‘GMO OMG’ adds little new to the GMO debates

Jeremy Seifert’s GMO OMG (2013) begins with his son’s interest in seeds and seed collecting. Taking his family on a journey of discovery, Seifert explores the issues surrounding GMO (genetically modified organisms) production, studies, labeling, and regulation. In part he wants to know why some Haitian farmers call GMO seeds “seeds of death,” while people in the United States remain uninformed about them, as a brief person-on-the-street survey shows.

GMO OMG offers little new information about the debates to those already familiar with them, but it does provide an overview of the issues and the major players for those seeking to learn more. Seifert’s documentary avoids delving too far into the science, which some may see as a shortcoming, but no documentary on this subject is going to placate all the vested interests.

As part of his journey, Seifert interviews a range of people, including farmers, journalists, scientists, and seed preservationists. The closing credits list people and companies who refused to talk with him for the documentary.

He attempts little gags with his children to involve them on his journey. He creates silly GMO goggles, and he runs with them through a field GMO-planted corn wearing HAZMAT suits. His children also stand outside retailers and restaurants holding a sign.

What did bother me, though, was how some of the newspaper headline montages highlighted issues without providing any contexts or information for them. One headline mentions the farmer suicides in India. That point seems too heavy just to flash by on a headline.

Another thing, and some might quibble with me on this point: If you’re dealing with a divisive issue and citing statistics, note your sources, and use primary ones, not secondary ones. GMO OMG features statistics throughout, such as “85% percent of all the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified.” Neither the title in the documentary nor the film’s associated website offers sources for the cited stats. Every stat tells its own story, and it’s important to know who is the teller, a point that even this documentary raises about GMO research.

‘Housing Problems’ a Landmark in Documentary Sound

Housing Problems (Arthur Elton and E.H. Anstey, 1935) is one of those classic documentaries that is important to the development of the documentary form but is more interesting to read about than it is to see.

Housing Problems is one of the first documentaries to use synchronized sound of people speaking on camera. We hear multiple voices almost to excess throughout this short, including people who live in the slums, the narrator, and the housing committee chairman. Looking a bit awkward and sounding a bit forced, the tenants talk about the poor living conditions, with the vermin, the lack of running water, and the cramped spaces. Each one has a horrifying story about living there.

Other people are more fortunate. They live in the newer spaces and marvel at the differences in quality of life, with modern appliances, windows, and space. They, too, sound awkward and forced.

But these tenants’ voices are not the most important ones in House Problems. That honor belongs to the narrator and the chairman, who represent the “official” collective voice of the steel, cement, gas, and other industries. The narrator provides background information and introductions, while the chairman explains the slums situation before the people share their stories. His explanation thus provides the framework for “reading” the tenants’ testimonies. It is not enough for them to speak for themselves about their experiences — a technique that continued in documentary for several decades afterward.

The industry voices are not the last heard, however. Interestingly though, the tenants’ voices are mixed into a montage at the end. They continue speaking about their poor living conditions. Not quite the final word on the subject, but a surprising device so early in synchronized sound documentary.

‘The Raw and the Cooked’ Needs More Prep Time

The Raw and the Cooked: A Culinary Journey through Taiwan (2012) makes a poor guide on this tour that feels more like an aimless wander than a directed trip.

This documentary had so much potential with its subject, but it falls short due to lack of contextualization and focus. Numerous shots of food in restaurants, marketplaces, and gardens fill the documentary, but almost no explanation of what we see occurs. Even contexts around the food warrant little to no explanation. We learn that farmers’ markets are new to Taiwan, see a couple minutes’ worth of food shots, and then move on to the next subject. But why are these markets new to Taiwan? How are they part of the culinary journey?

While some sequences run too short, others run too long, such as the extended one of the chef gathering local ingredients, preparing exotic dishes, and then serving them to a select group. We see him making the dishes, but he offers little insight into what he makes until he announces the dish’s name to the guests as he serves them. Great for the guests, but we in the audience are not invited, it seems.

Some sequences do focus on food, such as a food co-op of sorts, a fruit-drying operation, and the Amis food preparation. But the documentary seems more interested in anything but, such as the American and his rooftop composting system, the petro-chemical plant protests, the Amis cultural preservation, and the political musicians.

