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Doc Talk

Out West, in Boise, under fire, against immigration

Bruce Springsteen in “Western Stars.”Warner Bros.

In addition to being a rock ’n’ roll bard, best-selling memoirist, and Broadway star, Bruce Springsteen is now a documentary filmmaker and a country western crooner as well. “Western Stars,” co-directed with Thom Zimny, provides a cinematic supplement to the album of the same title, which was released in June. Performing with a 30-piece orchestra before a live audience in his New Jersey barn, Springsteen performs 13 songs combining country wistfulness with his blue-collar melancholy. Springsteen’s folksy, introspective narration and atmospheric montages of cowboys and critters in the Joshua Tree desert underscore the music in this celebration of a new phase in the Boss’s five-decade-long career.

“Western Stars” can be seen at the Boston Common, Fenway, and suburban theaters.


Womb for rent

Of all places, strait-laced Boise, Idaho has become one of the hotbeds of the controversial business of surrogate motherhood. Beth Aala’s documentary “Made in Boise” profiles four women who — for reasons ranging from financial necessity to a simple pleasure in birthing babies — volunteer to undergo the emotionally and physically challenging process. The film also investigates those who use the service, their motives for doing so, and the reasons why surrogacy has become popular in such an unlikely locale.

“Made in Boise” can be seen on Oct. 28 at 10 p.m. on PBS as part of the “Independent Lens” series and on PBS.org and the PBS Video app.  Go to www.pbs

Genius granted

Inspired by Lewis Hyde’s 1983 bestseller, “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World,” Robin McKenna’s elliptical, poetic, and visually arresting “Gift” examines the radical concept that creativity is not a commodity to be sold but a blessing to be shared. In it she follows four collaborative art projects that strive both to benefit communities and engage the hearts of strangers. They are aesthetically inventive ways of paying it forward.

In the indigenous Kwakwaka’wakw settlement in Alert Bay, British Columbia, Marcus Alfred, a sculptor and the youngest chief in his tribe’s history, carves masks and other sculptures and purchases food and gifts in preparation for a potlatch. It is a traditional celebration in which he establishes his stature by giving away almost all his possessions.


In Rome, where there is a housing shortage because real estate speculators have left many buildings unused, squatters take over an old sausage factory. To protect them from eviction, artists have donated installations, paintings, sculptures, and murals to create “Metropoliz,” an inhabited museum. They hope the commercial value of their art will protect the squatters from being evicted.

At the Burning Man festival, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Michelle Lessans, a social worker and part-time apiarist, launches “Beezus Christ, Super Car” — a van she and her friends have transformed into the likeness of a giant bee. They drive around the sandflats and offer honey and mead to fellow participants in this celebration of bizarre and whimsical self-expression. She acknowledges that her creation, the product of much time, labor, and imaginative design, is ephemeral and profits her nothing — except the delight of sharing it.

And in New Zealand, the artist Lee Mingwei presents his participatory art project Sonic Blossom. Visitors to the Auckland Art Museum are offered flowers on the condition that they then give them in turn to a stranger. Meanwhile volunteers in ornate capes approach people in the galleries and ask them if they would like “the gift of song.” Responses range from nervous dismissals to grateful acceptance. It’s an offer that should not be refused; their performances of Schubert lieder bring the listeners to tears.


“Gift” opens at the Kendall Square Cinema on Nov. 1.

Raw footage

At 18 Miles Lagoze had graduated from high school and enlisted in the Marines. There they gave him a camera and made him his unit’s videographer. From 2011 to 2012 he shot frontline footage in Afghanistan and edited it for PR and other official purposes. “We filmed what they wanted,” Lagoze states in a text at the beginning of his tragic, disturbing, and sometimes darkly comic documentary “Combat Obscura,” “but then we kept shooting.” Shot mostly from the jostled first-person point of view of a helmet camera, the resulting fog-of-war footage consists of short sequences abruptly cut together. The only commentary comes from the Marines themselves, who are seen joking around, smoking hashish, dodging bullets, getting hit by bullets, and interacting with locals in encounters that range from friendly and jocular to frustrated and lethal.

A Marine points a pistol at some kids on donkeys and screams at them to get down. Only when they smile nervously is it clear that he’s just kidding. A group of Marines examines the body of a dead Afghan man. He was a shopkeeper whom a sniper had mistakenly identified as a member of the Taliban. Two Marines under fire frantically carry a third with a grave head wound to a waiting helicopter. But the bandage on his head unravels and they have to stop and rewrap it. It seems almost comical until you notice the blood on the bandage, on one of the Marine’s shirt, on the ground, everywhere.


At times “Combat Obscura” recalls the sardonic desperation of Private Joker, the Marine journalist covering the carnage of the Vietnam War in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). Here, though, the carnage is real.

“Camera Obscura” screens at 7 p.m. on Nov. 4 as part of the DocYard series at the Brattle Theatre. The director will participate in a Q&A after the screening. Go to brattlefilm.org.

Turning right

Depending on your tolerance for numerous interviews with Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, and Sebastian Gorka, Michael Kirk’s “Zero Tolerance” can provide illuminating insights into how the country got into its current political situation. After Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012, Bannon, Stephen Miller, and US Senator Jeff Sessions sought to push the Republican Party further right. To accomplish this they would win over the party’s base by stirring up anti-immigration rancor using outlets like Fox News, talk radio, and Bannon’s Breitbart News website. All they needed was the right presidential candidate, and they settled on a long shot, an “imperfect instrument” in Bannon’s words — Donald Trump.

“Zero Tolerance” can be streamed for free at pbs.org/frontline.

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