Known as the grandmother of sexual liberation, the minute figure of Dr. Ruth Westheimer is an anachronism amongst the mainstream American prudishness of the 1980s. She speaks with a forthright, scientific approach to sexual pleasure, bound to the philosophy that if something isn’t working in the bedroom (or in the living room, or on the kitchen table), then the problem should be remedied, rather than ignored. Even today, her distinctive image still rings as a delightful oddity. Imagine: your lovely gentle Granny telling an audience of millions that they need to utilise the clitoris to achieve orgasm. This is the scene that many envision when considering Dr. Ruth’s career – yet, as Ask Dr. Ruth admirably proves, there is so, so much more to this incredible woman than first meets the eye.
The documentary begins with Dr. Ruth conversing with Alexa – yes, the Amazon robot – in a charming introduction to a ninety year old who is clearly happy to move with the times. Dr. Ruth laughs as she asks Alexa if she’ll get a boyfriend; “Sorry, I can’t answer that,” the robot abruptly replies, to the complete amusement of both subject and audience. This is a perfect setup for a film which will continue to explore Dr. Ruth’s extraordinarily lovable personality, alongside a deep respect for her academic achievements.
Italian documentaries had a field day at Berlinale this year. Whether it was the innovative Selfie, allowing its subjects to become the cameramen themselves, or the harrowing depiction of Cosa Nostra brutality in Shooting The Mafia, the Southern European country asked hard questions of its society this year. The standout was Normal, the latest documentary from Adele Tulli, which takes a fresh and innovative look at gender stereotypes. Allowing its images — whether it’s boys riding motorbikes, or girls dressing up as princesses, or mothers exercising in the park — to truly speak for themselves, Tulli pushes the absurdity of fixed gender norms to their very limit. We sat down with her to discuss her unique documentary.
To capture a lifetime of greatness in just two hours seems like an impossible task, but in ‘Varda by Agnes’, the French New Wave legend accomplishes this and more, producing a documentary which feels almost like an embrace from a wise relative. As she casts her eye back across six decades of her work, Varda recounts anecdotes from her past, accompanied by friends and colleagues, whilst delving into her fond outlook towards film as a medium. In this age of cynicism, 90-year-old Varda’s eternally bright acceptance of modernity feels like a breath of fresh air, and makes for a viewing experience which is truly magical for any film fan.
As an auteur, Varda is confident and passionate when discussing her work, outlining her motivations in an accessible and welcoming manner. The film traces her career with a rough chronology, beginning with her best-known Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), moving through films such as La Pointe Courte (1954), Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985), before changing tone to consider the artistic installations that she created in her later career. The completeness of this overlook amplifies just how far the filmmaker’s reach has travelled; from narrative film, to documentary, to modern art, there seems to be very little that she cannot perfect. Each piece is woven with Varda’s acute observational skills, driven by an intrinsic appreciation for humanity.
Horror is a powerful tool for discussing social issues and reflecting societal fears. Often discussions about the politics of horror focus on gender and the body, but rarely do those conversations attempt to address race in the genre. Yes, we know the tropes where there is only one token black character that usually dies first or the black character who tries to be the voice of reason to the rest of the (all white) group. But what we don’t discuss in the deep history of blackness in horror that exists even in the apparent lack of black characters on screen. Shudder’s first documentary, Horror Noire, remedies this problem, devoting an entire film to the history of black horror films through the lens of black history within the United States.
The first words we hear uttered by William Friedkin are, “To me, the two most interesting characters in the history of the world are Hitler and Jesus. There’s good and evil in everybody, that’s the truth that I believe.” Admittedly, this is a jarring way to begin a documentary. Friedkin then qualifies his statement by saying that Hitler was an example of a man who contained extremes, to make sure the audience doesn’t misconstrue his words. This controversial statement embodies the Friedkin we are shown in the documentary, Friedkin Uncut: he is a man who is fascinated by and tries to embody extremes.
Friedkin Uncut is Francesco Zippel’s directorial debut and love song to director, William Friedkin, who brought us films such as The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Bug. This documentary premiered as part of Chicago International Film Festival’s programming, rather appropriately as Friedkin is a Chicago native. It is an expansive look at Friedkin’s work, his dedication to his craft, and the lengths he was willing to go to make something spectacular. From shooting the chase scene in The French Connection himself to even assisting with an exorcism, there’s no doubt that Friedkin always went to the extreme to create a film that no one had ever seen before. However, this documentary is also, perhaps subconsciously, an in-depth look at the rampant gender inequality in Hollywood.
“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved, and capable of loving.” It’s statements like these – sweeping, painfully earnest, and deeply resonant – that characterize Morgan Neville’s latest documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film follows the life of the late Fred Rogers, host and showrunner of the influential children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet it’s not so much about Fred Rogers the man as it is about the philosophy he birthed and tried his hardest to live by through his work. Neville knows, as all documentarians should, that the best way into a person’s life is through the world they build for others. By taking this approach, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? evades all the myth-making and sentimentality that once seemed inevitable in reflecting on the life of someone as venerated and impossibly good as Rogers, resulting instead in a film overflowing with true emotion and poignant, necessary lessons for the American future.
Most of the films I’ve covered on this site thus far have been very dark and gritty critically acclaimed dramas, or completely terrible and underwhelming misfires. Because of this, it may seem like I only enjoy depressing and cynical things. This is not true. In reality, I’m a giant softie.
One minute I’ll be watching a really disturbing and sad episode of Black Mirror, and the next I won’t shut up about how fantastic Paddington 2 is. However, as much as I love Paddington 2, the film that has made me the happiest this year is Faces Places. This is a new documentary from the famous French street artist JR, and the very famous French filmmaker Agnes Varda, who was the only woman making films in the French new wave. She and JR seem like very different people at first, but they end up being the perfect people to helm this film.