Tag Archives: documentary

Lambs to the Slaughter: Viktor Kossakovskiy’s Gunda

This review contains mild spoilers.

Animals in cinema fall under three categories. First, we have the merely decorative ones — the cute pets that have sometimes grace the screen, sometimes with a tiny part to play. Then we have the more symbolic, or even heroic, in which an animal — usually a dog, or a horse — becomes an emblem for a larger scope if you go for greatness, or the stuffed birds in Psycho which portent not to a greater danger just about to happen, but segue into another film titled The Birds. We could also include, as a third category, the anthropomorphic creatures that since the dawn of animation — drawn and now, computerized — have told their own stories, which dimly reflect the human experience.

What Gunda offers is something completely different, Zoning in ever so slowly to the barn where she lives, we don’t get to see her proper until we are about five or so minutes of an extremely slow zoom-in. Lying on the ground, she seems to be in some pain. We soon realize why. She’s currently in the end phases of giving birth to a dozen little piglets who are already squirming about trying to find her milk-engorged teats to begin feeding. Meanwhile, she lies on the ground, accepting, not really moving, barely making any noise at all. If anything, the only noises come from the piglets themselves, and while at first, they seem to be akin to the cries of newborn babies, later on, they will morph into the cries of hunger, play, and something completely unthinkable.

Gunda remains close to its protagonist, the camera practically right next to her and her piglets as they all move as one body throughout the confines of the barn and then venture out into the farm. Along the way, the omnipresent camera, while tracking her movements, also tracks that of a trio of chickens recently let out of a coop, and focuses on one who is missing a leg. Then the camera tracks Gunda who has approached what seems to be a cow farm. One majestic shot gives these animals a sense of grandiosity only afforded to scenes of horses during a stampede. To see a group of cows emerge and tear through the fields into the woods, sometimes skipping, as their bells clang, is truly an epic experience.

But then, Kossalovskiy’s camera does what little movies do: focus on not just the animal in question but on their faces. While it is possible that some people may wonder what is the purpose for this, it gave me a sense of identification if you will. Watching an animal who seems to be alert, watching me, as it continues to move about, is a bit unsettling, particularly when you realize later where Gunda is headed, and how complicit you are in its own thread.

It slowly becomes apparent that because Gunda transpires within the confines of a farm that these animals, as cute as they are, are completely under the control of their unseen humans. This becomes clear when Gunda herself while venturing a bit too far from her home, comes across an electric fence, We don’t see it; she doesn’t, either, and her squeal of surprise and pain is piercing.

The reality of these animals couldn’t be more present when focusing on the piglets, a thing which Kossalovskiy’s camera does, and often. At first, the suspense hinges on their mother’s enormous body. The babies are so small, so fragile, that one slight movement from her could mean the difference between life and death. Every time the camera, after cavorting with the chickens and cows, returns to Gunda and her babies, they seem to have grown. First, it looks like a week, then months. Suddenly, they have what seem to be personalities all their own. A scene in which two piglets taste the rain with their mouths is something out of magic. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while.

Of course, something indescribably awful cracks the serenity of the entire montage, and then I feel the rug being pulled from under my feet. All this time, a false sense of security has been planted within the meandering narrative. The camera, which has stayed so close to both Gunda but especially her little piglets, continues to do just that, now only delivering a growing sense of shock that is more effective from what we never see but hear. Those squeals from the moment of the piglets’ birth now come with terror, while Gunda can only run — yes, run — after the large tractor that has come. It is a gut-wrenching scene and stands right up there with the scene in Bambi.

This is a deceptive documentary. It arrives enfolded in the black and white beauty of pastoral images, slowly draws you into what seems to be the life of a pig, only to disclose the ugly magician at the center. You will not see anything else like it. I don’t think it will change the world, but at least, it has changed me.

Allen Vs. Farrow

Let me state for the record. I have been a die-hard fan of Woody Allen’s body of work for almost 40 years. I’ve even continued to see his movies after the 1992 scandal broke out. When his Wonder Wheel premiered at the 2017 New York Film Festival, I was basically front and center along with all of New York, ready to view his latest, applause and praise at the ready. Never in my life did I ever expect that one day I would have to re-evaluate my admiration for a man’s body of work, and measure it against his conduct, his morals, and his overall betrayals.

