documentary

REVIEW: Strokes of Genius (2018)

Documentary that intertwines Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s lives with their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.

With the world as it is at the minute I, like probably so many other people, turn to the media that brings me comfort. Like all other sporting activities, tennis has had to be put on hold, but there is one tennis documentary that I’ve loved since the first time I watched it so that’s what I found myself watching as a form of escapism.

Strokes of Genius looks at the lives and careers of Federer and Nadal, both individually and how they relate to one another. The 2008 Wimbledon Final is used as an example of what makes them two of the greatest players ever and shows how it is still considered to be the pinnacle of tennis matches. The narrative of the documentary is built around the match and while the match is intersected with footage and information about Nadal and Federer’s childhoods, and there is input from their families, friends, and other tennis professionals, the tension still builds as the match goes to five sets.

Naturally Strokes of Genius will appeal more to tennis fans, and to Federer and Nadal fans specifically, but it’s also a love letter to great sporting rivals. How those rivals can shape someone’s career and life, make them a better player, a better fighter, and the unique relationship two rivals have. While the Federer and Nadal rivalry is the focus of Strokes of Genius, it also looks at the Borg and McEnroe rivalry and the rivalry between Evert and Navratilova. All four of them appear in the documentary and it’s fascinating to see how they feel about each other and their legacy as rivals.

There are so many great quotes in Strokes of Genius about both players, from each other and from the various people featured in the documentary. But I feel this quote from Roger Federer’s fitness coach, Pierre Paganini, sums up the two men and why their matches (both generally and when they are against one another) have always been so interesting and entertaining to watch; “Roger is an artist who knows how to fight whereas Nadal is a fighter who knows how to be an artist as well.”

Strokes of Genius really is an enjoyable an informative documentary. Every time I watch it it takes me back to the summer of 2008, watching that epic match, and it reminds me how much I love and appreciate both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and all they have achieved, individually and together. 5/5.

REVIEW: Miss Americana (2020)

Documentary about Taylor Swift as she begins work on her seventh studio album, taking a look at her life and career at a transformative time in her life.

I really was not expecting Miss Americana to make me feel so many emotions. I like Taylor Swift’s music but in the sense that I rarely buy albums of any artist I like but I enjoy their music when I hear it on the radio or whatever. In fact, the Taylor Swift albums I had on my iTunes before watching Miss Americana were Fearless, Speak Now and 1989. I had listened to some of her more recent stuff and mostly liked it but wouldn’t have said I was a Taylor Swift fan. Miss Americana may have changed that.

With Miss Americana you still see just as much as what Taylor Swift allows you to see. Some of that is deeply personal stuff like seeing her unfiltered reaction for the album Reputation not being nominated for the main categories at the Grammy’s, but while she mentions finding love and stability, it’s clear after her past experiences of her love life being dissected by the media, she is deeply protective of that part of her life and wants to keeps her relationship private. The whole documentary is definitely a more unfiltered look into Taylor Swift and she’s brutally honest about how she felt (and continues to feel) about both the highs and the lows of her career and fame.

The thing that is so great about Miss Americana is that while obviously the focus is on Taylor Swift, her life, loves and career, but through her experiences you get to see all the misogyny and double standards that all women are put through. It’s just what happened to Taylor Swift is just more well documented and potentially on a larger scale due to her fame.

There’s when she was sued by the radio DJ who groped her, who she countersued, and what the experience in court was like. There are all the criticisms she faced from the press and everyday people on social media, the comments on her relationships, her appearance, her perceived personality, and how they affected her.

It’s all so infuriating and saddening because she may be famous (so many people would see her as fair game) but she is still a person, and a lot of the stuff that happened to her was when she was still pretty young. She was seventeen when the whole Kanye West at the VMAs thing happened. Would he have done that if she was older? Or a man?

