Documentary

Shoot Down

In the mid-to-late 1990s, thousands of Cuban refugees – using pretty much anything that would float – attempted to cross the Florida Straits. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these refugees failed to survive the crossing and many (an estimated 24,000) of them died at sea. This situation led to the formation of Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based volunteer group that patrolled the Straits in small civilian aircraft, offering aid to the rafters that they found and alerting the US coastguard to their presence.

In 1996, against a background of rising political unrest in Cuba and in the wake of a revised U.S. policy toward Cuban refugees, two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down by Cuban MiGs, killing four men.

Using a mixture of news footage and interviews, Shoot Down explores the run-up to and the aftermath of these events. Its a powerful story and writer/director Cristina Khuly, whose uncle was one of those killed, has constructed a remarkably even-handed film.

The first half of the film focusses on Brothers to the Rescue and their mission and provides some very enthusiastic interviews, not just from the Florida Cuban community but from the coastguard as well. Where the shoot down itself is covered, much criticism is levelled at the Clinton administration for not doing enough to prevent it in the first place and for not doing enough in response to what was clearly the illegal shooting down of two civilian aircraft in international waters.

Jose Basulto, the co-founder and leader of Brothers to the Rescue is allowed to profess his innocent intentions and outrage at the events and we see a series of shots of Republican politicians railing against Castro for the crime and Clinton for his response.

Then Khuly takes a look at the other side of the coin.

In 1994, after the Clinton administration and Castro entered into negotiations over Cuban immigration, Brothers to the Rescue took it upon themselves to expand their mission. Not only were they seeking to help refugees, but they also started leafleting Havana, to expose the government “for creating the conditions that made it necessary for those people to jump on a raft.”

The date of the shoot down was February 24th – Cuban Independence Day, a date with huge political significance for the country. Although the Brothers to the Rescue planes werent over Cuban waters, they were approaching them.

Ignoring myriad government warnings, Brothers to the Rescue had moved from being rescuers to provocateurs. And Shoot Down is a documentary about an unjustifiable but avoidable crime.

Its a powerful and important story told in a very well balanced manner. My only real criticism is that the heavy reliance on interviews and news footage does make the narrative a lot drier than it could have been.

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love Back in the 1990s someone noticed a loophole in the UK censorship laws that allowed soft porn films to be sold through normal channels as long as they included some educational element. There followed a small flurry of films which featured a series of sex scenes, each followed by a talking head discussing what had just happened – these were the films for which the fast forward button was invented.

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love is very much in this mould. What we get this time around is a series of couples simulating sex in a variety of positions while a breathy woman provides a voice-over commentary.

Beautifully shot and sensually lit, and presented in both standard and 3D versions, this film is clearly aimed at couples.

Between them, the three – very attractive – couples in the film work their way through a total of fifty sexual positions, each with the obligatory voice over. But in a 75 minute film, that doesn’t add up to a great deal of time for each position.

It also became noticeable as the film wore on that, although fifty positions are featured, there are a lot less than fifty ways to film them. The commentaries also ran into a similar problem. Individually, they were all very well done but, as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is a limit to the number of things you can say about any given position.

All of this makes it very much a film to dip in and out of rather than one to watch straight through. But, if you have a reasonably open-minded partner, this is also a film that could well inspire a whole weekend of fun.

Xperimental Eros

Xperimental Eros Anthology films are often a mixed bag. Whatever the theme, some of the films in the collection will, inevitably, be better than others and – in this case – the question of whether the hits outnumber the misses really will come down to how you feel about both experimental films and pornography.

The first film in the collection is King of Porn, is a sympathetic – and often amusing - portrait of Ralph Whittington, government worker, devoted father, ex-husband, man of leisure and collector of pornography. The film allows him to speak for himself as he shows off his stash – which has pretty much taken over his house – of over 400 videos, thousands of magazines and a horde of articles on the subject. Whittington comes off rather well in this film. Rather geeky, obviously, but fundamentally no worse than anyone else feeding an obsession with collecting pop-cultural ephemera.

