‘Be Good, Smile Pretty’ Searches for Understanding

What if you had grown up never knowing your father because he died when you were three months old? And what if he had been killed during the Vietnam War and no one in your family had talked about him since? These two questions drive Tracy Droz Tragos‘s documentary Be Good, Smile Pretty.

The inspiration for the documentary came to Droz Tragos from reading a story online describing what had happened by a man who had seen her father, Lt. Donald Glenn Droz, die. Her father was 25 when he was killed during an ambush on the Mekong River. His tragic death made his life too painful a memory to talk about for more than 30 years.

She wanted to learn more about him, and began interviewing her immediate family, her father’s family, and other veterans who had served with him. One of those veterans includes current Secretary of State John Kerry.

The process of uncovering the memories is almost as painful as keeping them buried. Almost everyone she talks with (and probably almost everyone watching, too) breaks down or fights tears. Droz Tragos learns more not only about her father, but also about her father’s death during the war as his Navy classmates and friends share their stories, photos, and recordings.

As much as it is a search for a father, Be Good, Smile Pretty is also about the search for understanding a war that still remains unclear in its intentions and outcomes since it ended almost 40 years ago.

‘Happy’ Delves into the Science of, Well, Happiness

Are you happy?

If not, then Roko Belic’s 2011 documentary Happy can help you figure out how to find it.

Through a combination of expert commentary, personal stories, and animation, Happy shows how people are happy or can become happy. The expert commentary comes from people whose work connects with a growing field called positive psychology, which focuses on “the science of happiness.”

Some of the answers include community ties, regular exercise, the “zone” or “flow,” personal improvement projects, compassion meditation, and volunteer activities.

The answer doesn’t lie in money or possessions, and the documentary uses several personal stories to demonstrate that point, including a rickshaw driver in India and a resident of Louisiana. Both men are rich in family and love, but lack in money and possessions.

Happy also doesn’t mean avoiding trauma or sadness, but instead refers to how people respond to trauma or sadness. A woman recovering from a tragic accident becomes the personal example here. While she underwent many surgeries and a divorce, she still found ways to move forward, remarry, and appreciate life.

The documentary also features a short segment on Bhutan, which boasts a Gross National Happiness index instead of a Gross National Product index. Instead of focusing on markets and capital, Bhutan places its priorities on its people’s happiness first.

Happy to me feels like a “lifestyle documentary,” which addresses a particular audience who lives a particular lifestyle. In this case the audience has degrees of achievement and wealth, with disposable income and the minds to invest in activities and items deemed worthwhile. (Most of the personal stories in this documentary come from people who are not members of this group.) This might explain the Lululemon connection listed in the credits and it availability on GaiamTV.

In all, Happy has a lot of interesting information, but in the end it feels like a self-help book made into a movie.

The Title ‘Happy People: A Year in the Taiga’ Says It All

The title of Happy People: A Year in the Taiga describes well what the documentary is about. For one year, it follows trappers from the village of Bakhtia, located in the Siberian taiga.

In the voiceover, co-director Werner Herzog explains why the trappers are happy with their lives and with hunting in balmy minus 33-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures:

“Out on their own, trappers become what they essentially are: happy people. Accompanied only by their dogs, they live off the land. They are completely self-reliant. They are truly free.”

The trappers’ strong connection to the land for their lives and their livelihoods becomes a recurring theme throughout the documentary. They demonstrate this knowledge in many ways, through making their own skis, canoes, and mosquito repellent. They fish and hunt. They build traps using tree branches.

Herzog remarks on how few “modern” technologies the trappers use — the shotgun, the snowmobile, the motorboat. An amusing sequence shows one trapper using his shotgun to catch fish, but the overwhelming emphasis lies on the people’s reliance on other means.

This approach reminds me of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, wherein Flaherty documented Nanook’s customs in an attempt to capture the Inuit tribe’s traditions. The famous scene when Nanook captures the seal through the ice is a dangerous and enthralling one, but it omits a key detail about Nanook’s life: He usually hunted with a gun. Both of these films exhibit a nostalgia for another time, but from the maker’s point of view, not necessarily the subject’s point of view.

What I appreciate most about Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is the cinematography. Though the makers had the added bonus of beautiful scenery, the cinematography is still stunning. Establishing shots of the Yenisei River during different seasons. Unique framings of subjects through tree branches and other natural frames. Rack focuses. Slow zooms. Extreme close-ups.

