Tag Archives: Documentary

Road to the Oscars: Free Solo – Review

Destined for Oscar glory in the eyes of this reviewer, especially since Three Identical Strangers didn’t make the shortlist, the documentary Free Solo follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. Husband and wife directing team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi make us care about the obsessively single-minded Alex as he challenges himself to scale 3,200 feet of sheer rock face with no safety net and a significant risk of death.

From that description, you might think that Alex is some rich kid with an expensive but dangerous hobby. When we first meet him, he is living in a van. He has climbed many rock faces before but has never attempted ‘El Cap’. No other free-solo climber has successfully ascended it, with its seemingly insurmountable features such as the ‘Boulder Problem’.

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With many successful climbs behind him, as well as an autobiography, ‘Alone on the Wall’ the thirty-one year old Alex has a degree of celebrity. A high school student asks him how much money he has. ‘As much as a dentist,’ he replies. He donates a third of his earnings to a charitable foundation improving lives in Africa and considers himself lucky to turn his hobby into a living.

However, he has also been shaped by his father Charles, who ‘never hugged him’ and may have had Asperger’s. Alex describes himself as a ‘real dork’ at high school, earning straight As. However, he dropped out of the University of California in his second term, drawn heavily to the outdoors.

Does Alex share his father’s condition? He is honest – or unguarded – enough to say that he would never put the love of a woman before his hobby. Yet as he prepares for the El Cap climb, he has a girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who met him at a book signing and thought he was cute. ‘I didn’t hear the word ‘love’ in my household,’ Alex explains. He’s being pedantic: his mother spoke French (she was a teacher) and uttered ‘Je t’aime’. He learns hugging – he wasn’t hugged growing up – and now he’s a big fan.

In the most revealing section of the film, we see him have a CT scan. Alex’s amygdala, not to be confused with Natalie Portman’s character in The Phantom Menace, doesn’t register fear the way most brains do; the amygdala processes emotions. He doesn’t fear death when climbing; rather he is motivated to achieving peak physical condition to negotiate precarious hand and foot-holds.

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Sanni was indirectly responsible for one of Alex’s few injuries – she let go of the rope. However, they didn’t break up and still climb together. However, during his preparation, Alex undergoes another fall.

In many ways, Free Solo is a generic sports story, with the requisite setbacks. There is also the alternative. Sanni attempts to give Alex a normal life – they buy a house together in Las Vegas. He finds a coffee machine puzzling and eats his meals with a spatula used for cooking.

The climbing sequence is genuinely thrilling: heart-stopping, suspenseful and gruelling to watch. We hear the debate about whether filming would distract Alex or threaten his safety if there was an accident with the drone. During the ascent, the cameraman on the ground can scarcely bear to look at the monitor.

How you feel about Alex’s climb may to some extent be determined about how you feel about rock climbing in general. I felt for the people Alex left behind as he continued alone. I didn’t marvel at his prowess – I just wanted him to live. I don’t think Free Solo will popularise climbing without ropes. But it does show how people with Asperger’s – or the son of a man with Asperger’s – have different abilities. Spiderman doesn’t need the bite of a radioactive spider to climb walls – just a differently functioning amygdala and an appetite for a challenge.


Free Solo is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. The Oscars will air on ABC on Sunday 24 February 2019 (01:30am, Monday 25 February, Sky Cinema in the UK)

Three Identical Strangers – Review

At the beginning of Tim Wardle’s absorbing roller-coaster ride of a documentary, Three Identical Strangers, middle-aged Robert Shafran sits down in front of a camera to tell us a story. It’s 1981. He has just arrived at college. He is greeted by a whole bunch of people who are happy to see him. ‘Hey, glad you’re back.’ When you turn heads on your first day and elicit such positivity, it’s a dream come true. Only Robert has not earned such good will. He is mistaken for someone else. That someone is Eddy Galland, the biological brother he never knew. A guy at college takes Robert to a pay phone (remember those) and calls up Eddy. They meet – and the story ends up in a newspaper. But then – hey, ho – Robert and Eddy look exactly like another young man, David Kellman. They meet. They have exactly the same posture. Before long, the three young men can finish each other’s sentences. They all were wrestlers. Even though they were raised separately in three different foster homes, how is such synchronicity even possible? Indeed, what are the odds that Robert would go to the same college as Eddy?

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These questions are answered – and then some – by a documentary that explores the aftermath of the discovery. They are led to the Louise Wise adoption agency responsible for placing them in three separate households. Why were the brothers split up? Nominally, they are told, ‘couples would rather adopt one child than three’. But the foster parents were never given a choice. Indeed, one of them says, ‘we wouldn’t have taken them all. No question.’

