Tag Archives: documentary

The Salt of the Earth


The headlines today–or any day–reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.

The ubiquitous reporting of tragedy can sometimes desensitize us to it. Art, with its audacious capacity to bring meaning out of the meaningless and (sometimes) beauty out of the ugliness, can re-sensitize us. “The role of an artist is to not look away”-Akira Kurosawa one said. And though what their cameras or brushstrokes capture may not make us comfortable, the artist’s gaze is crucial for the building of humanity’s awareness and empathy.

The Salt of the Earth, a new documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, powerfully shows this. Directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film chronicles the journeys of Salgado to capture the struggle of humans in the midst of war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and more. Over his four decade career, Salgado’s images brought him much acclaim but they also brought awareness to the plights of many. His gaze definitely manifests a “not looking away” boldness but also a humane compassion. There are lessons here in how to see, and why seeing well matters.

As I finished the film I kept thinking of the Matthew 9:36 verse where it says of Jesus that, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them.” Had Jesus been given a camera in the 1st century, I imagine his portraits would look not dissimilar from Salgado’s. Salt of the Earth sees a lot of horrific things but it always sees them through a lens of compassion and, ultimately, hope.

As chroniclers of reality and human suffering, artists are often prone to falling into despair and giving up on people. Salgado certainly is tempted by this, especially after his time in Rwanda in the mid-90s, photographing unspeakable evil in the midst of the genocide. Following this, his career turned toward nature and animal photography, capturing the beauty of the earth and its Edenic majesty, apart from the hellish wars and struggles of mankind. Yet ultimately the beauty of the natural earth and that of mankind are inextricable; humans are the caretakers of the Garden, after all, the stewards of creation for good or ill.

Recognizing this, Salgado decides do his part as a human steward and preserver of God’s creation (“Salt of the Earth” is a metaphor that implies a preserving function). He re-plants a rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, a forest that had thrived in his childhood but a half century later had been decimated by famine and industry. Salt of the Earth–so much a film about decay, inertia and fallenness–ends on a beautifully hopeful note as the “garden” of Salgado’s upbringing is replenished and brought to new life. Resurrection.

Among its many merits, Salt of the Earth is a beautiful reminder that having eyes to see the evil and deprivation of our world should not lead us to apathy and despair, nor complaining and rage. Our response should rather be to recover our original Edenic calling: to bring order out of the chaos, to combat evil through love, to plant seeds of new life in every sphere, to be the salt we were created to be, agents of preservation in a world stricken by decay.


Rebirth is a powerful new documentary about 9/11, released last week in advance of the 10-year anniversary of that infamous day in history. The documentary, directed by Jim Whitaker, is part of a larger “Project Rebirth,” which is interested in the process of renewal and growth–both physically, emotionally, psycholigically–in the wake of the traumas of 9/11.

The film follows five individuals of various backgrounds who were each affected in some tragic way on 9/11… Either by losing a spouse, or friend, or parent, or sibling, or just being severely injured. These subjects are interviewed once a year for each of the years following 9/11, and by reflecting on camera about how their lives have changed and how they’ve dealt with the grief over the years, we see the gradual process of rebirth in each of their lives.The human component of this film is juxtaposed with stunning timelapse photography from Ground Zero, which captures the gradual cleaning up of the site and the construction of the memorial and the new Freedom Tower, currently in the middle of construction.

Rebirth is one of the best films about dealing with grief that I’ve ever seen. Among the film’s many observant truths is the fact that processing and moving through grief can happen in a variety of ways. Each of the five stories is different. One person hurts deepest for the first few years, then remarries, then has kids and gradually accepts a happy new life. Another has a delayed reaction of grief… being stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder a few years after 9/11. Another channels his grief into action, joining the Dept. of Homeland Security and then as a bodyguard for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Rebirth is about growth–how each of us, given enough time, can start to heal. I can see this film being amazingly helpful, and hopeful, for people who have recently dealt with tragedy in their lives. In the moment, grief attacks us with the seeming impossibility that life will get better. But as this film so beautifully displays, even the most horrific of traumas–though it never fully leaves us–becomes a smaller, less invasive horror in our lives as time passes.

Interestingly, no one in Rebirth mentions anything about spirituality or the role of faith in their life (aside from one character who says he’s not at all religious). And yet the film feels quite spiritual, even transcendent. It’s all about reconciliation, renewal, regained trust, hope. It’s about death giving way to life. It’s about an act of terrorism giving rise to eventual redemption. It’s a Resurrection film.

