I. Love, Antosha (2019)
This is a moving documentary that explores the life of actor Anton Yelchin (Star Trek (2009), Green Room (2015), Thoroughbreds (2017)), from his birth in Russia to his last films. This is an engaging and respectful feature that aims to pay tribute to this person of great potential taken too soon. Yelchin died on 19 June 2016, suffering a fatal crash between a brick wall and a fence when his car rolled back on him in his parking space in Los Angeles. Through his own footages, as well as the interviews conducted with his parents, close friends and co-workers, we find out what kind of a person Anton really was – extremely devoted to his loving parents, loyal to his friends, kind, generous, curious, intellectual, funny, goofy, and passionate about many aspects of life. He possessed a great charisma and acting skills, having started acting at a very young age and then later acting alongside such stars as Anthony Hopkins, Robin Williams, Albert Finney, Jodie Foster and Willem Dafoe. It is safe to say that, given his talent, he was just on the brink of “breaking through” in his career and just needed that one very successful big movie that will escalate his career much further, a movie that, sadly, will never now come. By recognising him as an absolute star now, we can at least pay tribute to this potential, to the person who was so passionate about acting and films, and whose kind, curious and sparkling personality will always be remembered.
It is hard to fit a man’s life into one hour and thirty minutes, but Love, Antosha manages well and is very informative. We get a glimpse of everything here, from Anton’s first acting homework (as he attended a local acting group as a child) to his later exploration of music, photography and film directing. Anton just loved acting, films and cameras, and, being a hard-worker, always gave one hundred percent of himself to each and every role he took on. He always had this cheerful side to him, and was also loved for his quick smile and jokes. Thus, few people knew that, in fact, he also battled a condition called cystic fibrosis, which causes shortness of breath. In this vein, the documentary also explores his health struggles, as well as his personal insecurities and Hollywood disillusionment. Both confident and humble at the same time, Anton had such a personality that everyone who worked with him was touched by him, by his sincerity, as well as by his desire to think deeply about his roles and films. Hollywood should pride itself for having had this person of unique charm in its ranks, who had both a big talent and a big heart.
II. Tower (2016)
This animated documentary is based on a 2006 Texas Monthly article by Pamela Calloff titled 96 Minutes. It is about a mass shooting that occurred at the premises of the University of Texas in Austin in 1966. In that shooting, orchestrated by Charles Whitman, a former Marine, 17 people lost their lives. The documentary follows the shooting from the perspectives of survivors, recreating the events minutely as they happened on that hot day in Texas. I cannot say I am a big fan of this documentary’s artistic approach of using rotoscoping to recreate images, but it definitely helped to dramatize important moments in the story and to show the full extent of the impact of the event on the survivors. Paradoxically, the animated feature becomes even more “real” than one’s usual documentary because the people involved have now aged and could again be “replicated”, conveying the immediacy of certain moments. It is precisely this immediacy that was so masterfully conveyed in the documentary, and, when watching, we really feel like we are alongside all these people (and put into their shoes) who try to bring the shooter down and who are living their worst fears being near the Tower on that day.
When the shooting of innocent bystanders started, some people believed that the sound was merely firecrackers, and then we see just how quickly the situation escalated. The centre of the documentary is pregnant woman Claire Wilson, whose boyfriend was shot dead by the sniper as they walked from the campus. Claire fell down and remained on the hot concrete for 90 minutes, being afraid to move. This was the time before the now fast and coordinated armed response by the police, so we then see how ordinary people tried to help to bring the shooter down, as well as how media covered the event. The killer was eventually shot dead on the observation deck by police officers Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, whose brave actions must be praised. However, it is also praise-worthy how this documentary gives spotlight to other unlikely heroes, especially since heroism is not always just taking a gun and defending someone, but can also express itself by a person putting themselves in a harm’s way while trying to help someone. In that way, the centre of attention was also young student Rita Starpattern, who came from her shelter, risking her life, and ran to lay alongside pregnant Claire. It is Rita who helped Claire stay conscious while they waited for the massacre to stop. The actions of such people as Allen Crum, a retired Air Force tail gunner, were also amazingly heroic, especially since Crum was merely a civilian at the time and was simply working peacefully in the building opposite the Tower. He ended up on the observation deck of the Tower helping to shoot the sniper down, and is one among a number of others whose bravery also consisted in trying to help the wounded and the dying.
Although it is true that some of the music used in the documentary is both unnecessary and does not quite fit the tragic events shown, and, especially towards the end, Tower loses some of its focus, it is still an insightful documentary piece. For once, the focus here is not the shooter, but the people affected – those who died, those who helped to bring the shooter down, and those who helped others to deal with this tragic situation. These are the people whose names should be remembered, and not the name of the killer. There are monsters out there, but they are also people who would not think twice about sacrificing their lives to save and help others, and it is the memory of the latter that we should all be keeping alive.
III. 13th (2016)
This documentary, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma (2014)), links the US mass imprisonment (the US has the largest number of persons imprisoned in the world), to slavery and the 13th Amendment, which guarantees everyone freedom in the country – everyone, except criminals. The documentary states that black people have always been arrested for minor crimes and it is in this way they have been exploited economically and kept in chains. The documentary is rather informative and thought-provoking, showing clearly how black people are disproportionately overrepresented in American prisons, and how they have always been stereotyped and discriminated against, be it through direct segregation or through the law & order mentality.
There is no understanding of American culture or politics without the issue of race being considered at the heart it, and the documentary quite clearly demonstrates how even the infamous “war on drugs” was used to keep black and Latino communities away and in chains. Black people have been overrepresented as delinquents in news and on TV in general, and, through the expert statements, we see how unfairness and discrimination against black people permeated all corners of the American law. Perhaps the documentary is too long, overstates its message, and too relentlessly points one in one direction without considering some other elements, but it is still potent and memorable, showing what has been done by others to alleviate the many injustices and misconceptions.