While obviously Taylor Swift is super famous, rich and talented, there was something about Miss Americana that made some of her experiences so relatable. The documentary takes place when she’s approaching thirty. The way she talks about that age, how old she feels (sometimes far older than her years and sometimes far younger), how she isn’t ready to have kids or all the adult stuff that is related to that age – now that’s relatable. I’m a similar age to Taylor Swift and I often feel like I have the mentality of a teenager at university rather than an adult that someone in their late twenties is supposed to be and it can be terrifying. It’s almost reassuring that that is a universal feeling, no matter how much money you have or how successful your career is, it can feel like you’re not ticking all the life achievement boxes by the time you reach a certain number.

A key part of Miss Americana is showing how Taylor Swift found her political voice. It’s easy to criticise her for not saying something sooner, but she does a good job of explaining why she didn’t and a main part of it was her inherent need to be a “good girl”. She came from a background in country music where she was always told never to say her political views and the Dixie Chicks (a group who were slated and their career nosedived for one comment against President George Bush) were used as an example of what would happen to her if she ever said anything. Seeing her stand up for what she believed in and be then constantly striving to learn more so she could help people and to shut out all the misogynistic things you pick up from society without realising was wonderful to see.

While naturally fans of Taylor Swift will get a lot from Miss Americana, I feel that anyone can appreciate this documentary. It shows how the media can affect a young woman as she tries to figure out who she is, and it highlights how talented and resilient she is. Miss Americana made me a Taylor Swift fan and I wrote this listening to the album Lover. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Brink (2019)

A fly-on-the-wall documentary following former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s global mission to spread extreme nationalism.

The Brink spans across about a year, from Autumn 2017 to late 2018, and gives unbridled access into the life of Bannon as he meets with politicians and campaigners and discusses the next move in forwarding the nationalism agenda.

The thing that the The Brink did really well is show how Bannon is a hypocrite and almost constantly contradicts himself. The type of documentary it is means the filmmaker doesn’t make their own commentary on what is happening, instead they allow the camera and the actions of the people on screen to tell the story. While Bannon speaks out against the rich and the elite, you also see him going to the dinners at the Upper East Side, flying in private jets, and staying fancy hotels. It is clear he is a hypocrite as he enjoys the lifestyle that being a part of the elite can bring. He also lies and contradicts himself when questioned on past statements, even when journalists have the evidence to back it up.

Bannon’s meetings and dinners with far right and nationalist politicians from across Europe are often uncomfortable to watch. There is Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP and now the leader of the Brexit Party, who says increasingly inflammatory things as well as members of the National Front in France and other right-wing politicians across Europe. However grimy these dinners might make one feel; they are illuminating as you see how these people think and the propaganda they believe in without any filters.

The Brink is often shocking, with one of the most surprising things being how much access the filmmaker got, sitting in on so many dinners, meetings and private conversations. You get to see exactly the kind of man Bannon is – he can be charming and charismatic, he is smart – though not as smart as he believes he is – but he is also aggressive, rude, and will talk down to anyone who is not acting quick enough to achieve his goals.

The Brink is an engaging documentary though it does help to have a lot of background knowledge on Bannon, his time in the White House and certain events he was involved in. It throws you straight in, following Bannon and his aims without giving a lot of context. There are titles that appear every now and then, giving more information, but really, if you don’t know all what Bannon did as a part of Trump’s campaign staff did as, then the film is more of a character study. 4/5.

As an aside, The Brink would make a good double bill with another political documentary – Knock Down the House. Both of them cover the same amount of time and culminate at the results of the 2018 US midterm elections, however they follow people on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum – showing just how divisive politics has come, not just in America but around the world.

REVIEW: All This Panic (2016)

A documentary following a group of teenage girls for three years, from their last year in high school to their first few years in college, looking at the relationships they make along the way and how they and their lives change in that time.

All This Panic is a great because it doesn’t judge any of the girls it follows, instead it shows all their different sides, the times things go well for them as well as arguments they may have with parents or their friends. It allows you to form your own opinion on each girl while still understanding that they are all growing and learning all the time.

Out of the group of friends one decided not to go to college, so it was interesting to see how her life differed to her friends and how they tried to stay in touch and if they could remain as great friends as they were in school. I think it’s good to see how relationships can change and to allow that to happen, and just because they weren’t together every day anymore, it didn’t mean their friendship was over.

