It’s always great to get a lot of documentaries in early in the year and the buzz around the following MIFF films has been high from the get-go. While they’re only three of the many docs included in MIFF’s line-up this year, they were chosen for good reason: The Salt of the Earth was an Oscar nominee this year (though one that admittedly few had likely heard of considering its lack of wide US release in ’14), Iris is Albert Maysles’ last film (releasing just after his recent passing – RIP), and Hot Girls Wanted was produced by Rashida Jones and picked up by Netflix. Here are my capsules for each.
The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, 2014)
Last year, I covered Meeting Sebastião Salgado for the Miami New Times during the Brazilian Film Festival. In it, I admitted my limited knowledge of the subject, but my fascination with his photography, which flashed by for mere seconds without nearly enough exposition. And now, months later, Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, brings us a film co-directed by Wim Wenders, entirely dedicated to presenting an audience with the beauty of the photographer’s life and work.
From the get-go, it’s all about delivering his art in pristine quality – and witnessing some of these photographs on the big screen is such a worthwhile experience. The simplicity of some is contrasted by the incredibly intricate nature of others, and it’s a mystery how these were displayed at anything other than a theatre’s massive size for the sake of noticing every detail. But the filmmakers don’t just show these photos alongside an incredibly affecting ambient score. They allow Salgado to comment on most of his photographs, presenting an audience with context, be it emotional or historical.
And that kind of narration – which occasionally comes with a moment where Salgado’s own image is lain over his art – makes for a strangely personal film, with Wenders himself even speaking of the impact the photographer’s work had on him. While the B&W photography that makes up most of the film is entrancing, and learning of Salgado’s history is just as much, the last act falls into a strange little area of where Salgado is at the moment.
Here is where the doc becomes something of a showcase of the photographer’s personal project of reforestation and how that has allowed him to find beauty in the world again. This adds more of Salgado’s passion to the project, but it feels a little distracted from what was presented in a great portion of the film. But it isn’t enough to take away from how beautiful an image of Sebastião Salgado, his career and his love of this world, The Salt of the Earth really is.
Iris (Albert Maysles, 2014)
Just recently, legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles passed away. It was weird to have seen his film on the day he passed away, but even weirder to interview the star of it just on the date of its festival screening. But both the film and its subject reassured me though: Maysles has delivered a nice little portrait of fashion icon Iris Apfel.
Iris takes a simple enough approach to showing an audience Apfel; a little history, a little of her personal relationships with those around her, and a lot of her getting around, working, and shopping. It’s astounding just how strong the woman’s work ethic is and it shows in her every decision. To think that someone at 93 could do all she does is impressive and the documentary clings to that as much as it can.
But it’s light – incredibly so – and this means that we don’t get all that much of an in-depth portrait of the woman. Certain aspects of her life are looked over for the sake of maintaining this intimate look at her current day-to-day business. That’d be fine if this was an episode of a larger look at the woman, but she deserves a little more depth and exploration to who she is.
Regardless, with his last film Maysles provides a nice enough look at a pretty fascinating woman. If any of her words stuck at most to me, they were these: it’s better to be happy than be well-dressed. Those are words to live by, and maybe everyone who watches Iris could learn a little from the way she’s still living her life today.
Hot Girls Wanted (Jill Bauer & Ronna Gradus, 2015)
Sounds sexy, right? Nope. Wrong. Go home. Hot Girls Wanted is actually a documentary about the amateur porn industry that, regardless of how much it seems to want to keep an unbiased perspective, pretty much condemns it from the get go. Filmmakers Jill Bauer & Ronna Gradus focus their lens on young women who have been drawn into the South Florida amateur porn industry through Craigslist ads. Some of ’em find themselves less bothered by their performances on camera and all the uncomfortable sexual activity it involves, and others – those most focused on – turn up the melodrama as necessary.
I’ve admittedly forgotten the names of the actresses at this point (curse my lack of a notepad that night!), but the film’s main focus is Tressa. HGW is, sadly, far less interested in its other actresses than it is in Tressa, who has become disillusioned with amateur porn. It makes it a sort-of uneven perspective on amateur pornography with the bulk of the film dedicated to her when there are just as many interesting other women surrounding her that deserve equal screen time (and share both negative and positive perspectives on the subsection of their industry). When the film isn’t presenting the audience with some harsh statistics and showing some of the actresses’ day to day activities, it’s focusing on Tressa and her relationships with her incredibly manipulative family (her boyfriend in particular is an obnoxious piece of work who casually puts her down and insults her under the guise of morality and caring about her).
What it does worst, outside of ignoring some more interesting narratives, is constantly abuse the audience with montages comparing porn views with music video views. It’d be fine if we were handed that kind of thing once, as its first inclusion is gleefully deceptive and smart, but no – the audience is hit with it again and again throughout the film. What Hot Girls Wanted does best though, and I make it a point to specify how much I appreciate this, is never sexualize the women it follows. Everything about HGW exists to make one uncomfortable, but it doesn’t do that at the expense of its actresses. Even when they’re being gagged and forced into uncompromising situations, the camera does all it can to avoid presenting the actual pornography. The girls occasionally slip in and out of clothes, but there’s no male gaze here, just realism.
By no means should anyone look to Hot Girls Wanted as the be-all end-all of amateur pornography, especially considering its limited scope. But, weirdly enough, it’s a good start to a conversation that we, as a general consciousness, need to be having about amateur pornography, its accessibility, its usefulness, and its dangers. As such, Netflix is going to make a damn fine home for it, and we can only hope that the filmmakers get the chance to go even deeper into the rabbit hole they’ve worked their way into.
Bonus Miami New Times Coverage:
- Capsules for Guidance, Sangue Azul & Les Combattants