Strange Vistas

documentary

Young cadets with red berets look at each other

A man in a suit barks instructions at a group in uniform. One, in particular, displeases him, and the man berates the cadet as he works on his AK-47.

“Don't lose focus!”, he shouts. “Vova, how do you disassemble an assault rifle, dammit? Who the fuck showed you that the sight goes against the ground?” He pauses to glare. “Are you serious?”

The group is comprised entirely of boys. The one being yelled at can't be older than 12. An even younger boy looks at Vova with a measure of incredulity. They are on stage, preparing for some sort of function, armed with assault rifles.

Ksenia Okhapkina's stunning Immortal looks at life in the town of Apatity, an overgrown industrial village of not even 60,000 people in the north-western-most point of Russia, as boys and girls prepare for a ceremony to be inducted into All-Russian Military Patriotic Youth Army.

She documents their indoctrination into this Putin Youth, which starts from an early age (some of them don't even look on their teens). We hear how they are told about self-sacrifice, about medals awarded on death, about serving the state. We attend their lessons, meet their teachers, see how everyone is taught to fetishize war paraphernalia, to goose step, to live with their assault rifles. We participate with them in combat games, hunting each other through industrial ruins, where an announcer calls out “Killed in battle: return to base to resurrect”.

This is interspersed with views of the machinery from the mining corporation that is Apatity's main employer, large machines built with a single purpose: to dredge up and carry raw material for fertilizers in bulk.

In a show of self-discipline, Okhapkina doesn't impose a narration to give us her perspective – she just points the camera at her subjects and lets them speak as they will. The adults, emboldened, act up. The boys and girls perform as their trainers have taught them.

Her imagery, though, leaves little doubt as to how she feels about the proceedings.

The camera looks at life in the town through claustrophobic angles that would be perfect for a Nordic horror film: on an alley, partially hidden behind a wall; focusing on a railing, as shadowy figures run across it; just behind anonymous individuals, under their shoulders, rendering them faceless as they wait for something unspecified. There's the hint of something predatorial, waiting.

Anybody who believes in the freedom of the individual and the virtues of inquisitive thought will be revolted. Okhapkina's restraint, though, may run afoul of Poe's Law. While it is clear she disapproves of this brainwashing, someone who is on the side of the massive state apparatus could come out of this movie with a misplaced sense of patriotism.

Look how good a job we are doing!, they could think. And that's just Apatity.

That thought by itself is the most unsettling part of Immortal.

#documentary #poff #russia #kseniaokhapkina #immortal

A woman, in a factory, in front of a pile of plastic spoons

Spoon opens with a black and white shot, a sign of things to come. An enormous industrial machine fills the screen. A few thick pipes flow out of it. A woman sits to the side, near a comparably small control panel. A few people scamper around, nervously trying to get out of the frame. A pulsating electronic soundtrack mixes with what we can only assume are noises from the machine. After a while, the woman reaches up to the control panel, right below the SAMSUNG sign, and taps the touchscreen while turning to the camera.

This has taken two minutes. The scene changes to a different environment. Lingers. Changes. And again. And again.

It will be another 47 minutes before we get something other than a wide shot of some unexplained location.

Spoon is a documentary by Laila Pakalnina, tracking all the moving parts involved in the creation of the disposable plasticware we think so little of.

Nobody narrates or describes what is going on. The film doesn't overtly pass judgement, but for the longest time, it isn't clear what there is to judge. It merely documents ships from Russia and the Netherlands, factories and materials from China and who knows where, excavation sites all over the world, trucks, industrial trams, oil rigs, and the workers involved in menial tasks, going into creating something that we will use for a few seconds, maybe minutes, then discard.

All I see are people carrying out repetitive motions, human machines, workers whose jobs won't exist in 10 years once the artificial apparatus behind them has gotten good enough.

I appreciate where it's going, but even with it clocking at just 65 minutes, it takes too long to get there.

It feels like a few shorts munged together. It sometimes veers into kōjō-moe, gazing at the factories and their intricate arrangements. Other times it seems to feel for the workers, who keep breaking out bunches of spoons and stuffing them into plastic bags, as the machinery accumulates more and more clusters behind them. When spying shoppers at a market, enticed by a taste conveyed at the end of such a throwaway yet laboriously produced implement, it seems to wag a finger at how little heed they pay to the utensils themselves.

It never picks between any of these paths, but stumbles and wanders between them.

Any of these approaches could have carried a shorter, more disciplined documentary. Its current incarnation takes too long to get to the point, and by the time it gets there, it may have lost its audience in its meandering.

#spoon #documentary #poff #lailapakalnina

I only got one episode into the three-part documentary Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates. Not that it's bad, much less offensively so. It's not what I was looking for.

I came for a vivisection, maybe with a sprinkle of analysis on top, and they instead served me a hagiography.

I wanted to see the hunger, the drive, the callousness that gets you to the point where you can then decide to be anything – even a saint who channels his non-insignificant brainpower to finding people who are capable of solving the world's greatest problems, and then convincing them that they should help.

Instead, the documentary focuses on the latter, and inevitably, lionizes his efforts with the Gates Foundation.

It's great work, sure. Want to eradicate polio? Bring affordable sanitation to areas where children are forced to drink pestilent waters? Awesome. Big pat on the back for you. But there's nothing for me to learn there.

To do these things you need fuck-you money, and you don't get to Gates' heights of fuck-you money without having said fuck-you to a few people and the drive to step on them. Pretending that Gates' capacity to help tackle these big issues is all about how smart and uniquely talented Bill happens to be is disingenuous. His intelligence and drive help when pushing against apathy and inertia and corruption, I'm sure, but also do his uncountable piles of money. And to get there, you need to have behaved in a very particular way.

That behavior is what I wanted to see, to examine, to reverse engineer.

You can spend all your runtime lovingly zooming into perfectly glazed steaks which slowly in balanced light which brings out the impeccable garnishes.

Gorgeous, but that's advertising. What would teach the viewers something is to see the farm, abattoir, and butcher shop.

#documentary #billgates

Under the Sun - poster

Under the Sun is a documentary with a script. The script was assigned by the North Korean government to filmmaker Vitaly Mansky. It was meant to represent “an average day” in the life of a girl about to join the Korean Children's Union.

I love my country.

It's winter, but everybody wears a new coat. Their fluffy, white collars are spotless. It's as if they just came out of a container.

I feel happier about being North Korean already.

We eat so well. Our houses are so white and freshly painted. We should sit in our perfectly empty living rooms and have some banter about kimchi, while our black-clad handlers watch from the kitchen. Hahahaha. Haha.

When there's an activity, everybody claps for the exact prescribed number of seconds.

My dad is an engineer at an exemplary factory, where people work so hard that they strive to fill their quotas even through the multiple re-shoots of our documentary scenes. It's like their life depended on it. My mom works at an exemplary soy milk factory. When somebody gets sick, they get sent to an exemplary hospital. With its construction supervised by our glorious Kim Jong-Un, how could it be anything but?

I'm going to go out and grow a large, exemplary Kimjongilia. I am sure no harm will come to me as I live in an exemplary country and have behaved in an exemplary manner.

#documentary #northkorea #vitalymansky