The girls all talked about boys, and girls, they fancy, what they thought about relationships and how when they’re seventeen you can’t win as if you haven’t had sex it’s seen as weird, but if you have then you shouldn’t have. All This Panic paints a very honest picture of what teen girls go through and to paraphrase what Sage says, “People want to see teen girls, but don’t want to hear them.”

All This Panic is a short film, but it packs a lot in. It’s entertaining and affecting as it’s easy to see yourself in these girls and you want them all to find their way and be comfortable in their own skin. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Prince of Nothingwood (2017)

A documentary following Salim Shaheen, Afghanistan’s most popular actor, director and producer, with 110 films under his belt as he travels the country to shoot his latest film.

The Prince of Nothingwood is a brilliant documentary that’s both funny and fascinating. You get to see what life in Afghanistan is like for these men who are a part of Salim Shaheen’s films. Shaheen was in the military and even then, he was making films with the soldiers. They tell a story of how a missile went through a window, injuring and killing many of them and they used the footage of the aftermath in a film.

The film is directed by French journalist Sonia Kronlund and the interactions between her and Shaheen are one of the highlights of the film. Their conversations are funny because he’s such a big personality in comparison to her. Kronlund is well aware of the dangers of being a foreigner in Afghanistan but travelling with Shaheen, the rules don’t really apply to him. Everyone loves him and wants to shake his hand or have a selfie with him, including security personnel, the police and even the army.

Throughout The Prince of Nothingwood you get to see extracts of Shaheen’s films. They are over the top and for Western audiences probably considered pretty bad but they are quite inventive when you consider, as Shaheen says, there “is no money” to make films. Hence why he calls Afghan cinema Nothingwood. Shaheen’s films capture Afghan audiences though and they appear to get a lot of joy from them.

Kronlund not only talks to Shaheen but to the actors who have been a part of many of his films as well as his family. Admittedly it’s only his sons, she’s not able to talk to his two wives nor his daughters. It’s interesting to hear what other people think of Shaheen and his love of films.

The Prince of Nothingwood is a documentary about a man who loves films, both watching them and making them, and that love along with his larger than life personality shines through. The situations he and his film team get into often seem a bit farcical but there’s almost an air of innocence about it all. They all know what it’s like to live with the fear of death over them, there’s often mentions of what life was like under the Taliban, so they all embrace life and filmmaking and appear to have a great time while doing it. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Mask You Live In (2015)

Documentary exploring how culture’s narrow definition of masculinity is harming boys, men and society as a whole and what we can do to try and solve this dangerous problem.

The Mask You Live In is an important and accessible documentary. It has educators, psychologists, sociologists, paediatricians as well as political scientists and sports coaches, talking about their experiences as well as what they have learnt about young men and our culture of telling them in very strict terms, what it is to be a man.

This film looks at boys in pre-school, and how from a very early age they find themselves having set rules to follow that are laid out by their classmates. These rules can be “be mean”, “don’t talk to the girls” and if they don’t follow these rules they’ll be pushed out and ignored by their peers. It shows how from a very young age boys are aware of what it is to be a boy and how one of those big “rules” is to not cry or show any emotion besides anger. It becomes clear that not allowing boys and young men to show emotion and telling them to “man up” can be very dangerous – to the boys and their mental health, as well as it leading to substance abuse and violence.

The Mask You Live In examines cultural influences like violent video games as well as films. More often than not the male hero of a film is the strong, silent type who’s always in control, may have a lot of money and he is probably also a character that commits some acts of violence. This is the standard that boys look up to and it’s near-unachievable without the boys losing a part of themselves, or burring they’re emotions. Then there’s the fact that there’s so many depictions of thugs and gangs that are predominantly men of colour, leading these young men to have few positive role models in media.

There are so many great speakers in this film. My favourites were Joe Herman, a Coach and Former NLF Player, who talks about what an important and defining role a coach can have in young men’s lives, especially when they may not have a great male role model at home, and Ashanti Branch, an educator and Youth Advocate who works with boys to try and get them to express themselves and give them a safe space to do so.

