Food, Inc. It may sound like it's been done, but you're probably thinking of Richard Linklater's intriguing, fictionalized Fast Food Nation or Morgan Spurlock's celebrity-maker Super Size Me. But this is the first documentary that skims the content of the Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan books (Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, respectively). That's a lot of material to cover, and the film doesn't really draw the complex issues together, but if it spurs people to read the books, especially Pollan's, I'm all for it. Every moment that Schlosser or Pollan were speaking eloquently and every time Joel Salatan, the farmer whose sustainable practices were extensively profiled in The Omnivore's Dilemma, was ranting, I was with it. When it soft-peddaled the Stonyfield Farms guy or his business collaborators at Wal-Mart, I fell back a bit. I loved getting a glimpse of Salatan's farm, though, a real inspiration for back-to-basics food production, even though the filmmakers didn't take time to describe how his mobile chicken coops work.
secret screening red:
This first-hand account of war reporting in Afghanistan is hard to watch because of its complicated timeline and harsh, shaky picture. But its view of journalism is critical to understanding the news. It focuses on Ajmal, an Afghan who worked, for relatively little pay, as a "fixer" for prominent journalists who were traveling to remote parts of Afghanistan and needed a local facilitator and translator. At times, he was a reporter's right hand, but when he and a writer from the BBC were captured and threatened with beheading, it was the reporter, through no fault of his own, who garnered the international attention and the talks about ransom money. After a tense standoff, one of the two men was released to great relief. The other was beheaded with little if any mention in the news. A stronger hand might have made this a more compelling film, but the director has nevertheless offered a contemplative and troubling view of the morally complicated business of breaking the news.
October Country: Donal Mosher has a troubled family, and he traces some of their history in a highly watchable documentary that would be far more uncomfortable if the family members weren't seemingly willing and eager to talk about the layers of dysfunction. The film is broken up by overly arty meditations that feel a little too schematic — too random at times (as when the navel ring on a poster of a bikini model is linked to the earring of the poster's owner) and too on-the-nose at others (like when a violent video game is reflected in a window through which we can see an American flag). But the strangest thing about the film is that it acknowledges the filmmaker as a member of the family only with text at the beginning; for the rest of the film, it's as if that branch of the family tree never existed except for the way the unseen, pseudo-objective filmmaker has unlikely access to his subjects. Contrast that approach with the very personal films of Caveh Zahedi or Ross McElwee.
Burma VJ: Filmmaker Anders Ostergaard has access to some stunning footage. When Buddhist monks began protesting Burma's repressive regime by marching in the streets, their actions — and the government's violent response — made international news. A band of vigilante videographers captured many of the events up close, at their peril, and smuggled their footage out of the totalitarian state using satellite phones. It should make for riveting stuff on its own, when presented properly, but Ostergaard has woven it with invasive reenactments that blur the line between what's real and what's recreated. I spent most of the time assuming the cell phone audio that we hear is recreated, but then we see one of the reporters recording his cell conversation with a tape recorder; what we're watching is reenacted, what he's recording may or may not be, but the picture is telling us it's not. I don't mind reenactments that explain the action, but these are confusing, and they undermine the vivid, first-hand accounts that should not only be the film's spine but its very reason for existence. It's the story of videographers. Stay out of their way.