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Again, another movie that deserves a lengthy write up.  Again, I’ll try and do what I can with it.

I will say this from the beginning: this is probably one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year (and there have been plenty of good documentaries).  That should set you forward in seeing this.

Vik Muniz, an artist, decides for his next series to involve the trash-pickers at Jardim Gramacho, one of the world’s largest landfills, in the hopes of giving back to his native country.  He meets a small sampling of the workers there, each with their own story and reasons for working the landfill.  He photographs several of them – Taio, the president of the trash-pickers union; Zumbi, the intellectual; Suelem, an 18-year old mother of two; Isis, a lover of fashion with a tragic past; Valter, the vice president and the oldest worker at the landfill; Irma, the cook; and Magna, who took a job there when her husband lost his.

Muniz’s work often involves materials that represent each aspect of his subjects.  Prior to this series, his most famous was one based with sugar and children (again in his native Brazil).  For this series, he plans on using recyclable materials to create pieces of art from portraits taken of the workers.  The trailer is just a small sampling: seeing the reactions of everyone being turned into art is astounding.  Taio is especially happy: his piece was selected for direct auction at a London auction house.

Each of the people highlighted in the film have aspirations outside of the landfill.  With the exception of Taio (who continues to represent the workers even though the landfill is scheduled to be closed in 2012) and Valter (who passed away during the filming of the documentary), most of these people aspire to move beyond life at the landfill.  There’s a major discussion between Muniz and two others about the impact they’re having on the workers, and whether it’s good or bad.  They definitely want to make their lives better, but what would the cost be?  Muniz, more than anything else, wishes to inspire these people to live better lives.

At the end of the film, Muniz explains a basic philosophy that many people often have in life.  When he was poor, he wanted everything when he had nothing.  Now that he’s successful, he has everything and wants nothing more.  It’s a dilemma that drove him to help people in Brazil, and he did so at his own expense.  All of the sales from the auction and the various prints went to the landfill, helping to build a library and purchase computers for general use.

What happens after 2012 is anyone’s guess.  Taio seems to hold a lot of influence in Rio, as he’s quite popular with the workers and people in general.  One can imagine that he would continue to find work for the workers, either in another landfill or towards other employment within and around Rio.  People has said he should run for office of some form, either as mayor or even as president.  Whether or not Taio as such lofty goals remains to be seen, but he is charismatic and, as I mentioned, inspirational.

There is more to be said, but it’s better to just see this film.  You won’t be disappointed.

A

Mark Hogancamp was practically beaten to death.  He spent nine days in a coma and 40 days in a hospital before he was sent home.  He had no money for therapy, and because the attack completely ruined him physically and mentally, he had to rebuild himself from scratch.

The last thing anyone would do in this situation would be to build a 1/6th-sized WWII replica town, but Mark went and did just that.  If there’s one thing that anyone should have, it’s an imagination and an ability to create any sort of dream and turn it into reality.  Mark used his imagination, probably the only thing he had left from the attack, and turned it into this town, called Marwencol (named after himself, Wendy (the owner of the bar he works at), and Colleen (his first “fictional” wife that is actually a real person in real life)).

The town is his escape, using himself as the hero and allowing anyone to come to this town as long as they don’t cause trouble.  The Germans, the Russians, the British and the Americans all come to the single bar (ran by Mark’s mother no less), and drink and indulge in competitive cat fights between the 27 Barbie dolls that Mark has in his collection.  There are dolls that represent real world people, if you haven’t figured that out yet – Mark, his mother, people at the bar, his best friend, his attorney, and as the end of the film reveals, the photographer he meets that sees his photos, the curator of the art gallery, and the director of this documentary.  All of them make up the cast of characters in Mark’s fictional town.  So too does the SS, the German hit squad, which Mark pretty much beats up whenever he needs to release any pent up anger.  The SS, as Mark reveals, represents the five men that attacked him outside of the bar in 2000.  Mark doesn’t know what he’ll do to them if he ever runs into them, but he knows he can focus his aggression in Marwencol.

