A look at the life and death of Amy Winehouse, who started out as a rising pop star who brought Jazz and blues back into the pop charts to a drug addicted celebrity who consumed her way into the 27 club (a group of rock legends who died at the age of 27).
Through a collection of home movies, media footage and testimonials from friends and family members, we get to know the woman behind the spotlight. First we get a glimpse into her childhood in a very musical family of London. In early interviews, Amy confessed she never thought of herself as a singer. Singing was just something she did for fun.
But as the Joker would say “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” So she formed a band and toured across England. Of course, it would lead to her recording of her groundbreaking album Back in Black. We get to see her pour her heart out during song recordings.
Of course, with fame came her self-destructive turn to drugs and her early death. The most painful scene is when Winehouse breaks down during a comeback concert. We see lots of clips of media coverage throughout the second half of the film. Director Asif Kapadia makes us see this coverage from Amy’s point of view, showing the humiliation that could possibly aggravate her addiction. You can only imagine what Amy must have felt seeing these.
Family members accused the film of misrepresenting Winehouse’s’ life, especially Winehouse’s father Mitch Winehouse. That may be because the film holds Amy’s father and her boyfriend responsible for Amy’s self-destruction, putting too much pressure on her.
This documentary looks at the lives of two vigilante groups determined to take down the drug cartel, one on each end of the US-Mexico border. On the US side of the border is Tim “Nailer” Foley, the head of the Arizona Border Recon, a militia group who watch over a 52-mile desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley. On the Mexican side of the border is Dr. Jose “El Doctor” Mireles, the leader of the Autodefensas, a group of armed local working to drive drug cartels out of their city.
Before we meet these two, we first meet a cartel as it makes and transports Crystal Meth. In a parallel to Breaking Bad, they were taught by an American chemistry teacher to make their meth. Though all of them wear masks, members talk about their lives in poverty, being forced into this business by terrible circumstance. “If we pay attention to our hearts” says one dealer “Then we will get screwed.” Albeit, he could be making excuses for his business, but when you consider the poverty in Mexico, it’s not too hard to believe.
Arizona Border Recon is one of many militia groups spreading throughout the country. Nailer and his crew drive across the border, trying to guard the country from the drug cartel. You pretty much take Nailer’s words with a grain of salt. It’s a major red flag when a group takes Fox News at face value. Not helping is when one of his members compares different races living together to two pit bulls in a cage. Besides it being incredibly racist, there’s as much of a chance of the two dogs getting along as there is they won’t. Nailer claims he doesn’t care about his teams views, but he probably should.
Despite this, director Matthew Heineman allows Nailer to debate for his side. He talks about his abuse at the hands of his father, his escape from that life and his search for new meaning. He does have severe paranoia of the Government, but his words seem rational compared to most militias. He admitted he started the group to target illegal immigrants, but when he realized the Cartel runs human trafficking alongside drug cartel, so Nailer decided to target drug cartels. You don’t necessarily agree with him, but you can understand where he’s coming from.
But the real star of the film is El Doctor. Starting out as a physician (an occupation he holds on to), El Doctor is a leader of a small group vigilantes fed up with drug cartels taking over the town. Also fed up are many villagers, who join the growing Autodefensas as they liberate one town after another. But the group faces two dilemmas. The first is when El Doctor ends up in the hospital from either an attack or an accident. The leadership goes to his second in command “Papa Smurf”. The second is when the Government demands the group turn in their weapons and register as legitimate authorities. Half of them want to join, but El Doctor suspects this is a divide and conquer tactic.
Again, you take Autodefensas’ words with a grain of salt. The film does acknowledge not everyone agrees with their methods. In one scene, Papa Smurf faces tons of criticism from locals. El Doctor considers methods to reign in members abusing their power, which we see come in the form of torture. And in the last scene, a revelation proves El Doctor has good reason to be paranoid of both the authorities and his own members.
You might remember previous Oscar Nominated documentary The Act of Killing, a cringe inducing documentary in which director Joshua Oppenheimer asks members of Indonesia’s death squads to reenact the killings of 1965-66 in the style of their favourite movies. These people are the most repulsive people you will ever see, taking great pride in their slaughter. Even more sick is how the country celebrates these cold blooded killers. It is only after making the film that the horror of his actions sinks in for one member, vomiting on the floor in the end. It perfectly captures the banality of evil. In the Look of Silence, Oppenheimer turns the camera around to focus on the families of the victims. At the center of the film is probably one of the bravest men ever put in a documentary and he is neither a soldier nor an activist. He’s just an optometrist looking for answers.
