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May 15, 2017 | by  | in Film | [ssba]


The first moving pictures ever produced were of a documentary nature. In 1895, the Lumière Brothers filmed trains in stations and factory workers heading home from work. It seems somewhat pedestrian now, but at the time these were great feats of science and were incredible to watch.

Through the decades, documentaries have advanced to such a point that subject matter is no longer the most important aspect of the film. Instead, what draws in an audience are stylistic choices and the ingenuity of the director to convey their message through imagery and select uses of sound, colour, and tone. As well as this, the documentary has come to serve as a powerful form in which to present the controversial, beautiful, honest, hidden truth.

Films such as Last Train Home or Jiro Dreams of Sushi focus on seemingly banal subjects, but the way they are executed leave lasting impressions on the viewer about how things such as happiness are to be achieved or perceived.

On the other hand, overly informing an audience has become a style of its own, as seen in the brutal skinning of a fox in Earthlings, or the man in turquoise committing suicide in the opening sequence of The Bridge. Films like this have shone a light on what was previously hidden in plain sight, and have been huge turning points in people’s lives.


Last Men in Aleppo (2017)

In the war-torn city of Aleppo, markets of people trying to feed their families, homes, and playgrounds filled with children and mothers, are all seen as fodder for the Russian military, ISIS, and the Assad regime. Last Men in Aleppo follows three Syrian men who chose to stay in their homes to do what they can as the White Helmets, a group who act as first responders to save civilian life following bombings and heartless attacks by their own government.

With support from Aleppo Media Centre and citizen journalists, director Feras Fayyad — now an exile from his home country for fear of execution — documents cases of crimes against humanity, as well as a world of resilience and extreme courage.  It is a crushingly painful watch as we follow the day to day life of these men, trapped in a city once their home, now forced to dig out the bodies of children from the rubble that was once houses, schools, and even playgrounds. The constant threat of death looms over the men we follow and even the crew themselves as we witness the day-to-day operations of a White Helmet aid worker. There’s not much to be said about a film that carries the weight of a subject matter so brutal; all there is to do is sit in awe and shame as you watch it.

Sitting down to watch this film, I knew it was going to be a difficult experience. Within the first ten minutes, Khaled and Mahmood rush to the site of a bombed neighborhood, and laboriously dig through a ton of rubble to save the lives of three babies.  After succeeding with the first two, we watch as the lifeless body of the third, partially crushed under stone, is uncovered through concrete dust and twisted metal.

The film continues along these lines, juxtaposing tragedy with imagery of Khaled and Mahmood with their families, still trying to make things work under the carnage.

It is a strange thing to bear witness to such atrocities, feeling privileged to never have known such tragedy but also so helpless knowing that things like this happen on the same planet as your own with nothing you can do to help. The modesty and courage of the men depicted in this film is inspiring, but all I was left with were questions: “Where are the good guys? Why is nobody helping these people? Where is humanity?”

— Mathew Watkins


Meat (2017)

One of the reasons I love documentaries is that many of them seem to present one specific viewpoint, and in that respect take on a universal appeal. With that in mind, I’d like to start talking about Meat under the provision that, regardless of what you choose to eat, you seek out this film. The film analyses the perspectives and stories of a pig farmer, a sheep farmer, a chicken farmer, and a hunter, from across New Zealand. Regardless of whether or not you agree with a single word they say, they’ve got some fascinating ideas.

The hunter is very philosophical about the ethics of killing animals and feels that most people who eat meat (or even choose vegetarianism) are merely misinformed about the way in which meat can be sourced. He certainly doesn’t feel like there’s any great injustice when he walks 10km up a snowy mountain to shoot a goat.

In contrast, it is likely the pig farmer who will raise the most questions. If you take away the conditions under which he farms pigs (which could be considered incredibly ethical or incredibly unethical), he actually raises some other points that pertain to New Zealand, that of a general low quality of food which is causing us to become one of the most obese countries in the world. He also challenges us with the notion that he’ll stop producing so much pork as soon as New Zealanders stop letting 40% of food go to waste.

I don’t want to put words into these people’s mouths, and again I urge you to go hear them out for yourselves, but I found much of what they had to say fascinating. Where some people might start to lose sympathy comes when the audience is shown some fairly comprehensive slaughter of animals. But to me it came as an important addition to the film. It may not be shocking to all, but the objective nature in which it is filmed certainly counts as informative material for those who may have their heads in the sand.

The documentary’s ultimate strength lies in the sheer breadth of opinions covered in its relatively short run time. Each of the four people featured are given their own individual treatment, down to the setting and colour palette, and it gives the viewer a broad spectrum of facts and philosophies, as well as presenting a very good looking and well made film. What is even more interesting is its relatively loose stance, even given its subject. It may not have taught me anything I didn’t know already, but that’s just my experience, and don’t go into this film thinking of it as “meat propaganda” or “vegetarian propaganda” because it pays to be open about the content presented here. You never know, you might come to some conclusion you wouldn’t have formed otherwise.

— Finn Holland



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