The dilemma arises when the pictures he takes of his story in Marwencol ends up in the hands of a curator in an art gallery.  He wants to present it as art, and Mark has a crisis: whether his own therapy can be used as art?  As the film shows, the gallery is successful (it closed in late October, which I just discovered last week or else I would have investigated more and tried to make it to NYC to see it), and Mark, adventuring outside of his small New York town one hundred miles north of the city for the first time in years, is amazed and troubled in what he sees and how he should express himself (he has a high heel fetish, which may have been the catalyst for the attack).

Two things stand out while watching this documentary: how Mark uses his town as therapy and how real the pictures are.  For the former, he pretty much got his hands working again by manipulating all of the small pieces used in his town: the gun you see in the trailer, the straps for the grenade bags, the removable hands and heads and the constant moving and resetting of the characters.  As mentioned above, he interacts with the town in different ways, mostly for practical reasons, but at times for strange and weird reasons too (he does hope to meet his “Anna” someday, the doll that he married to his persona in the town).  It’s simply amazing what his imagination has done for him.

For the latter, it’s completely surrealistic art.  The trailer shows just a few pictures that he took for the various stories that occur in Marwencol, and it’s easy to see how life like they are.  I glanced at his most recent storyline on the website, entitled “Legends”, and it’s simply brilliant.  Is it weird?  Yes, obviously.  But it’s also very truthful and honest.  Mark is doing this because it’s what he’s become.  There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when he has no money to get himself actual therapy.  He took his rehabilitation into his own hands, and the result is Marwencol.

A

Note: the website is http://www.marwencol.com.  Definitely check it out.

I sort of have a confession to make.

I don’t think I’m moved very much by movies anymore.  Well, the dramatic stuff, mainly, which I think mainly has to do with the fact that not many characters are so fleshed out to make me actually break down into a sobbing mess when something truly dire happens to them.  There are a couple – Never Let Me Go, Farewell (seriously, just a couple) – that did in fact move me because of the predicaments of the characters (the former being the search for humanity in cloned people, the latter in the midst of Cold War Russian).

Part of the problem too, as I watched Waiting for “Superman”, is that I see too many documentaries, and they involve actual, real life people, who live and breathe just like everyone else does.  There’s no fictionalizing them.  They’re us, probably a month or a year before we see the film, but they’re still us.  (I realize that I probably mentioned this fact before, but it’s always important to remember that and to keep it in mind, simply because it is the truth.)

Documentaries have done that all year to me, and Waiting for “Superman” is no exception, especially when it focuses on a few families who rest their hopes in a lottery.

Guggenheim’s premise is simple: why are public schools failing all over the country?  The problem is very complex, spanning a variety of areas that involve a child: poverty and low-income families; teacher’s unions and the use of tenure to keep bad teachers in teaching positions for life; bad teachers period; and, government bureaucracies.  The solution to the problem may seem simple, looking at each example above, but it really isn’t.

Guggenheim searches for a solution, but mainly comes to the conclusion that good teachers who genuinely care for the students and teaches like they should are the answer.  There’s more to that, obviously, but it’s where the solution starts.  There are good teachers in public schools, but there are also bad ones, and there is such a gap in knowledge that American students are falling far behind the curve compared with the rest of the world.

Breaking up the teacher’s unions is another solution, but also impossible (not even improbable, just impossible).  The teacher’s unions are there for a reason (to prevent unfair firings and help provide fair payment for the teachers), but have gotten extremely powerful since their inception, providing to both the Democrats and the Republicans in elections.  Michelle Rhee, selected to be chancellor of the D.C. public school system, introduced controversial measures to help the failing schools in the capital.  She knew that the problem was bad teachers, but couldn’t get past the union without trying something gutsy.  The idea of incentive-based raises while losing tenure made the unions balk and prevented a vote from occurring.  (Following up, Rhee and the union agreed to a contract wherein raises were granted based upon student achievement, but seniority was weakened and teachers lost a year of tenure so evaluations could occur.  Rhee resigned the post last month.)

