ALL THAT BREATHES
I have been inconsistent with Doc Corner this year. Various reasons including (finally) a year outside of lockdowns, day jobs, and — as of recently — a need to prioritize movies so that I could submit my Golden Globes ballot. Now that that is done, back to normal. For now, a bit of catch-up. Using the recently announced list of 144 eligible docs, let’s look at a few titles The Film Experience has missed full reviews on. Beginning on the rooftops of New Delhi, to a humble balcony in Poland, and a village high in the Vietnamese mountains—All That Breaths, The Balcony Movie and Children of the Mist…
Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes is a movie that has been winning awards just about everywhere it goes including Sundance and Cannes (the first to ever win that particular double) and I think a rock solid frontrunner for an Oscar nomination. And it’s not hard to see why. It’s charming, beautifully shot, and makes characters out of creatures in a city of millions. It also follows a trend of successful documentaries from Indie including 2021 nominee Writing with Fire.
Sen’s film follows a DIY animal conservation set-up of Nadeem Shehzad, Mohammad Saud and Salik Rehman (and the wives and children who help). It is a makeshift veterinarian office that treats and nurses back to health the city’s population of black kites and other birds of prey. While many see it as unnecessary, particularly the lengths they go to at times to retrieve specimen that would otherwise be left to die in the wild, the birds’ ecological importance comes into stark clarity as populations diminish and trash and waste accumulates.
The first thing that will likely strike any viewer is Ben Bernhard’s camerawork, a real feat of image composition. Although stunning to look at, and in some moments a marvel to even conceive of such images, it is self-consciously so. While I was particularly taken by its recurring tableaus of nature found within the tangle of wires and concrete that make up the streets of New Delhi, at other times they distract from the core drama. Despite this, Sen manages to capture the humbleness of its subjects and turn that into something compelling. It is clearly reaching for something grand, which is something to admire. Although ultimately its greatest achievement may be making us fall so deeply for Salik and his poor, unfortunate glasses (if you know you know!).
Awards chances: Definitely. It’s a real contender for a nomination as well as the win.
Release: Currently in limited theatrical release
Paweł Łoziński’s The Balcony Movie (Film balkonowy) is a film that has no such visual finesse, preferring instead to keep its camera fixed firmly on a small stretch of suburban street as a camera sits observing those who walk by the director’s own window. As the seasons change over 165 days, he wires up sound and stops passersbys to speak, inquire and “find the hero of his story.” You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a joke premise for a European art documentary at a festival, but I assure you it is entirely real.
This is a film that requires patience, something that I struggled with as Łoziński’s poor interview technique delivered fairly uninspiring footage in its early passages of people walking their dog or carting their groceries home. The filmmaker, a prolific Polish documentarian, does strike occasionally upon gold—more so as it goes along; spectators who offer thought-provoking vox pops, or those who engage with Łoziński in more expansive ways. In a peculiar sort of way, the film offers a unique look at contemporary Poland absent the more rigid formalities of narrative, and in its process, goes some way to demystifying the documentary process. But it is an experimentation that ends with about as much grasp of what it wanted to be as it had at the start, and that can result in a frustratingly literal film of a man sitting at his window talking to strangers.
Awards chances: Well received in Europe, including a European Film Award nomination, but I can’t see it translating to an Oscar nomination.
Release: Currently streaming on Mubi.
Children of the Mist (Những đứa trẻ trong sương) is the remarkable debut feature by Hà Lệ Diễm. A real knockout of a surprise when I saw this on the big screen at a local film festival, further evidence of South East Asia as one of the most important regions for non-fiction. Here, tradition of the Hmong people is balanced with a contemporary cinematic outlook, told with an economy of runtime yet no shortage of indelible images and ideas.
This is another film of such aching beauty, placed ever so uncomfortably close to heartbreaking sadness and emotional pain. Hà (just 31 years old!) gets the maximum out of its stunning locations and from her central figure, 12-year-old Di. That juxtaposition between the tragedy of its storyline—alcoholism, abuse, forced ‘kidnapping’ marriages between children and teenagers—and the sublime images shot in the Vietnam north-eastern highlands allows for a friction that works to the movie’s advantage. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, the director herself becomes part of the drama as Di begs and pleads for her help as she is dragged away, opening up the movie to a new lens that many documentaries only flirt with. It’s one of my top docs of the year.