Documentary access

"Thieves by law", written/directed by Alexander Gentelev

Is documentary as good as the access a filmmaker is able to obtain? In most cases yes although I’ve seen a number of boring films with great access to their subjects.
“Thieves by law” succeeds bringing to us three real Russian gangsters. Two of them admit their murderous and chilling past, the third, the most famous one, plays an innocent, yet does not particularly bother to hide his amusement with the situation.

Actually just after the screening I was not convinced that the characters were real. It was too much of good stuff from the filmmaking point of view. I thought that perhaps it was all staged. Then I learned that one of the heros (the "innocent" one) is on the FBI most wanted list as the most famous Russian mob figure. OK, it’s a real documentary, showing real gangsters.

Their agreement to appear in the film says volumes about our times. The fact that they openly give interviews and that, after seeing the film, whoever wants to could probably quite easily locate them, even though they are on the Interpol search list, proves that what they do is pretty much sanctioned by the powers that run the show on this planet. Obviously the film is done only by the grace of its heros, as it clearly serves their PRs, personal whims or other objectives.

If it’s true that 20% of the world’s financial trade is mafia based no wonder the guys in the documentary don’t hide their faces, nor do they mind telling stories of killings they committed in the past.

Alexander Gentelev, who has made the documentary, supposedly in the ‘90s survived a bullet because of a thick wand of notes in his breast pocket. Alexander appears briefly on screen. He does look like a guy who can access powerful gangsters, make them talk and walk away alive. Bravo.

The most mysterious is a poker face gangster who having retired from mafia
(yeah, right) wants to be a film director. However watching the sequence about his filmmaking plans (which I think includes a real snuff clip) there is a sense that perhaps for the first time in his life, he faces a challenge he may not be ready for.

In a subtly implied inference the film at this point seems to be saying that even a ruthless, smart and powerful gangster most likely will fold trying to make a (good) film. Because it takes more than mastering intimidation, stealing and murdering in cold blood to become a good filmmaker.


Technology and the human nature

"The game of death". Produced and written by Christophe Nick
Directed by Thomas Bornot, Gilles Amado, Alain-Michel Blanc

"The Singularity is near". Director: Anthony Waller
Interviews Directed by Toshi Hoo
Co-Directed and written by Ray Kurzweil

Watching movies back to back sometimes sharpens their otherwise single perception. Such was a case when after a shocking “The Game of Death” I saw “The Singularity is near”.

“The Game of Death” repeats a famed Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment. Milgram found out that 62% of his participants, mindlessly and heartlessly obeying authority, were inflicting cruelty to other humans. 60 years later, in a TV reality show medium, the percentage of the willing executioners rose to 81%. Watching this documentary made me sick in my stomach. It did not happen however because, as
a The Huffington Post reviewer claimed, the doc was a gratuitous exploitation of the worst in television while pretending to critque it. It was not. Rather it was nauseating because it honestly, brutally and skillfully revealed a sad truth of our nature.

Locating itself on the other end of the spectrum, “The Singularityaddresses wonders of the upcoming merger of high-tech with human biology and the universe. In a few decades nanorobots will clean up our bodies and allow our minds to retain wast encyclopedic knowledge. Rocks and matter will turn into computing fields for more tech power. Wonderful. The only question is: will it make us better as human beings? Raymond Kurzweil, at least in his film, seems to be little concerned with the fact that we are failing as species, creating oceans of moral and social catastrophes and are completely unprepared for gifts that the splendid technological and biological revolution offers.

I have reservations not only with philosophical and sociological shortcomings of the way the future opportunities are presented in the film, but also with the crafting of the message. The narration is high on technological vision, which while clearly monumental, important and stimulating, is nevertheless presented in a too fast, too shallow and strangely outdated fashion. Granted, the heralded upcoming glory of nanotechnology, exponential technological growth and AI explosion is truly fantastic. Yet the film shows it in a cartoonish way, racing and obsessing over technological wonders with little or no concern with their humanistic implications or lack of them.

Red light goes up when front credits state that that Raymond "Ray" Kurzweil is a “co-director”. In addition one learns that the interviews were directed by a yet another person. Unfortunately what follows does not dispel concerns. The exchanges between Kurzweil and the experts look like created in the editing room with both interlocutors shot in different time and space. The film feels like a giant ego trip and a promotional vehicle for the otherwise brilliant and extremely accomplished guy. Overdoing his mundanely shot close ups and the abundance of the “me” factor don’t help the elegance and the impact of the message.

Somebody could say that it’s not fair to compare the conformists and cowards portrayed in “The Game of death” with some evolved individuals, including Mr. Kurzweil, who are trailblazing the glorious future for our planet. Yet until we learn compassion and cooperation the upcoming wonders of technology will only make most of us miserable.

“The Singularity” has narrative fun (pedestrian as far as the latest animation goes) following the case of a sexy AI female Ramona who, a few dozen years into the future, court battles for the recognition of her individual rights as a being equal to humans. (Allan Dershowitz makes a wonderful allay in her quest). It’s all fine and dandy. But how about setting the clock back to 2010 and trying to get 1/3 of humans deprived of proper education, food and shelter to become possessors of full human rights as well.

In a footnote: as a huge fan of Tony Robbins I protest against flat and borderline ridiculous use of his persona in this film.


On bitching and moaning and other stupidities

Yesterday while working on a complex editing/linguistic/translation issue with Irene, a Chinese friend of mine, I was growling with frustration. She looked at me sharply and said: “Why don’t you do it with a smile, sine you have to do it anyway and since it’s not such a big deal”. The remark instantaneously stopped my exasperation. She was so right.

In most cases within a normal contemporary lifestyle, privileges of any given situation vastly outnumber any possible discomforts and upsets. Yet not many of us “count our blessings”. What is it within ourselves that gravitates toward the negative, that seeks holes within the whole, that tends to get high on problems rather than to celebrate that which is and works?

I recall that Catherine Firpo in her Beijing 2010 ISUD conference presentation looked at the issue from a broader cultural perspective, pondering the fact that in most cultures dominating myths, like the end of the world, are apocalyptic, dark and negative. (Soon on youtube I will start posting selected Beijing interviews/panel scenes including the Firpo remarks.)

Back to my Chinese friend: later I shared with her my recent mistake of taking an antibiotic. Her response was fast: “you are just too impatient, if you took natural remedies it would had taken longer but would be much better for you.” Of course she was right again. Why are we so ridiculously rushing at our own expense even when we know that what we are doing is wrong, dumb and dangerous? Saying that we behave this way because of self destruction is just renaming the question.