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Toronto Gives Docs Their Due

Articles - Directing

Schmoozing at No Dance '99

Humiliated

HUMILIATED

Directed by Jesper Jargil; Denmark

When veteran filmmaker Jesper Jargil was invited by
Lars von Trier to act as Assistant Director on The Idiots, Jargil
agreed on one condition—that he would have permission to shoot
a documentary on the making of The Idiots with complete access and
no restrictions. Von Trier agreed.

The result is an insider’s view of how Denmark’s
wunderkind director works. Nothing is withheld from the viewer,
including von Trier’s innermost thoughts conveyed in his own
words through an audio diary made available to Jargil. In many ways,
the diary is a major organizing principle of the documentary, giving
it a surreal tone.

Independent movie neophytes may need to be brought
up to speed. As they were trying to define what they believed to
be an inner cinematic truth, von Trier (whose movie Breaking the
Waves garnered international acclaim), and another Danish filmmaker,
Thomas Vinterberg (maker of Celebration), created a groundbreaking
manifesto for filmmakers known as “Dogme 95.” In the interest
of revealing truth of character and emotional honesty, the set of
filmmaking parameters they developed includes restrictions on artificial
lighting, no props other than those found on the location, no unjustified
music, only live sound (no mix or dubbing) and completely handheld
camera. Dogme 95 is essentially an attempt to unburden the moviemaking
process and concentrate on the essentials. The Idiots is shot in
this manner on DV, then blown up to 35mm.

The Idiots is a highly controversial dramatic feature
which portrays a group of young Danes who imitate the mentally disabled
in public and amongst themselves in their communal living situation.
While von Trier created a storm of criticism at the Cannes Film
Festival for his reluctance to discuss his motivation for making
the film (which includes a quite realistic orgy scene), Jargil’s
Humiliated gives us insight into the enigmatic director’s reasoning.
“I used to live near an institution for the mentally retarded,”
von Trier tells his actors. The institution was based on the philosophy
of Steiner, who considered Mongols to be angels, “a gift to
mankind.”

The real point may be that as von Trier’s actors
confront real people on streets or in restaurants, it becomes clear
that the mentally disabled are routinely discriminated against,
abused and, yes, humiliated.

Jargil shot his account of von Trier at work with
a Sony VX 1000 (PAL version), the same model camera von Trier used,
under the same principles of Dogme 95. The result of this feature-length
documentary is an intimate and revealing exploration of a very unusual
filmmaking process. Von Trier works with his acting ensemble in
a profoundly personal way, pressing each performer deeper and deeper
into the emotional source of the character portrayed.

Not only does he challenge his cast, he plunges himself
into his own inner questions about why he is making this film even
as he challenges his own emotional integrity. The Humiliated is
as much about self discovery as it is about filmmaking. Von Trier
is infamous for being difficult, bizarre (he is said to hate the
Oscars, destroyed his award from the Cannes Film Festival and insulted
the head of its Jury), and more than a bit paranoid. As Jasper weaves
in and out of von Trier’s audio journal, juxtaposing
the work on “set” with footage from The Idiots,
von Trier tells us he is certain he has cancer. He also refuses
to fly, and exhibits many other eccentricities. On
the other hand, we see that he willingly puts himself in the same
psychic space as his actors, and allows himself to be shot nude
from the waist down (his actors were naked, too, so why not?). If
nothing else, von Trier comes across as committed and sincere; and
Jargil avoids a point of view, being neither critical nor adoring.
The question we are left with is who in fact are the humiliated?
Is it really the disabled? Or is it the actors? The director? Or
could it possibly the audience?

Schmoozing at No Dance '99

My Best Fiend

MY BEST FIEND
(Mein Liebster Feind)

Directed by Werner Herzog; Germany/UK

The innovative and legendary German director Werner
Herzog provides us with a personal reminiscence of his relationship
with one of film history’s most dynamic and expressive actors,
Klaus Kinski. That their love/hate relationship endured the making
of five remarkable films together, including Aguirre, the Wrath
of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, and Woyzeck is something of a miracle.
Herzog, also a noted documentary filmmaker and author, seems to
strive for his own understanding as well as getting in the last
word on Kinski, who died in 1991. He and Kinski accused one another
of being mad, and periodically threatened to kill each other.

Herzog has a passion for ethnological films as well
as features and has chosen to shoot in wild and remote locations
with aboriginal people as cast members. In My Best Fiend, Herzog
takes us back to the jungles of Peru to revisit the site where Aguirre
was shot in order to recount a story about Kinski. It seems that
Kinski erupted into one of his characteristic tantrums and threatened
to leave the set. “I told him I had a rifle,” Herzog recounts,
“and he would only make it to the next bend in the river before
he had eight bullets in his head … the last would be for me.”
Kinski stayed, and as we see from the generous clips of their films
together, to brilliant effect.

