Searing Documentary Chronicles Continued U.S.-Led Occupation
During this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the sleepy ski town of Park City, Utah, transformed into a place where Wash-ington, D.C., manifested a powerful presence, in some ways rivaling that of Hollywood. An unabashed liberal, Sundance founder Robert Redford used the opening news conference to make critical remarks of the Bush administration—a perspective that was epitomized by the documentary “No End in Sight,” a title that refers to the continued U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, now four years and counting.
For obvious reasons, the film is dominated by interviews with past and current Washingtonians, including former officials of the Bush administration who now oppose the policies in Iraq that they once worked to implement.
For a first-time documentary filmmaker, American writer-director Charles Ferguson had unique high-level access to make “No End in Sight.” Following a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he held academic positions at MIT as well as the University of California, Berkeley.
Ferguson’s specialized background provides a unique public policy perspective to distinguish his Iraq war doc. It cogently analyzes what it clearly considers to be a flawed process by which the Bush administration planned and executed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the deposal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. That was followed by the subsequent fumbled occupation combined with a haphazard attempt to establish a democratically elected Iraqi government.
What the film glaringly points out is that many decisions on military strategy were made by civilians with scant consultation of military leaders. Often, a handful of people—or even just one person—established major policies without much oversight from higher-ups, including President Bush. There’s also plenty of commentary about repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War.
No stranger to D.C., Ferguson recently came to the area for SilverDocs 2007, where he presented a screening and served on a panel. Since the film’s Sundance premiere in January, the phrase “No End in Sight” is still a valid mantra. One topic discussed on the panel was how the U.S. troop build-up has actually increased with this spring’s well-publicized “surge.” Ferguson lamented how the heavy U.S. involvement in Iraq has managed to continue without a clearly defined stopping point—further adding emphasis to the documentary’s self-explanatory title.
No End in Sight (English and Arabic with subtitles; 102 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema
4 out of 5 stars
Fuzzy ‘Arctic Tale’
At AFI/Discovery’s SilverDocs 2007 festival, the prestigious honor of Closing Night Film went to “Arctic Tale,” a world premiere followed by personal remarks from director Sarah Robertson and cinematographer Adam Ravetch. The Canadian husband-and-wife team specialize solely in documentaries set in the Arctic Circle. After 15 years of chilly collaboration, they definitely know their subject matter.
“Arctic Tale,” their first theatrical release,” tracks the lives of a polar bear and a walrus—from birth to death. The National Geographic production aims to follow the path paved by the unexpectedly popular “March of the Penguins,” a sleeper hit that initially struggled to get financed and produced.
Here’s what appears to be the model du jour for a nature documentary nowadays: Spectacular cinematography captures the beauty of a stunning polar landscape. For the audience’s pleasure, cute and lovable animals go about their day-to-day lives, struggling mightily to survive—and protect their young ones—in the harsh environment.
“Arctic Tale” describes these animals’ thoughts and actions, as imagined by a screenwriter. A popular actor reads the narration with a calmly familiar voice—what Morgan Freeman did for “March of the Penguins”—and here, Queen Latifah smoothly handles that job for “Arctic Tale.”
The corporate production succeeds in its mission to assemble a nicely polished product, and the unabashed audience-pleaser will be enjoyable to many children and their parents. But for more demanding audiences, the slick appeal may be overly accessible—and thereby a bit artificial and unsophisticated, kind of like Disneyland. Actually it’s not a surprise to find out that Linda Woolverton, who wrote the Queen Latifah narration, has worked for Disney, notably penning “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Arctic Tale (English; 86 min.) Opens Fri., Aug. 3
3 out of 5 stars
Following the press screening of “Vitus,” I walked out with a big sense of satisfaction. In fact, I might have said that “Vitus” was the best film I had seen this year. (It would have been a close toss-up with the stellar “La Vie en Rose.”)
Why does “Vitus” work so well? Swiss writer-director Fredi M. Murer is perhaps best known as an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. That background trained him to make a movie that feels authentically real, even if it’s a fictional feature. But “Vitus” is actually Murer’s own semi-autobiographical story, so it is indeed subject matter that he knew intimately well. And because he had already personally experienced many elements of the story, he had a clearly defined vision of how they should look on screen.
At four years old, Vitus (Fabrizio Borsani) already displays keyboard talent approaching that of a concert pianist. When forced by his yuppie parents to perform for their corporate friends, the prodigy attempts to fake mediocrity—until he just can’t stand playing poorly anymore. The wunderkind turns out to have many other multidisciplinary talents, and his parents, especially his overbearing mother, become obsessed with having Vitus develop his gifts to the fullest extent.
The reclusive wunderkind stubbornly resists the pressure. At 12 years old, Vitus (Teo Gheorghiu in a tour-de-force performance) rebels by mocking the intelligence of his teachers and his much older classmates. However, Vitus has really had enough of being different. As he says, he just wants to be normal. Vitus comes close to feeling that way only at the house of his loving, simple-living grandfather (Bruno Ganz, who delivers another rock-steady performance).
Vitus (Swiss-German with subtitles; 123 min.) Cinema Arts Theatre
4.5 out of 5 stars
Please see International Film Clips for detailed listings available at press time.
Portrait: Berlin “Portrait: Berlin – Contemporary Photography and Video Art” (Aug. 22-Sept. 27) at the Goethe-Institut documents the transformation of Berlin after the fall of the Wall. Opening reception with photographer Christian Rothmann (Wed., Aug. 22, 6 p.m.). (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/washington
National Gallery of Art “Lech Majewski” (Aug. 11-19) examines the beautifully crafted films of the Polish alum of the famed Lódz Film School, which feature fantastical imagery, poetry and music. Asl described by Laurence Kardish of the Museum of Modern Art: “His imagination is informed by a unique sensibility hovering between the absurd and the metaphysical, the beautiful and the profane.” “Modernity and Tradition: Film in Interwar Central Europe” continues until Aug. 26 to accompany the exhibition “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918–1945.” (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film.shtm
Made in Hong Kong The 12th annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival continues until Aug. 26 at the Freer Gallery of Art and includes a film and lecture titled “Hong Kong Cinema After the Handover” (Sat., Aug. 25,1 p.m.) with tenowned film scholar David Bordwell, author of Planet Hong Kong, and filmmaker Evans Chan, as they discuss the changes in Hong Kong cinema over the past 10 years. Their discussion will be preceded by Chan’s acclaimed documentary about Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from Great Britain to China, “Journey to Beijing.” (202) 633-4880, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
AFI Silver Theatre Continuing series at the AFI Silver Theatre include: “50 Years of Janus Films” (until Sept. 5); “AFI Life Achievement Award: Al Pacino” (until Sept. 3); “John Huston: American Maverick” (until Sept. 6); and “Totally Awesome: Films of the 1980s” (until Sept. 6). (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.