Wardle tells the triplets story as they experienced it, complete with clips from talk shows, newspaper articles and follow up stories, as well as their cameo in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, a comedy about identity transference that gave Madonna her first lead role and a hit song on the soundtrack (‘Into the Groove’). Indeed, Robert, Eddy and David went into business together, exploiting their fame by opening a New York restaurant called Triplets. .

After visiting the adoption agency and getting insufficient answers, one of the brothers went back inside to collect an umbrella. He discovered a group of people clinking champagne glasses, ‘like they’d dodged a bullet’.  On their behalf, Wardle and his team make some uncomfortable discoveries.

To say anything more about the story would spoil the film’s emotional and intellectual impact. The documentary takes you to the heart of some difficult issues. There are some surprising interviews – the film is as much a triumph of investigation as much as it is of storytelling.

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There is, naturally, another way in which the story could have been told, raising questions about whether documentaries should be about individuals or ideas. Wardle is not the first documentary filmmaker who tried to tell the triplets story. There is at least one television documentary that was completed but suppressed.

Since it opened in the United States on 29 June, Three Identical Strangers has grossed more than $12 million, twice as much as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11 /9 though slightly less than RBG, a documentary about Supreme Court Justice and feminist role model Ruth Bader Ginsberg – the other US documentary hit of the summer, grossing $14 million. In America at least, documentaries perform better in movie theatres than so-called Sundance ‘hit’ movies like Blindspotting (US box office at end of theatrical release $4 million). This trend could actually lead to more narrative documentaries being released in cinemas but fewer feature films. Sundance 2019 could indicate whether the trend is here to stay.


Three Identical Strangers is out 30th December! 

Postcards from the 48% –Edinburgh Film Festival Review

On 23 June 2018, the second anniversary of the British vote to leave the European Union, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London to demand a second referendum to decide whether the public should accept the final deal. 400 miles away, the Edinburgh International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of David Wilkinson’s ‘talking heads’ documentary Postcards from the 48% in which the director tours the country to canvas the opinion of ‘remainers’, some of the 16,141,241 who voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union.

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Wilkinson re-runs the debate that many voters are tired of, preaching to the converted. The interviewees include such divisive figures as Sir Vince Cable and Nick Clegg, both of whom opposed university tuition fees in the 2010 Liberal Democrat election manifesto but allowed the coalition government to triple them as members of the Coalition Government, and Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor behind former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’ that influenced the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. As the expression goes, with friends like these …

He visits Miriam Margoyles, whose house is the closest in the UK to France. He takes us to The Convention, a two day conference on ‘broken politics’ held in London prior to the June 2017 snap election in which speakers included the novelist Ian McEwan and economist Will Hutton. You’d think from the film that the Convention was about Brexit rather than a failure to grow political engagement.

When Wilkinson interviews historian A C Grayling and ‘New European’ editor Matt Kelly, the arguments are erudite and succinct. Yes, the referendum was advisory and the decision to trigger Article 50 unnecessary. Yes, the impact on UK business will be severe. However, Wilkinson’s range of interviewees doesn’t reflect his audience. Too many people on screen are white, middle-aged or older and middle class. By not showing the other side, he is effectively refusing to engage with working families and socially marginalised, the very groups who need to be persuaded that the decision to leave the European Union is not in the UK’s best long-term interests.

Wilkinson’s tour includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. He visits Lush Cosmetics, which sells products made in the UK by European Union workers to Europe.

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Political documentaries need human stories to persuade audiences that the status quo – remaining subject to the European Court of Justice and enjoying the freedom of movement, goods and capital – is preferable to the alternative. However, Wilkinson uses the tired technique of interviewing celebrities and experts, who lack the authenticity to influence the opinion of his audience.

Running at almost two hours, Postcards from the 48% is a cry from the heart of sorts, but aligns the Remain argument with politically toxic figures and outright eccentricity. I almost applauded when Wilkinson interviewed some young people, two members of OFOC – ‘Our Future Our Choice’ – though the pressure group speaks mainly to the student group and has, to date, only 6,700 Facebook likes compared with the anti-EU UK Independence Party’s 580,824.

Wilkinson reminds us that the UK has strong ties with other European countries, taking us to the Polish War Memorial and reflecting on the part Polish pilots paid in the Battle of Britain in World War Two. This is the closest he gets to an emotional appeal, arguing that the UK is at its best when it works within a wide coalition of the righteous.

