June 9, 2008

HBO '08 Doc Series Kicks Off

Tonight marks the beginning of HBO's summer-long documentary series: "Life. Changing." A new film will premiere every Monday through August 25th. Inconveniently, I don't subscribe to HBO, but I'm still interested by the insane trailer (opens in a pop-up window) that's been playing before movies at Landmark Theatres over the last couple of months. Here's to hoping that a few of these filter out for public screenings at some point in the future, especially since a number of them have already played at 2008 film festivals like Tribeca and Sundance.

Although I'd probably watch all twelve, my primary interest is in these:

June 9 (tonight):
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
" On March 11, 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with the following counts: furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, committing a lewd or lascivious act on a child, unlawful sexual intercourse, rape by use of drugs, perversion and sodomy. Less than a year later, on February 1, 1978, Polanski drove to LAX, bought a one-way ticket to Europe, and never came back. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired explores the implausible events that took place between these dates, along with details, before and after, that forever altered the life and career of Polanski, one of the world's most acclaimed directors."

June 23:
Hard Times at Douglass High
"Alan and Susan Raymond spent one year filming in Frederick Douglass High School, which has a rich history of successful alumni, including Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Shot in classic cinema verité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, focusing on the brutal inequalities of American minority education, considered an American tragedy by many."

June 30:
Ganja Queen
"Ganja Queen is the harrowing story of Schapelle Corby, a young Australian woman who is accused of international drug trafficking after ten pounds of marijuana are found in one of her bags while on holiday in Bali. Proclaiming her innocence, she finds herself locked in a life-and-death courtroom battle. The film is a chilling reminder of the risks all travelers take when visiting countries with vastly different criminal justice systems and cultural mores."

July 14:
China's Stolen Children " Through the personal stories of several men, women and children whose lives are impacted by the stolen-child black market in China, China's Stolen Children brings viewers face-to-face with a crisis brought on by the controversial one-child policy, implemented in 1979 to slow the country's explosive population growth. As narrator Ben Kingsley explains, "The Chinese government doesn't want the outside world to know about the crisis facing China's children, so this film had to be made entirely undercover. The film crew posed as tourists, moved hotels every three days, and changed SIM cards after every phone call." Remarkably, the subjects all agreed to appear on-camera, although several interviews are held in darkened cars or out-of-the-way locations to avoid detection. The result is a harrowing look at an illegal but largely uncontrollable practice that has reached epidemic proportions."

August 4: Baghdad High
"Baghdad High views the current war in Iraq through the eyes of four Iraqi teens as they enter their senior year of high school. Filmed by the boys themselves, the documentary follows their friendships during the entire academic year and offers unique insight into ordinary adolescent Iraqi lives."

August 11: We Are Together
"We Are Together: The Children of the Agape Choir is the poignant story of 12-year-old Slindile Moya, her siblings and other residents of the Agape Orphanage in South Africa for children who've lost their parents to AIDS. Filmed over three years, the film celebrates the power of song and chronicles the children's remarkable life-changing odyssey as they overcome hardship and loss. Winner of multiple awards, including the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award."

August 25:
The Black List, Vol. 1
"The Black List, Vol. 1 presents dramatic portraits of some of today's most fascinating and influential African-Americans, who share their stories and insights into the struggles, triumphs and joys of black life in the U.S. The film is a collaboration between celebrated portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who directs, and award-winning journalist Elvis Mitchell, who interviews such notables as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sean Combs, Thelma Golden, Lou Gossett, Jr., Bill T. Jones, Vernon Jordan, Toni Morrison, Suzanne-Lori Parks, Richard Parsons, Chris Rock, Al Sharpton, Slash, Faye Wattleton, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Zane."

For those of us who don't have HBO, well, at least there's always the Emmy-Award winning P.O.V. series on PBS, which kicks off on June 24. See the full schedule and check out the trailer on a website that's friendlier and not as flash-heavy and pop-uppy site as HBO's. I'll preview those docs in due time.


