Back Row Thoughts – Doc’s Orders, Part 1

Hello all, and welcome to 2023! I hope everyone had a pleasant holiday, regardless of how you celebrated. Mercifully, 2022 is finally over, but that doesn’t mean we’re done with its cinematic slate, not by a long shot. The unofficial tally for the year, cut off at calendar’s end, is 116 films viewed, but obviously that number will grow as we approach this year’s Academy Awards. There are still four entries on the International Feature shortlist for me to see (one of which I’ll get to next week), I’m trying to track down the final three Animated Feature submissions, and of course, there is the shortlist for Documentary Feature.

This is the longest subset for me, as unfortunately, I didn’t get to see too many documentaries last year. Before the semifinalists were announced, I had only seen three, and one of them didn’t make the cut. That leaves 13 to tackle in order to clear the field, hopefully before the Oscar nominations are announced in just over three weeks.

For those keeping track, here are the 15 films up for the prize, chosen from 144 eligible:
All That Breathes
All The Beauty and the Bloodshed
Bad Axe
Children of the Mist
Fire of Love
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
Hidden Letters
A House Made of Splinters
The Janes
Last Flight Home
Moonage Daydream
The Territory

That’s a pretty tall stack, but thankfully, the vast majority are within my reach. Some are in theatres now, or will be in the coming weeks. Most others are available to stream or through a VOD service. The only one I haven’t tracked down just yet is A House Made of Splinters, which is also up for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, so hopefully release information will materialize soon.

Still, we’ve got a good starting point, so just like with Animated Feature, I will devote space here for mini-reviews of as many of these films as I can see in the next 23 days. I’ve already got three in the chamber ready to go, so let’s get to it!

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

I’m not much of an art follower. I studied a little art history in high school as part of a class where I learned once and for all that I can’t draw worth a shit. I still love going to museums and absorbing all that’s on display, and I’m fascinated by it in part because I know I can’t do it, but I confess my knowledge base is lacking. I had never heard of photographer Nan Goldin before the release of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, only the second documentary ever to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but after seeing this movie, I’ll be keen to check out her stuff if ever given the opportunity, not just because of the quality, but because of her committed advocacy to claim what few small victories we as a society can get against an evil that’s grown beyond the rule of law.

After recovering from an addiction to Oxycontin, Goldin has used her influence to wage a war in the art world against Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family, who have made billions off of the opioid crisis, knowingly profiting off the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands. As part of their public relations strategy, and because the late family patriarch was an art collector, the Sacklers have arguably laundered some of their money through philanthropy and patronage of the arts, to the point that several prominent museums around the world – The Guggenheim, The Louvre, The Met – all had entire wings named in their honor. Knowing that the Sacklers will likely never face criminal justice for their actions (and given the well-publicized civil settlement that allowed the company to file for bankruptcy by transferring its assets to the family, who then paid a miniscule fine relative to their wealth in exchange for three generations of immunity from certain prosecutions), Goldin founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and has staged multiple theatrical public protests – themselves a form of performance art – to pressure the museums to cut ties and refuse the blood money.

The film itself is immaculately structured, almost as if it’s a curated exhibit in a gallery. Divided into chapters all named after or in reference to Goldin’s works (The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, etc.), each section begins with slideshows and other displays of her provocative photography from a career spanning five decades. All of these pictures fit a given theme, and Goldin supplements them with anecdotes about her life, from her tragic childhood and family circumstances, to finding a home in a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle among the LGBT communities of Boston and New York, to her own tumultuous love life, to appearing in experimental films, to the AIDS epidemic, and finally to her current crusade against the Sacklers. Each chapter culminates with Goldin and her associates in the modern day, pulling off another high-visibility display of public shaming, littering open spaces with prop money, pill bottles, and participants mimicking sudden death on the spot.

It’s an absolutely wonderful narrative tactic, because it shows not only how Goldin’s life experience has informed her present passions, but it also demonstrates how art is itself cyclical, with all that came before paving the way for what’s new. which in turn grants a fresh appreciation and context for the familiar. It’s only aided by Goldin’s adamant self-awareness. Art is a reflection of the artist, and as her career has gone on, she came to understand that there was no point in putting a subject out into the world if she wasn’t prepared to own it herself. This led to a somewhat revolutionary decision to create works in which she actively participates, and that has continued on into her second life as a social warrior.

I was enthralled watching this, utterly fascinated from beginning to end. As I said, I’m forever in awe of those who can do what I cannot. From the scale of her art to the righteous zeal of her quest to right a serious wrong, I am in awe of Nan Goldin. If you see this film, I think you will be, too.

Grade: A


Hopefully the title is familiar to you if you’ve been keeping up with global events. I know there’s a lot of shit that’s hit the fan over the last couple of years, but this is a name you should probably have at the back of your head. The film Navalny might turn out to be one of the more prescient entries in this field, as it premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, before Russia invaded Ukraine, and its poignant and sardonic attitude towards Vladimir Putin feels all the more appropriate with the hindsight of the past 12 months.