Director Monika Treut positions herself as our guide on this journey through her narration and sometimes her presence, but she is inconsistent in her roles. She walks with a friend through the nighttime marketplace, but we learn nothing of what she eats or sees. She describes the Amis feast, but the visuals offer no indication that she was even there.

The Raw and the Cooked has so many interesting parts to it and so many interesting people in it, but without more coherence in narration and balance in editing this journey is a bumpy one.

‘Beware of Mr. Baker’

Beware of Mr. Baker (2012) opens with iconic drummer Ginger Baker whacking filmmaker Jay Bulger across the face with a cane for wanting to include interviews with other people in the film. This scene sets up their somewhat contentious relationship and Baker’s difficult personality.

Bulger’s documentary is a biopic of Baker and his uneven career despite his brilliance in drumming. Bulger frames the documentary through his discovering Baker’s story, writing about it, and then going back for the bigger picture. While Bulger’s presence remains a key part, it is Baker who dominates the extended interviews and archival footage.

Baker is a difficult subject to interview. Bulger asks simple questions, and while Baker retaliates by telling him to read the book, Bulger stands his ground. Throughout, Baker unleashes middle-finger gestures and insults at Bulger’s questions, many of which I cannot quote here because of their fun phrases. But just as he insults his interviewer, Baker also answers many questions about his life at length.

Undeterred by the cane across the face, Bulger gathers an array of interviews, both personal and celebrity, to round out the story. The celebrities are a who’s who of music: Eric Clapton, Johnny Rotten, Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Stewart Copeland, and Carlos Santana. All of them express a deep admiration for Baker’s drumming, which crosses genres of both Western jazz and rock and African music.

Extensive archival footage shows that these performers’ admiration for Baker is warranted. Baker plays like he has double the appendages most of us have, with the complexity of rhythms that are almost ear-defying.

Despite immense talent and perfect time, Baker never saw sustained career heights. Most bands were short-lived due to interpersonal conflicts and drug use. Baker played with Fela Kuti during his time in Africa but was ostracized from the group for taking up polo.

Baker married young and multiple times, and moved from country to country. He has three children. Bulger interviews some of the former spouses and children. One of them thinks he never should have had kids.

Beware of Mr. Baker ends with Baker playing and touring again because the financial situation forced him to sell his horses, farm, and Range Rover.

Bulger makes some attempts at making this piece visually interesting with the split screens and editing transitions. The opening interview with Johnny Rotten is intruiging and disorienting at the same time. These techniques appear only once in a while, but it would have been interesting to see them more consistently throughout. Stylized animations illustrate more difficult parts of the story, such as Baker’s getting beaten up as child.

Chances are, you won’t like Baker as a person at the end of this documentary, which isn’t the point, but you may come to appreciate the brilliance of his drumming.

‘Gideon’s Army’ Battles an Unjust Justice System

Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army (2013) is the best example I have seen of documentary story-telling so far with its dramatic tension that keeps you riveted until the jury’s verdict is read.

Gideon’s Army follows three public defenders in the Deep South as they work against enormous odds — professional, financial, and personal — to represent their clients in the justice system. Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick handle more than 120-plus cases at a time while trying to balance their budgets and personal lives. Supporting them is a program called the Southern Public Defender Training Center, run by Jonathan Rapping.

But there is no balance, really, as each one struggles to work within a system that sees many people quit each year. Porter’s documentary follows each public defender and a key case. Each one shares the moral complexities of the job and their attempts to make sense of it, even with the guilty and thankless clients. Alexander, for example, learns that a client has planned her murder. The represented defendents, however, are shown with sensitivity as people facing challenges both within and outside the legal system.

Alexander’s and Williams’s cases create a classic dramatic tension that weaves throughout the documentary and brings it to the high points with the trials and the verdicts. Setbacks along the way, such as with evidence and testimony, push that tension further. Their outcomes remain uncertain until the verdict is delivered in each one.