And the interviews with the trappers didn’t ruin the beauty of this cinematography. Let’s face it: While the talking head framed in a medium close-up shot is standard, it is also visually boring. Coupling those shots with beautiful B-roll can make for an uneven viewing experience. I understand their purposes, but after a while they get tiring to see over and over. And the documentaries that overrely on them run together after a while.

The makers of Happy People do use a few interview sequences throughout, but even better they record the trappers doing something and talking about it at the same time. The trappers don’t narrate the process of what they are doing, but they do offer insight into why they do what they do. This approach makes the trappers and, by extension, the film more interesting.

‘Southern Comfort’ Celebrates Love and Family

Directed by Kate Davis, Southern Comfort is an intimate documentary about the final days of Robert Eads, a transman dying of cancer, and his family and friends.

Eads is a fascinating character who talks openly about his past, his transition, and his views on society. Almost always with a cigarette or pipe in hand, Eads laughs about the time the KKK approached him about joining its group. He openly loves Lola Cola and simply adores his grandchild. He even laughs about the cancer invading every part of his body except for his lungs, rationalizing that smoking is keeping the cancer out of them.

Davis’s access allowed her to create multi-dimensional portraits that defy gender compartmentalizing. She followed Robert across living situations as his health deteriorated and filmed his friends in their homes. The subjects opened up to Davis about their situations, though some expressed fear at the repercussions of the documentary.

While the documentary also addresses some issues of transgender healthcare (or, more so, the lack thereof), it focuses more on family and acceptance of self. “Family” in this documentary refers not only to biological ones, but also to chosen family members. An interview with Robert’s father shows how difficult that acceptance is for his biological family. Eads’s father refuses to introduce Robert as his son, instead introducing him as a nephew. Acceptance comes more from chosen family, but it also must come from the victory over the struggle within oneself.

‘Blackfish’ Causes Public Relations Nightmare for Seaworld

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish has been causing Seaworld some public relations nightmares since its debut.

Blackfish addresses how amusement parks treat orcas in captivity and how trainers suffer injury and, even more sadly, die. Tilikum, the orca at the center of the documentary, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, and he is considered responsible for two other deaths as well. Seaworld blames the people involved — suggesting it was their error, intoxication or, seemingly ridiculously, their ponytails, as reasons why.

Through interviews with former trainers, experts, and eyewitnesses, the documentary shifts the focus back to Seaworld for its treatment of the orcas in captivity and for such parks’ capture of orcas at all. One of the crew involved in capturing orcas shed tears as he said the situation was “just like kidnapping a little kid away from their mother.”

The archival video is even more compelling, if difficult to watch. Footage from 2006 shows a trainer’s encounter with an orca who grabbed his foot, dragged him underwater repeatedly, and nearly drowned him before he got away. The commentary explaining what is happening makes for a nail-biting sequence.

The documentary effectively raises the question about the humaneness of keeping orcas in captivity for public amusement. The nature of the creatures in the wild makes captivity sound almost like solitary confinement. They live in huge families, share a language, and even possess a sense of self. Their capture forces them away from these families into a fake one, where we’re told they harm each other in captivity; “training” involves punishment, through food and sensory deprivation; Tilikum also is a sperm donor used to inseminate females around the country, and their calves are separated from their mothers, causing stress for both.

Blackfish has caught the public’s attention. Several musicians have canceled their concerts at Seaworld, fans are petitioning artists to cancel their shows, and still other musicians request their music not be used as part of shows. Impact, indeed.

‘Hot Coffee’ Reveals Deeper Injustices in Civil Courts System

The McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit has become the knee-jerk reaction when it comes to critiquing the “lawsuit abuse” pervading the civil justice system, all thanks to some aggressive public relations and other campaigns that result in more “protections” for corporations and fewer rights for the public.

Susan Saladoff’s documentary Hot Coffee (2011) shows how this process works. The development of her argument in this documentary is quite sophisticated, and she breaks it down into tort reform, damages caps, judicial elections, and mandatory arbitration. For each section she tells the story of people affected by these changes. The McDonald’s lawsuit connects with tort reform, while a story of medical malpractice explains the problems with damages caps. Judicial elections show how corporations fund their business-friendly candidates and use a smear campaign to discourage voting for their non-perferred candidate. (If that sounds familiar, it’s a story that inspired a John Grisham novel.) Mandatory arbitration is snuck into various contracts for everything from credit cards to employment, and the story here involves a gang rape, already a vulnerable situation made worse without access to legal recourse.

