31 Docs in 31 Days, Part 2



Reviews by Chris MacKenzie

Marwencol4. “Marwencol” – 4 1/2 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
This is the haunting, yet inspiring, story of Mark Hogancamp, a man coping with the aftermath of a traumatic beating which, for all intents and purposes, erased his brain. It is a fascinating look at rehabilitation, creativity, identity, and essence.

Thoughts: This is by far the best documentary I’ve seen yet. It isn’t a squeaky-­clean tale of triumphant victory. From the outset, we know that the severity of the beating Mark received has left him permanently brain­damaged. But it is fascinating to see what parts of his personality return as he endures both the physical and psychological aftershocks of his attack. The genius of this film is that it so deftly jumps between the inspiring and the sobering aspects of Mark‘s life post­-attack. While the beating erased his unquenchable thirst for alcohol, it also rendered him unable to hold any job beyond making meatballs for a couple hours a week.

Once we get a good sense of where Mark stands, we are treated to the elaborate World War II scale model world he’s created. This incredibly detailed world, both in back story and craftsmanship, serves as the core of his physical and psychological therapy. The stories he creates for his Belgian town, and the photos he takes to go along with them, give fascinating insight into Mark’s continuing healing.

Unlike previous docs I’ve seen, the story of how the filmmakers discovered their subject fits into the narrative quite well. I think this is because as we follow the story, we want to know how Mark went from an oddball walking a scale­model jeep down a country road, to a “toast of New York” artist opening his work, and, more importantly, himself, to the big, bad, beautiful world.

By the time we are shown a rather significant part of his personality, one of the few parts that survived his trauma wholly intact, we have given in to the fact that this story, and this man, straddle the line between the foreign and the familiar. The art Mark creates, and the story he’s invented to support it, are astonishingly complex. However, in the end, it’s Mark’s complexity, and the complexity of the human mind, that kept me engrossed.

The Ambassador5. “The Ambassador” – 2 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
An undercover expose on the shady ways in which International businessmen achieve diplomatic status to further their profits.

Thoughts: This was the first iffy documentary I watched. It wasn’t recommended by anyone, but Netflix seemed to think I’d enjoy it. In it, a Dutch journalist poses as a wealthy businessman to expose the corruption and backroom dealings that go on in the world of African diplomacy. Basically, for the right price, you can become a diplomat, which then opens the door for you to export diamonds of dubious origin.

What the documentarian sets out to do is formidable: actually gain diplomatic status from Liberia so that he may then enter the Central African Republic and the shady world of blood diamonds. The problem is that we’re not sure what this journalist’s endgame is. Will he eventually reveal himself and help end this kind of corruption? Is he merely trying to give a slaughterhouse view of this shadowy world? Is he there to wreak havoc while firmly standing on the moral high­ground like Michael Moore? Or, is he just playing all of this for a laugh: inserting a comic character (a la Sacha Baron Cohen) into a real ­life situation to show how horribly absurd it is. Unfortunately, we can’t guess where this film is going, and at turns, it is each one of the movies listed above. I can appreciate that when one sets out to make a documentary, it’s impossible to completely nail down the narrative before you start, but this filmmaker didn’t seem to have much of a plan. He meets the right people, makes great efforts to get in deep, and then sorta does nothing. He does have a “wow, this is scary and I might be in danger” revelation at the end, but not only was I under that impression from the beginning, I thought it was the whole point of the movie.

ambassador-movie-imageThe filmmaker uses a lot of hidden cameras, which eventually gets annoying, because he’s just showing what we already know: if you give $50,000 in small American bills to a shady business man in the Central African Republic, you will never see said money again after it’s driven off in a Range Rover. Duh. Far more interesting to me, and something that is never touched on, is how he got $50,000 in small American bills to bribe an official with in the first place. This was clearly a well­funded production, but the return on that investment is negligible.

The filmmaker becomes even more unlikable when he dupes Pygmies into thinking they will have jobs as (literal) match-makers. His fake match factory, set up to make him more attractive to African officials, doesn’t wind up doing anything but hurting innocent, well-­intentioned people. You get the feeling he specifically set up this part of the story so he could say the word “Pygmie” several times and get chuckles for it. There are some good moments in this film, including secret recordings of a man who eventually gets offed by government hit­men, but even that seems to be handled clumsily and doesn’t affect his part in this story. In the end, this film seemed half-­baked and a bit misguided. There may be some thru-lines I missed, but if that’s the case, it’s because it took me THREE different sessions to get through this ninety ­minute all-­rough, no-­diamond movie.

Almost Elvis6. “Almost Elvis” – 3 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
This quick documentary was the perfect choice for Elvis’ birthday. It follows a handful of the top Elvis impersonators as they get ready for the big “Worldwide Elvis Impersonator Contest” in Nashville­, the largest, at least in the world of this film, Elvis “Tribute Artist” competition.

Thoughts: I am going to give this documentary an honest review, even though it was interesting to see that it is directed by someone named John Paget. Maybe it is a coincidence that the director shares a last name with the recommender, Josh Paget, but I gotta do what I gotta do. This film isn’t bad, but it does feel like a much-too-general overview of this world. I found myself wanting a deeper look into what I was seeing. This film was shot in the late 90’s, so it is hurt by docs that have come out since. Back then, guys dressed up as Elvis may have been oddball enough to carry the film, but in the post “Spellbound” and “King of Kong” world of documentaries, this comes up as a bit shallow. We meet several contestants, see their preparations, and get excited for the “big show.”

The film covers many aspects of this world – too many, in a way – as we don’t get a satisfying amount of time with any one story line. The biggest example of this is the fact that the best singing Elvis is black, and therefore will never win the crown. The film makes the brave choice to point this out, but then justifies this injustice by everyone else involved in the competition smirking about it. Just when I was getting engrossed in the world the filmmakers created, I was reminded of why every black person hates Elvis.

Almost ElvisAt the end of the day, each of these storylines deserves an entire movie and this documentary kinda suffers for including them all. Furthermore, the movie builds up to the big performance, but doesn’t pay it off in any real satisfying way. Unlike other “odd ­competition” documentaries, the “nail­biting” climax of this story seems created by editing, not by actual events. While we think anyone could take this competition, we clearly see that no one in the audience, not even the other contestants, are surprised by who won. The black Elvis is relegated to a quick “Oh well, here we go again” look that flashes across his face, and there is frustratingly little post­-competition reaction to what has happened. As a viewer, it feels like the movie created tension and drama where there really was none.

On the positive side, the film did get great access to all of the major players. It has some hilarious moments supplied by the characters, and gives the most in-­depth look into jumpsuit making I’ve ever seen. And above all, you walk away really impressed by the quality of the performances that these guys (and one girl­ why was THAT glossed over?!?!?) deliver.

“Marwencol”, “The Ambassador” and “Almost Elvis” are available on NETFLIX.

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