Docs at Cannes: Review Round-up #2

Stefano Baroni / Cannes

By Pat Mullen

We get so emotional, baby, every time we read reviews!

Part two of our review round-up of Cannes documentaries focuses on Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney Houston doc Whitney. The film rocked the Croisette with the late diva’s massive pipes, along with a few bombshell revelations including allegations that Houston was molested as a child by her cousin, Dee Dee Warwick. Whitney is the second doc about Houston to come along within a year after Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s Whitney: Can I Be Me?, which provided a great portrait of the singer, but failed to land many of the interviews that seem to give Macdonald’s film an edge with critics. (Read our interview with Can I Be Me? director Rudi Dolezal here.)

Also appearing in this week’s review round-up is l’Oeil d’or winner Samouni Road, a semi-animated doc about life in the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of war. Margarethe von Trotta offers the second Ingmar Bergman doc of the festival with Searching for Ingmar Bergman, although it seems that most critics didn’t bother to see it after catching the first one.

Read about other Cannes docs like The Eyes of Orson Welles, The Image Book and Dead Souls in our first round-up.

Fresh from the Croisette:


Dir. Kevin Macdonald | Midnight Screenings

-Erik Anderson, Awards Watch
This is the second doc on Whitney Houston in less than a year; last fall Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? leaned in on the salacious elements of this very classic Hollywood rise and fall story. Macdonald’s film was made with the support of the Whitney Houston Estate and includes interviews with family and friends – even mother Cissy and ex-husband Bobby Brown (if ever so brief, more on that later). The result is a bit more carefully curated and spends more than half of its running time on the more positive elements of her rise before digging into the darker vortex of her eventual demise.

-Jacob Bernstein, The New York Times
This [the allegations of molestation by Dee Dee Warwick] is the sort of revelation few celebrity documentaries contain. But the film also tends to place the most blame for Houston’s troubles on those who are dead, desperate, or done…Mr. Brown, for example, looks like a fool as he declines to discuss his drug use with Whitney. But despite lots of talk from other interviewees about how Houston reduced herself to help boost his ego, there’s no screen time given to previous claims that she was actually responsible for introducing Mr. Brown to cocaine.

-Ben Croll, The Wrap
Even with its shocking reveals, Whitney remains a straightforward behind-the-music doc that sticks to the standard rise-and-fall structure like a flight plan. The film will invariably draw comparisons to Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which premiered at Cannes and went on to win the Academy Award for best doc, but I wouldn’t bank on similar awards in this case.

-Gregory Ellwood, Collider
As much of the public is aware, Whitney suffered from drug addictions for a good portion of the last two decades of her life. It was always unclear what exactly prompted this to become a genuine problem. Was it pressure to financially support her family? Probably. Was it exacerbated with a co-dependent and flawed marriage to Bobby Brown? Without question. Privately, however, it appears Houston was dealing with the long-term effects of being sexually abused as child by Dee Dee Warwick, her cousin and the sister of another music legend, Dionne Warwick…That revelation though is just the beginning of what the Oscar-winning filmmaker finds out in an investigation where he says he spoke to around 70 people. The new trailer for Whitney has a cringe-worthy title card that says, “The Questions You Want Asked,” but it’s hard to argue that with this doc meaningful answers aren’t provided.

-Owen Gleiberman, Variety
In Whitney, Macdonald lays out Houston’s story — the light and the darkness — in a classically etched, kinetically edited way. He makes superb use of archival footage, tickles us with montages of her heyday (not just Houston but the whole era — the way her songs, in hindsight, tapped into a certain free-floating ’80s jubilance), and interviews her family members and associates. The film captures the quality that made Whitney Houston magical, but more than that it puts together the warring sides of her soul.

-Tim Grierson, Screen
Both tragic and eerily familiar to other recent portraits of talented, doomed artists including Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? only last year, Kevin Macdonald’s film does its best to wrestle with conventions, offering a broader cultural perspective on Houston’s life and achievements. But what stands out most strongly is the sense that this joyous singer was, perhaps, fated from an early age to lead an unhappy life.

