TRUE FILMS, 3

The third installment of really great educational, factual, how-to and documentary films distilled out of the many I’ve recently watched. All of the following films are non-fiction, and they are available as DVDs or tapes. All the films here (with one exception) can be rented from Netflix or bought on Amazon. Let me know of ones I’ve missed. The other true films that have appeared in cool tools so far are archived here.

Note: these reviews and many many more now have their own home at the True Films blog.

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Colonial House

The premise is somewhat familiar now. Take a hopelessly modern family and stick them in the past, as authenticated by historians, and make them live with only the tools and resources available centuries ago. In this case, the modern Americans are sent to live in the summer of 1628, on a forested island off of Maine. Their task: build a new world colony that can both survive and pay back its investors in England. Life is pretty grungy. Two families to a room; no outhouses. This is the third in a series of living history documentaries. The first began with one family living in London in the year 1900 (1900 House, reviewed earlier), then graduated to three families pioneering in Montana in 1883 (Frontier House), and now this one, where 20 people must cooperate to make their new pilgrim colony viable — only with fewer tools. Of the three programs this is the best, in part because of the reality show-like drama and bickering between the colonists. Cameras record every detail as the pudgy newcomers scrounge for food, learn how to farm Indian corn and build with the most rudimentary tools, all the while wearing appropriate clothes, slowly starving, and assuming appropriate roles such as indentured servants with astounding ease. Who knew how easy devolution was? Like the hit TV series Survivor, it’s about how primeval people get when survival is at stake. But unlike Survivor, there’s historical logic, authentic rituals, and significant meaning in their test. Many participants are there to discover the origins of modern ways. As history and education, the series is unparalleled. My kids, both young and teenage, are addicted to this series and its never dull episodes. I think this brilliant method of history telling is the most innovative education going; if I had to choose one series, I’d start with the 8-hour Colonial House.

Colonial House
Director: Nick Brown
2004, 8 episodes
$26
Amazon

Netflix

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Dogtown and Z-Boys

You would not expect a documentary about the slacker origins of skateboarding culture to hold your attention for more than 10 minutes, but Dogtown and Z-boys certainly does. It unleashes a steady stream of surprises, beginning with a small band of juvenile delinquents and outcast school kids who were so downtrodden they were kicked out of good waves in Santa Monica California. They then began to surf dorky skateboards. Soon they were amusing themselves with breaking into vacant backyard swimming pools and “taking on air” with zany skateboard antics and a lot of attitude. How this small-time obsession became an international sport, entertainment and merchandising complex is the rest of this amazing and well-made story. I consider it a key document of contemporary American culture.

Dogtown and Z-Boys
Director: Stacy Peralta
2002, 90 min
$38
Amazon

Netflix

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Rough Science

A very cool BBC series wherein the crafty producers take a bunch of scientists and technicians to a remote location and have them recreate sophisticated tools and inventions using only the primitive materials on hand. Vines, wood, bits of metal, shells. Here: make a clock (with bell), or a device to record sounds, or how about a camera, microscope, soap and sunblock?; or go survey and map the island — using tools of your own construction. You don’t know science until you can roll your own. This 10-part program is highly instructional because you get to see technology reduced to its essence — and because not everything works. The DVDs are expensive; fire up your TiVo to catch them on PBS; another new series begins this fall.

Rough Science
Directed by Sarah Topalian & David Shulman
2002, 90 min
Bullfrog Films
(Ignore the ridiculous price of $890 for the 10-part series DVD on the website; Bullfrog offers an undisclosed “home use” price of $200 for the set or $25 each per tape of 10 or $65 per each of 3 DVDs. 800-543-3764)

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Microcosmos

It begins as a small nod to the insects in your backyard, but soon becomes a wide-opened window into a previously unknown microcosm of insect-dom. How is it possible we’ve never seen this world before with this clarity? With scarce narration this better-than-usual nature film is more poem than documentary. Works for kids. Filmed by the same Frenchman who later did Winged Migrations.

