LAFF 2011 Documentary Reviews: ELEVATE, UNRAVELED & PARAISO FOR SALE
The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival is currently taking place (until Sunday June 26) with a fresh new batch of films and documentaries. I’ve already seen quite a few films and documentaries and wanted to start our coverage with some thoughts on the three documentaries I have seen so far: Elevate, Unraveled and Paraiso For Sale:
Synopsis: Filmed over four years, from the dilapidated cement courts of Senegal to upscale American prep schools, ELEVATE documents the extraordinary personal journeys of four particularly tall West African Muslim teenage boys with NBA dreams. Recruited for both their physical and academic skills, Assane, Dethie, Byago and Aziz accept basketball scholarships to schools in the United States-and face the daunting challenges of alienation, a foreign language, American-style basketball and an unfamiliar American culture rife with African stereotypes. But with courage, humor, and remarkable resilience, they relentlessly pursue their dreams-to obtain an education and a shot at the NBA.
Thoughts: I really liked Elevate. It is an inspiring doc, which gives us insight in the lives of really impressive young men who step up and do what it takes to pursue their dreams, while at the same staying true to who they are. At turns heart-wrenching, and others refreshingly funny, you can’t help but be immersed in the journey of these brilliant kids who show you that nothing is impossible if you work hard enough at it.
I would recommend this to anyone who has had to leave their homeland to go someplace completely new, especially somewhere with a different culture. You can’t help but relate to these guys through all their pains and struggles. In addition, the documentary was superbly shot and edited, which never lets you feel bored watching it.
Favorite moment: When Byago Diouf receives his news about his visa application, his first reaction is one that epitomizes the essence and the tragedy of what their journey is all about. Quite a powerful moment beautifully captured on camera.
You can watch a clip from the documentary below.
Synopsis: Just days before Bernard Madoff captured headlines as the largest Ponzi schemer in U.S. history, Marc Dreier, a prominent Manhattan attorney, was arrested for orchestrating a massive fraud scheme that netted hundreds of millions of dollars from hedge funds. Brazen forgeries and impersonations branded the white-collar crime spree remarkable. “Unraveled” is set in the “purgatory” of house arrest — an upper East Side penthouse — where the Court has ordered Dreier confined until his sentencing day. The film weaves Dreier’s struggle to prepare for the possibility of life imprisonment with firstperson flashbacks, which reveal his audacious path of destruction. Destroyed by his own hubris, Dreier attempts to grasp his tragic unraveling. With unprecedented access, UNRAVELED exposes a portrait of a man who achieved the distinction he so desperately craved, but not for his keen intellect or ambition, but rather as a “mastermind of criminal deception.”
Thoughts: I was really hoping to have the opportunity to see the inner workings of a Bernie Madoff-like character and see some glaring truth that would explain how someone wakes up one morning and decides to steal hundreds of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, the film ended up being slightly disappointing and uncomfortable.
Disappointing because the character in question just seemed too pathetic; you couldn’t help wondering how did THIS guy manage to accomplish that. Uncomfortable because it was like watching the very long and sometimes mundane preparations of someone going to jail, which is somewhat the equivalent of watching someone prepare for a funeral.
The subject matter is what attracted me to watch this documentary, but it unfortunately didn’t meet my expectations. However, if you are curious to see what it must feel like to be Bernie Madoff or Dominique Strauss-Kahn as they are on house arrest, this documentary is a great window into that kind of life.
Favorite Moment: Marc Dreier debating with his lawyer – who by the way was awesome. If I ever steal 400+ million dollars, I want him to defend me – about whether he could get a smaller sentence because his crimes were not as bad as Madoff.
Paraiso For Sale
Synopsis: Bocas Del Toro, Panama has become a haven for ex-pat retirees. While their introduction to the local community hasn’t come without its complications, a bigger threat are the voracious corporations eager to turn the province into the latest Caribbean hot spot.
This engaging and revealing documentary tells the personal stories of the people who call the exquisitely beautiful area home and would like to keep it that way. From an American couple who’ve invested not just in their home but in their Panamanian community to a local businessman turned political hopeful, the characters and stories Prado tracks speak to the larger global issue of communities, new and old, under siege from faceless corporations.
Thoughts: Another disappointment for two different reasons. One that is documentary related and another that is completely trivial. Let’s get the trivial one out of the way. During the screening, the director of the documentary sat down on the seat in front of me and started texting on her phone during the beginning of the film. Out of all people, the director should at least want folks at her screening to enjoy what they are watching and not be distracted by someone on their phone. This just took me out of the screening and kept me fuming throughout.
Now onto the salient reason as to why I was disappointed by the film. It was too un-balanced as it clearly portrayed the locals as the victims trying to fight invisible corporate forces, that are destroying their way of life and taking over their homes. There were a few scenes that glossed over the fact that this corporate greed is also the reason why the Panamean economy is now booming more than ever, but that didn’t make up for the fact that I felt like I was watching an advocacy film and not an objective documentary.
I still think that this is worth watching for anyone who feels close to the subject matter of individuals losing their land to corporate greed. It was inspiring to watch locals like Dario VanHorne fighting to win a political office in order to change the plight of his fellow citizens or Karan & Willy Schreiber devoting their lives to their adopted land only to see it threatened.
Favorite moment: Following the election process to see if Dario wins the mayor’s office was pretty intense. The gripping moment was well shot and made me root for him to win.
You can watch a clip from the documentary below.