  1. Daniel - Thanks for heads-up about this series. I usually just flip randomly through the program listings. I would have been very sorry to miss the Polanski doc.

    That said, I've heard the complaint and share it that documentaries have become nothing but investigative journalism. While there is a great need for this type of coverage as the press, particularly in the U.S., abdicates its 4th Estate role, why can't we get a few more major documentaries on the circuit that are lighter. Mad Hot Ballroom is a great film and one of the only ones I can think of that keeps its "message" in deep background. Why didn't Cinerama Adventure get a release at all? Where are the comedies of the documentary world?

  2. As important as I think so many documentaries are, you won't find me defending all of them as necessary or even worthwhile. Some, of course, can even have the "wrong" effect (but of course they shouldn't have an agenda or "message" anyway because they're documentaries, right?...right...). The Polanski one is probably a doc that skirts the line between an important profile of a unique Hollywood figure and a tabloidesque feature that belongs on the E! channel. I hope it's the former. Maybe you can weigh in if you see it.

    Based on the number of people who avoid documentaries like the ones listed here, I'd agree that we could use some "lighter" stories like Mad Hot Ballroom. Most of what we've seen lately has been about the war, and as much as some people might joke, I wouldn't consider An Inconvenient Truth either light or funny.

    Fortunately we do have some widely released lighter fare this year: Young@Heart, American Teen, and even Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, all of which I think are great, and all of which I think could appeal to a larger-than-usual audience. People came out for March of the Penguins, so...

    I really need to see Cinerama Adventure. Regarding comedy, hmm, Comedian? No, not really.

  3. I hope you can see Cinerama Adventure. I don't even think it's available in DVD. It was a one-shot festival film for me that I would have liked to have seen again.

    I agree that docs are no different from other films--they're not all good or worthwhile for their subject matter.

    I will see the Polanski film, so look for comment on Ferdy.

  4. Wish I was in the US and had HBO.

    Oh well.

    Enjoy it all for me.

  5. I'm looking at the POV schedule and see that Katy Chevigny, who made Deadline, has Election Day on offer. I rewatched Altman's Kansas City yesterday and am now reminded of the last line of dialogue, "One thing I didn't do today is vote."

  6. Well you've just had a good fix of docs, Nick, so that should get you through the summer.

    Marilyn, I only discovered P.O.V. about five years ago, but they continue to showcase some solid work. Some is great, some is just good, but in terms of television programming, well let's just say that's the kind of "reality TV" I can justify watching.

    I did not see Deadline but know that you mentioned it here recently. Election Day looks like another ambitious project - one that could be filmed all over again this historic November.

  7. I definitely want to see Election Day. I agree about POV. I also like a new show called Wide Angle (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/?page_id=10). Of course, Frontline is the granddaddy of them all. Some of the shows from that long-running series are seared into my brain, particularly the one on the Edenton child sex abuse scandal (http://www.current.org/prog/prog711b.html). If you can get your hands on it, I HIGHLY recommend it.

  8. Thanks for the recommendation on Edenton, and yes, Wide Angle is another great series. It doesn't look like they have their schedule up yet. Hopefully it's still healthy. I think it's July-September.

    PBS has it going on when it comes to documentaries. No question.

  9. Great ... just more reasons why I wish I had HBO. Also, it's not even close to being a documentary, but what's the reaction yet to HBO's "Recount", if any? Saw a Charlie Rose interview with the cast & crew that intrigued me about that.

    Thanks for the excellent write-ups here. I enjoyed reading about each one of them, and maybe they will be rentable soon -- I was really happy when HBO's December 2007 Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq made it to NetFlix so quickly.

    I concur with Marilyn that the granddaddy-of-em-all Frontline is consistently amazing and memorable; I have only come to appreciate PBS more and more for that as the years go by, and for PBS generally making their entire canon of best work available for free in HD over-the-air.