Microcosmos
Director :Claude Nuridsany, Marie Perennou
1996, 80 min
$25
Amazon

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Waco: The Rules of Engagement

This documentary has grown on me. At first I thought it a biased view of a minor argument between a rinky-dink kook and an edgy government agency which doesn’t know how to deal with a messiah. The films reconstructs how in 1993 the US government burnt down (accidentally?) a commune of 74 men, women and children after an insane 2-month long siege. All dead were followers of David Koresh, a cultish pastor of a messianic Christianity, who stupidly, recklessly, selfishly (and criminally) put his entire commune in the line of fire and likely death. Yet it is clear that the childish behavior of the US government as it reacted to a bully was far more reckless, stupid and wrong than Koresh’s. Over time this film didn’t fade away as many activist films do. Rather it has only grown in import as the US has begun to deal with extreme religious believers elsewhere. The events of the standoff and incineration at the church in Waco shows that regardless of who is president, there’s no return from hatred once you demonize the antagonist. This film includes revealing home videos made by the believers trapped inside, new aerial film of the crazy bombardment, and first-hand accounts of terrible misunderstandings. If your government hasn’t enraged you in a while, try this film. Works for both lefties and right-wingers!

Waco: The Rules of Engagement
Director: William Gazecki
1997, 136 min
$20
Amazon

Netflix

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Fog of War

Strictly a talking head — this one of Robert McNamara, considered the chief strategist of the Vietnam War as he recounts his personal history of how the war began. There are many lessons to be had from his belated candor as an insider; the one I took away reflects the title of the documentary: not only was the public kept ignorant of all that was going on, but even the brass in charge did not fully agree on or understand what was happening: thus the fog of war. And 10 other lessons as well.

Fog of War
Director: Errol Morris
2003, 107 min
$9
Amazon

Netflix

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Sing Faster

A quick look at the work of stage hands on the very elaborate set of the epic Wagner Ring Cycle opera. Stage hands are like sailors (all that rigging). These guys seem to date only ballerinas, and they endure long spells of boredom between intense physical coordination. The title of the film comes from their eternal desire to close the last act: “come on, sing faster” they mutter. The best parts of this short peek behind the scenes are the interviews where stage hands give their New Yorker street version of the convoluted plot of the Wagner operas playing endlessly around them.

Sing Faster
Director: Jon Else
1999, 60 min
$15
Amazon

Netflix

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Brother’s Keeper

Four elderly brothers share a dairy farm in the boonies of upper New York state. They are barely smarter than their cows, with some kind of genetic dim-wittedness. Without grooming skills, or reason to care, they soon are left alone in their muddy and filthy shack by their neighbors. Until one of the brothers dies. The older brother is charged with murdering him by suffocation as a mercy killing. There is no evidence — other than two of the brothers’ own confessions to the police. But they retract those soon enough. Kind of. Their intelligence seems to fluctuate by whim. This story is about the subtle degrees of mental illness and what is disability (can run a real farm for 40 years if you are retarded?), and the reach or overreach of law and its cold justice. Mostly you want to know, did the accused brother kill his brother to relieve him of his pain? A honest murder mystery. I liked it because I realized that if I were the cops I would not know what was fair.

Brother’s Keeper
Director: Joe Berlinger
1992, 105 min
$17
Amazon

Netflix

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Silk Road

Even in Marco Polo’s time the Silk Road between Europe and China wove through vast desert wildernesses and sparsely populated steppes. It was a tough and lonely journey then, and unlike most travels in 2004, it still is a journey through grand nothingness. Because it has always been so remote, the ruins of those ancient days lay near our modern touch now. One can still find bits of silk hundreds of years old fluttering in the sand at ruins on the old road. In 1979 the Chinese government and NHK, the Japanese TV station, teamed up to make a well-financed expedition to explore the Silk Road within the Chinese borders, and the resulting documentary remains the best orientation to what remains of that ancient route. The big surprise is the extent of Buddhism in the lands we now imagine as classically Islamic. Think of those Buddhists’ statues in Afghanistan. At times this 12-hour (!) extravagant travelogue plods as slow as a Chinese propaganda movie, and the soundtrack is inexplicably scored by the new age celebrity musician Kitaro, but Central Asia is looming on the horizon as the political hot-spot of this new century, so better get your maps out as the caravan trudges along.

Silk Road
1990, 600 min
$117, 3-disc DVD collection
Amazon (currently wildly expensive)

Netflix

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Bounce

Who are these guys, the beefy ones standing at the gates of nightclubs and discos deciding who gets in? Are they as beautiful as the beautiful people they control? I never tire of seeing what really happens behind the scenes, or of hearing about what really goes into other peoples occupations, and with this documentary I now know more about bouncers than I thought possible. For a bit of drama, there’s an opening at a hot club, so we follow a few wannabees who hope to get the job. I was rooting for the meek giant who lived with his mom. It’s a satisfying journey into a world you often cross but never see.

Bounce: Behind the Velvet Ropes
Director: Steven Cantor
2000, 71 min
$74
Amazon

Netflix