‘Super, Girls’ Goes Behind the Scenes of Singing Contest in China

National televised singing contests raise the hopes of young singers and fill their heads with dreams of fame and fortune. “Idol” franchises bank on these hopes and dreams in countries around the world. For a couple years China offered the “Super Girl” singing contest, and Jian Yi’s Super, Girls (2007) follows 10 girls who auditioned during the year before the show was canceled by the Chinese government.

The singing contest is the least interesting part of this documentary. While the girls speculate wildly about competition rigging and corrupt judges, they provide other offhand commentary that proves more interesting for its insights into contemporary Chinese culture.

Much of these insights come from Wang Yunan, a teenage philosopher who shares observations on anything and everything, from sexuality to family, from her docile mother to her remarried father, from her enjoying independence to her seeking companionship. Much like the documentary’s style, she flows from subject to subject without much of a pause. Even though her father supports her, she still sells pens to other contestants to raise money for clothes and dinner for her and her mother.

Class distinctions emerge among the contestants. Most of them come from some money, dressing fashionably, driving nice cars, and carrying cell phones. Part of that dressing fashionably pushes gender boundaries, in that many girls wear short haircuts and baggy clothes in attempts to look androgynous.

They contrast with a girl from the countryside who hopes to change her destiny. She comes from a very poor home and dresses in a dowdy khaki dress and carries a canteen.

Though not the driving force, the competition gets an occasional look from the director. Aiming the camera at a television screen, he records Wang Yunan’s audition. She sings well, but she forgets the lyrics and laughs nervously while trying to play it cool with the judges.

Jian Yi’s style is stubbornly observational, which allows a sense of intimacy in the recording of these girls and their lives. The competition offers some impetus for the events, but the competition — or much else, for that matter — contributes little to moving the ideas forward. The choice in footage reflects that in that we see the girls waiting around or hanging out with each other, not practicing or warming up for their auditions. In this case the tactics work in allowing us to listen in on their thoughts and to learn more about their perspectives on contemporary China.

‘Tell Me and I Will Forget’ Gets Lost in Voiceover Narration

While Justin Salerian’s Tell Me and I Will Forget offers an interesting look at South Africa, the 2010 documentary suffers from the burden of too much voiceover narration.

Tell Me and I Will Forget attempts to show South Africa through the eyes of emergency workers employed by both public and private companies. The picture reveals a depth of violence and lack of safety divided along racial lines. Traveling shots contrast the country’s natural beauty and its devastating poverty, and interviews with emergency workers and others personalize the violence happening there.

The voiceover explains too much, especially when other conventions can convey the same information more efficiently. Sometimes the voiceover doubles information from an interview. For example, the voiceover states, “EMS workers often lock away their stories. In many cases, it was a traumatic experience that catalyzed their interest in emergency services to begin with.” In the next shot the interviewer asks off camera, “Why did you get into EMS?”, with the subject replying at length. The subject’s reply gets the point across well enough on its own.

Other times the voiceover offers information that a title can do better. For example, the voiceover states, “Emmanuel is a new basic medic for Netcare at Pretoria East Hospital,” as Emmanuel appears on the screen. A title appearing with Emmanuel would remove the need for that sentence.

Still other times the voiceover offers general explanations when more specific wording would have served better. For example, the voiceover states, “A putrid smell fills the air.” Instead of “putrid smell,” why not just identify what the smell is?

While Salerian’s documentary feels like a passion project, the excess of narration indicates a problem of too much information and not enough focus on the documentary’s intended message. While they could have been interesting, the perspectives of the emergency workers get lost among the recounting of South Africa’s history going back 40 years, the American-focused archival footage, and the other voiceover explanations.

Herzog Finds Antarctica Fascinating in His Own Way in ‘Encounters at the End of the World’

Only Werner Herzog could make Antarctica into a fascinating place I would like to visit, as he does in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

Herzog’s 2007 documentary includes what you might expect of him: intellectual voiceover, intriguing stories, and immense landscapes all bundled with a sense of wonder infused with a dose of wry cynicism.

The landscapes and seascapes of Antarctica offer a mysterious beauty. If the scale seems small in the image, the voiceover provides the reality check. Fumaroles in the ice created by a volcano can reach two stories high. Underwater footage takes us under the ice into a whole new world bathed in an eerie glow from the sun filtering through.

McMurdo Station is a base, almost a city, on the continent. Here, Herzog finds person after person with a story to tell. One identifies strongly with his Aztec ancestry. Another is a linguist. Still another escaped imprisonment behind the Iron Curtain and remains prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, right down to the inflatable raft and paddle tucked in his bag. One woman starts to recount her precarious journey from Nairobi to London in a garbage truck, but since her story wanders, Herzog offers his own briefer comments instead.

