In our second roundup of reviews coming out of Sundance, we’ll take a look at THE HOUSE I LIVE IN; THE LAW IN THESE PARTS; and THE IMPOSTER. But first we wanted to point out the running diary of BBC Storyville editor Nick Fraser’s Sundance experience at Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. Fraser during a panel discussion spoke on whether docs are able to change the world. “I say they don’t, or rarely, and probably only in ways we can’t measure, though that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t want them to do so,” he writes.
Eugene Jarecki’s THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, a look at the wide-ranging effects of the U.S.’s failed War on Drugs, impressed Sundance jurors enough to take home the festival’s documentary grand jury prize.
Writing for The Hollywood reporter, John DeFore said the film balances “big-picture stats with personal perspectives, it should connect solidly with viewers at a moment when it seems possible to change public attitudes.”
Working methodically, Jarecki’s nearly two-hour film views the war from a number of perspectives too great to summarize here. Crucially, while he speaks to academics who have long argued for drug-law reform, he also goes to those most directly involved in enforcing the laws: a U.S. District Court judge in Iowa, an Oklahoma corrections officer who’s an avowed law-and-order man; numerous narcotics officers. They tell him variations of the same thing: Our laws aren’t working to decrease drug use; we’re putting too many people away for too long and doing too much harm to their families.
At Variety, Peter Debruge described the doc as “a ballsy mix of interviews and editorializing that’s daring enough to question a costly crackdown that has long had the public’s support.”
Though the film’s entire ride is eye-opening and angry-making, late in the argument Jarecki returns to his earlier Holocaust comparison. It’s a loaded analogy and one that any rhetorically savvy viewer would be inclined to dismiss. But star interview subjects David Simon (producer of “The Wire”) and historian Richard Lawrence Miller summarize the case for which Jarecki has spent the previous 100 minutes building evidence. In brief, drug laws have been engineered to identify and ostracize certain minority groups, after which authorities use these codes to confiscate the property and deny the rights of targeted individuals, removing them from society and concentrating them behind bars.
Mahnola Dargis of The New York Times said Jarecki shared with INSIDE JOB director Charles Ferguson a “methodological gift for transforming boatloads of information into both political arguments and eminently watchable narratives.”
Among the movie’s fiercest, most persuasive talking heads is the blunt-talking David Simon, the former journalist turned television auteur of “The Wire,” that brilliant, densely layered inquiry into some of the institutional stakes of the drug war. Mr. Jarecki could use some of that directness in his documentary’s voiceover. However well-intentioned and earnest an attempt at universality (he registers as a nice white guy trying to figure it all out), Mr. Jarecki’s decision to weave himself into the narrative initially comes across as ill-advised and close to self-flattering. Particularly cumbersome are his intermittent questions – he does a lot of wondering aloud – a rhetorical strategy that needlessly implies a level of naïveté that Mr. Jarecki’s strong, persuasive moviemaking finally demolishes.
Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz took home the world documentary jury prize for THE LAW IN THESE PARTS, a film about the military justice system imposed by Israel in the Occupied Territories, and its tenuous relationship with Israel’s democracy.
Robert Koehler at Variety said Alexandrowicz “places judges and attorneys on the cinematic witness stand to explain Israel’s contorted 45-year-old military legal structure governing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories,” and “finds these minds stumped by a system they’ve professionally defended.”
Alexandrowicz positions his seated interviewees—some looking reluctant, others puzzled, still others contentious—at a table on a raised platform in front of a large green screen on which is frequently projected archival footage of arrests and trials of Palestinian suspects. The judges and attorneys often turn to watch the footage being simultaneously seen by the doc’s aud, resulting in a postmodern approach that invites the viewer into the director’s inquiry.
At Collider.com, Matt Goldberg said, “Rather than go directly for the audience’s emotions and strong opinions regarding this decades long battle, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz‘s documentary THE LAW IN THESE PARTS brings about its emotional impact via an academic argument.”