Not only are there the professional speakers but there’s interviews with men of all ages from under ten to adulthood, relaying their experiences, who they found to look up to and how they decided what “being a man” means to them – even if it doesn’t fit into the expectations of society or even their family and peers.

The Mask You Live In can be upsetting, shocking and uncomfortable viewing at times, especially as it highlights so much of our everyday language that can have a negative affect on boys and young men. It looks at how young men can feel entitled to success, wealth and women as that’s what is shown in popular culture to be the positive qualities of “being a man”, and how that entitlement can lead to violence and perpetuating rape culture.

The Mask You Live In is more American focused, and that’s especially clear with its statistics to do with gun violence, but what it has to say about society and the media and rape culture and how it all affects boys from a young age is universal. The Mask You Live In is an important documentary that doesn’t necessarily offer a complete set of concrete solutions to society’s narrow definition of masculinity, but it does offer guidance and advice and by pointing out society’s failings when it comes to boys. It allows us to be more educated going forward and helping young men become more comfortable in their own skin. 5/5.

REVIEW: Blackfish (2013)

blackfish-movie-posterDocumentary following the controversial captivity of orcas, aka killer whales, and the dangers it presents for humans and whales.

The focus of Blackfish is on Sea World and the whales there including Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca that was involved with the death of three people including two experienced whale trainers. Interviews from former Sea World trainers paint a picture of how all orcas were treated and trained in Sea World and you also get to see their thoughts on the attacks and how they didn’t always know a lot about them when they were still involved with the whales. It’s clear that the former trainers cared about the whales but they were also deceived by their employers on how safe being so close to the whales were. Tilikum wasn’t the only whale involved in attacking and killing people, video footage shows other incidents in Sea World and in other parks across the world.

The film does a great job of showing actual footage of the trainers with the whales when everything’s normal and before or after an attack. It’s doesn’t go for the shock value that an animal attacking a human can bring, it’s very sensitive to those who have been injured or have lost their lives to an orca but remains critical of Sea World’s practices and the act of keeping whales in captivity in general.

Blackfish has a range of people interviewed, animal trainers, psychologists, marine biologists and lawyers from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). Together they show the mental trauma these huge creatures go through when they are taken from their families and put into small enclosures. How capitalist organisations will risk human life if it means they can make a lot of money and will even go so far as to try and cover incidents up or place blame elsewhere.

Blackfish really makes you think. I know when I was eight years old and my family went to Disney World in Florida, we spent the day at Sea World and saw the shows where trainers are in the water with killer whales, dolphins and sea lions. It’s a big money business and the way it’s presented to you as the paying tourist, you don’t comprehend what the animals are going through. You see the animals doing their tricks and you don’t really think about where they sleep or how they’re trained.

Blackfish is an important yet disturbing and powerful documentary that will change the way you look at killer whales, and animals in captivity in general. 5/5.

REVIEW: Twinsters (2015)

twinsters-movie-posterSamantha had grown up in America and always knew she was adopted but what she didn’t know that she could have a twin. That is until she was contacted by Anaïs, a French girl living in London. Together they go on an incredible journey to find out if they really are twin sisters who were separated at birth.

Twinsters is a fascinating and well-made documentary. While the story is mostly told from Samantha Futerman’s point of view as she’s the one who is first contacted by Anaïs Bordier with the idea they might be twins, you still get the time to see what Anaïs thinks about the whole experience and learn more about her life before finding Sam via the internet. You also get short interviews from Sam and Anaïs’s friends and family’s as they too learn that their daughter or friend might have a biological relative in a different country.

That’s one of the incredible things about Twinsters, is that these two young women who live continents apart found each other through social media. They talked for hours at a time on Skype and Facebook messaged each other nearly every day for months before they ever met face to face. It proves how the internet can be used for good to connect people around the world.

Sam is an engaging storyteller as she and Anaïs get into contact with the adoption agencies they went through as babies in South Korea, to try and look into their records more closely. Twinsters is not only the story of Sam and Anaïs finding each other, but of them discovering their heritage in Korea and where they came from.