Best Documentaries to Represent America

A few months ago I posted a list of the 25 films that I thought best represented America. Someone then suggested that I make a list of the documentaries that I thought best represented America, which I thought was a great idea. So after much consideration (because there are a lot of great documentaries about American culture), this is the list I came up with: the 10 documentaries that best capture the intricacies and complexities of American culture. If an alien came to America and needed a DVD primer on what we’re all about, these would be the documentaries I would suggest. (In chronological order…)

Salesman (1969): This Maysles Brothers film about door-to-door Bible salesman is the quintessential portrait of middle class American capitalism in all of its comedy, tragedy, and ambition. It’s like Death of a Salesman except real. See also: Grey Gardens (1975).

Woodstock (1970): I had to include a music doc on this list, and there is really nothing better than Woodstock, the iconic documentary about the famous 1969 music festival in Upstate NY. It’s a treasure of American history and a paean to the tumultuous and free-spirited tenor of American culture in the Vietnam era. See also: Don’t Look Back (1967) or Gimme Shelter (1970).

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976): Barbara Kopple’s seminal documentary about a 1973 coal worker strike in rural Kentucky stands as one of the most singular portraits of the blue collar Americana ever seen on film. Her unobtrusive observance of the thick-skinned residents of Harlan County, Kentucky is a valuable testament to a particular time and place in American culture. See also: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936).

Sherman’s March (1986): Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary began as a film about the famous Civil War general’s march to the sea and ended as a self-conscious study of romantic neuroses. Very American. See also: Bright Leaves (2003).

The Civil War (1990): Ken Burns is to American documentary what Ozu is to Japanese cinema. That is: he’s the master. Any of his films could have made this list (Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc) but I think the 11-hour Civil War is perhaps his most momentous achievement. And what is more American than The Civil War? See also: Baseball (1994).

Hoop Dreams (1994): This is the Citizen Kane of American documentary, in my opinion. It follows two young basketball stars in inner city Chicago over a five year period as they aspire to get college scholarships and make their NBA dreams a reality. It’s a film about much more than basketball, however. It’s about the American dream and the unfortunate systemic issues that keep that dream at bay for so many people. See also: American Teen (2008).

On the Ropes (1999): Before last year’s American Teen, Nanette Burstein made this amazing, intimate documentary about three young boxers and their trainer in New York City. In many ways it’s like Hoop Dreams: Boxing, dealing with similar issues of class and race and the American dream. See also: When We Were Kings (1996).

Spellbound (2003): A compelling narrative of 8 kids in the running to win at the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. It’s a film about competition, diligence, diversity, upward mobility, class, race, and a lot of American other things. See also: Mad Hot Ballroom (2003).

The Fog of War (2003): Errol Morris is one of the best American documentarians, and this film—a psychological portrait of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara—is a great biographical film about a figure that looms large over 20th Century American history. See also: Standard Operating Procedure (2008).

The King of Kong (2007): This is a fun documentary about nerdy middle-aged “gamers” and their obsession with world records, but it is also one of the most profound cinematic microcosms of Americana to hit the screen in recent years. See also: Murderball (2005).

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father


Dear Zachary is a documentary by an average guy—Kurt Kuenne—who set out to make an homage film about his best friend who was tragically murdered. It’s not an average film. It’s a masterpiece that had me in tears pretty much start-to-finish. I haven’t been as punched-in-the-gut wrecked by a movie since the last 20 minutes of United 93. Dear Zachary came out in 2008 and would have made my top ten list for sure. It’s now out on DVD and available to “Watch Now” on Netflix. WATCH IT NOW. But beware: it is relentlessly affecting.

This is a film that never makes a false move, and although it is ridiculously emotional, it is resolutely not a manipulative film. I kept trying to figure out what Kuenne was doing to elicit my uncontrollable emotion. Was it the music? The editing? The constantly crying talking heads? It was all of this, but mostly it was the film’s subject matter.