A small moment in this documentary struck me. Near the end, the man in Williams’s case goes into the courthouse to enter a plea for hopefully a lesser sentence. As he does, a person campaigning for office hands out fliers and asks for votes. The juxtaposition raises a powerful, if subtle, point in that if he receives a sentence, he loses his right to vote during incarceration.

Performance, Music Come First in ‘Stop Making Sense’

Concert films are a well-established sub-genre of documentary. Think Woodstock, Monterey Pop, The Last Waltz. Their conventions, by now, are well known: interviews with the stars and the fans, shots of performances, and hopefully some deep dish about the band not available elsewhere. While often dismissed by critics as publicity vehicles, concert films still provide the best seat in the house.

Stop Making Sense is a different kind of concert film, one that relies all on the concert footage and none on the rest of the conventions. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 documentary starts with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne walking onto a bare stage with a guitar and a boom box (remember those?). He greets the audience, turns on a synth beat on the boom box, and launches into “Psycho Killer.” As the concert continues, more band members join Byrne on stage, and the crew sets up more equipment along with them. Pretty soon, the entire band is on stage and performing.

The audio belies the illusions of these visuals, however. No boom box, no matter how many “D” batteries one packs into it, can emit that clear of a sound in a concert hall. The back-up singers lend their voices to a couple songs before they even appear onstage.

While many concert films include multiple shots of adoring fans, the audience remains in the dark for most of Demme’s film. A couple extra long shots of the stage show the audience members’ silhouettes bobbing their heads to the beat, but not until the end of the film, when the concert winds down, do we see the fans’ faces and their dancing to the songs.

Stop Making Sense makes for what might seem an overly simple documentary, but that simplicity is what I like about it: the music and the performance come first.

Beauty and Death in ‘Library of Dust’

Library of Dust is an ethereal yet very real documentary short about the cremated remains of deceased patients in an Oregon mental hospital.

Inspired in part by the David Maisel’s book of the same name, Library of Dust explores the ethereal through the photography of the copper canisters themselves. Over the decades, the copper turned bright green shades in its process of decay, adding something beautiful to what otherwise could be seen as sad. The sadness lies in that the ashes remain unclaimed by families, with many urns in storage for multiple decades.

Ondi Timoner and Robert James’s 2011 short is the exploration into mental health care in Oregon and these patients’ reclamations by their families. According to multiple interviews, patients historically experienced forced lobotomies, were admitted for speaking foreign languages, and even were admitted for refusing to do housework. While the field of psychiatric medicine has advanced significantly since then, the facilities within the hospital have declined. Fortunately, various actions have helped bring about new facilities.

Families also begin to claim the ashes of their relatives and fill in holes on their family trees. As one woman says, “We sprung her.” Some families bury the remains, while others wait, wanting to keep their relatives close for now.

This documentary packs a lot of information, ideas, and voices in a short span that easily could have been much longer. The meditative subject, tight editing, interwoven themes, and excellent cinematography make this short a compelling watch.

‘The Crash Reel’ Finds Hope after Injury

Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel (2013) begins with high energy in its subject snowboarder Kevin Pearce. He and his friends throw their energy into practicing their tricks, first in Aspen and then in Park City, in preparation for a possible Olympic competition. Fast music accompanies them.

Then, on the pipe a move goes wrong, the music stops, and Kevin falls, hitting his head. In those few seconds the life of this successful snowboarder changes forever as a result of a traumatic brain injury.

The Crash Reel then steps back to show Kevin’s life and career before the fall. Impressive footage shows him reaching new heights and speeds while attempting different tricks. It shows him competing as a child and teenager, taking home prizes and trading prize places with Shaun White in some competitions. Home video footage shows him climbing everything as a young child. All this footage builds back up to the accident.

Walker then weaves interviews with friends, family, medical experts, and extreme sport pros as we follow Kevin through his recovery. His goal is to get back on the board, even though he faces challenges with memory loss, seizures, double-vision, and depression. His doctors also warn him against it, as another injury could impair him even further or, worse, kill him. His family further discourages him from it as they fear his safety and another long recovery.

Still wanting to put the injury behind him, Kevin gets back on the board and even enters a competition, faring poorly. When hanging out with snowboarder friends, he attempts but cannot execute a move he used to complete effortlessly in the past.

