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last update 24.Feb.13
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Ballroom Dancer
dir Christian Bonke, Andreas Koefoed
prd Jakob Jonck
with Slavik Kryklyvyy, Anna Melnikova
melnikova and kryklyvyy release Den 1.Nov.11 cdf,
US Apr.12 tff, UK 18.Jan.12
11/Denmark 1h24
Ballroom Dancer Due to its strikingly intimate approach, this film feels more like a darkly emotional drama than the documentary that it is. Beautifully shot, it traces a dancer's attempt to make a comeback and reveals a lot more about him than he probably expected when he agreed to let the cameras follow him.

Slavik Kryklyvyy was the World Latin Dance champion a decade ago and has decided to reclaim his title. Now 34, he is still in peak physical shape, and his new partner, his girlfriend Anna Melnikova, dances with him beautifully. But clearly there's more to ballroom dancing than technical or artistic skill, and it's Slavik's moods that threaten his comeback. Tormented that his ex Joanna Leunis and her new partner Michael Malitowski are now the champions, he drives Anna mercilessly during competitions in Moscow and Britain. Will she still be with him by the time they reach Hong Kong?

Frankly, Slavik is such a self-involved jerk that we can't understand why Anna is with him at all. There are hints that they had a happy relationship before he became obsessed with returning to competition, and he's charming in the opening scenes. But this soon dissolves into relentless arrogance and passive-aggressive martyrdom. And as he becomes impossible to like, watching his emotional collapse is compelling viewing.

Filmmakers Bonke and Koefoeld keep the cameras up close and personal, letting us see extended scenes of long over-reactions that are pretty outrageous. Is Slavik really having a wrenching breakdown or is he playacting for the crew? Meanwhile, we also see his astonishing skill on the dance floor, as well as scenes with his trainer and choreographers, all of whom are clearly worried about his mental wellbeing. Especially as he so cruelly criticises Anna for his own failings.

So the question is whether the film is too invasive. Fascinatingly, we also see Slavik teaching a class of ballroom students, and they can obviously learn a lot from him. All of this is shown with no narration, no analysis and very little actual information about either Slavik or Anna outside of their work. All of the personal intensity between them is expressed strikingly through their dancing, most notably in a haunting rehearsal clip that's accompanied by a version of Always on My Mind. The silence between them says more than all of their bitter conversations.

12 themes, language
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The Gatekeepers
dir Dror Moreh
prd Estelle Fialon, Philippa Kowarsky, Dror Moreh
with Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom
ayalon release US 26.Nov.12,
Isr 27.Dec.12, UK 12.Apr.13
12/Israel 1h35
The Gatekeepers Structured around interviews with the former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's military anti-terrorism agency, this documentary provides remarkable insight into the past 45 years of conflict between Israel and Palestine. Yes, everything is told from one side, but the final segment is strikingly bold and unexpected.

Since the Six Day War in 1967, the secret service agency Shin Bet has been positioned between Israel's politicians and the Palestinians. The goal has ostensibly been to achieve peace, but on Israel's terms, and only a few leaders have sought to talk to Palestine's leaders. Over the course of this doc, the six surviving ex-directors offer revealing anecdotes about incidents and issues. And each comes to the conclusion that until Israel takes an interest in its Palestinian citizens, there is no chance for peace.

In the style of Errol Morris' The Fog of War, these men reveal their stories to camera with unusual intelligence and candour. There are several moments when we are taken aback as they talk about killing and torturing suspects ("You have to forget about morality!"), manipulating prime ministers and operating in an environment of callous ethnic prejudice. And it's especially eerie how all of this so closely echoes Bush-Cheney's template for the "war on terror" in which everyone who looks suspicious is classified as an enemy combatant and dealt with outside the rule of law. But "being an occupying army has made us cruel", winning each battle by using terrorism ourselves.

Right from the beginning, these men acknowledge that a politician's black-and-white view sits at odds with the world's shades of grey. Bullheaded governments demand life-or-death decisions in a split second, so mistakes are being made. Most chilling is the way they talk about the Israeli government's belief that the 1967 war already dealt with the Palestinian issue: they're now terrorists who don't deserve to be taken seriously. And the radical Jews might be even worse.

Director Moreh inventively weaves in archive films and photographs, at times digitally expanding still images into virtual-reality scenarios that cleverly reveal striking details. As it traces historical events, this film can hardly help but be sobering. And in the end, it's the haunted conclusions these men reach through their experiences that give us some hope, realising that peace can never come from military action. Peace requires trust and respect. But then these guys aren't in charge anymore.

