One of life’s greatest idioms is, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” meaning that beauty cannot be judged objectively, for what one person finds beautiful or admirable may not appeal to another. That phrase usually applies to a person’s perception of others, but in the case of the poetic experimental doc Vision Portraits, it’s a reflection of the many artistic subjects of themselves in their blindness.
The film was made by Sundance award-winning independent filmmaker Rodney Evans (Brother to Brother, The Happy Sad) as he embarked on a personal journey of restoring his vision through international travels to areas breaking scientific grounds. Aside from that, it also focuses on portraits of various blind subjects in the field of visual art turning their impairment into their creative triumph. Vision Portraits is a feature where what you see is what you get. The title alone encapsulates what the entire film is about and it’s very moving. You’re set with all these creatives living in New York City trying to navigate through the mold in a contemplative manner that is so engaging to watch. As you watch the persistent human spirit triumph through the darkness, you’re completely invested in these people and their personal breakthroughs. Since this is director Rodney Evans’s personal journey, it’s also his cathartic release — he finds hope through the lens of his subjects. For 75 minutes you’re completely enthralled by these inspirational stories that boast nothing but hope, especially if you’re someone that is visually impaired.
During Sundance, I saw the award-winning Knock Down the House, an inspirational and moving doc Netflix picked up that was undoubtedly a five-star movie for me. But what I didn’t get to see was American Factory, another award-winning documentary that Netflix picked up. While I missed it at Sundance, I caught it at Tribeca and by God is it the total emotional antithesis to Knock Down the House. Yet… it’s also a five-star movie — a five-star movie that makes you go “fuu-u-u-u-u-uck me!”
I’m not going to reveal much about its premise or even try to give you any details because it’s just a movie that you need to see to believe. The film synopsis is above the photo for a reason. All I will say is that it’s a powerful observation of the working class difference between the east and the west. Truly, it is cinéma vérité at its finest as you’re observing this slow burn of a collaboration between the working class of America and the Chinese, which starts off as a compromise that just gets downright frightening due to the disparity of their respective working practices, cultural values, and the inhumane working conditions that are normalized by the Chinese who rule the factory. The longer the film goes on, the more the poor working conditions escalate and it would make Upton Sinclair roll in his grave.
American Factory is one of those soul-crushing docs that both fascinated me and fucked me up, making me question what exactly counts as a human rights violation, and if our American eyes perceive it differently from the Chinese who dedicate their lives to working nonstop without any social life whatsoever. It’s all about observing culture and how sometimes there are fields where co-productions don’t work at all.
Check it out on Netflix. It’s one of the most powerful, thought-provoking documentaries of this year.
COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD
Another documentary I wanted to briefly discuss was Cold Case Hammarskjöld. It’s centered on the death of a UN representative that became one of the biggest unresolved mysteries of the 20th Century. Naturally, two filmmakers have attempted to dissect it themselves… nearly 50 years later. Danish director Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl are trying to solve the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld. As their investigation closes in, they discover a crime far worse than killing the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Early on, a fellow passenger in Brügger’s cab asks him, “Why so long?” As in, how come this mystery took as long as it did to be resolved? As you watch this six-year-long journey of a mystery unfold, you begin to question the same.
Watching real life mysteries unfold in feature form is undoubtedly an enticing experience. The level of excitement elevates as you’re provided provocative clues and details that make you want to sip your tea, and Cold Case Hammarskjöld excels at that. It’s like the visual form of the podcast series Serial, but in a documentative feature form with personality and wit. In an unconventional light, the doc is often meta/self-referential where the director describes his project to subjects in his travels. He verbally notes how he wants the format of the film to be displayed, followed by those notes coming to fruition. An aspect that is enjoyable given its dark subject is the documentarian and the private investigator’s sense of humor. Brügger’s persona is lively and he has a fun time getting to the bottom of the case at hand. They weren’t just filmmakers looking for a project; this was more of a curiosity that they just kept diving into, and you’re right in the passenger’s seat with them. The film has a bit of a pacing issue where some extended sequences linger on repetitive information, but the majority of the mystery is engaging and always holds your interest.
Rendy Jones has been self-publishing film reviews since the age of 13. He’s now the youngest African-American featured film critic on Rotten Tomatoes – and a BC student. You can read more of his reviews online at rendyreviews.com.