Silverdocs Report 5: Urban War Zone Overkill

I sometimes forget that a compelling subject does not necessarily promise a great documentary. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, a great documentary can be made with scraps of footage and some insightful interviews. Over the weekend I saw a pair of somewhat similar movies that sounded great on paper, yet lacked the punch promised by their premise.

With Blood Trail, director Richard Parry makes no attempt to hide his influences. When not in the middle of a war zone, photographer Robert King wanders Tennessee hunting deer (get it?). King spent the past fifteen years in dangerous cities: Sarajevo, Grozny, and Baghdad. Using footage from King’s cameraman colleague, Parry demonstrates how war coverage changes a man.

The earliest scenes are best – as a young ambitious photographer, King is an easily likable guy. He earnestly tries to fit in, and laughs at the squalor in which he lives. By the time he makes his way to Chechnya, the naïve ambitions gave way to cynicism and a self-destructive lifestyle. Not surprisingly, the photos dramatically improve. While there is never a real sense of danger, one gets some sense of how the job hardens King. In a fantastic sequence, he pauses to photograph a mutilated corpse and ponders the best possible shot. In spite of great moments, Blood Trail does not add to a cohesive whole. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the Baghdad sequences are downright boring precisely because soldiers deny King access to the action. Parry’s insights are nothing new, and the deer hunting sequences barely hold the narrative together. The documentary does crystallize the temperament and lifestyle wartime journalists must embrace, yet its impact pales in comparison to King’s fantastic photography.

Before the beginning of Dancing with the Devil, a representative of Silverdocs promised thrilling action to an eager audience. The first shot sets the tone – dramatic music plays while the camera swoops over the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Police raid a drug den, and the rata-tat of gunfire is not far away. In the aftermath, director Jon Blair introduces us to a few key players. There is Pastor Dione, a former drug runner who now attempts to broker peace between dealers and civilians. Then there is Spiderman, a drug lord who has found God. He and the pastor reach a deal. If Spiderman’s underlings make a mistake, they no longer pay with their lives, and now only get beaten and left in the Pastor’s care. As residents of the slum rebuild, the cops plan their next raid.

The opening sequence set my expectations high. I thought Dancing with the Devil would be a real-life version of City of God, brimming with excitement and excellent camerawork. Much to my chagrin, the movie devolves into a series of interviews, and the action quickly dies down. The hoods talk about their desire to reform the slum, and note only the police cause violence. The director may have unprecedented access to the slums, but I can’t help but feel he squandered an opportunity. He relies on his subjects to talk about their lives, and does not show us what they experience. The best scenes involve the Pastor discussing his strategy, and how he uses religion to reform the area. On the other hand, we barely hear of police work or the everyday drug operation. The focus on the human element is too strong, and while Spiderman is a surprising character, I found myself yearning for more probing material.

That’s it for my Silverdocs coverage! Tune in next week when I freak out on a remote space station.