Perhaps the most charismatic person in the film is Geoffrey Canada, an activist and educator who decided decades ago to help get kids to college with the best education possible.  He’s extremely vocal about the need to reform the education system.  In Harlem, he runs a charter program that gives each student the individualized education, as well as the broad education they need to become successful in life.  The model is extremely successful, with the charter encompassing 97 blocks in Harlem, with possible expansion across the country.

That also seems to be part of Guggenheim’s solution – charter schools – but the only way to get there is through a lottery (required by law when there are more applicants than there are spots).  Each of the families highlighted in the film take their chances on the lottery for each prospective program, knowing that the chances of success or failure for their children depends entirely on luck.  Of the five who are shown, only one gets in straight away, while a second is wait-listed (and he had the best odds out of the five).  Their pain is shown, but each is a small part of a larger whole, with every other family that didn’t have their story told.  Each family has a kid who wants to be a doctor, a vet, a lawyer, or any other professional that can work and be successful.

That is probably what’s most draining about the public school system: that kids with their ideals and their future ambitions are left to rot because of teachers not doing what they’re paid to do.  Guggenheim offers some well rounded solutions, and a lot of it comes down to us as individuals and what we can do to change the system.  Eye opening and insightful, just the way it should be.

A-

What is love, you ask?

Heck if I know, and neither does Charlyne Yi, I think.

She wouldn’t have made a documentary if she weren’t in pursuit of the answer, right?

Well, for herself, she really doesn’t, even with her real-life relationship (at the time) to Michael Cera.  In pursuing a documentary about love, the pair create a fictional portrait of their budding romance.  They enjoy the company at first, but after a while, between the camera crew constantly hounding the pair and Charlyne flat out saying that she isn’t in love, they split up, only to seemingly reconcile at the end (at least, that’s what the puppets describe for us in a genuinely hilarious ending).

It all seems deceptive too, given the fact that Charlyne interviewed couples, either married or with each other for years, to get a glimpse at what love is.  The highlights of this documentary involve those couples – all real, all very much in love – and how they described meeting each other, or just dealing with different moments in their lives, done to the tune of arts and crafts.  There are bold moments, crazy moments, and touching moments to be found.

Part of how this works comes from Charlyne herself: she has a rather disarming charm that allows her to get people to talk to her.  She’s humorous as well, in a happy, optimistic way (and somewhat self-depreciating, but it’s actually not so bad compared to other comedians).  Her relationship with Michael Cera was engaging as well, even if we know, for the film at least, it was fake.  It was probably their actual relationship that made this work better than it should.

This was on Starz On Demand, I believe.  It’s short (only 88 minutes), and it’s a perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon.  Don’t expect to get an answer to love – the whole overriding message, if there is one, is just to go find it on your own – but you’ll appreciate the moments of love that you find, especially during those real moments.

Interesting and often haunting documentary of an incomplete Nazi propaganda film, called the Ghetto, which sought to emphasize the difference between the rich Jew and the poor Jew.  An unknown fourth reel was discovered, filled with various outtakes of particular situations (a funeral procession, a diner scene, etc) that proved that the film was fake.  Apparently this was used as actual truth for a long time.  Survivors of the Warsaw ghetto were brought in to watch this film, showing their various reactions of seeing people they knew, but also their reactions of the Jews slowly deteriorating away into nothing, often just dying on the streets – with the Nazi film makers telling the people to just walk by without acknowledging the dead.  The final reel shows a mass burial grave, with both Jews and the Nazi film makers getting into the graves to pull the bodies down and to film everything that’s happening.  All of it is very disturbing, and just adds to the overall effect of the Nazi propaganda machine.

B+