While The Crash Reel focuses mostly on Kevin, Walker also raises questions about brain injuries, insurance, and extreme sports. Near the end of the documentary, Kevin meets Trevor White, who suffered two traumatic brain injuries and shows worse outcomes than Kevin. Another even sadder sequence shows Sarah Burke, who died from her injuries and incurred medical bills of more than half a million dollars. Several extreme athletes recount their injuries and surgeries while raising the question of the extreme sports’ entertainment value at the risk of athletes’ safety. No industry professionals outside the athletes address these concerns, however.

After a long struggle, Kevin realizes, “I’m not getting past this brain injury. It’s not going anywhere.” He redirects his energies into speaking about traumatic brain injuries with the hopes his story inspires and informs others.

Walker’s documentary offers an intimate portrait of Kevin’s struggle to find a new purpose in life after snowboarding while living with the effects of the injury. It carefully balances the sympathetic with the critical. Overall, The Crash Reel offers the sense that Kevin was an amazing person before the injury, and reaffirms that point throughout.

‘Nostalgia for the Light’ Stuns with the Beauty and the Awful

Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010) opens not with people, but with artistic cinematography and contrapuntal sound of heavy equipment shifting, turning, rotating. There is no narration, no scored music — just the rhythms of the telescope moving. Only as the shots shift to objects within a house does Guzmán’s voiceover begin.

Nostalgia for the Light tells two stories bound by the same place, the Atacama Desert in Chile. One story, the one about the stars, looks up. The other story, the one about victims and prisoners, looks down. According to the poetic voiceover, the desert is a “vast open book of memory, page by page.”

With its zero humidity, the desert is home to the largest telescope in the world. Astronomers use it to answer questions about the universe, matter, and humanity.

The desert also is home to abandoned mines, concentration camps, and mass graves. Women look for human bones among the ruins, hoping to find their loved ones who were killed during the 1970s.

History and memory link these two groups, a point that Guzmán develops through a handful of chosen interviews with relatives, camp survivors, and other scientists. Even though their paths don’t cross, these groups both work in the past because, according to astronomer Gaspar Galaz, “The present doesn’t exist.” A gap of time and distance always divides a phenomenon’s origin and its perception.

Guzmán’s documentary is both beautiful and awful. The beautiful comes through in the meditative narration, the gorgeous cinematography, and the thoughtful sound. The awful comes through in the question of a country needing to reconcile with its past of those tortured and killed and with the gaps those undocumented deaths left behind. The overall result is a stunning documentary.

Physics is Catching in ‘Particle Fever’

Early in Particle Fever a group of excited scientists and press gather at CERN in Switzerland to witness the first test of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

A man counts down to one. Nothing happens. He counts down again, and this time a screen blips. Everyone in the room cheers and applauds. They understand what the blip means, truly means, even though many in the documentary-viewing audience, myself included, might be scratching their heads in uncertainty.

This scene at once shows the excitement of the experiments and the difficulty facing Particle Fever in visualizing and explaining its subject. Mark A. Levinson’s 2013 documentary adopts a combination of enthusiastic physicists, animations, and actuality footage as it follows CERN scientists on their journey through the initial experiment, some troubles, another run, and some results that hopefully answer the big questions driving the field of physics.

Physicists David Kaplan, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Savas Dimopoulos, and Monica Dunford explain some of the key ideas informing the field of physics and the significance of the LHC. Animations visualize their explanations of the more theoretical concepts without too much math. Both, however, seem only to skim the surface of the concepts presented.

The basic facts about the LHC are easier to comprehend, though not quite their scale. Dunford describes it as “a five-story Swiss watch.” It took decades to build by hand, and 100,000 computers around the world process the data from it. Shots show the height and its complex parts, but the interviews are necessary to explain what it all means.

The elusive goal? Finding the Higgs Boson, which seems the missing piece to the physics puzzle. While not quite the same as Indiana Jones pursuing the Holy Grail, all the scientists convey why this discovery is important to the field and what it means going forward.

Though I feel like I need to read a book or five on particle physics now, the journey structure and the Higgs Boson grail make Particle Fever an accessible and engaging documentary to watch.