Category Archives: Documentary

A Harrowing Depiction of Life Among the Ruins: Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno

Every so often a movie comes around that really messes you up. The last time I saw a documentary that kept me up at night was 2013’s The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s portrayal of the horrors committed on a populace in the name of ethnic cleansing left me so shaken I didn’t know what to do. Yes, a movie can do this to you.

Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Broulliard (Night and Fog) managed to open a glimpse into the abyss in his portrayal of Nazi atrocities in barely 30 minutes of running time. Now, Gianfranco Rosi, whose work should be commended for his bravery, presents Notturno. His documentary posits itself as an observer, much in the way of the works of Frederick Wiseman. We never get interviews; we only observe its subjects, some broken, some jailed, some haunted, some hopeful, as they move about through life while the distant sounds of armed conflict pepper the soundtrack.

Threads emerge. Women, entering the prison where their sons were tortured and killed by ISIS. One mother’s pain is so palpable: she mourns the loss of her son, and even attempts, it seems, to absorb her son’s final moments before an untimely death while wondering, “Where was God in all this?” Another boy, Fawaz, narrates to his teacher the atrocities committed by ISIS, his drawing an abstract composition of death and horror. As the camera continues to roll his speech will turn into a stutter as he attempts to vomit forth all that he has witnessed. Another thread depicts a fisherman hunting for food at night while the oil fields burn, lighting up the night as though it were sunset. Yet another shows the Peshmerga female soldiers as they go throughout their days and nights, guarding the fort, conducting night surveillance, or simply watching violent videos on their iPads while others drink tea. Another sequence, still, depicts a mother having to listen to frantic messages left by her daughter who has been captured by ISIS. Most notably, a teen imparts lessons to hunters, but one scene left me wondering if there was something vaguely sexual about the exchange.

One interesting sequence lasts only about five minutes. In it, we see what seems to be ISIS prisoners, all dressed in orange, moving about their cell yard. It is disconcerting, to say the least, knowing the horrors they have inflicted, and how now they’ve been reduced to mere orange figures moving in a manner not un-similar to the laborers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), only to be clumped together into one giant cell in which barely any light filters through.

This is an extremely harrowing movie that I had to view in portions because at times it was a bit much to take in one sitting. Mind you, Notturno is a little over 90 minutes long in length not counting credits. It’s just that to see a nation attempting to live in a weird sense of bruised normalcy under an unforgiving sky while nursing so many scars, so much death and destruction left by a horrendous militant group, was almost a litmus test in endurance. My only complaint with the movie is that while Fawaz’s (and other children’s) stories were necessary to be told, in the long sequence where he is clearly stuttering and spitting his words out as his story becomes more and more frenzied, why did no one break the fourth wall and come to comfort him? It seemed a bit too exploitative.

Notturno won’t be for everyone’s taste and should be approached with a strong stomach and a sense of detachment in order to process it all. It is available on most streaming platforms.

Grade: A–

Rendezvous with French Cinema 2021: Little Girl (Petite Fille)

The Lincoln Center returns with a virtual-only version of its Rendezvous with French Cinema film festival. Now in its 26th year, the film festival shows no sign of slowing down and manages to continually reinvent itself rather than present the same tired Catherine Deneuve/Isabelle Huppert movies that frankly, are just fillers and manage to say nothing new about the language of film. I’ve nothing against either one — I have always admired Huppert and know her to be the better actress — but Deneuve has mostly coasted off of her golden locks and vacuous stares that were the rage in the 60s at the height of her fame. Now she’s been whittled down to spewing out at least a film or three out for the sake of repetitive acting working. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes, it’s like chomping down on some fluff — it’s super-sugary but has no substance. The closest thing she has come to actually deliver a true performance was in last year’s The Truth, which was the film to open the 25th edition of RWFC, and which received a belated release thanks to the pandemic.

This year, if there is a movie to watch it is Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl (Petite Fille). If I’m not wrong, this is the first documentary to open at the French film festival. Lifshitz’s movie focuses on a special character. His subject, the mononymous Sasha, is seven years old, and while she may have been born a boy, she clearly — and openly — affirms herself as a girl. Scratch that — she is a girl, plain and simple. Her mother Karine, while in therapy early on, expresses support that is so open-hearted, so emotional and complete, that it threatens to overshadow Sasha’s own story. Karine partly blames herself for Sasha, a situation that any parent of a gay or transgender child might experience. Wanting a girl so badly, she wonders if perhaps her own intensity of desire may have caused Sasha to come into the world announcing her femininity to French society, which plays a large part of the doc, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Little Girl establishes that Sasha has nothing to fear at home. She is unequivocally supported by her father and two older siblings who practically stand up for her at any chance. [She has a younger brother but he is too young to truly understand the drama unfolding before his eyes and mostly gets relegated to being a toddler.]

The conflict of the documentary arises — or has been brewing, even before the tape has begun to roll — in the outside world. Karine has had to contend with a school system that is shockingly intolerant towards trans rights and who will not accept her as a girl. Yet, this is all Sasha wants, and her tiny face contorts into a frown that suddenly explodes with tears at a therapy session with renowned child psychologist Anne Bargiacchi. It is all that one needs to see to realize the conflicts that Sasha has been put through just because her identity doesn’t line up with her physical genitalia. Place that side-by-side to an earlier scene when Karine informs her therapist that the sheer happiness Sasha displayed when wearing her first dress was incomparable. As a viewer, as someone who is extremely sensitive to the delicate psyche of a child, I couldn’t but be furious with a system based on archaic beliefs. It seems to almost parallel the ones transgender people face here in the US — particularly in more conservative parts of the country.

Karine eventually starts to win her battle against the school, but scars and wounds remain. Sasha’s dance teacher forbids her to wear girl’s clothes simply because “in her country such a thing is illegal.” Karine fears, and is justified in feeling so, that Sasha will encounter hatred in this world and worries she may not be around to protect her when that time comes. In the middle of it, we get the more silent shots which are worth every second of their presence in the film. Sasha, simply existing, dancing to her own rhythm, running on the beach in a peach bathing suit, combing her hair which gets longer during the movie — the only indication of the passing of time. These are the snippets that matter, because they present a little girl completely at bliss in her own body and self. Little Girl, without a doubt, is one of the most delicate, sensitive documentaries to emerge in a long time and I hope that it gets the exposure it should here in the US once it hits theaters (and virtual platforms). We could all learn from Karine, but especially, from Sasha.

Little Girl will have its premiere as one of the seven movies included in the Seattle International Film Festival, Main Selection, on April 8. It will arrive later at theaters and virtual cinema. Date of release TBA.

Grade: A