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"Benda Bilili!" "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" And More Docs!

A street band from Kinshasa leads this week's modest batch of documentaries.

"When French filmmakers and music lovers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tuyalle landed in the Congo in 2004 with the intention of recording some local music," writes Ernest Hardy in the Voice, "they had no idea that their dream would take five years, grow to include a documentary film, and be centered on four paraplegic musicians, three able-bodied ones, and the homeless boy (a self-taught music wunderkind with a homemade string instrument) they took in."

David DeWitt in the New York Times: "The documentary Benda Bilili!, in French and Lingala, captures five years in the lives of this intergenerational street band, five years in which the buskers move from practicing at the decaying Kinshasa zoo to performing for enraptured crowds on the strength of their album, Très Très Fort, French for 'Very Very Strong' — which they are."

In Slant, Andrew Schenker finds that "the film's inquiry into the artistic method remains somewhat at the superficial level, but the directors do a fine job of emphasizing both the circumstances that lead to the music's creation and the satisfying result of the irrepressible sounds, even if they skimp on the process of moving from the one to the other. Shooting footage of quotidian street life in which kids play with a tire in an open field, stop cars for money, or discuss their country's dire prospects, the directors counter with the always upbeat sounds of the music whose lyrics may deal with sleeping on cardboard boxes but whose performance endows the musicians' circumstances with a feeling of irrepressible optimism."

No one gets to choose their critics, but so far, Sarah Palin has been very, very lucky. Like many who caught Sarah Palin: You Betcha! in Toronto, New York's Logan Hill was more than disappointed. He was a little ticked off: "Nick Broomfield's lazy, indulgent documentary does the unthinkable: It manages to make Michael Moore, and even Sarah Palin, seem downright humble by comparison. Without digging up a single new piece of information, it leaves Palin unscathed and makes Broomfield look like a clueless Borat as he reheats the most familiar, overused critiques of Palin…. If this is the worst critique Palin has to fear, she may have a very long career, after all."

Sam Adams, writing in Time Out New York, agrees that the doc "could win her more supporters than it loses." More from Kaleem Aftab (Independent, 2/5), Ed Gonzalez (Slant, 2.5/4), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Karina Longworth (Voice), AO Scott (NYT), Catherine Shoard (Guardian, 4/5), Miranda Siegel (Vulture), Drew Taylor (Playlist, C-), Ella Taylor (NPR) and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo (Box Office, 3.5/5). Interviews with Broomfield: Ed Champion (35'08"), Mekado Murphy (NYT, 3'02"), Daniel James Scott (Cinespect) and Catherine Shoard (Guardian, 7'00").

Broomfield undoubtedly still hopes to stir the pot with his doc, but he didn't get a couple of weeks' worth of coverage in Doonesbury, as Joe McGinniss did for his book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin. Like most who've read it, though, the Los Angeles Times' David L Ulin find it frustrating: "I have no doubt that McGinniss's view of Palin is accurate: that she is narcissistic, undisciplined and unqualified for public life. Still, I want more than innuendo to make the point."

"American Teacher is basically a feature-length commercial on behalf of the teaching profession, attesting to how important and how difficult, underpaid, and underappreciated it is," writes Alison Willmore at the AV Club. "The necessity of such an ad can be chalked up to the recent education-reform documentary barrage of The Cartel, The Lottery, and most prominently, Waiting for 'Superman', which all controversially criticize teachers’ unions and come out in favor of charter schools. American Teacher mostly avoids these murkier policy issues in favor of following a selection of idealistic teachers in their work and struggles, and interviewing countless others about the influence a good instructor can have on a child. The film is relentlessly one-sided enough to become tiring, but it’s impossible not to feel for the main characters, who all love what they do while continually being forced to question how feasible it is." More from Ernest Hardy (Voice) and Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant, 2/4).

Diego Costa in Slant: "In Connected, Tiffany Shlain, of Webby Awards fame, engages in the impossible task of making sense of her father's sudden frailty (brain tumor and nine months to live) and his legacy (brain scientist and an unfinished manuscript about Da Vinci's brain) by utilizing the entire history of mankind…. Shlain may have been more successful in bringing in a poetic ethos to this clearly honest homage and cinematic pedagogy if the film had remained a small experimental affair."

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Interesting line of docs, though of course the best looks to be “Benda Bilili!” while the last two look a bit middlebrow.

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