Can a documentary make a difference, allowing the UK electorate to accept that its decision to leave the European Union is wrong? Maybe not this documentary, but there are other stories to be told.


Postcards from the 48% received its Edinburgh premiere on 23 June 2018 and will be screened across the UK on 6 July

Generation Wealth – Sundance London Review

Whatever amount of money we have, we just want more; this is what the American Dream has become. These are two of the observations made by photographer turned documentary-maker Lauren Greenfield in her compelling state of post-Reagan era America, Generation Wealth. Her film is partly about conspicuous consumption and partly about addiction. At one point, she turns the camera on herself and asks rhetorically, ‘am I addicted to work?’

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She is definitely addicted to turning her cameras (still and moving) towards excess. The sort that leads a bus driver – a bus driver – towards plastic surgery; you don’t need good looks to drive a bus, at least not in North London. The sort that leads an adult movie star to have fifty-eight men ejaculate over her face, resulting in Salmonella – she caught the disease through her eye. The sort that leads a mother to push her six year old daughter, Eden, into skimpy outfits – you succeed in ‘Toddlers and Tieras’ and then go for the next big thing. If we object on behalf of the child, who just wants money to buy stuff, then Mom says it’s our problem. The sort that leads David and Jackie Siegel to recreate the Palace of Versailles for their own desirable residence – until the money runs out. The sort that leads a Hedge Fund manager to join the FBI’s most wanted list and end up in the ‘prison’ known as Germany. The sort that makes a man drive the world’s longest limousine complete with helicopter landing pad. Does a helicopter need to land on a car? Heck, who cares?

When does enough cease to become enough? Greenfield can’t tell us, but she attributes America’s decline to the abolition of the Gold Standard in the US in 1971. Suddenly the Federal Reserve – America’s equivalent of the Bank of England – could print unlimited money, as fast as Americans could spend it, whether they could afford to borrow it or not. (The plastic surgery lady ends up losing her child and sleeping in a car.)

Greenfield’s starting point is the thesis that civilizations move towards excess at their exact point of collapse. But then we had the 2008 crash and we got over it. But this time it is really, really bad. She shows us a debutantes’ ball in Russia, attended by the daughters of oligarchs, that is actually an excuse to show off designer goods. The difference between the debutantes’ ball in Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ and in Russia today, notes one commentator, is the difference between real life and theatre.

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If I’m being picky, Greenfield’s actual starting point is a class for wealthy Chinese women learning how to pronounce ‘Dolce and Gabbana’ and ‘Louis Vuitton’ – before they even learn to conjugate verbs. Learning how to cut an orange or banana with style and grace is apparently worth the $16,000 they paid for the class – but what Greenfield doesn’t say is that the money could be better used to give their maids a raise.

Greenfield is undoubtedly fixated by the extent to which individuals see themselves in the lives of the super-rich. Her film is a correction to this. The million dollar handbag – clearly a future Clint Eastwood movie – may be on sale, but you wouldn’t want to buy it.

As long as Greenfield distances herself from her subject, the documentary works well. I didn’t think she needed to bring her family into it. Her eldest son, Noah, looks particularly uncomfortable in front of the camera.

Ultimately, her message is a familiar one: don’t be addicted to wealth acquisition; it is enough that your kids get to go to college. Fortunately for the director, Noah is heading in the right direction.


Generation Wealth screens at London’s PictureHouse Central on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd June 2018

Skid Row Marathon – Review

The inspirational documentary Skid Row Marathon focuses on the work of Superior Court Judge Craig J Mitchell, who begins his days at the Midnight Mission in the Skid Row district of Los Angeles leading a group of broken ex-offenders and ex-addicts in an early morning run. He encourages the best of them – or the most in need of support – to enter overseas marathons, financing their travel and accommodation by working the phones to encourage charitable donations. Those who run with him appreciate the community spirit that he instils as they replace one addiction with another. Running, as the film explains, is a means to an end. The most important aspect is that the runners have a sense of self worth restored to them, that they can stay clean and sober to fulfil their dreams, whether it is finally being discharged from parole, moving back to Seattle or enrolling in the San Francisco Conservatoire.