Alexandrowicz is able to convey these ideas but he makes odd detours to apologize for the documentary form. He obviously wants to show the audience that he’s attempting to be transparent as opposed to his interview subjects who obfuscated the law in order to meet political ends. The academic arguments can also be a bit dry and lessen the drama of the historical events. But Alexandrowicz deserves immeasurable credit for boldly comparing Israeli policy regarding the occupied territories to the treatment of Jews by the Germans in the Holocaust. The comparison doesn’t extend to ethnic cleansing or world domination, but Alexandrowicz selects some key black and white footage from the Israeli occupation that’s clearly meant to recall the footage of German treatment of Jews in the run up to the ghettos and the death camps.
The New York Review of Books’ Eyal Press said Alexandrowicz was “a deft interviewer who patiently draws out his subjects but is not shy about airing his opinions.”
Alexandrowicz’s unsparing inquiry is targeted at Israelis and foreign observers, who trumpet the achievements of Israel’s democracy and the High Court’s willingness to restrain abuses even at the occasional expense of security. The Law in These Parts does not deny that the High Court has successfully put a stop to some abuses in the territories—most notably in a 1999 ruling that barred various methods of physical interrogation (shaking, hooding, and shackling detainees) practiced for years with impunity. Like the 1979 decision on settlements, it infuriated some Israelis on the right, particularly since it came a few years after a wave of suicide bombings. On other occasions, the High Court has issued rulings—requiring, for example, that Israel re-route its security barrier to expropriate less Palestinian land—that the army has refused to enforce. But the film disquietingly suggests that these occasional displays of independence may only serve to foster the illusion of justice even as separate laws for settlers, house demolitions, restrictions on free movement and a host of other unjust policies obtained “a legal seal of approval,” as Ilan Katz, who served as Deputy Military Advocate General from 2000 to 2003, puts it in the film.
One of the crowd favorites at Sundance was THE IMPOSTER, director Bart Layton’s telling of Frenchman Frederick Bourdin’s bizarre claim of being Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio, Texas, boy who disappeared years earlier.
Back at Variety, the indefatigable Peter Debruge said the film “makes slick work of its wily subject, using atmospheric reenactments and stark, soul-baring interviews to explore a mind-boggling case of false identity.”
A long, seemingly candid interview with Bourdin serves as the pic’s backbone, feeding seamlessly into staged versions of the stories he relays. One moment, the wickedly smug imposter is describing his long-running tactic of passing himself off as an orphan in order to be placed in a children’s home, the next, a startlingly similar-looking actor is finishing his sentences within a reenactment scene. The effect is not only slick, but unsettling, drawing attention to the fact that the film, like the incidents it depicts, involves a certain bending of the truth.
Over at The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney said the film was “a mesmerizing psychological thriller bulging with twists, turns, nasty insinuations and shocking revelations that might have leapt from the pages of a Patricia Highsmith novel.”
Even if Layton makes it evident from the outset that Bourdin was an imposter, the director and his magician editor Andrew Hulme weave an elaborate film noir-style plot. The documentary provides an illuminating recap of Bourdin’s headspinning history, but also leaves enough tantalizing questions unanswered to keep audiences pondering the details long after it ends.
Collider.com’s Matt Goldberg said, “Layton’s mastery of dramatization ratchets up the intensity and fascination for a truly bizarre and disturbing case.”
There are con men and then there’s Frédéric Bourdin. Selfish, manipulative, and hard-hearted as he may be, his despicable actions are worthy of a fantastic documentary like this one. The film is even willing to bring him a little sympathy as we see how he’s deluding himself (or he’s trying to make us sympathize with him—it’s impossible to trust the motives of someone who’s greatest skill is lying). By interviewing people other than Bourdin, Layton establishes a base-level of truth where we know that not everything presented in the movie is a fabrication. But even if it were, THE IMPOSTER would still be a dizzying, exhilarating thriller.