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Culture

Autumn documentaries tell unusual tales of art, love, politics, and journalism

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2011-10-18

In addition to high-profile fiction releases, moviegoers in France this autumn will be able to discover a varied handful of striking, topical documentaries. FRANCE 24 takes an advance peek.

After the summer’s glut of superhero franchise flicks and gross-out comedies, this fall promises a particularly rich slate of offerings for cinephiles in France: new movies from Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, and others.

But in addition to works of fiction sure to generate buzz in the press and business at the box office, a diverse handful of striking and topical documentaries (recently seen at the Film Festival of Valenciennes) are also scheduled to hit French screens – and will likely fly under the radar.

Here’s an advance look at four of them.


The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (October 26)

Marie Losier’s affectionate look at the artistic and romantic collaboration between British industrial rock icon Genesis P-Orridge and Brooklyn dominatrix Lady Jaye Breyer makes for an engaging, dynamic study of mutual inspiration and unconditional love. The film focuses on the most unsettling – and fascinating – aspect of the duo’s life together: their pursuit of “pandrogeny”, which entailed each of them undergoing several plastic surgeries in order to look more like the other.

Deftly interweaving footage of the couple’s concerts and performance art with interviews and intimate home movies, Losier locates the purity and earnestness -- as well as the restless artistic impulse – at the heart of a relationship that might otherwise be seen as merely freakish. The result is a documentary that seems, if anything, a bit too enamored of its own subject, too hesitant to dig deeper beneath its own airy, aesthetically alluring surface. Still, there’s no denying the craft behind Losier’s approach and, above all, the freshness of the story she’s telling.


Khodorkovsky (November 9)

Cyril Tuschi’s solid, methodical, if slightly dry and overlong documentary about jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is both a portrait of an elusive entrepreneur and an investigation into the underbelly of Russian politics. Khodorkovsky’s shifting ideological leanings – from militant Communist to ambitious capitalist to billionaire – and the emerging animosity between him and Putin are compellingly examined through interviews, news footage, and animated sequences that add a touch of much-needed lyricism.

The second half of the film, which centres on the possible reasons for Khodorkovsky’s arrest and his subsequent prison sentence in Siberia, should be even more intriguing. But Tuschi relies too heavily on documentary conventions (talking heads and sinister music), and the movie’s grip gradually loosens. The overall impression is one of a blazingly hot topic intelligently, but perhaps a bit too studiously explored.


Honk! (November 9)

A French documentary about the death penalty in the US, this film by Arnaud Gaillard and Florent Vassault mostly forsakes politics and history to take an up-close look at the emotional impact of executions on the families of death-row inmates and their victims. “Honk!” is somewhat of a gamble, and it’s one that pays off more than one might expect: the film lacks basic factual context, but its makers have nailed down some extremely gripping testimonies to voice their conviction that capital punishment damages everyone involved – even those who think they’re getting the vengeance or closure they deserve.

Particularly moving are scenes of a family of women attending the execution of the man who killed their father and husband. The notes of ambivalence and regret mixed in with their anger are as powerful an indictment of the death penalty as any in the entire film. Indeed, rather than articulate explicit arguments against the practice, Gaillard and Vassault have provided a vivid, sensitively rendered snapshot of a certain American way of life defined less by bloodlust than a sort of depressed indifference and a reluctance to question even the most painful traditions.


Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times (November 23)

Andrew Rossi spent a year tagging along with reporters and editors at the Manhattan-based publication with the towering reputation, and he’s come up with a strong angle: how does The New York Times -- faced with a shrinking budget -- adapt to the age of Internet news, and how does it go about covering, in print form, the meteoric rise of new media? The answers are a little all over the place and not as deeply examined as one might hope, but the result is a consistently engaging documentary that’s paced like a thriller and spiced up by a few colourful characters worthy of fiction.

Chief among those is David Carr, former drug addict, single dad, and star media reporter, whose expletive-laced one-liners, tough interviewing techniques, and insistence on the value of old-school reporting embody the film’s gracefully developed defence of traditional journalism. If The New York Times comes off as a bit too heroic to be true (the Judith Miller and Jayson Blair scandals are only quickly addressed), Rossi also suggests that innovation and openness to a rapidly evolving field are necessary to the paper’s survival. Aside from being sparkling entertainment, this is essential viewing for journalists of all ages all over the world.

Date created : 2011-10-17

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