Herzog’s voiceover is both personal and intellectual. The documentary has grant funding from the National Science Foundation, and he reminds the organization (and us) the he cannot do a film on penguins. That reminder does not stop him from asking a scientist about penguins going insane, however, as he shows a lone penguin marching away from food and the colony toward a certain death.

Other comments prove amusing. During the summer, the sun shines for 24 hours over a span of about five months. Herzog notes, “This was frustrating because I loathe the sun both on my celluloid and on my skin.”

Still other comments offer a grim view on intellectual enterprise and human civilization, such as the allowing of languages to die out and seeing the eventual demise of human beings.

Herzog also knows when to keep quiet. One sequence shows scientists drilling through the ice to make a small hole and then adding dynamite to make the hole slightly larger. He observes later how the scientists remain quiet during the process, which his silence own magnifies.

After seeing a few of Herzog’s works, such as Cave of Forgotten DreamsGrizzly Man, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, I have come to appreciate his presence and style. I find myself gravitating to docs that have more “personality,” such as in their subjects, their presentations, or their makers. While not without their own problems, they do stand out in the sea of more anonymous documentaries out there.

‘Bronies’ Shows the Positives of Fan Cultures

A bit back I posted a Tweet looking for more light-hearted documentaries. Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony certainly fits that bill.

Laurent Malaquais’s 2012 documentary is about the fan culture that grew around an unlikely show: “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.” My Little Pony is a Hasbro toy franchise that started in the early 1980s and was marketed to little girls. The “extremely unexpected” part of the title refers to the primarily male fans, who identify themselves as “Bronies” in the opening talking-head montage.

While that unlikelihood could have been played as a spectacle throughout the documentary, Bronies is more about fans and fan cultures than about their extremes. It delves into how and why fans respond the ways they do. For younger boys such as Lyle in Maine and Daniel in England, the show gives them a group to connect and identify with. For artists such as The Living Tombstone and LaserPon3, the show becomes an inspiration for music and animation.

The documentary does raise questions about perceptions of masculinity and “proper” audiences for the show. Lyle’s father remains skeptical of the show and his son’s liking of it, and this tension becomes an opportunity at a convention for the two to meet another father who accepts and supports his son’s fandom of the show.

But the larger identification comes through the more universal messages presented in the show about friendship, acceptance, and understanding. Bronies also reach out into communities by raising money for charities such as through auctions at conventions.

The people behind the show explain more about its production and attempt to explain the somewhat baffling, if overwhelming, response. Show creator Lauren Faust explains her intentions behind it, while Tara Strong, voice artist for one of the main characters, connects with different groups, such as a military fans group.

The most recognizable figure, particularly in voice, is John de Lancie. Star Trek fans will recognize him from his role as mischevious Q in several of the spinoffs. Fittingly, he voices the character Discord on the show, which he plays off at first as an expected surprise to see how it has taken off.

Overall, Bronies is about the positives of fan cultures and how they enable people from around the world to connect both online and in person.

‘Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth’ Offers Poetic Portrait of Famous Author

Pratibha Parmar’s documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a poetic portrait to the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

Using interviews, extensive archival materials, and readings from Walker’s works, Parmar’s documentary tells Walker’s life story from her birth in the deep South to her current peace along the ocean.

Walker herself plays a key role in recounting her own life so far. Other interviews come with important people in her life, including her former husband, past lovers, and siblings, along with other authors and experts who provide insight into Walker as a person, an activist, and as a writer, even though those three roles are inseparable for her.

Parmar’s documentary has a poetic quality in its visual style, and I appreciate her attention to these details. The overall effect is contemplative and deep, much like Walker herself. Shots of nature, including the ocean, trees, and birds, weave among the interviews. Instead of presenting Walker just reading from a book, Parmar uses visuals of the handwritten work and others to illustrate what we hear.

Walker has experienced innumerable challenges throughout her life, and the documentary addresses these issues head on, without glossing them over as might happen in other biographical documentaries. Born in Eatonton, Georgia, in 1944, Walker faced the racial discrimination of the era and the region while growing up and living there. Her interracial marriage was legal in New York but illegal in the South. She faced backlash for her political activism starting when she was as a college student, and even her work drew strong criticism from various parties.

A notable, but expected, absence from the documentary is Rebecca Walker, her only daughter. The discord of their relationship has played out in the media, and the documentary takes care not to sensationalize them further while offering more insight into the situation.

