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Susan Gray on movies that mirror the soul

Danish Documentary/(c) 2015 Danish Documentary

Boston-based documentarian Susan Gray pursued careers as a political organizer and journalist before taking up documentaries. She has since made films for PBS, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel. Most recently she collaborated with Globe reporter and co-director Linda Matchan on “Circus Without Borders” (screening July 28 and 31 at the Woods Hole Film Festival), about members of two disparate circus troupes from the Canadian Arctic and West Africa. “These are films that had an indelible impact on me,” she writes. “Films that I use to teach young filmmakers today.”

Juan, I Forgot I Don’t Remember (1999)

Mexican filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo wanted to honor his late father, Juan Rulfo, whose surreal 1955 novel, “Pedro Páramo,” has been credited with inspiring magical realism and the mystical books of Carlos Castaneda. So he made a film in which he interviews many of his father’s aged friends, and their memories prove more magical than realistic. “The younger Rulfo returns to a small village in the southern Jalisco desert, and glider images of the landscape set to Rulfo’s verse, time-lapse photography of nighttime stars, and stark interviews with Rulfo’s ancient, surviving acquaintances create a magnificent visual poetry,” says Gray. “It shows how a people and their place can be inexorably intertwined and how the passing of time and memory possesses a magical connection to nature.”

Family (2001)


Another search for the truth about a family member is the subject of Danish filmmakers Phie Ambo and Sami Saif’s documentary. After the latter’s mother dies and his brother commits suicide, the two try to track down Saif’s estranged father. The grueling, convoluted search takes them to Yemen and involves unexpected discoveries, complications, and challenges. “The story, character and access are exceptional, the editing outstanding, the journey better than fiction,” says Gray. “The editor, Janus Billeskov Jansen, was one of the editors for ‘The Act of Killing’ and I use this film as a teaching tool to show how feature film editing techniques can be masterfully applied to documentaries.”


Dreaming by Numbers (2006)

It’s common for lottery players to base their numbers on something personal, but players in Naples take it to an extreme, combining magical thinking, superstition, and mysticism as seen in Anna Bucchetti’s documentary. “People bring their dreams, like one of a cockroach walking with a limp, to the booking office to be translated into numbers,” says Gray. “On a deeper level, though, Bucchetti peers into the soul of Naples and finds poor people who need to believe they are connected to a higher spiritual power to face their often tragic lives. This film taught me how a seemingly funny subject can serve as a mirror into the deeper emotions of a people and a place.”

A scene from the 2006 Netherlands documentary film ”Dreaming by Numbers.”Stefano Bertacchini