Friday, February 17, 2012

Documentary Channel: "Weekend with Oscar"

From February 23-26, Documentary Channel will be hosting its "Weekend with Oscar,", four days in which the network will focus on excellence in documentary film as recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There will be 10 interviews with this year's Oscar nominees; also 20 documentaries that won or were nominated for an Academy Award (both feature and short subject) will be shown.

The topics of these films range from a 1967 film made to celebrate Canada's centennial to a look at a basketball legend dealing with his sons to an offbeat glimpse of the National Spelling Bee. Most of the films however share a theme of war, especially the reality of soldiers dealing with their post-combat lives.

Here are capsule reviews of several films that will be shown from the 23rd to the 26th:

Hardwood - This 40-minute film was directed by Hubert Davis, son of former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis. The elder Davis fell in love with a white woman, a taboo relationship in the 1960s and fathered a son with her; he went on however to marry a black woman and fathered a son (Hubert) with her. The film deals honestly with Davis' failures as a father and as the film ends, we see him begin the healing process. While the ending is a bit pat, this is a very watchable film that does explore the differences between the two sons, especially in their physical appearance. And there are some fun clips of the Globetrotters at work at their most engaging. (Shown on 2/26 at 10:00 PM EST)

Helicopter Canada- The title tells it all with this film, produced as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of Canada. Given the beauty of this country, one would expect some mesmerizing images here, but you really don't get your money's worth. One sequence shot from above has workers stringing telephone wire across a forested landscape. You watch this and wonder how this has anything to do with the spirit of Canada. The folksy narration doesn't help either. This is quite a disappointment. (Shown 2/23 at 4:00 PM)

The Story of the Weeping Camel - This feature length film is a charming and highly entertaining tale of a family of goat and sheep herders in the Gobi desert of Mongolia and their existence. We see how dependent they are on camels for transportation and so when one female camel abandons her newborn white colt, the family knows they must do whatever they can to remedy the situation, even going so far as to hire a traditional musician in a distant town to soothe the camel with his playing. Much of this film has no dialogue, as we watch this family deal with its everyday realities, from taking baths to preparing meals and even heading to a town to buy batteries for a radio. A wonderful human story that shows us how these people in a faraway land have the same wants, desires and emotions as all of us. (Shown on 2/23 at 6:00 PM).

Seeds of Destiny - Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1946, this is a shameless look at the atrocities of the Second World War, especially as it affected young children. The filmmakers took Nazi propaganda film and used it against the Germans here, which is fine, but they also show image after image of very young children who were maimed during the war. While the desired effect is to be heartbreaking, the result is that of individuals trying to make the American audience feel guilty enough about their success in contrast to the terrible situation of the inured youth. Apparently it worked, as more than $200,000,000 was raised for relief efforts as a result of this film. A fascinating film, if only for the aspect of seeing how far someone will go to tug at one's heartstrings. (Shown 2/25 at 10:00 PM)

Spellbound - The title is the most clever thing about this feature length documentary that deals with the 1999 National Spelling Bee. One would think this would be a pretty easy documentary to make- just interview some of the contestants along with their parents and then show the competition. That's exactly what director Jeffrey Blitz does and the results are modestly entertaining. Unfortunately as the field of 247 finalists get whittled down to a precious few, Blitz fails to take advantage of the situation, as there's no sense of tension here. Worse yet is an unbelievably annoying musical score by Daniel Hulsizer that basically drains the story of any humanity. His down-home, folksy musical drivel, most often performed by harmonica, xylophone and guitar is meant to be cute (I guess), but it is totally out of balance with the visuals, draws attention to itself and quite simply, is just awful musically speaking. This music clearly ruins the film, not that there was much substance here anyway. There are a few good moments as we see the confused look on some of the contestants' faces as they hear the words they are asked to spell, but this isn't enough to recommend this simplistic film. (Shown 2/26 at 8:00 PM)

Interviews with MyLai Veterans - Winner of the 1970 Documentary Short Subject Oscar, this 22-minute film contains interviews with five soldiers who were part of the combat team at the MyLai massacre in 1968 in which American troops murdered several hundred Vietnamese, most of whom were unarmed. The inerviews, conducted by Richard Hammer and photographed by Richard Pierce and the great Haskell Wexler (the film was directed and produced by Joseph Strick) are simple and to the point as the soldiers are asked about their experiences and emotions of that day. Some express remorse, others merely tell the tale in a matter-of-fact manner, while others point out the actions of fellow soldiers who seemed to show no regrets about this event. One soldier tells his frustration at the everyday aspect of the war; "Wherever we went, we sort of bred the enemy. He just came out of nowhere." Another soldier at the end of this film says, "I guess you could say it was senseless." When there is a story this horrific, often the best approach to telling it is to simply let things play out, as there is no need to further sensationalize the tale; the makers of this film accomplished this brilliantly. (Shown 2/23 at 10:00 PM)

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