Overall, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a fitting tribute to one of the most important writers of our time.

‘Sin by Silence’ Advocates without Losing Sight of Humanity

Individuals and their stories lie at the heart of social issues, and the best advocacy documentaries find ways to balance these stories against the larger issues without losing sight of those people’s humanity. For me, Sin by Silence and the advocacy accompanying it represent this balance well.

Sin by Silence is a 2009 documentary directed by Olivia Klaus. It tells the stories of women who suffered domestic violence and murdered their abusers. Each of the women were sentenced to long or life-in-prison sentences. Several women share their stories, including Brenda Clubine, Glenda Crosley, Glenda Virgil, LaVelma Byrd, and Joanne Marchetti. Each woman recounts the threats and abuses she faced and the fears she felt for her life. Several feared for their children as well.

While these stories are harrowing, some become points of hope. Each woman is a member of the CWAA, the Convicted Women Against Abuse, an organization formed in prison by women in these situations for support of each other and for raising awareness about their situations with others. These women’s stories become central to various actions, such as signing petitions, making phone calls, and otherwise carrying the awareness mesages forward.

For Glenda Virgil, those actions helped secure her parole after more than 25 years in prison. Glenda Crosley, unfortunately, died before seeing release after more than 25 years in prison.

I have seen several documentaries recently that attempted to balance the individual stories against the larger issues. Granted, it is a difficult balance to achieve, especially when the larger issues remain outside mainstream media attention. In such cases, the issues require more explication. But what sometimes happens is the stories get lost among all the details, experts, and other materials.

Sin by Silence worked from a tightly honed issue and with stories that clearly connected with that issue, and that combination allowed for a good balance without running too long.

‘It’s A Girl’ Reveals the Effects of Gendercide

It’s a Girl opens with a field dotted with small mounds. There are eight of them.

An Indian woman explains, “I just strangled it soon after it was born.”

The “it” she refers to is her own daughter. The woman killed each of her eight daughters after birth and buried each in that field.

Directed by Evan Grae Davis, It’s a Girl offers a harrowing look into the problem of gendercide in India and China, two societies that favor sons over daughters. Instead of welcoming girls into families, girls are aborted, killed, abandoned, abused, and neglected. They suffer sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and child marriage.

Cultural practices, harsh laws, and ineffective policy enforcement reinforce the problem of “daughter avoidance.” Even though Indian law disallows sex determination, people still bribe  doctors to perform the procedure. Poorer Indian women use multiple means to kill the child after birth, such as breaking the neck, suffocating, and poisoning.

The avoidance in India comes in part from dowry and familial roles. While the first son faces the obligation of caring for the family, a daughter becomes a double burden in taking the family’s resources and in requiring a dowry to marry. Daughters who fail to meet the expectations of their spouses, such as through bearing sons, face abuse and even murder. Those who attempt to keep their daughters face retaliation from spouses, extended family, and even medical professionals.

The “one child policy” reinforces the “son preference” in China. Under this policy, families with permission are allowed to have just one child. Most families prefer a son, and female children face the risk of being killed, aborted, or abandoned in order to try again for a male child.

The Family Planning Committee in China enforces these policies by encouraging people to spy and conducting raids on those disobeying the law. Women who have more than the allowed amount of children face forced abortions or sterilization. Some families attempt to work around these laws, but they face harsh punishments if caught.

Airy, abstract animations illustrate some of the more harrowing stories and statistics as the voiceover explains contexts and facts. While informative, these sequences sometimes get repetitive with the depth of interviews and the breadth of experts already appearing on camera.

The documentary offers a call for people to get involved with the movements to end gendercide. It adds the call to the end credits, mentioning organizations and the URL for more information. This approach works in that it takes no additional screen time and it redirects those interested to more information.

“Genocide,” a term coined by Raphael Lemkin, is harrowing enough. “Gendercide” is even more so because devalues half the population on this planet, and this documentary painstakingly shows just how that happens.

‘It’s a Girl’ Uncovers the Horrors of Gendercide

It’s a Girl opens with a field dotted with small mounds. There are eight of them.

An Indian woman explains, “I just strangled it soon after it was born.”

The “it” she refers to is her own daughter. The woman killed each of her eight daughters after birth and buried each in that field.

Directed by Evan Grae Davis, It’s a Girl offers a harrowing look into the problem of gendercide in India and China, two societies that favor sons over daughters. Instead of welcoming girls into families, girls are aborted, killed, abandoned, abused, and neglected. They suffer sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and child marriage.

