Posts Tagged documentary

Chosen: Custody of the Eyes

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Abbie Reese.

One of my favorite memories from my years as a Catholic homeschooled child was the time another family organized a field trip for five homeschooling families to visit a local Benedictine abbey, where we got to spend the day with the cloistered nuns, helping them with their work and attending two of their daily prayers. Some of the kids got to work in the garden, others make butter, some did carpentry. My sister, myself, and one other child got to milk cows. It was a fun day participating in a life that most people don’t get to see.

With a quietly observant camera, director Abbie Reese achieves a similar participation in the life of a Poor Clares community as she documents the novitiate process of Sister Amata over the course of several years. This convent is more cloistered thanthe convent I visited almost twenty years ago, at least as I remember it. The Poor Clares here maintain a spirit of silence, which I don’t remember the Benedictine nuns doing. However, the serenity and joviality of the nuns and their willingness to work with Abbie is nearly identical to the reception we received. In the film, we witness daily chores such as leaf raking, gardening, shoveling snow, and making communion wafers, and we are able to remotely participate in the nuns’ recitation of the rosary and the liturgy of the hours.

The nearest point of comparison is the 2005 documentary about the daily lives of Carthusian monks, Into Great Silence. One main difference between that film and Chosen: Custody of the Eyes is the degree of intimacy with which we can observe the monastic life. Chosen documents the daily routines of the convent through the quite literal perspective of Sister Amata.

Working as the primary cinematographer, the young novitiate used a handheld camera to record her daily activities, providing a journalistic commentary on her spiritual growth and her adapting to life in the convent. If this sounds like a recipe for a cheesy, poorly filmed documentary, it’s not. Sister Amata has an incredible talent for focusing a shot, properly angling the camera, and capturing some beautiful and delightful imagery. She finds a natural way to film the nuns while preserving the anonymity many of them desire.

One thing that Sister Amata mentions is learning the routines of the monastery. In a very early scene she discusses maintaining custody of her eyes while trying to unobtrusively observe the gestures and movements of the other nuns so she can learn from them. She explains staring at anyone would make them the object of one’s attention when sole focus of the nuns’ life of prayer should be God.

Throughout the film Reese, through Sister Amata’s cinematography, employs a similar custody of the camera inviting contemplation on the part of the viewer. With the exception of Sister Amata, we don’t get to know any of the nuns as characters, especially as they are rarely the focus within each scene. Yet, there is still a connection we feel with them from observing their interactions alongside them, and the focus on daily tasks, ritual, and prayer—the actions of the nuns—makes the convent life seem more immediate.

One of the earliest documentaries, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, makes a strong connection between the ideas that the eye is the window to the soul and a camera can be a window to the world. In this documentary, we are given a brief window into a cloistered convent, and it becomes both a record of one woman’s progression through her novitiate and an opportunity for us to reflect on a way of life of which most people are unaware.

Personal Recommendation: A-


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Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Year of release: 2018.     Directed by Wim Wenders.

A narrative voice over (from director Wim Wenders) laments the state of the world: increasing numbers of people are starving and homeless, pollution continues to cause irreversible damage to the environment, injustices abound over the entire face of the globe. The direness of these proclamations is contrasted with a beautiful long distance shot of an Italian city, which one might assume is Rome. However, it is Assisi, the home of St. Francis, from whom our current pontiff took his name.

Wenders continues, praising the revolutionary way St. Francis confronted the injustices of his day. By adopting a life of extreme poverty and prayer he did not fight against the corruption of wealth and power, but instead led a peaceful rebellion, witnessing to the joy that comes from embracing poverty and seeing Christ in all of creation.

Brief interludes performed by a trio of actors playing St. Francis and two of his followers are scattered throughout the film, and they depict that joy and simplicity, which is reinforced by Wenders’ decision to film the interludes in a grainy, old school black and white full frame. Among other incidents from the life of St. Francis, Wenders focuses on St. Francis composing his Canticle to the Sun and meeting with the Egyptian Sultan during the Crusades to ask for peace, arguing these are some of the ways St. Francis fulfilled Christ’s command from the crucifix to “rebuild my Church.”

After the first interlude, Wenders cuts to a 1999 address from Bishop Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, in which Bergoglio calls for charity and solidarity among all Christians, which Wenders is clearly stating to be not dissimilar from St. Francis’ way of life. Thus, when the next scene shows Bergoglio becoming Pope and choosing the name Francis, the remainder of the film becomes a series of examples of the various countercultural ways that Pope Francis lives out the Gospel in his personal life, like his namesake did eight hundred years ago.

