At the Documentary Edge Festival: an uneasy blend of personal ambition and failure, a thoughtful true crime community portrait, and a poetic essay of a woman’s conflicting identity of mother versus performer.
Andrew Goldman’s The Desk is an uneasy blend of personal ambition and failure. Those expecting a documentary about New Zealand’s very own Paul Henry will be somewhat disappointed. What started off as an ill-conceived attempt to turn the broadcaster into an American sensation turned into the story of Goldman’s personal career crisis. To put it in his own words, The Desk is “a film about a film I failed to finish about a TV show I failed to make where the guy got fired for making a mistake just like I did.” A convoluted yet perfectly accurate description of the film’s essence.
The result is a film of two halves: one part focusing on Goldman’s attempt to shoot a short film starring Paul Henry, and the other on Goldman’s job at the New York Times and his subsequent loss of it. To Goldman’s credit, The Desk manages to move back and forth from the two storylines seamlessly. When the film tips over from playful to just outright pissed off, it becomes harder to enjoy. Driven solely by outrage, Goldman’s narration, despite being energetic, exhausts as it begins to feel like an exercise in revenge more than anything else. It’s equivalent to a primal scream but without any pathos to move the audience. And, for all his attempts to bring an air of investigative journalism to his search for justice, everything is too bogged down in narcissism. Surely some of this is intentional, but it still feels very wrong.
Journalistic integrity, then, becomes a large focus of the job. Goldman, fired after offending his interview subjects at the New York Times, targets his former employers and attempts to call them out on their unethical behaviour and hypocrisy. This is all material worth discussing, but feels artificial, too neatly constructed and overflowing with personal bias. The most fascinating subject isn’t the case of why Goldman was fired, so much as Goldman’s determination to lift the supposed wool over everyone’s eyes. The inherent problem is it never feels that surprising Goldman was fired in the first place—it’s hard to sympathise with someone so self-righteous. By making himself the subject of his own documentary, the film is unable to distance itself from the subject with impartial eyes. However, in its moments of self-awareness, the film achieves a spirit and playfulness that keeps things moving at a clipped pace, and earns some well-deserved laughs. The dramatisations within the film are all particularly inspired, including footage from the short film they made and a playful reenactment of his firing.
The Desk is a flawed personal portrait, but filled with creative flourishes and a strong sense of storytelling. Goldman, as a highly unreliable narrator, is a source of bemusement, but his ability to weave a messy yet entertaining version of events is indisputable. Those interested in Paul Henry’s involvement in the documentary will welcome the moments he’s on screen, despite the fact he’s relegated to the role of supporting character. But it’s difficult to come on board to a film so fraught with conflict-of-interest, even if self-indulgence has rarely been so compelling.
Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper takes on a subject that could be cheap and easy shock material in lesser hands. But instead of sensationalising the crime of Lonnie Franklin, a man accused of possibly murdering between 20 to 100 women over the course of 25 years in South Central Los Angeles, Broomfield captures a vivid portrait of the community he belonged to.
Acting both as the narrator and audience surrogate, Broomfield has a strong but never distracting presence. But the real stars are the people who knew Lonnie Franklin personally, from his friends and family to victims. Ex-prostitute Pamela is a particular and essential player in this investigation, acting as a tour-guide to this predominately black neighbourhood. Broomfield, a white Englishman, is a stranger in a strange land here, and wisely keeps himself at a distance.
While initial interviews tell us that Lonnie was nothing but a nice guy, as the film unfolds we learn that he had another reputation as someone sleazier and more potentially dangerous than we were led to believe. More than just a friendly neighbour, people were aware that he had a predilection for picking up women and even supplying them with drugs, despite being married with a son. However, the most shocking element of Tales of the Grim Sleeper isn’t so much the horrific nature of the crimes, but the question of how this could have happened for so long without anyone getting caught. The answer, it seems, is the undeniable negligence of the law enforcement system, as well as the reluctance of people (victims and friends) to come forward. The victims, all predominately prostitutes, are seen as less than human, their lives worth less than others in the eyes of the police. Later we’re treated to a disturbing fact, how the LAPD classifies most crimes involving prostitutes as NHI or “no human involved.” In a society where the victims are afraid of coming forth because of their own crimes, and are treated as insignificant, nobody is safe.
Broomfield displays the abilities of a consummate documentary filmmaker, wisely letting the community speak for themselves, never interfering with their personalities. At once a compassionate listener, and able to get truly engaging answers out of his subjects, he portrays them as flesh and bone people rather than just storytelling devices. When Lonnie’s closest friends talk they speak with such candid honesty you’d think the camera wasn’t there. It’s this thoughtful and patient quality that elevates the story to a personal level.
Less straightforward journalism and more a collage of voices, Tales of the Grim Sleeper leaves the audience with lingering questions about Lonnie’s crimes and his personal life. And even though he’s been arrested, it’s far from over. The troublesome shadow hanging over the film is that, though Lonnie committed these murders, it’s the community that may have let it happen.
Robert Greene’s Actress is a testament to cinema’s power to take the everyday and elevate it beyond the mundane and ordinary. The domestic life of Brandy Burre, an actress turned housewife, best known for her role in HBO’s The Wire, is examined with a startlingly experimental eye. Combining elements of cinema verité and Hollywood melodrama, from fly-on-the-wall observations of housework to stylised sequences of Burre putting on makeup aided by swelling music, this is less a straightforward documentary and more a poetic essay of a woman’s conflicting identity of mother versus performer, or possibly mother as performer.
How much of what we see is rehearsed? Greene never makes this clear. While the stylised sequences are clearly not spontaneous, they are aided by narration that could be Burre’s own words or possibly Greene’s. Even the supposedly fly-on-the-wall moments are peppered with Burre interacting quite consciously with the camera, never letting the audience know how authentic anything we see is. Burre is, appropriately, always acting for us.
To Greene’s credit, Burre is never painted as a martyr or victim. She’s just a person dealing with the choices she’s made. There’s a willingness to capture her warts and all, giving us a layered character study, without spelling anything out to us as an audience. We journey with her from the slow disintegration of the relationship between her and her partner and her desire to return to acting. Everything we see is presented with limited context outside of Burre’s own confessions.
Stuck somewhere between Douglas Sirk and John Cassavetes, Actress toys with genre and aesthetic to alter the audience’s perception of what motherhood is. There’s a shocking image at the end of the film which toys with our expectations, but it’s revealed to be nothing more than a directorial trick. While calling attention to the artifice of documentary isn’t anything new, Actress is made with such awareness of the form’s inherent contradictions that the result is, ironically, honest. And if the film’s underlying message of motherhood as a performance occasionally seems a bit forced, it doesn’t make it any less true.