Then we have two films (not sequentially) which I’m going to deal with together because, for me, Blue Movie and Removed highlight the difficulty that many filmmakers face when trying to bring an art-house or experimental sensibility to pornography. Both films take vintage porn – stag films, in the case of Blue Movie, and a piece of 70s Euro-smut in the case the case of Removed – and then rework it, over and over again, until the pornographic elements are thoroughly obscured.

The problem that both films run into is that porn and erotica are not the same and by simply removing or concealing the pornographic, we are left with a pair of films that are neither pornographic nor erotic. And, I have to admit, that I was left wondering what the point was.

I almost included The Colour of Love with the above two films, but this one is distinguished by some genuinely disturbing imagery buried under all of the reworking. The film – heavily reworked again – is dedicated to Doris Wishman and revolves around two women having bloody sex with a dead man. It’s an interesting film and one that could have been very powerful if the footage hadn’t been quite so (deliberately) degraded.

Similarly, Downs are Feminine attempts to rework sexual images. This time around, the approach is to use cut-out animation of pornographic photos against a tacky 1970s background. It all drifts along in a dreamy, vaguely surreal fashion and – visually – there are some good ideas in there. But, ultimately, it really isn’t very clear what the film makers are trying to say, if anything.

The snappily titled The Influence of Ocular Light Perception on Metabolism in Man and Animal is a lot more effective. The film is built from a collection of seemingly random images, some of which are sexual and others more innocuous, thrown at the screen in rapid succession and it’s the rapid juxtaposition of the images that imbues the more mundane images with an often unexpected sexuality.

On a more cheerful note is Sneakin’ and Peekin’, which comes to us from 1976 and shows the results of two documentary film makers sneaking into a nudist camp. The film very successfully evokes the innocent sexuality of the George Harrison Marks’ early films.

Sexjunkie, the penultimate film in the anthology is by far the strongest. Both erotic and disturbing, this film takes the form of a video confessional of a nymphomaniac and her obsession with sex – not as love but as a physical craving.

The final film in the collection is Pacifier, an adolescent ode to porn. The premise is that when he was 13 Oscar Perez wrote a couple of stories for Penthouse Forum. Then, unable to find where to send them, he forgot about them. Years later when he rediscovered his stories, he decided to turn them into films.

While the script for Pacifier supposedly taken directly from the letter, the film is very much played for laughs and very effectively captures a 13 year old’s understanding of – and fantasies about – adult sex. As well as being very funny, this film more than any of the others, asks the audience to consider who consumes porn and why.

Overall, I found Xperimental Eros to be a very mixed collection and I think that, more than anything, this reflects the mixed state of art-house erotica. As such, it’s an interesting, rather than consistently enjoyable collection, but one that is worth seeing if you are both reasonably open minded and interested in experimental films.

Last of the Scottish Wildcats

Last of the Scottish Wildcats Wildcats have lived in Britain for more than two million years, sharing their territories with the mammoth, the cave bear and the cave lion long before humans had made their way through the forests of Europe. Some 9000 years ago, as the last ice age came to an end and sea levels rose, isolating the British Isles from mainland Europe, the wildcat population here became isolated and evolved into a unique species: felis sylvestris grampia, the Scottish wildcat.

Given that the Scottish wildcat is Britain’s last wild feline and infamous amongst experts for being the wildest of wild animals, I was a bit surprised to discover that Last of the Scottish Wildcats is only the second film to document this animal.

The film starts with some stunning views of the Scottish Highlands, not only capturing very effectively the stark beauty of this environment but also – with the help of a narration from David Goodall – giving a real sense of the harshness of the conditions under which this species has evolved.

The Scottish wildcat is a very impressive animal and the excellently narrated and compelling photography really does capture this well. It is well adapted to survive the harshest of Scottish winters and, pound for pound, is one of the world’s most dangerous predators and we do, as an audience, get a real sense of this.

But not everything is rosy in the Scottish wildcat’s world.

After centuries of persecution, deforestation and competition from introduced species, the Scottish wildcat is a seriously endangered species. It is estimated that there are less than 400 Scottish wildcats left in the world and extinction could be as little as ten years away.

