Documentary

Chemsex (2016)

Chemsex is an extremely confronting documentary. It has to be. Directed by William Fairman and Max Gogarty, the film focuses on a subculture embedded in social networking, such as Grindr, that allows men to hook up not only for vanilla sex, but drug-fuelled sex. Admittedly there’s nothing new about the combination of sexual activity and narcotics, whether you’re gay, straight or bi. Chemsex knows this and instead highlights the how easy it can be to go from a gripping one-night thrill, to something much darker.

Fairman and Gogarty, with no narration, follow the lives of several chemsex aficionados as they live and love across the UK. All ages, all different walks of life, they have all been part of the chemsex lifestyle which sadly threatens to consume them whole. On the other side of the coin is David Stuart, a health worker at 56 Dean Street, an outreach centre in London. Stuart doesn’t look upon his patients as good or bad. They’re just people. ‘It’s not binary!’ he points out.

Stuart has seen, as we do through the documentary, how the phenomenon goes from being a cheeky dare to something that chips away at a person, leaving them utterly hollow. Despite insistences from some that they can, as the old cliché goes, quite any time they want, they often find out too late that they can’t.

There will be some who use Chemsex to propagate a myth which reinforces their own problematic ideas of alternative lifestyles. They will see men talk openly and honestly about the pain they put themselves and others through. They will see men exposing their souls to an unjudging eye. They will hear their stories and, despite everything, they will come out the other end sharpening their caustic putdowns and gearing themselves up for their next outpouring of bile, whether online or, sadly, in parliament. What they say will not be the least bit helpful and will simply demonise these people, whilst turning their backs on the good work David Stuart and his colleagues do every single day. Don’t be one of those people. See this with your eyes wide open.

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Harmontown (2014)

Soon after his much publicised firing from NBC in 2013, Dan Harmon, infamous creator of Community, decided to take his podcast, Harmontown, across the country in a series of live shows that see him continually airing his dirty laundry, overthinking and over drinking. Filmmaker Neil Berkeley (Beauty is Embarrassing) was there for the ride and his documentary, also titled Harmontown, paints a somewhat entertainingly light portrait of the tortured artist.

Harmon, for all his neuroses and insecurities, is incredibly media savvy and within five minutes of the film starting, he’s already deconstructing the tropes of documentary making; mock-chastising Berkeley for setting up a scene of him getting in his car by asking the writer to pretend there’s no camera in his vehicle. He’s a performer and unafraid to pull back the curtains on secrets both professionally and personally. His podcast is filled with moments of introspection wherein the bearded artist questions who he is and why he can’t stop his predilection to sabotage himself.

Like Harmon himself, Harmontown never really scratches the surface of what make him who he is. Berkeley’s footage is separated with talking heads from Harmon’s previous employers and colleagues. Sarah Silverman is one of the many to admit that Harmon’s talent is second only to his desire to destroy himself. And it’s this point that is constantly brought to the forefront as we’re exposed to numerous examples of Harmon’s inability to be happy. Whether it be reliving a drunken fight with his partner at the time, Erin McGathy, in front of his audience whilst she stands, frozen, trying to mine some humour out of something she clearly doesn’t find funny, to admitting that he’s struggling to finish off commissioned work in favour of his own podcast.

There’s no denying Harmon’s talent, but Harmontown, at times, feels like it celebrates his inability to pull his head out. Yes, his work has touched the lives of those who attend his shows, but there’s only so long you can support someone who says they have a problem but refuses to do anything about it. It’s probably no surprise that Harmon was a producer on the film as, despite Berkeley’s insistence he had free-reign, we are continually asked to ruffle his hair and say ‘oh you!’

The Harmon hard-core will lap this up but, as documentaries go, Harmontown is the perfect exercise for Community fans in learning to separate the art from the artist.

The Nightmare (2015)

One part horror film to two parts documentary, The Nightmare is the sophomore effort of filmmaker Rodney Ascher. Looking at the subject of sleep paralysis, he interviews several sufferers from the US and UK. Each of them has a tale to tale that interestingly contain similar elements including shadow men, tingling experiences and other hallucinations.

Not content to merely have them recollect their experiences, Ascher performs reconstructions of these events to provide a shared experience for the audience. And this is where The Nightmare lets itself down. Have you ever had to explain a nightmare to a loved one? You try and capture the fear and anxiety you felt. Whilst your friends will nod and tut in an emphatic fashion, you’re never sure they truly understand. That’s what it’s like watching The Nightmare.

We can sit there and go ‘oh I see’ and ‘that’s a shame’, but it means naught. We are no better to understanding these people and what they’re going through. The reconstructions themselves are, unfortunately, rather cheap and so moments of tension sometimes end up being unintentionally amusing.

As a result, The Nightmare is an interesting premise let down considerably by its execution.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw (2015)

In 1994, an elephant by the name of Tyke was due to perform at the Circus International of Honolulu, Hawaii. Instead she trampled and killed her trainer, severely injured her groomer and managed to get out of the arena where the event was being held. From there, she roamed the streets for 30 minutes in clear distress. Pursued by the police, she was shot 86 times before finally dying, propped up against a car, in a novelty hat and surrounded by the gaze of several weeping bystanders. The owner of the elephant, who employed the trainer said that she had never done anything like this before.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw would kindly beg to differ.

