Tag Archive for: Liz Garbus

2016 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature + The Act of Killing (Netflix Canada picks)

29 Feb
February 29, 2016

For me there’s a clear choice for best documentary feature among this year’s five nominees, and it’s the one that’s not yet on Netflix Canada—The Look of Silence. But each of the other films brings something worthwhile.  The winner in this category, Amy, is a skillfully constructed biopic, brilliantly edited and genuinely moving in moments. If it has a flaw for me, it’s that its two-hour-plus running time gave this viewer too much time to think about the way the film underplays Winehouse’s agency both in the course of her career and her addictions. What Happened, Miss Simone?, on the other hand, does a remarkable job of conveying the complexity of Nina Simone, but possibly offers a little too much screen time to her abusive husband—half as much would have been enough to convince me of his awfulness.

Cartel Land contains enough incredible hand-held camera work, and remarkable access to Mexican vigilantes, cartel leaders and workers, to reward a viewing. It is, however, the weakest of this field, partly because the vigilantes on the American side of the border are not particularly compelling. Winter on Fire, on the other hand, makes for intensely taut viewing from start to finish. It is to the Ukraine Maidan uprising what The Square was to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011—both won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF, and both were subsequently purchased and distributed by Netflix—and what it lacks in the latter’s balanced portrayal of political factions, it perhaps makes up for in the pure intensity of its harrowing footage.

In Canada right now, iTunes is your only option for watching The Look of Silence online, but its predecessor, filmed more or less simultaneously, The Act of Killing is on Netflix, and, frankly, you really need to see both. In terms of content they each stand alone perfectly well, but in terms of film ethics and politics, it’s really impossible to fully judge one without the other. These are important films, more important, it’s fair to say, than all of this year’s other nominees put together.


Girlhood [2003]; Girlhood [2014] (Netflix Canada picks)

03 Jul
July 3, 2015

Girlhood – Liz Garbus, USA, 2003, 82 minutes

Girlhood (Bande de filles) – Céline Sciamma, France, 2014, 113 minutes

It was a pretty savvy move by Netflix, if it was a conscious decision, to add these two films around the same time as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Then again, documentarian Liz Garbus’ most recent project—a revealing Sundance-opening Nina Simone doc—hit Netflix a few days ago, and Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles had its very low-profile post-festival US theatre run from January to May, so both films have their own reasons to be freshly available online.

Neither one was created, of course, in response to Linklater’s excellent film (and note that “bande des filles” translates more literally as “girl gang”), but both have much to say about how adolescence looks from the othered side of race, class, and indeed gender privilege lines.

Garbus’ 2003 documentary (shot on 16mm, and presented in an unimpressive SD transfer) follows two Baltimore girls for three years, one a convicted (at the age of 12) killer, as they attempt to re-integrate with society after their release from a juvenile detention facility. As it covers the years 1999-2002, it plays, in a way, as a real-life prologue to The Wire‘s depiction of Baltimore’s corners. Upon release, the doc received scattered criticism for trying too hard to find an upbeat ending. Perhaps that’s fair, but I found these parallel stories so engrossing that I began to wonder where they are now—and it turns out that both Shanae Watkins and Megan Jensen have occasionally re-emerged in the public eye.

Céline Sciamma’s fictional portrayal of life in the banlieue seems tame at times by comparison (when these characters talk about having “iced” or “wasted” other girls, they mean beating them in a more-or-less fair fistfight), but it is a satisfying coming-of-age story that moves from bleakness to adolescent joy and points between. The French social safety net is a mostly invisible failure here, and at times you wonder how the film will balance this protagonist’s lack of opportunities with the need to represent her agency. But in fact it finds a thoughtful, realistic and moving balance.