Movies

doc talk

A closer look at Election Day in ‘11/8/16’

A scene from Max Lewkowicz’s documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro.”

Tony Vaccaro/akg-images

A scene from Max Lewkowicz’s documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro.”

People will be pondering the causes and consequences of last week’s election for some time to come. But an upcoming documentary might shed light on what was going on in voters’ minds as they went to the polls.

In Jeff Deutchman’s collaborative documentary “11/8/16” (a follow-up to his similar project “11/4/08”), more than 50 notable filmmakers reported on voters and candidates from diverse various class, ethnic, and religious groups and a variety of political leanings as they made their way to the polls on Election Day. Among the directors participating are Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Oscar-winner Daniel Junge (“Saving Face”), Kris Swanberg (“Unexpected”), David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon”), and Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”).

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You might have already watched some of this material on Election Day on the live-streaming app Periscope, but it will also be available in documentary form early next year from the independent film and music distribution company The Orchard.

For more information go to www.theorchard.com.

Early voting for best documentary

Black lives mattered to the voters of two critics groups awarding prizes to documentaries this month.

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On Nov. 3 at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards (of which I am a voting member), Ezra Edelman’s five-part, 467-minute “O.J.: Made in America,” an epic film about the life, times, and trials of O.J. Simpson, took the prize for best documentary (theatrical feature), best sports documentary, and best limited series. Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” about the unintended consequences of the 13th Amendment that freed the slaves — in particular a penal system that subjects African-Americans to virtual involuntary servitude — won in the TV/streaming category for both documentary and director, as well as taking the award for best political documentary.

Both “O.J.” and “13th” also fared well with the Independent Documentary Association Awards nominations, announced on Nov. 1. Both were nominated for best feature, as was Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” an adaptation of James Baldwin’s unfinished book about the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Peck’s film was also nominated for best writing.

The IDA documentary award winners will be announced on Dec. 9.

For more information about the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards go to www.criticschoice.com/documentary-awards; for the IDA go www.documentary.org/awards2016/nominees.

Photo op, take one

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For some, it is 13 acres of decades-old debris. But for Rosamond Purcell, an old Maine junkyard is a field of wonders — a glimpse into beauty, transience, and the mutability of all definitions and forms. Molly Bernstein’s documentary “An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell” explores the work and vision of the Boston-based artist who photographs preserved biological anomalies, ancient decaying books, corroded tools, weather-beaten license plates, and a mind-bending assortment of whatnots.

Her skewed and uncanny pictures blur the realms of the living and the inanimate, the manmade and the natural, the taxonomic and the transcendental. They are like a curiosity shop of arcana that just keeps getting weirder and more ineffable the further in you go. Reminiscent of artists ranging from Francis Bacon to Hieronymus Bosch, from Jackson Pollock to Joseph Cornell, her work is unique and sublime and the film itself is transformative.

“An Art That Nature Makes” screens on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre. The director and the artist will be in attendance.

For more information go to www.brattlefilm.org/2016/11/16/an-art-that-nature-makes.

Photo op, take two

The photos in Max Lewkowicz’s documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro” evoke a kind of awe that is different from Rosamond Purcell’s work in “An Art That Nature Makes.” Lewkowicz’s work is more immediate and visceral, but no less profound.

Vaccaro served on the front lines from Normandy to Germany until the war’s end, armed with an M-1 rifle and a pocket-size 35mm camera that he bought for $47. He wanted to be an official war photographer but was told that, although he was old enough to shoot people, he was too young to shoot pictures. In a way, it was to his advantage to remain in the field, because he was allowed an intimacy with his fellow soldiers that his portable camera was ready to record. And so he captured war at its worst and humanity at its best. And sometimes humanity at its worst. The most horrible picture, he recalls — one he almost didn’t take — was of a young woman armed with a German bazooka known as a Panzerfaust who had been captured by infuriated GIs. She had been raped, murdered, and desecrated with a bayonet.

Other deaths are not so awful. A corpse buried in the snow, spectral and abstract, looks almost serene. Vaccaro succumbed to the temptation to find out who it was. It was a friend. Years later the soldier’s son phoned the photographer after seeing the image in a gallery, and Vaccaro wept.

The documentary traces Vaccaro’s journey across the battlefields he fought on and photographed in Europe, contrasting images of today’s landscapes, green and full of birdsong, with his shots of the devastation six decades before. Also included are comments from other war photographers about the aesthetics and ethics of making beauty from horror and suffering. Vaccaro, who was as adept with his rifle as with his camera, has misgivings, too, and not just about the photographs. “It was necessary for me to be evil for 272 days,” he says. “But not forever.”

“Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro” premieres on Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

For more information go to talk.hbo.com/t5/All-Documentaries/bd-p/all-documentaries.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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