[If this post ever goes viral, let me make it clear that first and foremost this is my view, as objective as I may give it, and I owe no one any apologies or allegiance. I only speak from my own self, after having viewed the HBO documentary — which it must be noted, I had no intentions to see in the first place. After all, I had read several op-eds on both sides of the case and Mia Farrow’s 1997 book. I’d seen the famous 60 Minutes interview well before Diane Keaton coyly suggested that the public do and make up their minds. However, because I am always on the side of the victim until their own actions prove inconsistent and unethical, I decided to listen to the other side of the story, without prejudice and separating the man from his work of art.]

Here is a question. Is it possible that wicked men can do great works of art? Of course, it is. If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today he’d probably be in some hot water following his conduct with Tippi Hedren (which is the only actress to have come out and spoken against his treatment of her during the filming of The Birds). Look at Johnny Depp and his work, and then place that side-by-side with his behavior towards Amber Heard (and the damning texts that, while done in a “jokey” manner, added more fuel to his fire). So many artists with behaviors that are frankly, damning, and downright criminal. Should I continue to support their work or should I close the doors and basically cancel them?

That is a difficult position for anyone to be in. I can’t speak for anyone who’s dead and let’s face it, whatever people engaged in 50, 60, 100 years ago, they were different times. [It’s still inexcusable.] These people are not under the microscope. They don’t have former colleagues of any gender claiming that they were sexually molested. It took Shirley Temple a long time to come forth with her story, and by then, whoever she could have and did name was probably dead a minute, which shielded her from any potential legal issue or attempts of character assassination. Even so, it is difficult — damn near impossible — to point the finger at someone when that same someone can afford the best legal defense money can buy and use their own influence to ruin your name and kill your career. On paper, the entire conflict can reach its satisfying ending in a quick, clean 120 minutes or less. In reality, this can take years and years and leave its participants in tatters If victory arrives at all — most accusers of a sexual crime actually get blamed for it even happening — it comes with a Pyrrhic taint. Resolution may never actually take place at all.

For Dylan, the person most hurt and at the heart of this devastating, unforgivable betrayal of trust, her situation may never be settled. It must have taken an enormous leap of faith just to agree to have outsiders like Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick enter her world and listen to her side of the story. As documentarians who have been on the side of the abused, Ziering and Dick knew this wasn’t just another case, but one that rocked the film world in 1992 and involved high-profile celebrities. 

Side note: I can only wonder what it must have taken for the women who accused Bill Cosby of the monstrosities he inflicted upon them. Or the boys who suffered under Michael Jackson. Corey Feldman has yet to present his own side of the story on Hollywood’s abuse of minors, and any attempt to discuss this topic has resulted in his interviewer (among them, Barbara Walters) victim-shaming him down. “You’re damaging an entire industry!” You can’t bite the apple that feeds you. Especially when the tree providing the apple is already rotten at the core, but never mind that, we have movies to produce and money to make. Youth and the vulnerable are expendable. Look at Judy Garland.

For almost 30 years, the Woody/Mia case has been a kind of restless ghost that just won’t let up. Allen has continued to make movies at a rate of one per year up to 2018 when his Rainy Day in New York was denied distribution over the same allegations stemming from the #Metoo movement and Dylan Farrow’s bold denouncement. Up to that time, Allen managed to successfully paint a picture — through movies and his own words — of an unstable, emotionally violent Mia. For every allegation came his own cold counter which made so much sense because of course, it did. Mia was a woman scorned, of course, she was livid with rage at the fact that her partner of 13 years had left her for another woman.

Dylan tells her story in Allen Vs. Farrow.

As we all know, the other woman wasn’t a rising starlet — which probably would have made more sense and let him off the hook a lot easier had it been that. Many older men leave their partners and wives for younger women. It’s almost a rite of passage. John Derek left Linda Evans for the starlet who became Bo Derek, a woman with a striking similarity to Linda Evans. No, this time, the other woman was Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, and the story, told again with striking, damning details, suggests that Allen hadn’t started seeing/dating Soon-Yi when she was over 18 but potentially, and again, allegedly, before that.