12 themes, grisly images


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Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
dir-scr Alex Gibney
prd Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes, Kristen Vaurio, Jedd Wider, Todd Wider
with Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn, Arthur Budzinski, Bob Bolger, Jeff Anderson, Patrick J Wall, Geoffrey Robinson, Rembert Weakland, Thomas Doyle, Laurie Goldstein, Marco Politi
Mea Maxima Culpa release US 16.Nov.12,
UK 15.Feb.13
12/US 1h46

 london film festival
Mea Maxima Culpa Gibney takes an intriguing approach to the child-abuse scandal in the Catholic church. What begins as a lucid exploration of a specific case spirals out to document the staggering connections to the very top of the church. The structure is a little awkward, but the film has a potent kick.

The film opens with the 1972 letter that brought to light horrific abuse in a Milwaukee school for the deaf. Former students Kohut, Smith, Kuehn and Budzinski sign their stories to the camera (voiced by Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, John Slattery and Ethan Hawke) and describe the subsequent years trying to get the church to take action, challenging local leaders and escalating it to the Holy See itself. Meanwhile, similar acounts emerge from Boston, Ireland and Rome itself, but through it all the Vatican instructs churches not to report abuse to the police.

As Gibney reveals the details, the film reveals a corporate corruption conspiracy, as Pope Benedict tries to remain above the fray even though his previous job was to investigate these cases. Details of enforced silence are terrifying, as more concern is shown the office of the priesthood than the victims of abuse. And there is no doubt that this callous self-protection comes from global leaders who refuse to answer to any earthly powers. Because of this separation, parents are reluctant to acknowledge their abused children's accusations.

Gibney explores the nature of the Vatican in some detail: it's treated as a country with the Pope as head-of-state, even though it lacks characteristics of a true nation (it's autonomy was established by Mussolini in 1929). But while these details are intriguing, they're not always relevant to the core events in Milwaukee, which the film continually returns to after various lengthy side roads.

This off-balance structure leaves us wishing the film's focus was more closely trained on these four men's experiences, because their stories of one priest's abusive actions over more than 20 years are intensely personal and moving. But Gibney has bigger fish to fry, as it were, clearly laying out evidence of organised, systemic crime stemming from leaders who have too much power and no responsibility. As a result, the film is also a potent call for justice.

15strong themes, language
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Side by Side
dir-scr Christopher Kenneally
prd Keanu Reeves, Justin Szlasa
with Keanu Reeves, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Lars von Trier, Danny Boyle, James Cameron, David Lynch, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez, Anthony Dod Mantle, Wally Pfister, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Anne V Coates
release US 17.Aug.12,
UK 15.Feb.13
12/US 1h49

Side by Side Keanu Reeves travels around the world to talk to filmmakers about the shift from celluloid to digital cinema in this car crash of a documentary. It's exhilarating to watch these a-listers talk about such a big issue, but filmmaker Kenneally never decides who he's making the movie for.

Photochemical film was the standard for the first 100 years of moviemaking, shaping the artform in specific ways simply because of how it works. Cinematographers have the power to shape the images, but no one knows what they've got until the film is processed. Then digital cameras arrived, more instant and much more portable, offering a new flexibility in shooting. But is the quality up to par? Huge advances in technology have converted a lot of filmmakers, but others prefer the magic and artistry of celluloid. To them, it's the difference between oil paints and crayons.

There are extremely strong points made on both sides of this argument by the world's top directors, cinematographers, editors and effects specialists, all of whom have a vested interest in the industry. And this debate is sharply well edited to highlight the issues while recounting the history of conema, both on film and digital, accompanied by plenty of movie clips.

In other words, there is a wealth of material here that film fans will love, not only the archival images but also the firsthand conversations with filmmakers who know what they're talking about. Sometimes all of this gets far too technical for mainstream viewers, so Reeves' sonorous narration explains it in very simplistic ways ("A digital camera does not use film") that will leave viewers with even basic knowledge rolling their eyes in exasperation.

But as an exploration of the big picture, this doc covers all of the bases very nicely, giving a solid argument for both sides and making some complex conclusions: forward progress will no doubt leave celluloid behind, although it's still more resilient as an archival format. And the film also touches on the even bigger question of populist access: will much cheaper digital production mean the loss of tastemakers like cinematographers and lighting directors, leading to mediocrity across the board? Probably not, but it's something worth talking about.

15 themes, language
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© 2013 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall