25 January 2012

Review of 'The Battle of Chile'

Great films rarely arrive as unheralded as "The Battle of Chile" did in 1975, a two-part, three-hour-and-ten-minute documentary about the events leading to the fall of Chilean President Salvador Allende. This film doesn't even present itself with fanfare, and it takes a while to get going. It opens in March of 1973 with inquiring reporters asking people how they're going to vote in the coming congressional election, which amounts to a plebiscite on the Allende government. The election is taking place after Allende has been in office for over two years and has been trying to reorganize the society and move it toward Socialism within the framework of democratic government. His Popular Unity coalition was put into office with only a third of the popular vote, so he has been on shaky ground. His efforts to nationalize certain industries have brought on a squeeze from the banking and industrial community and from foreign interests (especially the United States), and Chile is suffering economic deprivations.

15 January 2012

The American Documentary Phenomenon

An extraordinary efflorescence of political documentaries is taking place around the world, not least in the United States. Though particular cultural artifacts -- manga, anime, chutney, and 'world music,' among many others -- have taken on transnational forms and flourished in recent years, and though mass and pop culture in their numerous manifestations have come under increased scholarly scrutiny, the emergence of political documentaries as an aspect of world culture is a phenomenon which so far has received little attention. Documentary filmmakers are far from being celebrities, but documentary retrospectives at major festival festivals are nonetheless now common. The most recent edition of the Sundance Film Festival, now one of the most well-known avenues for showcasing independent and avant-garde cinema, especially in the United States, commenced with a screening of the documentary, Chicago 10, director Brett Morgen's attempt to bring to life the turbulence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the trials of anti-war protesters that came in its wake. To invoke what we might call the contemporary documentary phenomenon is not to suggest that the political documentary has no previous history, nor even that contemporary documentaries are necessarily distinguished by their breadth of vision, cinematic qualities, or more than the ordinary form of political awareness. Nonetheless, it is palpably clear that in countries as diverse as the United States, India, Brazil, and Korea, the political documentary is undergoing a renaissance, and that the sheer proliferation and visibility of such documentaries marks a new stage in the history of both this art form and political activism in an age saturated by the image and visual icons.