July 6, 2018

Essential Doc Reads: Week of July 2

Claude Lanzmann, from Adam Benzine's 2015 film 'Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of The Shoah.' Courtesy of HBO

The IDA mourns the passing of Claude Lanzmann, who died yesterday at 92. Lanzmann was celebrated for his monumental Shoah, a ten-hour opus on the Holocaust that transformed the global conversation on that epochal catastrophe. A 2012 Sight and Sound poll of preeminent thought leaders in the media arts ranked the film at number two of the greatest documentaries of all time. Eschewing archival footage and narration, Lanzmann brings the horror alive by taking us to the scenes of the crime and, most palpably, eliciting some of the most wrenching accounts from survivors and perpetrators alike, from Europe to Israel to the US to South America. Lanzmann was the consummate journalist—relentless and fearless in his pursuit of the truth, and at turns patient and engaging and challenging and persistent with his interviewees, combining the dimensional foresight of a chess player with the probing insight of a psychologist. Above all, he was a cinematic master. Although his canon was not large, it was deep. Some of his other works—The Karski Report (2010), The Last of the Unjust (2013) and Shoah: The Four Sisters (2016) continue his examination of the Holocaust, exhuming stories of resistance, complicity, survival and endurance. His final film, Napalm (2017), is a return to North Korea, the site of a brief love affair he had with a nurse there a half-century ago. And while that romance inspired the return, history—of a nation, of an ideology, of his career as a journalist and filmmaker—informs it.

So, this edition of Essential Doc Reads culls from a selection of appreciations of this very necessary chronicler of The Shoah.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Claude Lanzmann, who continued to make films and to publish into his 90s, was one of the great generation of postwar public intellectuals on the progressive left: a mandarin of European thought, a panjandrum of contemporary ethics. Lanzmann was a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre with a dashing and even rather swashbuckling profile, a magazine founder, a petition signer, a superstar attender at soirées and conferences. It all made him appear as a man of action as well as a man of contemplation: and someone whose amours arguably marked him out as steeped in the robustly male sexual politics of an era different from the present day.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

For Lanzmann, as for many other great filmmakers, the technical art was a readymade substitute for all other arts, the art that became accessible by the fact that it required little craft, but, rather, technique—the camera did most of the work and seemed to be open from both ends, simultaneously recording what took place in front of the lens and the ideas that motivated him behind it.

Daniel Lewis, The New York Times

But to a rare degree for any artist, Mr. Lanzmann's reputation and perhaps his raison d'être rest on a singular achievement: the film that consumed him for 12 years in his middle age. It was as if a respected but little-known court composer had made a Beethoven symphony.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Lanzmann never pulled away from danger either, and his success in getting viewers to not only think about the unthinkable but to begin to be able to comprehend it were accomplishments of the highest order.

Elsewhere in the documentary world…

From Film Comment, Eric Hynes draws comparisons between Claude Lanzmann's aesthetic and that of Wang Bing in discussing the latter's new work, Dead Souls.

Adopting a scale that's nearly as epic as that of Shoah, Wang's Dead Souls shines a bright and steady spotlight into a dark corner of 20th-century Chinese history—a corner the communist government continues to try to keep in shadow….Dead Souls doesn't tell a story, it gathers and presents evidence through a series of grimly harmonized personal narratives, inviting the viewer to not simply follow along but receive, reckon, and synthesize.

IndieWire's David Ehrlich talks to the great film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, subject of Stephen Nomura Schible's new documentary, Coda.

"I'm fascinated by the notion of a perpetual sound," Sakamoto says in the film. "A sound that won’t dissipate over time. Essentially, the opposite of a piano, because the notes never fade. I suppose in literary terms it would be like a metaphor for eternity." Would he really be interested in finding such a thing? Wouldn’t a perpetual note make it impossible to enjoy the resonance between sounds? Doesn’t silence give music its shape?

From the Sundance Institute Blog, Hala Kaddoura, Sundance Institute's social media manager and the daughter of Palestinian refugees, reflects on Trump's travel ban and its impact on the global artist community.

I remind myself that so many of the artists Sundance has supported and will continue to support are affected by Trump's policy. Many are not free to tell their stories in their home countries because of government censorship and persecution, and now that we cannot bring these artists to the United States, the important work we do is in jeopardy.

From The Guardian, Rob Walker talks to filmmaker Jonathan Hacker about his use of terrorist-shot footage in his documentary Path of Blood.

Hacker accepts there will be controversy over some of the scenes but insists that what we learn about the terrorists' beliefs is of huge importance. He said the film showed "these patterns of behavior—young, naive people looking for simple answers, the sense of camaraderie, the sense of belonging, and in that environment how the power-hungry and the psychotic win through and create environments for evil."

From the Archive, February 2016: "Adam Benzine on Tracking Claude Lanzmann's Emotional Journey to Make 'Shoah'"

I had quite recently seen The Fog of War, and it made me think about the power of documenting in its purest form, just sitting and talking with somebody. And I thought, This is what I need to do with Claude Lanzmann: I need to find this man, I need to put a camera in front of him and I need to talk to him about his life.

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