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Doc Talk

An immigrant story, atrocity tourism, the future of Barbie

A scene from the 2016 documentary film “Austerlitz,” directed by Sergei Loznitsa.
A scene from the 2016 documentary film “Austerlitz,” directed by Sergei Loznitsa.(Filmatique)

Except for Native Americans, every family in this country has its own immigration story. 

Hong Kong native Alvin Tsang explores his version in his documentary “Reunification” (2015). In the 1980s his father decided to send his wife, Tsang’s younger sister, and his older brother to Los Angeles in search of greater economic opportunities. He and 6-year-old Alvin stayed behind for several years until it was financially possible to bring the whole family together. 

It didn’t happen. While in America, Tsang’s mother had to work at menial jobs to support the family. She divorced Tsang’s father and married her husband’s best friend. By the time Tsang made it to Los Angeles, his family had been shattered and was ruled by an intimidating stepfather. They were struggling to survive economically and he and his siblings had to work after school cleaning offices.

After discovering film while in college, Tsang turned the camera on his own fractured history. For 17 years he would intermittently film material, cull home movies and family albums, put the project away, and return to it years later. This approach produced a layered documentary that is as much an inquiry into the nature of time and memory as it is an individual’s diary.

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It reflects on the immigrant experience and its dislocations and disruptions in a way that evokes V.S. Naipaul’s book “The Enigma of Arrival.” It also explores the past with a Proustian sensitivity. Tsang retrieves an old childhood memory of his family huddled together in their Hong Kong apartment after a power cut during the storm — and in it finds a lost world in which everyone was united and safe.

“Reunification” is available on DVD for $29.95 from Facets.

Terror tour

To paraphrase Theodor Adorno, writing poetry after Auschwitz may be barbaric, but what about tourism?

Sachsenhausen, located not far from Berlin, was one of the first Nazi concentration camps. Built in 1936, liberated by the Soviet army in 1945, it held hundreds of thousands of inmates during that time, at first political prisoners, later Jews, and Soviet POWs. An estimated 30,000 perished.

In his documentary “Austerlitz” (named after the 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald about a Holocaust survivor searching for his identity), Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (“Maidan,” “In the Fog”) visits the camp, now preserved as a memorial site and open to the public. Shooting in black and white, without commentary, in long takes from fixed camera set-ups, he discovers a ceaseless flood of visitors like those at a major museum opening. They pour through the gates — families, couples, and groups from all over the world — snapping pictures, audio guides pressed to their ears, maps in hand, led by docents. 

The number of visitors is encouraging because it shows that the memory of the Nazi atrocities robustly lives on. On the other hand, a certain gravity seems lacking. Did the people wearing T-shirts blazoned with the words “Hugs and Pugs,” “Today is your lucky day!,” or “Wake up in Vegas” consider the appropriateness of their attire? Did anyone have qualms about taking selfies under the front gate’s “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign or next to the crematorium ovens?

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Putting these improprieties in perspective are the snatches of historical facts from tour guides as they relate the history of the camp, explaining such details as the purpose of the three sinister posts in the prison yard or the carefully thought-out methodology of how to murder thousands of people and get rid of the
corpses. But the somber effect of these reminders dissipates when a break for lunch or for the toilets is announced.

Now and then horror registers on some faces. At one point, people stop and stare with distress and disbelief at something off screen, next to or behind the camera. Loznitsa does not show us what it is. Perhaps it is the camera itself, or their realization that they are being watched, and those watching them recognize in their faces our own.

“Austerlitz” can be seen on Filmatique.

Toy story

Born in 1959, 11½ inches tall, with proportions which in a normal-size female would be 36 inches by 18 inches by 33 inches, Barbie may well be the most important toy of the 20th century, or so claims the curator of the Barbie exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

But what about the 21st century? Is Barbie a museum piece without contemporary relevance? That’s the challenge for the Mattel designers and marketing people in 2016 as the company confronts the diminishing sales of its most lucrative product. Says a member of the team, “We’re on a mission to change the way people talk about Barbie.” Or maybe just get them talking about Barbie, period.

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Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’s documentary “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” follows the behind-the-scenes planning of Project Dawn, Mattel’s attempt to overhaul the standard Barbie and adapt it to today’s concerns about body image and women’s empowerment. It also relates the history of Barbie and its impact on and reflection of culture.

Though decried by interviewee Gloria Steinem — who exclaims, “I’m so glad I didn’t grow up with Barbie!” — the doll was conceived by a woman who shared many of Steinem’s beliefs. Mattel cofounder Ruth Handler hated being a mother and a housewife and was career-driven. A chief selling point of the doll she created was that Barbie was unmarried and independent. And she was a pioneer – in 1965, Astronaut Barbie donned a space suit 18 years before Sally Ride became the first woman in space.

For decades Barbie kept pace with many of the culture’s changes and introduced them into the imaginations of young girls (and boys). If she can be faulted for anything, aside from the obvious distortion of the female body image, it’s her conspicuous consumption. She’s all about the accessories (one interviewee includes Ken among them), a lust for fancy clothes, cars, houses, and other material goods that foreshadowed the “greed is good ethos” of the 1980s and beyond.

But Barbie now faces the unjust prejudice and devaluation experienced by many women pushing 60 in this patriarchal culture. For that reason alone you might cheer the efforts of the Project Dawn team to prove that age and gender are no barrier to success.

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“Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” is available for streaming on Hulu.


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