While the documentary delves into complicated legal matters, it does offer clear explanations for what different aspects mean within the system and mean for the public. Rendering complex information is difficult, and Hot Coffee pulls it off well.

Two things struck me odd about this documentary. One is the animated sequence trying to explain the judicial system in “fun” way. Had this sequence been one among several, it might have worked. But it only appeared once. Also, had this sequence been an archival material and mixed with other archival pieces, it also might have worked. Instead, as far as I can tell, this animated sequence was created for the documentary itself. It just struck me as jarring and out of place, especially considering the seriousness of the stories.

The other is the calls for action at the end. I question these not so much in this documentary, but in documentaries in general. Should they be in the documentary itself, or should they be posted on the documentary’s website? These calls always feel like website materials to me because putting them online allows more depth of information on the “how to” part. A title card in a film telling the audience to write a letter to a government official might not be enough information to enable someone to follow through.

Posting the calls for action online also allows more people to access and share the information in ways that work for them. Not everyone might be willing to write that letter, but a person might be willing to share the action calls through their social networks, which might lead to several other people writing letters. Maximizing the online presence for change just seems more effective than taking up screen time. Why not just use a title card with the URL in the film, and then use the social media outlets for the rest? Just a thought.

The Unpretty Side of the Modeling Industry in ‘Girl Model’

Girl Model shows the modeling industry as anything but beautiful. In fact, the whole industry appears pretty screwed up through the lens of this raw documentary.

The insight into this industry comes from two perspectives: a model scout and a beginning model.

Ashley is the model scout. She modeled for several years before moving to scouting, which allows her to travel and offers her a sizable income. She scans the world for models suitable for the Japan market, which seeks very young and very thin girls.

Nadya is the new model. She is just 13 and from Siberia. Ashley chooses her to go to Japan under contract, which supposedly guarantees two jobs and $8,000.

Life in Tokyo for Nadya is lonely and depressing. She lives in a tiny room and sees no money from the shoots she does. She speaks no Japanese, and few people help her along the way. The agency calls this time an “opportunity” for the girls to find themselves and their strengths. Isolated, Nadya instead longs for home.

The arrival of Madlen, another model, eases her loneliness and destitution somewhat as Madlen comes with her own phone and credit card. The two friends explore Tokyo and learn more about their expectations under the agency’s contract.

The contracts favor the agency and give the agency almost complete control over the girls’ lives. Any increase in size by more than a centimeter results in termination. No tanning, no swimming, no traveling. Not meeting other obligations results in charges against the girl. Many of the girls come from poor homes, and any debt is beyond their means.

Life for Ashley is much different, but no less depressing. Ashley is a former model who left the industry bitter, angry, and frustrated. Scouting brought her income and more freedom on her terms, but her unexamined self-hatred continues and skews her perspective. For example, she claims, “It’s just normal to be a prostitute. For them [poor girls], you know? Maybe it’s easier than being a model. I don’t know.”

The most telling scene in this documentary comes when Ashley visits Nadya and Madlen in Tokyo. The encounter is cold. Ashley explores their dismal apartment, while Nadya and Madlen just want her to leave. Ashley offers them no help, no encouragement. After all, in her mind, her job in recruiting the two is done.

We should be horrified, and the minimal style of this documentary helps bring this forward. The warmest moments of the documentary occur with Nadya at home with her family. Otherwise, locations are stark and gray urbanscapes. No narration makes the documentary feel eerie at times, bringing forward the horror of what we are seeing; titles offer explanation instead. Well-timed questions to and statements from industry and agency execs make that horror even more real in the callousness of their comments. None of them see the recruiting of younger and younger girls as models, of locking them into one-sided contracts, and of letting the girls fend for themselves for so little money as a problem.

Memory and Narrative in ‘Stories We Tell’

Stories We Tell offers a sophisticated retelling of a family’s story that calls into question the nature of memory and narrative. It consists of extensive interviews, voiceover narration, archival footage, and staged footage to tell not multiple stories, but a single story from multiple perspectives.

These perspectives come from director Sarah E. Polley’s family and others she has brought together for this retelling. The story centers on Diane Polley, described as an outgoing and effervescent individual liked by everyone. Even in these early descriptions, though, slight disagreement occurs among the storytellers about Diane’s character. One suggests that Diane lived life out loud, while another suggests that she harbored secrets.

Despite these disagreements, though, Stories We Tell offers a cohesive unfolding of events. It begins with Diane’s meeting Michael Polley, falling in love with him, and later marrying him. The two have children, but their divergent personalities result in a stagnant period in their marriage.