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It is hard to fault the message of the film, though director Mark Hayes gives no indication that the constant pounding of pavement and tarmac can lead to plantar fasciitis, for which there is no cure. Oh, for marathons on spring grass on a mild day. Hayes focuses on the effect the judge has on four runners: David, an ex-addict who used to live in an alcove; Rafael, a former gang member jailed for 29 years for murder, who was recommended for parole by Mitchell and, five years later, was out, sharing his story at schools as a warning to others; Ben, a former musician seduced by alcohol and drugs, who harbours ambitions to be a composer for movies (this is L.A.) and Rebecca, a single mother whose heroin addiction took her to rock bottom but receives help from the Midnight Mission and Mitchell’s running programme.

In an early highlight, Mitchell takes David and Ben to Accra in Ghana to run their marathon. The poverty of a less developed nation shocks them. The pre-marathon group run – slow and reverential – is the closest the film gets to lyricism, and makes a change from the traditional pasta and potato party. There’s plenty of running scenes but little about shoes and nothing about diet. Mitchell plays a trip to Rome to inspire David, an artist – he wants to introduce him to Michelangelo, naturally. But David leaves the group to try to manage on his own. The Mission’s strict ‘no recidivist’ rule places a pressure that we sense he doesn’t want to live under. Plus, who likes getting up at four in the morning?

We are introduced to Ben in his studio, working on his audition piece for the Conservatoire and cursing. He has a young girlfriend who is his biggest fan. Rafael faces the biggest challenge – an arrest for breaking parole by drinking; if found guilty, he will go back to prison to continue his life sentence.

There is a fifth runner, Mody from Senegal, who starts his own business selling luggage. But the Midnight Mission can only provide so much support and he relapses.

The Judge looks a healthy guy, but later we learn that his body is underpinned by metal. When we see him crumpled on the ground after a run, we don’t know if he’ll get up. His wife and teenage son attest to his near religious zeal – if he wasn’t a judge, Mitchell would be a priest. There are no dissenting voices against the programme and nothing about the selection process for participation in overseas races – donations can’t pay for everybody.

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The film asks us to think about rehabilitation and to identify with those who have committed crimes and self-abuse. It makes a compelling case for community and grant based rehabilitation. Although Skid Row Marathon has only had one off screenings on 9 May, it deserves to be shown to criminal justice policy makers. Both the Justice and Home Secretary should be sent DVD copies.

The Prince of Nothingwood – Review

Not every country can have a film industry. You need investors, sets, actors, post-production facilities, cinemas and some form of classification regime, so films can be judged as suitable for audiences. You would not expect Afghanistan, a country formerly ruled by the strict Islamic Group called the Taliban between 1996 and 2001 and whose transition to democracy in the years since has been shaken by resurgent Taliban efforts to re-establish a stronghold, to host one.

But Salim Shaheen has done his best to make films in spite of economic and cultural constraints. An ebullient figure who defines such phrases as ‘larger than life’, ‘astoundingly self-confident’ and ‘addicted to filmmaking’, Shaheen has made (it is said) over 100 films, screened informally on DVDs. He is the subject of Sonia Kronlund’s entertaining but unsatisfying documentary, The Prince of Nothingwood, a film that brings Shaheen to his largest audience yet – he is accompanying the documentary on its UK run at selected screenings.

You won’t find anything about Shaheen on imdb (the internet movie database), so that his achievements – even the quality of his work – is unverifiable. You won’t learn from the documentary a list of the films that he has made either. He is something of a local legend in Kabul, an inoffensive charmer, who works within constraints, so in his films, as in Greek and Shakespearean theatre, women are played by men, or else wear masks.

Kronlund, who appears on screen alongside Shaheen, is introduced to his collaborators – including a female impersonator and talk show host, Qurban Ali, surprisingly tolerated – to locations and to watch him at work. With a paucity of acting talent, Shaheen frequently takes the lead role himself as in his most beloved film about a tea seller, which was shot in Pakistan.

Shaheen comes across as an Ed Wood-type figure, driven by speed and quantity – some are made in less than four days – than by quality. His major influence is Bollywood, though with no budget and live music. Kronlund tries to dig deeper, seeking to interview his wives, who are conspicuously absent when she visits his home.

Pretty much all his male family members have appeared in his work – his adult sons recall the parts they played for him – as do local tradesmen. The question of how Shaheen makes a living is never answered. But Kronlund does address how such a cultural anomaly can continue to work: he doesn’t offend anyone, and he puts the army – even Taliban members – in his films, using real munitions; you don’t expect him to have the resources for practical effects. If he needs blood, he uses that of a chicken.

Kronlund’s documentary is fascinating but frustrating. It shows how one man’s resilience can defy socio and economic conditions to do what he wants. Yet we never find out if there are others like him; or what he did before he made films. The quality of his work isn’t great, but Shaheen’s spirit is something else.