Some of this summer’s more notable films explore Middle East terrorism, World War II battles and global warming, while others tell the life stories of seminal figures in music and photography. And there’s a bittersweet movie that is mainly in Yiddish to top it off.
“CITY OF GHOSTS”
The campaign to expose the ISIS takeover of Raqqa, a Syrian city on the Euphrates River, is the subject of “City of Ghosts.” Using their cellphone cameras, a small collection of amateur journalists, who call their group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Slowly (RBSS),” photographed the atrocities by ISIS troops bent on establishing a caliphate in the city. These citizen reporters then uploaded the footage to the internet for the world to see what was happening in their homeland.
In the production notes, filmmaker Matthew Heineman is quoted as saying he learned of the group in 2015, made contact with it, gained its members’ trust and began filming interviews with them and using their videos and stills. “I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal verité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by ISIS.
“Since ISIS took over the city in March 2014, journalists have been unable to enter the region, enabling the caliphate to control the narrative of what is happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So, RBSS’ footage — including some that has never been released — provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa,” he said.
The film traces the RBSS movement back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when Raqqa was a center of protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some 15 friends began reporting on the protests, using their phone cameras and their computers.
Then, in 2014, ISIS troops rolled into the city and quickly instituted a reign of terror, with public executions (shootings and beheadings) and dead bodies strewn on the streets. But, wanting to project an image of a peaceful, beautiful life in the city, ISIS produced increasingly sophisticated videos, disseminating them largely for recruitment purposes.
In reaction, the small band of lay reporters formed RBSS, a website and social media presence, and went undercover to record the brutality. When it became dangerous, some fled to Turkey, then to the relative safety of Germany, where the documentary shows them continuing to receive footage from secret operatives in Raqqa and to post the images on the internet.
“The contrast of ISIS’ videos, which proclaim a fully functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which captured the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns,” according to Heineman’s statement in the press notes. The filmmaker adds that the film’s themes broadened beyond the war into “the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, and one’s haunting relationship with trauma.”
In one particularly horrific section, the group member named Hamoud watches a video of his father, who is tied to a post, being shot to death by ISIS. Although Hamoud remains stoic, blood begins spurting from his mouth.
Todd McCarthy, in his Hollywood Reporter review, writes, “Heineman offers up a double portrait of devastation, of a truly destroyed city and of partially decimated survivors, leaving the viewer with an empathetic sense of deep sorrow.”
“City of Ghosts” opens July 14.
A largely unknown view of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is presented in Jonathan Teplitzky’s World War II drama, “Churchill.” The action takes place just days before D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, on June 6, 1944.
As the film opens, Churchill (Brian Cox) is strolling near the seashore and suddenly has a vision of the water running red with blood. The movie portrays Churchill’s unwillingness to accept the Allies’ invasion plans, fearing catastrophic losses, together with his own emotional issues and depression.
During an interview with the Journal while on another shoot in Australia, Teplitzky said he was invited onboard the “Churchill” project late in the movie’s development and was very drawn to the story.
“In many ways, in my view, his personal struggles only made his public and political achievements all the more remarkable and substantial, because he stops being a myth and we can see him more as a human being with human flaws,” the director said.
Cox re-creates Churchill’s physicality and his speech patterns, but Teplitzky said he and the actor wanted much more. “Brian and I both wanted a complex and deeply layered character, one whose humanity, vulnerabilities and flaws reveal themselves to us and the audience. We wanted to use the iconic stuff, the physical look and mannerisms, his speech rhythms, etc., as a doorway into this intimate human portrait. His big obsession, I think, comes from guilt in his role in a number of operations, and in particular Gallipoli, which resulted in massive loss of life.”
Churchill was a commander at the Battle of Gallipoli, a World War I disaster that cost hundreds of thousands of British, French, Australian and New Zealand casualties.
