Doc Talk: Snapping pictures, crossing borders, defying the mullahs, spying on Japan
When Bill Cunningham died, in 2016, at 87, an era in New York fashion died with him. By day he would prowl the streets of the city on his bicycle photographing anonymous strangers whose style caught his eye. These he would print in his popular New York Times column On the Street. By night he would attend fancy fetes and snap photos of high-society nabobs in their finery for his feature Evening Hours.
Richard Press’s documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” (2010) turns the camera on Cunningham, following him for two years as he pursued his high-profile vocation and would return home from chi-chi parties to a monk-like tiny studio atop Carnegie Hall. He delves into Cunningham’s life from his origins in a strict Boston Irish-Catholic family to his role as a revered mediator between the hoi polloi and the upper crust, between haute couture and the fashion that springs from the genius of ordinary people.
“Bill Cunningham New York” can be seen on Filmatique as part of its The Creation of Meaning series.
How broken is the US immigration system? Local filmmaker David Sutherland (“Kind-Hearted Woman,” 2013) details the plight of a family victimized by it in his wrenching and inspiring documentary “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Elizabeth Perez is a former US Marine decorated for her service in Afghanistan. She fell in love with an undocumented immigrant, Marcos Perez, and married him. They had four children, worked hard to support them, and were well liked and respected in their Cleveland community. Then in 2010 the police picked up Marcos in a traffic stop while he was driving to work. He was deported to Mexico, where he remains to this day.
But his wife is a fighter. For years she filed lawsuits and chased down politicians to have her husband restored to his family (her confrontation with US Representative Jim Jordan is especially galling). Finally she decided to move with her children to Mexico so they could live with their father — despite the challenges of learning a new language, adapting to a different culture, finding employment, and losing their health insurance. Not to mention leaving the country she loved and served with distinction.
For years, Sutherland had access to members of the Marcos family on both sides of the border as they struggled against bureaucracy and a systemic xenophobia and racism. The resulting film is a non-polemical portrait of a family responding to injustice with courage, persistence, and an abiding faith in the values that make our country great.
“Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is available on DVD ($24.99) from PBS Distribution on June 25 and on digital download.
Ceci n’est pas un film
In 2010 an Iranian court found the world-renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon,” 1995; “Crimson Gold,” 2003) guilty of political outspokenness, or, as the charges described it, “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and making propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment (later reduced to house arrest) and a 20-year ban on making movies. Since then he has covertly made and released to the outside world four features, one fewer than his total output prior to his conviction.
The first of these, the coyly titled documentary “This Is Not a Film” (2011), he smuggled out of the country to the Cannes Film Festival on a USB drive hidden in a birthday cake. It is a film about a filmmaker who is not allowed to make a film made by a filmmaker not allowed to make a film. Set in Panahi’s apartment, it features him talking on the phone, talking to his pet iguana, and talking with himself. He describes and acts out a script he has written about a girl who is locked up by her parents (it sounds a little like his 2018 film, “3 Faces”). He films the janitor with his phone as he picks up trash and tells him the story of his life. It comes as a relief when he steps onto his balcony and the fireworks celebrating the Iranian New Year burst in the sky.
Evocative of both Beckett and Kafka, “This Is Not a Film” is a bleak celebration of the persistence and power of cinema.
“This Is Not a Film” can be seen on Filmatique starting on June 27 as part of its The Creation of Meaning series.
Diamonds are forever
As a catcher playing in the 1920s and ’30s for the Washington Senators and other teams (including the Red Sox), Moe Berg put his Princeton education to good use by translating into Sanskrit the signs he flashed from behind the plate. It was one of 10 languages he had mastered. Though not a strong hitter (his 15-year career batting average was .243) he shone defensively and had a knack for calling pitches. These skills earned him a spot alongside such future Hall of Famers as Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Lou Gehrig on the All Americans Baseball Team that made a goodwill visit to Japan in 1934.
As Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” 1998) shows in “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” her fascinating documentary about this largely unheralded Jewish hero, that’s when Berg’s second career began.
Aware of the rising tensions between Japan and the United States that would culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Berg secretly filmed a panorama of Tokyo. He shared this with the government back home, and in 1942 it would later prove useful for the Doolittle bombing raid. Proving himself to be a valuable asset, he would work intermittently throughout the war with the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Sometimes his espionage work verged on the exploits of James Bond. Berg met and befriended Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, himself a British secret agent. A particularly dicey assignment occurred in 1944, when Berg was instructed to attend a lecture given by Werner Heisenberg in Zurich, and determine how close the German physicist was to developing an atomic bomb for the Nazis. If necessary, Berg was to assassinate him. Luckily for Heisenberg, Berg concluded that he had abandoned the project.
Rich with anecdotes, entertaining interviews, rare archival footage, and even a recording of Berg acing the questions on the radio quiz show “Information Please,” Kempner’s film probes the secret life of a beguiling, enigmatic figure who probably had more secrets that we’ll never know.
“The Spy Behind Home Plate” opens on June 28 at the Kendall Square Cinema.