Hot Docs 2014: Actress, The Joe Show, E-Team
Robert Greene finds inspiration for his latest documentary in his next-door neighbour Brandy Burre. Burre was an up and coming actress, known mostly for a recurring role on HBO’s The Wire, but an unexpected pregnancy made her decide to put a hiatus on acting in order to raise her child. Now, years later and raising two kids with her long-term boyfriend Tim, Burre tries to get back into acting.
Greene focuses on Burre’s domesticated life before a revelation changes the film significantly. Burre gives Greene a surprising amount of access into her life, and Greene uses the opportunity to explore the reality of what he’s viewing. It’s hard to tell if Burre is showing her true self at times, or if she’s performing for the camera. Greene blurs the lines between these distinctions even further by filming scenes that are clearly set up and giving her a proper credit (the film’s title card says “Brandy Burre is ACTRESS”).
The results may not always live up to the intrigue of Greene’s ideas, but Actress is mesmerizing the whole way through. Most of this is because of Burre who, despite her actions, makes for a likable and relatable subject. Greene brings up plenty of interesting ideas through his direction, and his filming of Burre in different environments (especially when she’s entertaining visitors in her home) makes a strong point about the different levels of performance people do in their day-to-day lives. It’s exciting to see a documentary filmmaker take these kinds of risks in their work, making Actress one of the more admirable docs I’ve seen at the festival this year.
The Joe Show
It’s astounding that no one has made a documentary about Joe Arpaio until now. For those not in the know, Arpaio is the sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, and is well-known for his publicity stunts. These include chain gangs, prisoners wearing pink underwear, “tent cities” for inmates, and more bizarre actions the media loves to lap up.
Arpaio’s narcissistic, hungry for the camera personality allowed director Randy Murray access to the sheriff’s personal and professional life, a decision that Arpaio regrets now. After a brief (but still too long) period portraying Arpaio in a positive light, Murray begins showing the truth. Arpaio is a monstrous, power-abusing figure of authority, his atrocities including arresting and stalking critics, ignoring hundreds of sex crimes and more than several suspicious deaths.
There is a fundamental need for a documentary like Murray’s, as Arpaio’s media sideshows have successfully served as distractions from his horrific actions as sheriff, but The Joe Show has its priorities wrong. Murray’s attempts to explore how fame corrupts people feels half-baked, and is nowhere near as interesting as learning about Arpaio’s abuses of power. The doc’s worst offense comes when the focus on people killed by Maricopa County police officers is reduced to a flashy montage, pushed out of the way to focus on Arpaio’s successful run for sheriff in 2012 (Murray tries to create tension out of the election results, a baffling decision considering it happened two years ago and the results are widely known).
Murray’s fondness for Arpaio (he said that Joe became “a friend” while shooting) shines through even to the end, as his victory in the 2012 election is scored with “Back in the Saddle Again.” But the playful, wink-nudge tone of this sequence feels strange considering it surrounds someone whose behaviour shares similarities with dictators. The Joe Show does do a decent job tearing apart Joe Arpaio’s record, but it’s not the dressing down he deserves.
The E-Team is a group of Human Rights Watch workers traveling the world to investigate claims of human rights abuse. This usually means entering war zones, and filmmakers Ross Kaufman & Katy Chevigny take their cameras with two pairs of E-team workers: Anna & Ole, a married couple investigating Syria’s attacks on civilians; and Fred & Peter, who travel to Libya to investigate claims of abuse from Gadaffi’s army and the rebels. Kaufman and Chevigny’s work on the project is admirable, as they dive right in with the E-Team and join them in the two war-torn areas. An early sequence where Anna and Ole make a run for Syria’s border shows just how risky it is for everyone.
But admiration for the filmmakers, and even more admiration for the doc’s subjects, is the only thing to take from E-Team. Kaufman and Chevigny’s work is surprisingly unenlightening, and despite their time with the four E-Team members very little is learned. The one exception to this is Fred, the “father” of the E-Team, whose explanation of his work in Kosovo (including facing down Milosevic in court) shows how important the team’s work is. There is little else worth mentioning or recommending here, as Kaufman/Chevigny focus on grisly images and mourners instead of delving deeper into their subject matter. It all feels a little too pat in its portrayal, making most of E-Team feel like an overextended news segment. There’s a good documentary to be made about the work these people do; E-Team isn’t it.