I’m not sure in what universe does this sound normal. Allen, with his already unconventional love stories featuring older men — thinly disguised versions of himself — getting seduced by lolitas, sold this scenario to the movie-going audience. This audience began to accept that Allen’s stories were the norm. Most infamously, Manhattan, the one movie Allen Vs. Farrow touches, introduces us to the winter-summer scenario with Allen and Mariel Hemingway playing romantic partners. In the movie, she’s 17. He’s 42 and already looks creepy as fuck. Hemingway recounts the now well-known story that Allen had wanted to take her to Paris with him — an offer Allen would also make to Dylan on the afternoon of August 1992, when the events that scarred Dylan took place. While that didn’t pan out, it does present a narrative of encroachment upon younger women, complete with false promises.

And the audience kept coming for more May-December romances. It is as he was grooming America and the world itself that yes, romance can happen between a man and a teenage/borderline legal girl. Then again, pop music is rife with songs that sing about 17-year-old girls. When he made Crimes and Misdemeanors, no one batted an eyelash when his character hung out [non-romantically] with a teen girl. No one even bothered to question what it was that Juliette Lewis’ character saw in his own in Husband and Wives, and Lewis’s movie parents seemed only too pleased to observe from a distance. So when he announced his relationship with Soon-Yi, the world only nodded and stated that this, in fact, was the quintessential picture of life imitating art.

When Dylan’s story takes the center stage it only gets more and more disturbing. Mia’s videotaped recordings of Dylan, seven years old at the time, telling her that “he touched my privates… and I don’t like that,” are brutal. Slightly questionable, but they effectively hammer the final nail on the coffin. You try seeing those recorded videos and not feel anything but rage. No child should ever be this naked and unprotected in this world.

It’s for this reason that I’ve come to the conclusion I can no longer affiliate myself with any of the “New Yawk” sensibilities that Allen brought into cinema. I’ve come to terms with the artist and the man, a man who lives in solipsism, who has his own obsessions and will never admit responsibility. The artist presented his work; I saw it, I can throw it in the recycle, and move on. It’s a shame. The man virtually and on his own terms revolutionized the art of visual storytelling. He gave a voice to troubled masculinity, wrote great parts for women, yes. But then you see Dylan as a child. Nowhere is a picture of her happy. When a child runs away from an obsessive parent, it raises eyebrows and should be cause for alarm. However, it wasn’t, and here we are, a family shattered and the ghost of another conflict just around the corner.

As painful as Dylan’s story is, she needs to and must be heard. Too many victims are already bruised and battered beyond help and once they voice their cries to anyone who could listen, they get the ultimate humiliation, the last, final denial. When she first began speaking a few years back I didn’t want to hear it. However, times change, attitudes change, and if I could listen to Allen (and his defenders, of which there are many) proudly talk about the man’s work, I could take a moment and listen to someone who isn’t a part of the PR machine, who isn’t self-serving (no sex-abuse survivor is).

I am glad that I saw Allen Vs. Farrow, that I took the time to do my homework. I researched not the tabloids but the records themselves, the reports on how the investigation brought on by child healthcare workers was botched within every inch of its life, and notes by child psychologists were destroyed even after Dylan had been interviewed nine times, her story never changing one inch. I’m glad to now, even though his own writings, note Allen’s obsession over extremely young girls, and see the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s never the man you think it is, who will come to blow your house down. Allen was and still is the perfect trap. His own work gives his true motives away: almost always, the perpetrator gets away. Justice is a fantasy. Accusers and naysayers find themselves silenced. In Mia’s own words, “A man with no allegiance to the truth… that man is to be feared.”

Allen Vs. Farrow is an eye-opening, and ultimately deeply unsettling documentary that never feels like it is riding on the anguish of a young woman who is still in many ways a bruised girl. We need more people like Ziering and Dick. We need more Dylans to come out and tell their story. Truth has a pesky way of letting itself seen, and sometimes it can take a minute longer than one would prefer. The final and most cathartic sequence of importance shows how the defense attorney, who had a solid case against Allen in 1992, chose not to let Dylan testify because it would have been just too cruel to expose her to the savaging by knowing adults at the ready-to-tear her story to shreds. Yes, it would have been poetic justice, but justice moves in mysterious ways. Allen may have been vindicated then — shallowly so — but time has proven otherwise.

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