Herzog tells us that Kinski would be so maniacal he
sometimes attacked the extras; that “the Indians even offered
to kill Kinski for me.” And at the same time Herzog shows us
a gentle and compassionate side to Kinski. In footage never before
seen when they made Fitzcarraldo, Kinski is seen administering first
aid to Indians who were injured in a terrible accident when Herzog’s
ship broke loose from its cables as it was being pulled over the
mountain to the next body of water.

This personal documentary is spellbinding throughout,
particularly when Herzog gives us the inside view of how Kinski
worked. He recounts how Kinski used his dramatic facial expressions
in what has become known as “The Kinski Spiral.” He twists
his body around the tripod like a snake and slowly uncoils himself
with the camera panning with him in close-up profile, all while
standing on a small platform 120 feet in the air atop a tree in
the jungle! These two are clearly obsessed with cinema aesthetics,
the likes of which may never be seen again.

“Klaus said I was crazy, but it wasn’t true,”
Herzog says, adding, “of course, I did try to burn his house
down once.”

Schmoozing at No Dance '99

Mr. Death

MR. DEATH: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter,
Jr.

Directed by Errol Morris; USA

Errol Morris’s documentaries (Thin Blue Line
and A Brief History of Time among them) display a unique visual
style and lead us into a world of remarkable people. In this case
we are drawn into the life of a real oddity of Americana, a self-taught
and self-promoting “execution technologist.” It is hard
to believe that we are witnessing an autobiography of an authentic
human being. Once again Morris proves that truth is stranger than
fiction.

Leuchter traces his “career development”
as an expert on “humane killing” by explaining the inadequacies
of the traditional electric chair used by many states on capital
offenders. A third of the way into the film even the most hardened
capital punishment proponents must be disgusted with the procedure
as Morris lets Leuchter explain in cold terms the inadequacies of
these killing machines… barbecued flesh, tops of heads exploding,
electrocutions that have to be repeated several times to render
a person dead.

Leuchter has been hired to redesign various states’
electric chairs and has even invented his own. He has also been
hired to repair and redesign gallows, lethal injection systems and
gas chambers, and he asks candidly, “Why they should think
I know anything about gas chambers, just because I know about electric
chairs is beyond me… but I take the jobs none-the-less.”
Leuchter so

Schmoozing at No Dance '99

Mr. Death

on developed a reputation as the executioners’
best friend. The audience is somewhat relieved to know that if these
executions are taking place, then at least they are being done “properly.”
It’s at this point when we begin to wonder “Why has Morris
made this film, and why am I watching it?”

Then Morris’s film takes a new direction. Leuchter
was contacted, we learn, by the infamous Canadian Holocaust
denier Ernst Zundel to prove that Auschwitz was merely a labor
camp and that the chambers there never contained any gas. Leuchter
turned over to Morris his self-made video that traces his steps
as he clandestinely chips away at the walls of Auschwitz, taking
samples that are to be tested for cyanide residue. As we see, in
disgust, this geekish man prove himself to be more of a stooge than
a scientist, it becomes clear that Leuchter is obsessed with his
own ego, not the truth. His “Leuchter Report” becomes
the bible for Neo-Nazis the world over. Even after the testing laboratory
totally
discounts his methods of “sampling,” Leuchter refuses
to recant his position that there were no gassings at Auschwitz.
Although Leuchter is not the ideologue that his employer
Zundel is, Morris’s film (indeed, even the willing cooperation of Leuchter
himself) illustrates how ego attachment, being “right”
at any cost, is more important to some than being
able to own up to one’s errors.

Morris says, “It is a mystery to me that Fred could entertain these beliefs
and hold on to them. That’s the mystery of the
movie. Fred, it seems to me, was overwhelmed
by his desire to play a role on the stage of history.
Most documentaries,” Morris says, “purport to
give you an objective point of view. My films are explorations of
subjective elements…. how someone sees himself. I made this film
to explore why he did what he did. I find it interesting to look
at why and how people can persist in denying what is absolutely
proven…. how they can become obsessed.”

THE JAUNDICED EYE

Directed by Nonny de la Peña; USA

Produced by Amy Sommer Gifford and
Dan Gifford of the highly acclaimed Waco, the Rules of Engagement,
The Jaundiced Eye traces the story of two men, Stephen and his father
Melvin Matthews, wrongfully convicted of the sexual abuse of Stephen’s
son and their 10-year effort to vindicate themselves.

Although there was no physical evidence, the men were
convicted on the basis of testimony from Stephen’s ex-wife,
her current homophobic husband, and the boy himself. In the course
of the film we see how a child can be led to false recollections
of events after a series of leading interrogations by social workers
and law enforcement personnel. Here, too, we see a sub-text of the
dominance of belief over evidence. The Midwestern jury rendered
a guilty verdict, based in part on Stephen’s gay orientation.

Having spent years in prison, Stephen finally discovered
a key piece of evidence… the tests used to prove the boy had chlamydia
were used incorrectly and were proved to be erroneous. This gained
the Matthews a new trial and eventually the charges were dropped,
but not before several lives were ruined.

This well-made, compelling documentary exemplifies
a trend in current American jurisprudence to consider the accused
“guilty until proven innocent” instead of “innocent
until proven guilty.” MM

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