A truism of moviegoing is that, if you want to beat the odds, choose a documentary. Dramatic features, especially costly ones, tend to get made for many reasons inimical to excellence. Documentaries, perhaps because they usually are made by filmmakers who are passionate about a subject and not expecting a big payday, stand a better chance of being good. Here's a report from the front lines on a quartet of current worthies making the rounds.
'The Unmistaken Child'
One of the great things about documentaries is their ability to transport you to places and cultures far away from the orbit of your experience. For most of us, "The Unmistaken Child" would certainly qualify. A first feature by Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz, it's about the search by the 28-year-old Nepalese monk Tenzin Zopa for the reincarnation of the Buddhist master, Geshe Lama Konchong, who died in 2001. Mr. Zopa was raised from childhood by the legendary rinpoche, whom he reveres as both a father and a teacher. Now he must seek out a boy, between the ages of 1 and 1-1/2, whom the senior lamas certify as the true reincarnation, or "unmistaken child."
The process of discovery takes Zopa to Nepal's breathtaking Tsum Valley, where both he and Lama Konchog once resided. Eventually a little boy, playful and feisty, is found and deemed authentic. In order to fulfill his destiny, he must be brought, with full pomp, to a faraway monastery. Zopa must convince the boy's parents to part with him for life.
A number of dramatic features, including Martin Scorsese's excellent "Kundun" and Bernardo Bertolucci's boring "Little Buddha," have covered similar ground. But there's nothing like seeing this process in all its spectacular, unadorned reality. Baratz, though, doesn't settle for mere ethnography. He understands that the film also exists on an entirely other level of perception. Zopa, who grieves openly over his master's death, finds in the boy both an embodiment of Lama Konchog and, although it goes unspoken, of himself as a child. The image of Zopa cradling the boy is charged with so many contradictory meanings that it's almost impossible to take in. The leave-taking scene with the boy's parents is another moment when the screen itself seems to vibrate with pathos. Baratz films it all with an intimacy that ascends to a state of grace.
Frankly, I was afraid to see this exposé of agribusiness. What if it was a foodie version of "An Inconvenient Truth"? I might never eat anything not marked "organic" again.
Having taken the plunge, I can report that I am still eating in restaurants that don't serve bean sprouts, but popcorn at the movies is out. So are all fast foods, anything suspiciously meaty and plump in the supermarkets (including those bulbous tomatoes that look as if they were grown on the moon), anything canned or not produced locally, and just about anything corn-based or genetically altered. What's left?
The sick state of affairs that our foodstuffs – i.e., we – have fallen into can, according to director Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc.," be traced directly to the multinational agribusiness takeover of food production.
The film argues that unsafe and unhealthy mass production techniques have passed along antibiotics and new, mutated strains of E. coli bacteria directly into the food chain, resulting in sickness for many thousands and even death. No wonder obesity is a national epidemic, when it's cheaper to feed a low-income family with cheeseburgers than vegetables. This is not breaking news. Until I saw "Food, Inc.," however, I did not know that 1 in 2 low-income "minority" children in this country tests positive for type 2 diabetes.
Many other grisly statistics are put forth by a team of talking heads that includes activists Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") as well as concerned farmers like Joel Salatin. Especially infuriating to me was being told that the federal regulatory agencies designed to safeguard us are stocked with policymakers tied to agribusiness. For those heretofore in the dark about these scandals, "Food, Inc." will change the way you eat – and vote.
'Throw Down Your Heart'
The great Grammy-winning banjoist Bela Fleck travels to four African countries – Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali – in this sprightly, engaging musical jamboree directed by Sascha Palladino. The banjo originated in Africa and so Fleck's journey resembles a music version of "Roots." Along the way he accompanies some remarkable artists, such as n'goni lutenist Bassekou Kouyate and the great singer Oumou Sangare. Fleck is the most humble of travelers. He's in Africa to learn and rejoice, and so he does, as do we.
'Herb and Dorothy'
Herb Vogel, a postal worker, and his wife, Dorothy, a librarian, began collecting minimalist art, which they never sold, in the early 1960s. Their only requirements were that the art be affordable and capable of being transported back to their cramped, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment by subway or taxi.
Over the years, with uncanny astuteness, they amassed an astounding collection, much of which they recently donated to Washington's National Gallery of Art. (Transporting the art took five 40-foot-long vans.)
"Herb and Dorothy," directed by Megumi Sasaki, is not just an affectionate portrait of these legendary homespun collectors and the art world they have graced for almost half a century. It's also a portrait of a marriage made in heaven – a very cluttered, rent-stabilized heaven.