The first half of the film has a natural flow from one event to another, for which Wenders should be commended. We see Pope Francis give interviews to children, to the camera, to crowds, and to reporters calling for us all to be less attached to possessions, decrying the rampant consumerism that engulfs the world, and affirming the dignity of a work, which is something we are all called to do. A tracking shot through a parade concludes this half of the film with a touching exchange between the pope and a nun.

The second half of the film tackles more topics, sometimes jumping around to different ones in ways that don’t always flow. However, Wenders spends enough time focusing on Francis’ own words that we can see his beliefs and his explanations for how all these issues are interrelated in a sort of seamless garment: care of the environment, welcoming of refugees, defense of the innocent, condemning unhealthy consumerism – failing any one betrays a worldview which devalues the poorest and most vulnerable.

An extended segment focuses on the plight of refugees and immigrants around the world. The pope’s call to recognize refugees as the image of Christ comes as welcome rebuttal to the current USA administration’s assault upon immigrants, especially for any Catholics who are physically ill from watching supposed fellow believers defend such monstrosities. Wenders clearly intends for Francis’ words to be taken this way, not only from the location of the refugees he films, but also when he follows this part a few minutes later with Francis’ 2015 address to a joint session of Congress, focusing on his condemnation of the plunder of the environment and calling for an end to the production and sale of weapons.

In addition to the top-notch production values, Wenders greatest strength is his focus on Pope Francis and Francis’ own words, clearly portraying him as a man who lives and leads by example. It’s a bit of a pity Wenders did not include Francis’ recent apology for his callous response to the Chilean abuse scandal or any other example of the pope repenting and seeking forgiveness for his shortcomings, but in fairness to Wenders, that may have happened after post-production concluded, and his focus is on the similarities between the two Francises, and the ways they were both committed to living the Gospel.

A final flourish merges the St. Francis of Assisi timeline with today in a particularly impressive and touching way, concluding a parallel between two teachers of the Church, almost a millennium apart, who were both men of their word.


Personal recommendation: A-


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Making the Grade

Many thanks to Ken Morefield for offering me the opportunity to review this delightful documentary about piano teaching in Ireland.

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(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies

A riveting documentary about lying, why we lie, and how much we lie that is thus far my favorite film of 2015.

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Night and Fog

Year of Release: 1955     Directed by Alain Resnais.            Narrated by Michel Bouquet.

The following statement is in no way meant to be a slight towards Schindler’s List.  I think Spielberg’s epic film is a masterpiece that deserves the acclaim it receives.  But Night and Fog, a short French documentary made ten years after the Nazi concentration camps were shut down, achieves the same level of pathos and horror in its mere thirty-minute runtime that Schindler’s List achieves in just over three hours.  Again, I am not belittling Schindler’s List; I am trying to emphasize the incredible power of Night and Fog.

The film is comprised of a trip to the remains of the concentration camps in 1955, shortly after they first opened for public viewing.  Intercut with the present day color shots of the camp are black and white photos of actual inmates as well as some archived footage of the atrocities.  As the viewer sees what the camps looked like during the time of the filming, the film cuts to photos of the same location when the camps were in use.

Adding to the power of Night and Fog, the film does not focus on any specific concentration camp, but uses footage from several and mentions the most infamous ones by name.  The narrator draws the viewer’s attention to the barrenness of the current landscape: the patchy fields of grass, crumbling buildings that look like the ruins of a once flourishing city.  The film then shows the “cities” at the peak of their functions.

The entire film follows this pattern of shifting between present day and the past with efficacy.  As the camera slowly pans along the weed-covered train tracks leading to the camp, the film shifts to footage of a train arriving at a concentration camp, full of prisoners unaware of the upcoming horrors.  A shot of the cramped, wooden sleeping barracks, which would be uncomfortable for one person, is followed by pictures of three or more prisoners crowded onto one cot.  The narration draws the viewer’s attention to the significance of the crumbling and damaged remains before cutting to the tragic photos and recorded films.

All the images, both past and present, are connected by a haunting score by Hanns Eisler.  The music is driven by an uneven percussive beat and often is interrupted before cadences, suggesting the terrible nature of the camps.  With its shifting modes and highly textural form, Eisler’s score bears resemblance to Messiaen and Stravinsky, two composers who were affected by the horrors of World War II.

Night and Fog highlights the ignorance and blind following of orders that allowed the atrocities of the concentration camps to occur.  The places were built simply as one more workplace and living quarters.  Even some of the victims contributed to their construction.  When people walk among the ruins now, they often pose for postcard pictures, not realizing what happened behind those walls.  Night and Fog shines a light through that darkness.  It is one of those rare films that remains as unforgettable as the tragic events it depicts.


Content Advisory: Many gruesome and nude photos of concentration camp victims, explicit references to methods of torture.                                Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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