Best Documentary Feature

Searching for Sugar Man (2012) Review | Jamie Daily

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
3/5 Stars
Nominated for 1 award, which it won.
Won Best Documentary Feature (Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn).
Watched April 14, 2014.


Searching for Sugarman is half horror story and half fantasy for musicians.  Two South Africans are in search of what became of the 1970s rock and roll legend Rodriguez.  The catch is that he is only a legend in South Africa, despite his being an American.


The documentary interviews multiple people who say that Rodriguez was the real deal.  His soul and lyrics made him as big as the Beatles or Elvis Presley in South Africa, but no one in the States knew who he was.  He recorded two albums and then disappeared into obscurity.  In the days of no internet and only album covers, no one picked up something by a “Rodriguez” to listen to.


Somehow Rodriguez’s album made its way to South Africa, unbeknownst to him or his record label.  It spread like wildfire and genuinely helped spur on political revolution.  He was an inspiration to local bands and his lyrics built up a nation that felt oppressed by their leadership.


No one knew what happened to Rodriguez.  There were all sorts of rumors about his very public and gruesome suicide, but no one actually knew.  This film is the search for his story and what became of a legend.


For the most part, I saw Sugarman as a feel good film.  I won’t say too much (no spoilers here!), but the end of the film, story wise, was my favorite.  The story was good, the interviews were good, and the information presented was all good.  The execution of the film, particularly editing wise was not as successful.  I felt that once it reached its climax the pace was extremely slow.  Despite its few flaws, I think that this film will really resonate with anyone who has once pursued a career in music.


Aften having seen the film, I don’t know if I would ever watch it again.  Although it was interesting, there was almost too much information and not enough B-roll (non-interview footage).  If you can connect with the struggle of a musician, or you would like to listen to some great music, then this is definitely the documentary for you.

(Trailer contains spoilers!)

Dirty Wars (2013) Review | Jamie Daily

Dirty Wars (2013)
86th Academy Awards 2014
1/5 Stars
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature (Jeremy ScahillRichard Rowley).
Watched April 18, 2014.


I am going to be honest–Dirty Wars is a hard movie to review.  I wasn’t the biggest fan.  This documentary following an investigative journalist, Jeremy Scahill, as he looks into America’s covert war tactics, is dry and boring, despite its subject matter.


The narration is probably what I had the most trouble with.  The unemotional, read off a page with little to no vocal inflection diction was the biggest distraction that this film did not need.  Its subject matter is provocative.  It should be interesting, and either revealing or infuriating, depending on which side of the Us War On Terror fence you are on opinion wise.  Instead, I just found myself being angry with the narrator and so distracted that I could not be pulled into the story.


Objectively, there are some interesting investigations in supposedly some of the most dangerous areas in the middle east.  Before Seal Team 6 became famous for taking out Osama bin Laden, they were almost completely under the radar until Scahill found them.  He speaks about US cover ups, operations gone south, and civilians who should not have been killed.


I wonder, had the narration been up to scratch, would the film be convincing?  I didn’t jump the fence, so to say, but had the narration been less distracting, I may have felt up to researching further.  Paradise Lost: Purgatory 3, for example, was incredibly convincing without further investigation, albeit about a matter I knew nothing about before hand.  A documentary like Dirty Wars needs to be absolutely groundbreaking if it wants to convince the American public, who have probably already made up their minds about the war and the military, one way or the other.


The style of the film is reminiscent of Kony 2012.  It is perhaps geared at a younger audience, but I disliked the doctored images.  Everything together felt extremely amateur and weightless.  Something that should be emotionally charged at the same time as being informative was anything but.


I am pretty unimpressed with this nomination.  If it sounds interesting to you, go for it.  Otherwise I would recommend you find something else to watch tonight.


These are my opinions of the filmmaking itself.  I am not stating anything about the subject matter, but the story telling, filmmaking, and postproduction are what I am reviewing here.


The Invisible War (2012) Review | Jamie Daily

The Invisible War (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
3/5 Stars
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature (Amy ZieringKirby Dick).
Watched March 10, 2014.


The Invisible War is a devastating documentary that discusses the victims of rape within the US military and how it has negatively affected the victims’ well beings, their careers, and their relationships.  More than ninety percent of the time, the attackers go unpunished and about 25% of the time it is because the attacker is their commanding officer.  Not all victims are women, either.  But because of the way that the military handles rape crimes, most victims never come forward.


This is a powerful story that needs to be told.  Already the documentary has brought attention to the people who can make changes.  When this documentary was filmed, the person who determined the course of action for the case and the attacker was the commander, but this has since changed.


One woman, Kori Cioca, who had joined the Coast Guard, was attacked multiple times by her CO.  She came forward several times, with multiple officers, to report the man and to be transferred, but she never was.  Her jaw was broken in the attack and, as the documentary shows, she has struggled for years to get the VA to cover her medical costs.  She has been eating soft food for about five years.


She and other women from the Marines, Army, Navy, and Air Force, have all come together to tell their story and speak up.  Rape should never be accepted as an “occupational hazard.”  They want people to be aware and they want justice.