Diane then receives an invitation to appear in a play in Montreal, requiring her absence from home for several months. She goes with Michael’s blessing, and his visits to her and her return home bring some spark back to the marriage. At 42, Diane discovers she is pregnant with Sarah. Sadly, Diane later develops cancer and dies at the age of 55.

The unfolding of Diane’s story, though, contains several surprises along the way. The first comes with the revelation of her first marriage, which ended bitterly because of her affair with Michael Polley. She lost custody of her children and was limited to monthly visits with them as they grew up.

Another surprise centers on Sarah. As a joke her siblings tease her about not looking like their father, and she later begins to take the question seriously. After some investigation, she finds out that her father is Harry Gulkin, with whom her mother had an affair for several years both during and after the play. A paternity test confirms the suspicions, though a brother reveals he suspected as much.

The remaining surprise is not for us, but for her father, Michael Polley. Sarah struggles with telling her father or not, just as Gulkin and others seek to make the story public anyway. Eventually, Sarah tells him.

While all of these events might sound like a soap opera plotline, their retelling here is gentle and warm, not overwrought and melodramatic. For Michael Polley, the revelation changes nothing about their relationship. For the rest of the Polley family, the revelation changes nothing either. That level of acceptance and trust is profound.

According to Polley, the documentary gives equal weight to everyone’s take on the story, but Gulkin disapproves of this approach. He feels ownership of the story and its retelling because of his strong connection with Diane.

But not everyone does receive equal weight. Michael Polley gains the most time through his interviews and his writing of his voiceover narration, which someone else speaks. Gulkin, too, receives more time than others. And Sarah Polley’s presence is known throughout the piece.

Early in Stories We Tell, Polley says, “It’s an interrogation process,” in reference to the documentary’s production. This piece in particular highlights the uses of interviews in creating cohesive narratives and arguments. Interviews bear the weight of multiple interested parties, including the subject and the director. Tensions emerge between what the subject wants to tell and what the director wants to know. One sister, for example, raises a question of why people would even want to know the family’s story.

Another tension emerges in the aspects of production, as in recording a usable interview. The documentary shows a little bit of the staging in these interviews, with the lighting, the prompting question, the subjects’ nervousness, and their exchanges. And while multiple interviews might reveal multiple and possibly conflicting viewpoints of a particular story, in the editing process they become again a singular experience. In Stories We Tell this process creates a mosaic of memories.

‘Hoop Dreams’ Delivers Goose Bumps and a Good Story

A memorable sport documentary requires two things: goosebumps and a good story.

Hoop Dreams has both, in spades.

The story behind Hoop Dreams shows the power of long-term documentary making. The arc follows William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, from their entry into high school through their first year of college. As high school freshmen, both boys get recruited from Chicago city schools to play basketball for St. Joseph’s High School in suburban Westchester, IL, where NBA great Isiah Thomas got his start.

Both boys experience highs and lows during these periods as they pursue their hoop dreams of getting to the state championships, of landing a college scholarship, and ultimately of getting into the NBA. Gates has full tuition support, but he still faces issues with knee injuries and academic performance. Agee has only partial sponsorship, and because of financial struggles, he ends up back in a Chicago public high school.

But their stories focus more on just their dreams of playing pro ball. Both boys face pressures and challenges at home. Gates becomes a father to a baby girl, Alicia. Agee and his family face tough issues both at home and outside it. Father “Bo” Agee takes drugs, beats his wife, steals, and serves time. Both parents lose their jobs and struggle to get another. Violence in their neighborhood finds Agree and another family member held at gunpoint.

The goosebumps come from the competitions unfolding. Both boys play on teams that reach quarter final rounds, with tough competitors coming between them and the next bracket. Sometimes, the game comes down to that last free throw or that jump shot. Will he make it? Will he miss? (Please, please, don’t miss!)

Cast as the underdogs, Agee’s team, the Marshall Commandos, takes down two very tough teams during his senior year. After one tense game, the team realizes that it needs to prevent the other team from scoring for a brief period to secure a win. That moment when Agee waits out the timer courtside is almost as exciting as waiting for that free throw.

In the end both boys, now young men, earn scholarships to colleges. Gates signs with Marquette University in Milwaukee, while Agee signs with Mineral Area College in Missouri.

As Hoop Dreams shows in its almost three-hour run, the sport itself is never the full picture. The competition, the goose bumps, is just a small, albeit exciting, part. It is the story that shows what the sport really means, the dreams it inspires, and the reality in which it plays out.