Twinsters is such a heart-warming and incredible true story. It’s all about love and family and the friends and connections we all make. One of the great things about Twinsters is that it doesn’t judge on what family is better, biological or adopted, and how Sam and Anaïs learn about each other’s families and decide to what extent they want to be a part of them. Twinsters is film that makes you laugh and cry tears of happiness as these two young women get to know each other and decide how much they want to be in each other’s lives. 5/5.

REVIEW: Letters from Baghdad (2016)

letters-from-baghdadA documentary about Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire who helped shape the destiny of Iraq after World War One.

Letters from Baghdad is an interesting blend of archive footage and letters from Bell and first-hand accounts from her friends and colleagues. Bell’s letters are a voice over from Tilda Swinton while the letters and accounts from other people are from actors, playing the part of the real historical figures as if they were being interviewed. It’s an interesting setup that takes a little while to get used to but having all these first-hand account soon pulls you into the rich history of Iraq and Gertrude Bell. Also Bell’s letters helps you feel more connected to her as she not only writes about her day to day life in Iraq but her opinions on the people she meets and how she does miss her family, her father especially.

Gertrude Bell is a woman I had never heard of before seeing this film. Bell travelled across Arabia, sometimes being accused of being a spy, working in archaeological digs and ended up being recruited by the British Government to draw the borders of Iraq. She knew T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and Winston Churchill, she socialised with Muslim, British and German women alike and Iraqi royalty. It is a shame that she has been all but written out of history. She did a lot for Iraq including setting up the National Museum of Iraq practically single handed.

Letters from Baghdad is not only a historical documentary, it does shine a light on how British and American involvement in the Middle East has both aided and hindered the region throughout history, but it also looks at the attitudes of the time towards women in positions of power and who have independence, and how some of those attitudes have still not changed a lot.

If you want to learn more about Iraq’s history and a remarkable woman that has almost been forgotten from history, then do check out Letters from Baghdad. 4/5.

Letters From Baghdad – Official Trailer from Letters from Baghdad on Vimeo.

REVIEW: An Insignificant Man (2016)

an-insignificant-manA political documentary following Arvind Kejriwal an activist who wants to end political corruption but soon realises that the only way to do that is with politics and so newest political force in India is born – The Common Man’s Party (AAP).

An Insignificant Man is fascinating, well-structured look at India’s political landscape, especially the campaigning leading up to the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections. It follows Kejriwal and his party as they struggle to make themselves a formidable force against The Congress, Mahatma Gandhi’s party and the party that’s ruled India for the majority of the years since India’s independence, and he opposition party BJP.

Other notable people featured in the documentary are Yogendra Yadav, an academic and co-founder of the AAP. Yadav was often the most pragmatic person in the party having studied politics for so many years. He is the kind of person who knew you could only pick certain battles and not go promising everything to everyone. His and Kejriwal’s relationship was interesting as Kejriwal was often stubborn and make big promises to do with free water and energy bills that many people, Yadva included, thought were too extreme. Santosh Koli was another interesting AAP candidate, she was a formidable woman and while her story was cut short (it’s a documentary so you can google her if you like) I really liked what you saw of her in An Insignificant Man and wished she could have had the opportunity to make a bigger political impact.

I knew nothing of Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP and the political landscape in India in general before watching An Insignificant Man but this film did a great job of showing who the man is, both the good and the bad, and what he and his party stands for. It made this recent piece of political history exciting and almost thrilling at times while also still showed the farcical side of politics. There are indeed laugh out loud moments in this, for instance when one politician is told to stop shouting over other campaigners in an interview and he said “I’m not shouting, I have a loud voice.” An Insignificant Man really shows how politics is just as absurd and flawed in India as it is anywhere else in the world.

An Insignificant Man is an interesting documentary about a group of people who do almost the unthinkable of starting a new political party. It feels honest and does not try to judge Kejriwal or AAP, it simply follows them through the ups and downs of campaigning, showing the successes and the failures. It really is a fascinating film. 5/5.