And this brings us to the real heart of Last of the Scottish Wildcats, which is an exploration of the challenges faced by the species and a look at what people are trying to do to ensure its continued viability.

This investigation is achieved largely through a series of interviews with the people directly involved in the conservation of the Scottish wildcat. Some people, of course, interview better than others but what does come across very consistently is the real passion that these people have for their cause and a very real understanding not only of the difficulties they are facing but also of how they can reasonably overcome them.

Last of the Scottish Wildcats is a very complete documentary in that it covers not only the animal itself, but also the human reaction to it, and a thorough analysis of its conservation status and what can be – and is being – done to preserve this wildest of wild animals.

By pulling together some stunning photography, an atmospheric score and some unequivocal discussions with some of the people directly involved in the ongoing survival of this species, director Steve Piper has made a genuinely fascinating, and inspiring, documentary.

Profits from this film are to be shared with the Scottish Wildcat Association, a newly formed charity working to conserve the Scottish Wildcat.

Blood, Boobs Beast

Poster for Blood, Boobs & Beast Between 1976 and 1988, Don Dohler wrote, directed and produced five science fiction and horror films - using a cast and crew drawn from friends, family and a few semi-professionals - all from the base of his suburban Maryland home. Then he decided he’d had enough and didn’t make another film for eleven years.

He returned in 1999 with Alien Factor 2: The Alien Rampage, and during the shooting, he met part-time actor Joe Ripple and the two men began to collaborate allowing Dohler to concentrate on cinematography and editing while Ripple took on the directing. Under the banner of Time Warp films, the two have gone on to make another four films.

However, things have changed since Dohler first started making films. In the 1970s, many of these films were sold for TV syndication but now, with direct to video films coming to dominate the low budget landscape, Dohler has now found himself having to include more exploitative elements – blood, boobs and beast – in order get the distribution deals he needs to keep going. This is something he is clearly uncomfortable with and, increasingly, a point of contention with Ripple – so much so that Dohler is, once again, saying that he’s had enough of making films.

Blood, Boobs Beast follows the production of Dead Hunt, the fifth film to be made by Dohler and Ripple, and looks at the highs and lows of low budget filmmaking in general and the career and character of Dohler in particular.

Don Dohler, it emerges, has been a very influential character over the years, although much of his influence goes back to the time before he became a filmmaker.

When he was 16, Dohler created and published a Mad style fanzine called Wild which turned out to be rather successful, to say the least. At its peak, the magazine’s conributors included people such people as Jay Lynch, Art Spiegelman, and Skip Williamson, who later went on to be famous in the underground comix movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

ProJunior
Cinemagic

Where Mad had Alfred E. Neuman as a mascot, Wild had ProJunior and in the early 70’s Jay Lynch and Art Spiegelman returned to this character, drawing together 22 underground comix artists – including Robert Crumb – to create a comic with their own interpretations of this character.

The resulting magazine was published in 1971 and, encouraged by the underground comix movement, Dohler returned to self-publishing in his early 20s with Cinemagic magazine which featured step-by-step articles for amateur special-effects filmmakers. Cinemagic inspired a number of filmmakers – including Tom Savini, J.J. Abrams and Tom Sullivan, all of whom have much to say about Don Dohler in this film – who went on to gain a great deal of recognition in their respective fields.

After his success with Cinemagic, Dohler gained the confidence to start making films and, in 1976, released The Alien Factor, a low budget monster movie which enjoyed a long run on syndicated TV throughout the 1980s.

Blood, Boobs Beast maintains a gentle pace that reflects the character of Dohler and manages to draw together some remarkably open and very revealing interviews with the man himself, as well as with his family, friends, colleagues, fans and industry professionals.

All this makes for a fascinating and very honest view of what it takes to make an independent film and manages, superbly, to get across not just the character of Dohler but also the affection felt for him and his films by both his fans and his friends.

Blood, Boobs Beast is a film that’s well worth checking out for anyone interested in independent films, horror films or both. It’s also a film that, once it finished, had me not only looking for more information on Don Dohler, but also trying to track down some of his films which – for a documentary such as this – is probably the highest praise possible.

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