You can tell there’s still an environment of fear in the country with many crewmembers labeled anonymous in the end credits. The optometrist is one of them. His brother was one of the victims of Indonesia’s purge of “communists” in 1965. After watching clips of one of the members describing his brother’s killing, our hero decides to confront the killers.
These killers are now old and frail. Since many of them need glasses, our hero seizes upon the opportunity to face the killers. With each meeting, he fits each patient for glasses before him subtly questioning the patient on the killings. Our hero interrogates them in the lowest key manner possible. He’s not trying to be a hero. He’s not trying to make a statement. He’s just looking for any sign of remorse from them. Sadly, none of them show any sign of guilt for their actions. One of them even admits to drinking the blood of his victims to keep the spirits from driving him insane. What’s frightening is how casual he is about it.
The glasses seem to symbolize the country’s blindness to its own atrocities. As the optometrist, our hero’s trying to make them see their own evil. Not helping is the country itself, which refuses to own up to what they did. We see our hero’s son class, where he’s being indoctrinated by painfully obvious propaganda celebrating the purge. Our hero has to set his son straight on the atrocities. In a world as evil as this, positive change must be made in the most subtle way. Let’s hope our hero gets out of this safely.
And now we have another documentary about a groundbreaking Jazz singer. Unlike Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone lived a long life, though it wasn’t always happy.
Like Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone uses a combination of live footage, home movies and audio recordings from Simone herself to tell her life story, from her childhood as the child of a preacher and a piano protégée, to her early work playing at an Atlantic City nightclub to her albums to her social activism.
We see her start in childhood playing for churches. We find her playing in an Atlantic City nightclub, where she donned her stage name to not upset her religious mother. We hear her begin hear early albums playing a combination of Jazz and pop music. With the civil rights movement, we hear her perform activist songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Old Jim Crow”. Then we find her travel across the world, refusing to pay taxes in protest to the Vietnam War. The film’s worth watching just to see the Simone’s live performance.
While drugs undid most celebrities, what proved a challenge was Simone’s notoriously bad temper. One time, she fired a gun at a record executive, thinking he was stealing her royalties. She once shot a neighbor’s son because she broke his concentration. She allegedly preferred violent revolt as opposed to Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience. Despite her reputation, the documentary still portrays her as a complicated and passionate human being unafraid to fight for what she believes in.
And last but not least is Netflix’s look at a student protest in the Ukraine. Through a collection of news footage and home movies, we witness a street go from a peaceful protest to a violent confrontation between students and the police.
This all started when then Ukraine President Viktor F. Yanukovich went behind the countries back to make a trade deal with Russia. The people want the country to be a part of the European Union, but the pro-Russian President prefers to side with Putin.
So a fed up group of students went to the Maidan to stage a peaceful protest. Over the course of a day, it grows to thousands. But then the armed police show up and savagely beat the protesters bloody. Over the course of 93 days, we see the protest movement grow and the police sink to the levels of kidnappings and sniper fire.
The footage of protesters beatings is horrifying. In one scene, police take turns beating a man while he’s running. In the process, they expose the corruption of the Government as people demand to know how they could do this to their own people. As we see live footage of a preacher shot and a man killed providing aid to wounded protesters. You know you’re in trouble when the most successful lawyers are throwing rocks at the cops.
We also see the strength of the people. Even when a man is stripped naked in the freezing cold, he maintains his dignity. When people are banned from wearing helmets, protesters come with pans on their heads and ninja turtle masks. We get a few interviews from a few protesters and witnesses. The most notable are a volunteer nurse to a 12 year old kid. The nurse recalls having a panic attack helping so many bloody victims. The 12 year old goes from being a troublemaker wanting to skip school to a crusader standing for something bigger than him.
But the real star of the film is the story itself. Director Evgeny Afineevsky lets the story footage speak for itself and lets the audience take in the action.
Who Will Win?
If it were up to me, this film would go to The Look of Silence. Usually we judge a documentary based on its subject matter than for its deliver. There is bonus points if the documentary makes a major impact on the world. In this case, it’s a combination of both subject matter and delivery. For this film, we look at the willful blindness of a country to its own evil. They live under the misguided idea of peace, when in reality, they are living in quiet boiling pot that will implode on itself. Director Oppenheimer finds a way to add symbolism, using glasses to symbolize said blindness. Though the death squad are now old and many senile, some of them are still in power, which makes this all the scarier.
But after looking at awards considerations and multiple wins, I’m going to say the awards’ going to Amy. This one will win more for delivery. Somehow, it makes us view the media from the point of view of a famous person.