  10. Well, I've watched the greater share of the Polanski doc and snore, what a bore! Nothing new in this except that it gives more inside information about Polanski's trial. More sensationalism about the Tate murders. You didn't miss much.

  11. Daniel, you're like a kid in a candy store!

  12. I believe Matthew saw Recount (yep - here), but I don't know how much of a splash it made. I actually kept confusing it with the upcoming Swing Vote starring Kevin Costner. That's true about PBS and HD - they were pretty ahead of the curve, and a lot of their programming lends itself beautifully to high-def.

    Aargh, sorry, Marilyn! Not a good start for the series. Like I said, those are the ones that sometimes belong as a E! True Hollywood Story or something...too bad.

    Well there's the summer blockbusters and there's the summer docs, Craig, and you know I'll see both. Unfortunately they both occasionally have misfires - like Polanski. Insert your favorite Bad Santa line here...

  13. Daniel - I'm not even sure it was a missed opportunity. HBO has already retracted a title card at the end of the film that says Polanski was promised no jail time if he comes back to the United States for a probation hearing. Slipshod stuff, though I did like the interviews with Polanski's attorney and the ADA handling the case. Both are interesting people.

  14. Weird. You'd think they'd know the legal implications before completing the film, but maybe the circumstances just change too quickly. Had he not received attention (and an Oscar win) for The Pianist a few years ago, I wonder if the public interest would be what it is. What a strange way to end a career.

  15. I don't know, Daniel. Depends on how enduring the legacy of Charles Manson is. I remember the murders, but I wonder how many people connect with that time anymore. What do you think?

  16. For someone like myself, who knows almost nothing about the Charles Manson shindigs, I am really interested in that story.

  17. Well Charles Manson is certainly not a pop culture reference as much anymore. The murders were before my time, but I was still familiar with him as a kind of 80's horror icon before Jeffrey Dahmer came along. Now that I think about it, we might be looking at a non-documentary Manson biopic one of these years. Somebody will do it. How Polanski would react to something like that, I don't know, but you're right, Marilyn, that the murders are another piece of history that's followed him.

    It's a pretty disturbing deal, Nick. I would say Zodiac was a successful dramatized version of a similar story. We'll see what happens.

  18. If you're interested, there is the TV movie Helter Skelter, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074621/ based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi. It's available on DVD. I don't remember details of the movie very well, but I do remember how creeped out I was by it.

    There was a remake, also called Helter Skelter in 2004, also a TV movie. I didn't see it, but here's the info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0383393/

  19. Thanks, Marilyn. I've taken a brief look at them. I'm surprised I don't remember hearing much about the '04 version, but then again I never know what to think of TV movies.

    Regarding the Polanski doc, I've somehow run across some positive bits about it here and here. More interestingly, it did have a brief, almost secret theatrical run in LA, which thus qualifies it for an Oscar. I know it's not your favorite source, but at Rotten Tomatoes it's sitting on a 7 review 100%. I'm not saying your impression of it is wrong in any way, I'm just saying that it may not be the last we've heard of it for now. I'm not going to seek it out in any case.

  20. By all means, don't just take my word for it. I have a lot of familiarity with this whole period in Polanski's life. I learned nothing and hated the rehash of his wife's murder. Others younger than I may get some new information about him. Actually, I recommend his autobiography, Roman by Polanski, in which he is more candid than you would imagine about this incident.

    By the way, Polanski is one of my very favorite directors, a real genius. I've seen almost all of his movies and have liked or loved them all.

  21. Hehe, well maybe it's because of your familiarity that I should trust you. If I had an opportunity to watch it I would, but I'm just saying I'm not going to make an extreme effort. As you say, it doesn't appear to provide information that can't be easily found elsewhere - which, as it happens, is partly how I determine the worth of a documentary.

    I have actually not seen two of Polanski's Oscar nods - Rosemary's Baby and Tess, but I kind of want to see Chinatown again.


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