Director Daniel Roher provides an intimate look into the life of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the months between the attempted poisoning assassination by the Kremlin and his incarceration after recovering in exile. Collaborating with journalists and anti-corruption activists, Navalny pieces together how his life nearly ended, and incredibly, how stupid it all was.

There were times where this felt like a real-life Glass Onion, in that the illusion of high espionage and political calculus is really just a cover for some really sloppy, obvious work. Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, the same chemical used against a former Russian spy and his daughter living in London the year before. In an era where Putin’s strategy of misdirection and misinformation basically amounts to him saying, “Hey, look over there! Suckers!” before he runs off, the fact that he would have his agents use the same tactic is clumsy at best and incompetent at worst. The toxin is highly deadly, so if you’re only goal is to kill, then I guess that’s all that matters, and everyone knowing it was you is immaterial. But Navalny survived, which only exacerbates the fact that continuing to use the substance points every finger at Putin, who never even deigns to name Navalny as a person when questioned, and who can only pithily quip that if he really wanted him dead, he’d be dead.

The investigation into his own near-murder is oddly cathartic for Navalny, mostly because the sheer brazenness of it is the height of comedy for him. He puts up a massive thumbtack conspiracy board in his home, connecting the dots like the Charlie Day meme, but noting that the true insanity is that it’s all real. He cheekily uses social media to troll Putin like K-Pop stans did to Donald Trump. He calls known Russian hitmen and asks them if they’re surprised he’s still alive and wonders openly why they wanted to kill him.

But the pièce de résistance is how he tricks one of them into confession. Claiming to be an aide to a top official in the government, he calls one of the scientists responsible for manufacturing the Novichok in the guise of compiling a report on the failed mission, asking what went wrong, how the toxin was applied, and in a deliciously macabre moment, how to ensure the next attempt succeeds. Incredibly, the chemist buys it and spills everything. He has mysteriously not been seen since, not even as a victim of Russia’s recent odd epidemic of people suddenly falling out of windows.

Alexei Navalny is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence, arrested the moment he set foot back on home soil, as Putin declared his opposition as a terrorist organization. But like his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he remains a symbol of hope for Eastern Europeans who wish to breathe free, fighting the good fight from within as Putin reveals himself more and more as a strongman charlatan whose so-called threat is waning by the day as his forces are decimated. The botched war in Ukraine over the last year has shown him to be an emperor with no clothes. The attempted assassination on Alexei Navalny, and Navalny as a film, go a long way to prove that he may have never had clothes to begin with.

Grade: A-

The Janes

This HBO documentary essentially serves as a companion piece to the underrated fictional film, Call Jane, that came out this past fall. And like its dramatized sibling, its import has been made apparent thanks to the actions of a Supreme Court that is seen as less and less legitimate as time wears on.

Released back in June, the tone of the movie closely resembles that of the Elizabeth Banks drama, in that it appears to have been produced as a tribute and celebration of the tenacity of the Chicago “Janes,” women who collectively used this pseudonym to facilitate illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade granted that right nationwide. The film features interviews from several of the real-life “Janes” as well as the doctors, lawyers, and laymen who aided them in the process of secreting desperate pregnant women to secluded areas for safe abortion care. It’s even kind of endearing to see people like “Mike” (several of the subjects only use their first names, while others use their full) tell stories that were borne out in the theatrical release, proving the producers did their homework and tried to be as honest in their depictions as possible while still taking the requisite artistic liberties.

The other side of that coin is that thanks to the Dobbs decision and Samuel Alito’s 11th century legal theory to overturn Roe, a result that was directly engineered by one of our major political parties in clear defiance of precedent and a prioritization of ideology over law, the film’s joyous framing is now tragically ironic. Even more so than the fictional movie, this project was about letting those who did the right thing take a victory lap, comfortable in the knowledge that their work was done. And now, thanks to five assholes (and a few dozen other assholes who put them in that position for this express purpose), it’s all been undone.

There are moments in the documentary that serve as a reminder of how hard the fight was the first time, and how ignorant the arguments against abortion rights can be. But because this was produced before Dobbs was handed down, there was no opportunity for a call to action. This was clearly intended to honor those who had to break an unjust law, not to prepare another generation to go through it all again because this nation is practically allergic to unfucking itself. Unfortunately, this leaves the film with a cloud of wistful melancholy hanging over it, an almost quaint acknowledgement of what might have been, what had been, and what should still be.

If you’re passionate about the issue, this is a good film to watch, especially alongside the drama. Make it a depressing double-header if you like. As for the form of documentary filmmaking, The Janes is functional but nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s honestly pretty standard. It’s the importance and timeliness of the subject matter that elevates it to this point.

Grade: B+


That’s it for this edition. Five down, 10 more to go. I’ll have more analysis in a few days’ time, but until then, I’ve got another round of Animated Feature entries to go over, as well as the final three new theatrical releases of 2022 to get to. Stay tuned!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you had a chance to see these documentaries? Which one is your favorite? Have you ever participated in a public display of performance protest? Let me know!

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