Documentary: Capturing the Human Experience of War

There is no shortage of documentaries on war. The subject fascinates us as history, as sociology, and as drama. Some documentaries chronicle history in great detail, some grapple with the issues and forces behind the conflicts, and some flat-out propagandize. But very few of those documentaries actually engage with the human experience. So for Memorial Day we look at films about the diverse group of men (and in some cases the women) in war—not just why they fight but what they saw, heard, and endured, and how it changed them.

The Battle of Midway (1942)

American director John Ford (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) served his country by offering his talents as a filmmaker to the Armed Services. His first assignment was to photograph what turned out to be the first major American victory in the war against Japan. “Yes, this really happened,” informs one of the film’s four narrators during the combat section of the film, but audiences didn’t need to be reminded. The authenticity was evident. One bomb landed so close to the camera that it knocked both Ford and his camera assistant off their feet.

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New reviews: ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ and ‘The Rape of Europa’

Cristian Mungiu’s beautiful and harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palm D’or at Cannes and Best Film at the European Film Awards, yet didn’t even make the short list for Best Foreign Language Film nominations. I can’t fathom this defiant snubbing of such a powerful and provocative film, unless it has something to do with the subject matter.christianmungiucannes.jpg

In this socialist state, the culture has devolved into barter. Everything is a negotiation, from getting a hotel room to bribing a ticket inspector on the bus, with cigarettes proffered as signals to begin negotiations and left as tips. College students Otilia and Gabita learn that when the stakes get higher – and things don’t get much heavier than an abortion, which is illegal in 1987 Romania – the costs go way beyond bribes and under-the-table payments.

It’s a devastating ordeal by itself and the film doesn’t pretend otherwise, but the whole subterranean aspect of this underground operation, with the surreptitious bookings and secret meetings under the snooping noses of hotel clerks collecting ID cards and taking names, gives it the stakes of an espionage drama behind the iron curtain. It’s only the chillingly mundane atmosphere and the snide civil servant attitude of the players that tells us this is the everyday reality of life here.

The long takes are not of the dazzlingly dramatic and cinematically acrobatic variety, that whisk the viewer into the thrill of the momentum and beauty of the composition. Mungiu uses the camera to focus our attention Continue reading “New reviews: ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ and ‘The Rape of Europa’”