“But by now in 1944, with the U.S. in many ways running the Allied war effort, Churchill was somewhat sidelined, so it diluted his influence and ability to enforce change,” Teplitzky said. “This coupled with his depression, the two working off each other and fueling each other, was a big factor in his psychological state. I also think there is an element in the film which is about a man getting old and questioning his relevance.”
Churchill’s reservations about D-Day led him to clash openly with the supreme Allied commander, U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), as well as British Gen. Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and other officers. The prime minister succumbs to one of his periodic attacks of depression and self-medicates by drinking excessively.
It is his strong, assertive wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), feeling overlooked and marginalized by her husband, who reminds Churchill that Eisenhower, Montgomery and the others have a great deal of war experience — just as he has.“Don’t complain when someone tells you the truth,” she says.
Ultimately, Churchill is reconciled to D-Day, and when the Allies start winning, he broadcasts a speech over the BBC, telling the nation they have pushed back the Nazis. He states this is not a war for glory, but a war for freedom in which England will never surrender.
Teplitzky believes the film still has much to say about contemporary issues. It explores a man “at the center of momentous events, who presents a flawed but brilliant personality and the way such a personality impacts on people’s lives. We can only understand and learn from history if we look at it from many points of views, not just from a prescriptive and often conservative angle.”
“Churchill” opens June 2.
“LONG STRANGE TRIP”
The documentary “Long Strange Trip“ examines another form of personal demons as it chronicles the 30-year run of the iconic rock group the Grateful Dead and the troubled life of one of the band’s co-founders, Jerry Garcia.
Some audiences may find the four-hour length, broken by an intermission, somewhat intimidating, but the group’s die-hard fans, known as Deadheads, undoubtedly will hang on every word. In addition to many interviews, the film is replete with archival footage, photos, macabre cartoons centered on images of death and, of course, the music.
However, director Amir Bar-Lev, a fan of the band since he was 13, is quoted in the promotional materials as saying he wanted the film to appeal to an audience beyond Deadheads.
“For decades, when Deadheads were pressed as to what was so special about the band,” he states, “they could simply answer something along the lines of, ‘I can’t explain it. You have to go to a show to understand.’ I wanted to challenge myself to do better than that, so I reached out to the most articulate people I know around the Dead scene.”
Just as the band’s music was largely improvisational, the film has the feel of being loosely structured. Band members, a music producer, Garcia’s daughter and others offer unique perspectives on the band and its fans.
The band itself was eclectic, with the original members coming from various musical traditions, so the Dead’s music encompassed jazz, R&B, folk, blues, rock ’n’ roll and other genres.
Garcia, the group’s de facto leader, eschewed the idea of being in charge and envisioned the band as a collective with no preset rules. The disparate bunch he assembled in 1965 was called the Warlocks at first, but when they learned another band had the same name, they became the Grateful Dead, a phrase they found in the dictionary. Early on, they began using the mind-altering drug LSD and soon moved to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, home to the burgeoning Beat-influenced counterculture of the period.
From there, the film follows the band’s unsuccessful first steps under contract to Warner Bros. Records, its eventual recording triumphs and its decision to focus on being a touring band. There is footage of the now legendary performance at London’s Lyceum Theatre on May 23, 1972, during which Garcia performed a guitar solo of “Morning Dew” with tears running down his face.
But things ultimately got out of hand due to the group’s lack of structure, as well as the unwieldy party atmosphere that evolved among the fans.
There also was heavy drug use. Garcia became increasingly isolated and dependent on heroin until, in 1995, at age 53, he died in his sleep of a heart attack at a rehab center in Marin County.
In the press notes, Bar-Lev responds to a question about whether he was aware that the history of the Dead in many ways mirrors the history of America in the second half of the 20th century. The filmmaker answers by referring to what he calls Garcia’s “radical pluralism” and pointing to the “traveling counter-cultural city” that the band inspired.
He concludes, “It all strikes me as quintessentially American. The Grateful Dead are the musical Statue of Liberty.”
“Long Strange Trip” opens May 26.
“THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY”
On a softer level, we have filmmaker Errol Morris’ homage to 80-year-old portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. With this documentary, Morris departs from his usual weightier fare. His past projects examined such figures as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who admits his mistakes regarding the Vietnam War in “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and Fred A. Leuchter (“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.”), an adviser to prisons on executions who wrote a report denying that gas chambers were used for mass murder at Auschwitz.
With “The B-Side,” Morris has crafted a gentle, sweet work that becomes something of a memoir for Dorfman, one of the last photographers working in an analog format when most photography has gone digital. As the movie progresses, she brings out photograph after photograph and reminisces about her life and work.
After college, Dorfman got a job in New York as a secretary at Grove Press, and there she met famous Beat Generation writers and poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who became a lifelong friend and frequent photographic subject.
As a self-described “nice Jewish girl” from Massachusetts, Dorfman says in the film that the New York world of artists was too much for her, so she returned to Cambridge and went into teaching. It wasn’t until she was 28, in 1965, that she started taking pictures — and in the early1980s, she began using Polaroid’s giant 20×24 camera, shooting large color portraits.
Although Dorfman never garnered the fame of such photographers as Richard Avedon, Milton Greene or Annie Leibovitz, she nevertheless photographed many luminaries in addition to Ginsberg, including poet, painter and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, essayist Anaïs Nin, musician Bob Dylan, poet W.H. Auden, and radical feminist and writer Andrea Dworkin.
She also took a series of self-portraits and added captions at the bottom of the photographs. On her cyberjournal, Dorfman writes: “I make self-portraits on my birthday and every now and then when I have only one shot left in the case of film. (I think it is good for me to experience what my subjects are going through — and it is wild to see how I have changed.)”
Whenever she photographed paying clients, she shot two exposures. The customers would choose the one they liked and she would keep the other one, which she dubbed “the B-Side,” hence the film’s title.
Unfortunately, Polaroid went bankrupt and stopped making film for the 20×24 camera. So, as the movie was being shot, Dorfman was facing retirement.
She sums up her approach by saying on her cyberjournal that she doesn’t try to uncover people’s souls. “As a photographer I am not interested in pointing my camera at the pathos of other people’s lives. I don’t try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don’t try to capture souls. (If any soul is revealed, it’s mine.)
“For me the key word is ‘apparently.’ All I hope my photographs say is this person lives and this person was here.”
“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” opens June 30.
ALSO OF INTEREST
“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” — This film is a follow-up to the 2006 Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which former Vice President Al Gore made his case for the need to reverse global warming. The sequel tracks the progress made in addressing climate change. The documentary follows Gore as he continues to inspire people to get involved in the movement for alternative, safer forms of energy. Opens July 28.
“Dunkirk” — Here is another World War II film. This one focuses on the evacuation of 300,000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, as the Nazis invaded. The Allied soldiers were saved with the help of every available British military and civilian ship. Director Christopher Nolan is quoted in Variety as saying, “Dunkirk and the legend of it is something that British people grow up with — it’s in our DNA.” Opens July 21.
“13 Minutes” — Returning again to the second world war era, this movie from Germany is based on the true story of a free-spirited German carpenter, Georg Elser, who planted a bomb set to go off during a speech given by Adolf Hitler on Nov. 8, 1939. But Hitler unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the explosion, and eight unintended victims were killed. Although Elser acted alone, the heads of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police believed he was part of a larger plot and had him tortured, hoping to get the names of co-conspirators. When no names were forthcoming, Elser was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and then to Dachau, where he ultimately was executed. Opens June 30.
“Menashe” — Loosely based on the life of its star, Menashe Lustig (a YouTube comedian), the movie takes place in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community and is filmed almost completely in Yiddish. The title character, who works in a kosher supermarket, has become a widower and, according to tradition, cannot raise his son without a woman in the house. Pressured either to find a wife or let his married brother-in-law raise the boy, Menashe struggles to prove himself worthy of being a parent. Opens July 28.