenders

There is a wider-than-ever variety of gritty, imaginative and courageous docs to choose from this season.

Artfully recreating the past

The Missing Picture (L'image manquante)
Rithy Panh, 2013
92 min. Five stars

Artfully reconstructing the past

Panh sets about the extraordinary task of revisiting his harrowing experiences at the uncaring hands of the Khmer Rouge as they “liberated” Phnom Penh (April 17, 1975) and then went about the task of forcing one and all (except the leadership of course) to become instant equals with only a spoon to call their own.

With very little actual footage from the social-experiment-gone-mad to chronicle the widespread abuses, Panh magically enlists the extraordinary skills of a clay sculptor to re-create the miserable scenes and circumstances that are forever etched in his memory. That “missing picture” serves the twin purposes of filling in the historical blanks (the copious amount of propaganda footage would have faraway observers only wonder at how successful Pol Pot and his cronies’ revolution was in creating an ideal world where all-seeing Angkar—yet another version of Big Brother—could do no wrong and exorcising the filmmaker’s demons: having shown his truth to others and causing them to bear witness, his conscience will be considerably lightened if not expunged).

Perhaps not since the building of the Pyramids has slave labour been put to such torturous use. While ironies abound, none is more telling than the repurposing of schools into torture chambers for anyone who would dare question the slogan-reinforced, selective Marx-Rousseau wisdom of the regime (“Return to the old ways or be destroyed”). With the recent ugly revelations about the CIA’s voracious appetite for physical and mental abuse of its prisoners, it’s becoming more difficult still to separate the good guys from the bad guys (and likely always will).

The art department, led by sculptor-designer Sarith Mang’s attention to detail, Prum Mesa’s seamless cinematography and Panh’s superb editing skills (the juxtaposition of rediscovered dance films from a far happier time speaks silent volumes) are all aurally reinforced by Marc Marder’s instrument-rich score. Thanks to Panh, the big picture is clearer than ever before. JWR

Production photo

Life Itself
Steve James, 2014
120 min. Four and one-half stars

So much more than reviews

This portrait of Roger Ebert’s final few months before losing his battle to cancer (as did nemesis-colleague-egoist Gene Siskel in 1999) will be of great interest to movie lovers of all stripes. Yet aside from the clips, quotes, and outtakes of verbal sparring (the redos of the lead-off comments to At the Movies tapings are hilarious in their take-no-prisoner banter), it’s the personal courage of Ebert to share the ravages of disease and somewhat squeamish procedures (G-tube feeding and related suctioning) that give the film far more impact than recounting the career and achievements of a man who purposely spent most of his life in the dark.

Similar to Beethoven, Ebert was reduced to communicating through notebooks (real or electronic); most unlike the German master he was unstintingly supported by a devoted wife (Chaz, who also lets the camera get very up close and personal), adding many months if not years to his productive life. Every existence has its thumbs up (supporting up-and-coming filmmakers, battling back from alcoholism) and downs (“My opinion is always superior to yours: after all, I won the Pulitzer”). Knowing that and skillfully providing the required balance, James has come up with a production that both critics would have to admire. Hopefully, it will be played at Cannes: Heavenside. JWR

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Directors - Rithy Panh, Steve James
Music - Marc Marder
Cinematography - Prum Mesa
Production Design - Sarith Mang
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Strand Releasing
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