MSPIFF Double Documentary Reviews: Chavela and Untouchable (2017)

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CHAVELA

Directed By: Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi
Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

Like most 20-something-year-old Midwesterners, I had never heard of Chavela Vargas. I might have heard some of her music in college, but I didn’t know her name-or her incredible history-until I saw Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary chronicling her unconventional musical career, heartbreaking personal experiences, and massive impact on Mexico’s LGBT community.

Chavela tells the story of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rican-born Mexican ranchera singer who gained popularity in the 50’s and 60’s, then disappeared into obscurity until the her career was revived in the early 90’s. Through a collection of interviews of individuals who knew her, as well as an interview of Chavela herself, we learn of her life-her lonely childhood with her loveless parents, per move to Mexico to pursue a music career, her struggle to find mainstream success due to her masculine style and being a known lesbian, despite not publicly labeling herself as such until her later years, her nearly crippling alcoholism, and her comeback in the 90’s that led to a huge, 2-decade-long success until her death in 2012.

I obviously can’t discuss this film without first discussing Chavela’s music, which acts as the perfect soundtrack to the story of her life, because it is so genuinely emotional. Every note in her strong, smoky voice carries a passion that you don’t realize is absent in other artists until you hear the real thing. It’s integrated so well into the movie too- each song, with its lyrics subtitled in English in a script-like font over concert clips and snapshots, introduce the different parts of Chavela’s life. It’s a beautiful and creative way of incorporating her music into the storytelling instead of just playing it in the background.

My only critique of this documentary is that, while for the most part it is very well-organized, it occasionally introduces a topic or piece of information in a seemingly unrelated spot, which can be a little jarring in an otherwise smooth narration. I understand there’s only so much they can fit into an hour and a half-long film, but that doesn’t completely excuse messy structure.

Despite minor organizational problems, I would highly recommend you see this fascinating movie if you get the chance, and if you don’t, at least listen to some of Chavela’s music, and if you don’t have tears in your eyes by the time you’re done, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.

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UNTOUCHABLE

Directed By: David Feige

David Feige’s documentary Untouchable is a difficult film to review, mostly due to the painful and complicated subject content. Documentaries are difficult enough to critique since they’re more informational than entertaining, and one about the sex offender registry is even more challenging to discuss. As Feige said when introducing it at MSPIFF, “it’s hard to watch, but easy to remember.”

Untouchable explores the national sex offender registry, using the stories of individuals affected by it to show its intricacies. Interviewees include Ronald Book, a lobbyist who has been fighting for the toughest sex offender laws possible after discovering his daughter Lauren had been assaulted by her nanny; Shawna, a mother of two who has been on the registry since she was 18 for having drunken sex with a 15-year-old boy; and Patty Wetterling, the Minnesota mother whose son Jacob was kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered by a complete stranger who had no history of pedophilia on criminal record.

This film does an excellent job of showing all sides: the victims and their families as well as the sex offenders and theirs. They never try to excuse the behavior of the worst criminals, but they show that nothing about the registry is simply black and white, despite how a lot of the laws are set up.

Untouchable’s biggest problem is that they don’t explore sexual assault prevention; they make a point that it’s important but don’t really discuss it past some clips of Lauren Book reading her children’s book on the subject to a group of kids, and, as Patty Wetterling pointed out during the Q&A after the movie, just holding your hand up and loudly saying “No!” isn’t a solution. Granted, the majority of the film was about the intricacies of the sex offender registry laws, not sexual assault itself, but discussing prevention would have provided a good balance, especially since it is brought up during the film.

Despite this, Untouchable is an important documentary, and hopefully its release will lead to more exploration in and work on sex offender registry laws.

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Have you seen either one of these documentaries? Well, what did you think? 

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