Cultural practices, harsh laws, and ineffective policy enforcement reinforce the problem of “daughter avoidance.” Even though Indian law disallows sex determination, people still bribe doctors to perform the procedure. Poorer Indian women use multiple means to kill the child after birth, such as breaking the neck, suffocating, and poisoning.

The avoidance in India comes in part from dowry and familial roles. While the first son faces the obligation of caring for the family, a daughter becomes a double burden in taking the family’s resources and in requiring a dowry to marry. Daughters who fail to meet the expectations of their spouses, such as through bearing sons, face abuse and even murder. Those who attempt to keep their daughters face retaliation from spouses, extended family, and even medical professionals.

The “one child policy” reinforces the “son preference” in China. Under this policy, families with permission are allowed to have just one child. Most families prefer a son, and female children face the risk of being killed, aborted, or abandoned in order to try again for a male child.

The Family Planning Committee in China enforces these policies by encouraging people to spy and conducting raids on those disobeying the law. Women who have more than the allowed amount of children face forced abortions or sterilization. Some families attempt to work around these laws, but they face harsh punishments if caught.

Airy, abstract animations illustrate some of the more harrowing stories and statistics as the voiceover explains contexts and facts. While informative, these sequences sometimes get repetitive with the depth of interviews and the breadth of experts already appearing on camera.

The documentary offers a call for people to get involved with the movements to end gendercide. It adds the call to the end credits, mentioning organizations and the URL for more information. This approach works in that it takes no additional screen time and it redirects those interested to more information.

“Genocide,” a term coined by Raphael Lemkin, is harrowing enough. “Gendercide” is even more so because devalues half the population on this planet, and this documentary painstakingly shows just how that happens.

Passion is the Victory in ‘The Fruit Hunters’

The lingering opening to Yung Chang’s 2012 documentary The Fruit Hunters evokes a passion for the fruit it shows as the voiceover asks, “Is it strange that when I look at certain fruit, I find myself… a bit… aroused?”

Based on Adam Leith Gollner’s book, The Fruit Hunters follows these seekers as they search for rare fruits, to save fruits, to find forgotten fruits, and to join people through fruits. The documentary travels the globe, from Hondouras to Hawaii and from Indonesia to Italy, following these hunters in their pursuits.

While passion drives fruit hunters generally, they frequently have greater goals. Industrial farming practices and deforestation threaten some fruits. Juan Aguilar races to prevent bananas from succumbing to fungus. Richard Campbell and Noris Ledesma race to save mangoes from disappearing in the wake of industrialization. Actor Bill Pullman attempts to plant an orchard near his home in hopes of dissuading yet another housing development.

The fruits themselves play a starring role as well. The documentary introduces multiple kinds through the people’s passions and the closing credits. (My favorite was the cannonball fruit.) While the sequences with people offer proficient standard framing, the sequences showing the fruits become art.

The documentary also attempts to weave in elements of fruit and history and sometimes uses re-enactments to illustrate these events. While offering interesting information, these re-enactments felt out of place among the other elements.

Overall, The Fruit Hunters felt like “The Amazing Race,” but with fruit. The prize is not the victory, but the passion is.

Passion is the Prize in ‘The Fruit Hunters’

The lingering opening to Yung Chang’s 2012 documentary The Fruit Hunters evokes a passion for the fruit it shows as the voiceover asks, “Is it strange that when I look at certain fruit, I find myself… a bit… aroused?”

Based on Adam Leith Gollner’s book, The Fruit Hunters follows these seekers as they search for rare fruits, to save fruits, to find forgotten fruits, and to join people through fruits. The documentary travels the globe, from Hondouras to Hawaii and from Indonesia to Italy, following these hunters in their pursuits.

While passion drives fruit hunters generally, they frequently have greater goals. Industrial farming practices and deforestation threaten some fruits. Juan Aguilar races to prevent bananas from succumbing to fungus. Richard Campbell and Noris Ledesma race to save mangoes from disappearing in the wake of industrialization. Actor Bill Pullman attempts to plant an orchard near his home in hopes of dissuading yet another housing development.

The fruits themselves play a starring role as well. The documentary introduces multiple kinds through the people’s passions and the closing credits. (My favorite was the cannonball fruit.) While the sequences with people offer proficient standard framing, the sequences showing the fruits become art.

The documentary also attempts to weave in elements of fruit and history and sometimes uses re-enactments to illustrate these events. While offering interesting information, these re-enactments felt out of place among the other elements.

Overall, The Fruit Hunters felt like “The Amazing Race,” but with fruit. The prize is not the victory, but the passion is.