For the most part this was a good documentary.  The stories were heart breaking, the women were relatable, and their families were visibly suffering along side them.  They were living every day with their anger because there was no justice, no sense of closure, and every day other women, or men, were going through what they went through.  Sometimes the editing was not at par with the rest of the film.  They used jump cuts inappropriately during interviews–something that is regularly used in a YouTube format, for example, but rarely in mainstream media.  As an editor this was distracting and pulled me away from the tragedy being communicated on screen because it is “against the rules,” so to say.


I think the biggest reason for this film is for these women’s voices to be heard.  They tried for a lawsuit.  They spoke with people in D.C.  They cried with each other when they told their stories.  It is about what happened to them, but more so what did not happen to them.  They were told that they were asking for it, that their uniform was too provocative–anything that would release the attacker of guilt.  This is something that tends to happen in the American culture, and it is devastating that it happens so often within what is supposed to be our finest.


I feel strongly about this film.  Its execution was fine, its story telling ability was good, but the people within it are what makes it great.


Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of our military and its members.  I tried to keep this review objective but I don’t think I did entirely.  I am passionate about speaking up for the victims, not the people who committed the federal crime.


I will not tell you either way if you should see this film.  I leave that entirely up to you.  There are many women, and even a man, in this film who tell their stories and how it has changed their lives.

How to Survive a Plague (2012) Review | Jamie Daily

How to Survive a Plague (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
4/5 Stars
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature (David France, Howard Gertler).
Watched February 18, 2014.


Regardless of its content and message, How to Survive a Plague is exactly the type of documentary that I like.  It is full to bursting with original stock footage, which tells most of the story.  The interview footage is used very well and although the balance tends to be more B-roll heavy, it communicates the story extremely well.  If it weren’t for such a hard subject, this could be a documentary that I would watch several times over.


The AIDS and HIV epidemic broke out in the 1980s and millions of people died while the FDA worked sluggishly (and through protocol) to produce affordable medication for the dying.  Two groups formed–ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group).  ACT UP had demonstrations and protests.  Some of its original members eventually broke off to form TAG, which was probably the most effective group at getting the best medication passed through testing and trials to the general populace.  Both groups grew from humble, angry beginnings and eventually gained respect from the scientific community.  They grew angry with politicians who told them to “change their behavior” and protested the Catholic church for denouncing the use of condoms.


While the 109 minute film can get a little repetitive, it effectively works over ten years of ACT UP meetings, protests, conferences and stats into the storyline to portray the humanity of the issue.  While the persons interviewed or featured in the original footage state their opinions strongly, about politics and otherwise, the film itself holds back and seems to want to emphasize the numbers–the death toll–and the humans behind each one.  Despite differences, lifestyles, and choices, these people are trying to save their lives.  Sometimes they act in desperation but their groups drag them back to reality so that their efforts will be effective instead of just expressive.


All in all, despite the heavy subject matter, it is an excellent documentary.  The people are raw and real.  Their stories are unfiltered.  The directorial touch is very light.  They certainly created a story from the many hours of footage and through editing they were able to connect with the people in front of the lens.  They even leave in “bloopers” from original footage to show how incredibly real this situation was.  Everything they are trying to communicate is not necessarily what others failed at, but what ACT UP and TAG succeeded at.


Despite how much I can rave about this film, I will mention again that it becomes repetitive.  Group meetings, conferences, and protests are broken up by interviews and the occasional news program.  There are political rallies and Presidential debates.  It is almost as if the crew became too attached to certain sub-plots and felt that the film would be harmed if it was left out–but it would not.  We get the picture that the FDA is taking too long to approve the right meds, but somehow that gets lost a little bit while the plot meanders into multiple protests and political spotlights.  The resolution is rushed and sudden while the journey to it is long and drawn out.  The story needs a more firm direction to be a true knock out.


That is my one and only complain with this truly nomination worthy film.  I would probably watch it again, and would also recommend that the documentary lovers see it.


The Gatekeepers (2012) Review | Jamie Daily

The Gatekeepers (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
2/5 Stars
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film (Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky, Estelle Fialon).
Watched February 1, 2014.


It is hard for me to describe The Gatekeepers to you because it is a very straightforward documentary.  It is an interview driven narrative that features all of the surviving heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency.  The men mostly discuss the events that occurred while they were involved, either on the ground or in leadership, and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.


There are certain aspects of the film that are extremely creative.  They used 3D effects on images taken at events (specifically when some terrorists were gunned down on a bus) and make them appear almost life-like.


The interviewees are honest and fairly transparent about their answers and what they believed at the time.  They knew that what they were doing was almost without morals but at the time they knew no other way to protect lives.  By the end and in their current lives they might have different opinions, but it is all in retrospect.  They understand that they are treating symptoms and not the problem.


This year of Oscars has focused a lot on Palestine and Israel.  It is interesting to see all of the different angels throughout the documentaries and dramas.  Unfortunately, The Gatekeepers was not my favorite.  It was certainly no nail-biter, although enlightening and informative.  As I mentioned above, there is little content aside from interview footage, although the B-roll that is used I quite enjoyed.


If what I have describes sounds like it might be up your alley, I would encourage you to see the film.  However, it is very slow and dry, so if you want something you would not likely see in a classroom, you might want to stay away from this one.