Built around a number of talking heads and archival footage, this new documentary follows Tyke from the moment she was taken in Africa to her life in the circus, to her demise. The film’s narrative makes it clear that there were always warning signs. Like 2013’s Blackfish, which focused on SeaWorld’s attitude towards its main attractions, it becomes apparent that she had done things like this before, if not to the violent extent that would see her life being ended. It’s a powerful piece of work which is let down somewhat by the inclusion of the full video that shows not only Tyke’s death, but the brutal crushing of her trainer. Whilst its understandable why the filmmakers included the footage, it unfortunately cheapens the movie and makes it feel voyeuristic.

However, it’s an emotional journey for the viewer and, like others before it, raises issues about animal rights and despite how far we’ve come, how much further we still have to go.

Amy (2015)

Amy Winehouse’s obvious talents were tainted by a media that emphasised her big hair, her rocky relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil and her dependence of drugs and alcohol. The new documentary by Asif Kapadia (Senna) attempts to dissipate this fog of misinformation exposing a fact that can easily be forgiven: Amy was a person.

Through mixture of home videos, talking heads, paparazzi photos and new articles, Kapadia builds up a multimedia picture of Winehouse’s rise fame. Along the way, we see a little girl who never truly grew up when it came to her father, Mitch Winehouse. In the biopic of Amy’s life Mitch would be the bad guy. Faced with her daughter’s crippling addictions, Mitch seems to keep one eye on the ticket sales at all times. He was a man who perchance didn’t always know what his daughter needed.

Whilst there are to be expected moments of heartbreak, Amy throws light on the star who was as quick-witted as she was talented. Someone who didn’t take fools gladly. A particular choice clip sees Winehouse struggling to hide her displeasure as a rambling journo compares her to Dido.

Kapadia falls down though when he dips his toe in the ghoulishness he calls the media out on. Footage of Winehouse’s body being carried out of the house and footage of her funeral seem tasteless when stack against everything else.

Intimate and captivating, Amy is still however a wonderful portrait of someone who should have been given another go of life.

The Search for Weng Weng (2014)

There is a moment when Andrew Leavold, director of The Search for Weng Weng, meets editor and director Edgardo ‘Boy’ Vinarao. As soon as Leavold mentions his documentary and how he is trying to hunt down the diminutive film star Weng Weng. Vinarao in a rather matter of fact manner, says he is dead. Despite suspecting as much, Leavold, off camera, can clearly be heard to deflate. To paraphrase Bart Simpson, ‘If you look closely you can actually pinpoint the exact moment his heart breaks in two.’

For Leavold, this documentary is a love letter to the Filipino star who was born Ernesto de la Cruz, but who will always be known as Weng Weng. He appeared in numerous films with For Y’ur Height Only being his most famous, in which he punch, kicked and kissed as good as James Bond would if he were 2ft 9. Leavold interviews numerous friends and acquaintances to build a picture of Weng Weng’s life behind the camera and honestly, it’s not a pretty picture. Despite seemingly being adored by all he worked with, there’s a suggestion in Leavold’s fact finding that there was an exploitative nature to his work; akin to the freak shows of yore. Indeed, his adoptive parents – who incidentally wrote and directed his films – seems to have acquired an asset rather than a son.

Equal parts fascinating, funny heartbreaking, and a crash course in the history of Filipino cinema, The Search for Weng Weng could easily have been an excuse for pointing fingers and giggling behind hands. In reality, it’s a lovely documentary that will be fascinating, even to those not familiar with his work. Which, we’ll admit is probably a fair few.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

Out there in the cosmos, nestled between fact and fiction, there is a parallel universe where all the films you heard about that never made it to post-production live rich fulfilling lives. Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, Tim Burton’s Superman, Peter Seller’s The Alien. They’re all there. And chief amongst them would be Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. But we don’t live in that parallel universe, we live in someone else’s where Transformers is allowed to have three sequels and a Britain’s Got Talent finalist has their own film… This is indeed the darkest timeline.

So, hallelujah, for Frank Pavich’s documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune; a 90 minute rundown of the passion and energy Jodorowsky put into realizing Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, Dune. The documentary is largely a series of talking heads, with Jodorowsky obviously taking center stage. The 80 something director is on fine form as he talks about adapting a novel that he’d never read with the likes of HR Giger, Chris Foss and Pink Floyd.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn early on in the documentary, talks about Jodorowsky taking him through the story of his vision, using one of the last remaining copies of his storyboards. Refn admits that the adaptation would have been ‘awesome’ and that’s what makes the documentary a little infuriating. In a good way. It offers us peeks of animated storyboards and costumes designs, but it never feels like enough. Cracking open Jodorowsky’s imagination, the spiders of ideas that come running out are innumerable. With everything going on, we wish the film could stay longer than we’re allowed to. What we’re trying to say is, we’re jealous. Like the director of Drive, we want to see it all.

Jodorowsky suggests that maybe one day, someone will adapt his work into an animated film. Maybe they will, but for now we’ll have to settle with this fascinating look at the creative process in all its mind bending glory.