Dear Zachary is a film about injustice. It’s about legal injustice, moral injustice, and existential injustice. The latter of the three is the hardest to deal with. It’s perhaps what makes this film so hard to watch. The story of Dear Zachary is the tragedy of Andrew Bagby, a much beloved average Joe who was suddenly murdered by an ex-girlfriend who was pregnant with his baby. The baby—Zachary—never gets the chance to meet his father, which is the reason why Kuenne made the film: as a preservation of the legacy of Andrew Bagby for the son who will never know him. In a way, though, it’s a film about all of us. Andrew Bagby could be any of our friends, our sons, our uncles, our fathers or friends… He could be us. The film is about the injustice of death. The awkward and jolting suddenness of a life extinguished. And we are all way too familiar with this.

There are other things to admire about this film than the fact that it makes you cry. It is an exceptional example of personal documentary cinema, in the vein of Capturing the Friedmans or Tarnation, and it seamlessly incorporates found footage, interviews, documents, photographs, and all the other typical archival elements. It is also a great example of mystery crime documentary, in the vein of Errol Morris’ films. The truth of the crime and the legal proceedings is revealed in a series of unexpected, wrenching turns that will knock you over again and again. The film also has a vigorous fluidity and adaptability to it: it morphs and changes as it goes along, and indeed, Kuenne’s plan for the film is forced to shift when his subjects’ lives take unexpected turns.

Dear Zachary is a masterpiece of personal cinema with universal resonance. It’s a reminder that this is what cinema at it’s best is all about: evoking the flow and pressures and releases of life—in all of its ruthless and beautiful velocity.

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is at the top of his game this year. Catapulted by the unexpected success of Grizzly Man a few years ago, Herzog has regained some of the filmmaking prestige he had back in the 80s with films like Fitzcarraldo. Last summer’s Rescue Dawn was one of my favorite films of the year (I gave it four stars in my CT review) and featured a stunning and grievously underrated performance by Christian Bale. Then a few months ago, Herzog showed up as an actor (playing an eccentric priest) in Harmony Korine’s gorgeous Mister Lonely. But his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, might take the cake. It’s certainly the best documentary I’ve seen this year.

Like many of Herzog’s films, Encounters is a thing of spellbinding beauty, intrigue, and wonderment. Commissioned by the Discovery Channel, Herzog’s film is unlike most other documentaries about Antarctica. First of all, it’s not about penguins (though “deranged penguins” do make a cameo). Rather than focusing solely on the natural environment or breathtaking photography (though it certainly has its fair share of these things), Encounters is a sort of travelogue that examines the humans who inhabit the seventh continent. More specifically, it asks the typical Herzogian questions: what draws man to live among such a harsh environment? Who are humans in the face of such awesome natural forces?

Herzog interviews a motley crew of scientists, engineers, wayfaring travelers, and otherwise eccentrics from all over the world, who inhabit the “town” of McMurdo Station during Antarctica’s summer months. Herzog’s sardonic voiceovers (in his memorable German accent) frame each interview with editorial commentaries, and as usual his personality adds much flavor to the tonally rich film.

For the scientific junkies among us, there is plenty of amazing stuff here: volcanoes, icebergs, microbiology, otherworldly underwater footage, speculation about the nature of neutrinos, and more. And Herzog manages to make it all utterly compelling, almost holy. Indeed, Herzog is never too afraid to insinuate spirituality into his examinations of nature. He frequently inserts language like “other-worldly,” “cathedral,” and “god” in his reckonings with a nature he continues to be utterly drawn in to and baffled by.

Herzog’s prevailing cinematic conflict is that of man vs. nature, and that is certainly the case in Encounters—a film that concludes rather nonchalantly that human life is reaching its inevitable conclusion on planet earth. He addresses global warming but treats it almost as a convenient sheet over our eyes—blinding us from the obvious truth that nature is winning, will win, and humanity’s days are numbered. Nevertheless, Herzog’s film is not in the least a somber or apocalyptic polemic (like An Inconvenient Truth or something), but rather a jubilant, child-like exploration of a totally fascinating topic.

There are moments in this film that are so beautiful, so true, that one doesn’t mind that the point of the film is to show us how tiny and powerless and, well, stupid we humans are. But I’ve always thought it a valuable thing to be reminded of: that the creation we are a part of is utterly beyond our comprehension and, to an extent, control. Sure, we are changing the climate with our massive pollutants, but there are bigger things going on in nature that we cannot account for.

In this way, Herzog’s analysis of the natural world is both eco-friendly and eco-ambivalent. His relationship to nature is similar to many Christians’ relationship to God: he fears it, loves it, and is totally dependent on it. Indeed, nature is Herzog’s god, and the passion and reverence with which he artfully approaches it is something we all might learn from.