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"The Ister," "Defamation" and More Doc News & Views

The Auteurs Daily

Food, Inc.

Since the Academy announced yesterday that it'd narrowed a list of 89 films qualifying to run the Documentary Feature race down to 15 (and if you'd like to get acquainted with those 15, Roger Erik Tinch's list is a fine place to start), talk has centered not so much on the docs that have just leapt the first hurdle but on those that didn't make it - the ones that got, in a word, "snubbed" - particularly, as the New York Times' Dave Itzkoff notes, Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, Sacha Gervasi's Anvil! The Story of Anvil, RJ Cutler's The September Issue, James Toback's Tyson and Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public.

"In my mind, the Academy's list solidifies Burma VJ, The Cove and Food, Inc. as frontrunners for the nomination," blogged AJ Schnack about an hour after the announcement. If you're keen on this race, you'll want to track his site, All These Wonderful Things. AJ's a documentary filmmaker himself, of course (Kurt Cobain About a Son), but also co-chair of Cinema Eye Honors, founded in response to his sense that, year after year, the Academy fudges its doc category. As it happens, though, the three films he mentions as likely frontrunners are Cinema Eye nominees as well. Food, Inc., as AJ notes, is the only doc also in the running for the Gothams and the IDA Documentary Awards.

More commentary on the Academy's list: Guy Lodge (In Contention), David Poland, Vadim Rizov (IFC), Andre Soares (Alternative Film Guide), Anne Thompson and Steven Zeitchik (Hollywood Reporter).

The Ister"How many scholarly stakes in the heart will we need before Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976), still regarded by some as Germany's greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack? Overrated in his prime, bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now, the pretentious old Black Forest babbler makes one wonder whether there's a university-press equivalent of wolfsbane, guaranteed to keep philosophical frauds at a distance."

What's sparked Carlin Romano's outburst in the Chronicle Review (sparking, in turn, over 160 comments and counting) is the imminent release of the English-language translation of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, in which Emmanuel Faye "essentially calls on publishers to stop churning out Heidegger volumes as they would sensibly desist from hate speech."

"The book is the most radical attack yet on Heidegger," writes Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, "and [it] would upend the philosophical field's treatment of his work in the United States, and even more so in France, where Heidegger has frequently been required reading for an advanced degree. Mr Faye, an associate professor at the University of Paris, Nanterre, not only wants to drum Heidegger from the ranks of philosophers, he wants to challenge his colleagues to rethink the very purpose of philosophy and its relationship to ethics."

All of which makes Icarus Films' release of David Barison and Daniel Ross's 2004 documentary The Ister this week all the more timely. Artforum's revived Daniel Birnbaum's 2005 piece on this "original undertaking: a cinematic collage that turns on Hölderlin's epic 'river hymn,' The Ister (from 'Istros,' the ancient Greek term for the Danube), and, more pointedly, on Martin Heidegger's famous reading of it." Barison and Ross travel the Danube from the Black Sea to the Black Forest, speaking along the way with three French philosophers - Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy and Bernard Stiegler - but for Birnbaum, "it is not until we reach the Black Forest - real Heidegger country - and [Hans-Jürgen] Syberberg appears, dressed in white like a latter-day Kurtz, that things get truly exciting. The creator of the magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) dilates on the 'new Germany,' which he calls a 'weak and friendly' place.... His dangerously attractive soliloquy seems a necessary finale, reminding us that The Ister's true subject is not the physical river but the metaphysical geography that has been evoked by poets and thinkers to devastating and barbaric effect. Although Syberberg is fully aware of this, he can't help playing with fire. He is a mild and sophisticated man, someone I would love to get to know. Behind him, the forest whispers: 'The horror, the horror.'"


Might be appropriate at this point to round up reviews of one of the docs opening tomorrow. Yoav Shamir, notes Dennis Harvey in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, "says that as an Israeli Jew he's never actually experienced anti-Semitism. So he sets out to explore that prejudice's status quo - or so he claims, somewhat disingenuously. Because Defamation's real agenda is positing anti-Semitism as a distorted, exploited, propagandic bludgeon used to taint any critique of Israeli government policies or the foreign lobbies supporting them."

Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, "who has since denounced Defamation as a fraud, comes off the most dangerously egocentric, bellowing with fury about the seemingly benign slurs in everyday culture that will assuredly pave the gilded path to a new Auschwitz - though his nemesis, the borderline Holocaust denier Norman Finkelstein, raises equally perplexed eyebrows with his peculiar clinging to dusty 'rich Hollywood Jew' stereotypes." Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant: "But while Shamir gets these icons' goats..., his conclusion is painfully bromidic enough to render the preceding complexity pointless.... By ultimately advocating a purely forward-looking perspective, Defamation forgets the inheritance of gnarled events that lead not only to Auschwitz but to the West Bank too - and moving on from that is easier said than done."

More from Scott Foundas (Voice), Andrew Schenker (L) and James van Maanen.

Updates, 11/20: James Toback is claiming "that an irregularity in the process had contributed to what he saw as a snub," reports the NYT's Michael Cieply. "Pressed for details, Mr Toback said only that he had experienced something connected with the selections process, 'which I put fully in the category of extortion that I did not go along with.'"

Neil Genzlinger in the NYT on Defamation: "These ideas deserve a thorough, dispassionate discussion, but what they get here is an imitation-Michael Moore treatment, with Mr Shamir trying to catch his subjects in unguarded moments.... Presumably Mr Shamir's film plays differently in Israel. In the United States, it feels like just another day on the Op-Ed page."

"Defamation is guaranteed to push the buttons of Jewish viewers all along the political spectrum, which is what makes it so valuable," argues Michael Fox at SF360. "Is Abe Foxman selflessly manning the barricades night and day while the rest of us go about our daily lives free from concern? Or is he using a negligible threat as a tool for fundraising? Is anti-Semitism a handy way for American Jews to hang onto the victim card despite extraordinary success in every field? Or should we never forget that German Jews felt just as embedded in the warp and weave of their country after World War I?"

Top image: Food, Inc.

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