-Guy Lodge, The Guardian
You can arrange and present the facts of Houston’s life any which way and attract viewers like me. Three years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy, Whitney returns us to the experience of watching complete self-destruction – of a voice, of a career, of a woman – and being powerless to halt any of it, to offer any care that she might notice or feel. Celebrity culture breaks your heart if you let it and Macdonald knows that: Whitney conducts its interviews and picks out its archive footage with distant journalistic reserve, intercutting it with perfunctory reels of 80s and 90s global affairs, counting on our existing relationship to her self-explanatory tragedy to do all the emotional needling.

-David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter Macdonald’s film doesn’t quite match the searing clarity of Asif Kapadia’s excellent Amy, about fellow fallen idol Amy Winehouse. But then the factors that caused Houston’s life to implode were far more complex and wide-ranging, encompassing race, class, religion and sexuality, as well as greed, financial exploitation, addiction, a bad marriage and deep insecurity. It’s a riveting narrative, and even those not among Houston’s more passionate fan base will find it an emotionally wrenching experience.

Samouni Road

Dir. Stefano Savona | Director’s Fortnight

-Camillo De Marco, Cineuropa
Samouni Road is an impelling and passionate film, shot with the ideological detachment of experienced documentary maker Stefano Savona, an archaeologist and anthropologist…Savona depicts stunned conditions, pain and humiliation, but also the contradictions of this culture, with its arranged marriages, and the questionable management of compensation. And when the camera focuses once again on the little orphaned Samouni girl who, growing up among the rubble, lives in the cult of her dead father and draws a picture of him with coloured pencils, the viewer recognises a potential future fighter in her.

-Lee Marshall, Screen
Recounted through a mix of scratchy black-and-white animation with a linocut feel (courtesy of artist-animator Simone Massi) and reconstructed drone imagery, it’s the 30-minute long reconstruction of the massacre itself, with its clanging, metallic score halfway between music and sound design, that lends the film its considerable emotional impact. Yet it’s what takes place either side side of this dramatic core that makes Savona’s sensitive film stand out. The clear intent here is to go beyond the emergency view of the Arab-Israeli conflict that we absorb through our TV news screens and social media feeds, in order simply to spend time with an ordinary Palestinian family attempting to piece together its life after a terrible trauma.

Jay Weissberg, Variety
Destined to become a touchstone in the cinematic representation of the Strip, the documentary combines live action, superb scratchboard animation overseen by Stefano Massi, and recreated drone footage to capture the lives of an extended farming family before and after the 2009 Israeli invasion that left 29 people dead and their lands a devastated wasteland. While the film could benefit from a bit of trimming early on, its success at showing real lives unfathomably impacted by barbarism is beyond dispute; the accolades sure to accrue will drown out the few but noisy voices from all sides unable to see beyond their own fanatical propaganda.

-Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter
The final effect is devastating and yet oddly distanced, leaving the viewer with sorrow, indignation but also space for reflection on the cruelty and injustice of Israel’s tactics in its war against Palestine. The film was well positioned in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight and, thanks to the quality of the filmmaking, could reach audiences where many other Palestinian docs fail.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman

Dir. Margarethe Von Trotta | Cannes Classics

-Todd McCarthy, Variety
Reasonably engaging as far as it goes, Searching for Ingmar Bergman evinces great appreciation for the writer-director’s legacy and offers the testimonies of numerous eminent enthusiasts, but it leaves a good deal to be desired because it neither goes deep nor addresses the question of why Bergman, once considered the consummate artist of the second half of the 20th century, is so seldom mentioned or considered as an influence by the contemporary generation.

To the Four Winds (Libre)

Dir. Michel Toesca | Special Screenings

-Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter
When Cedric Herrou, a 38-year-old olive and chicken farmer who lives on the French side of the valley, began to see men, women and children — most of them Sudanese or Eritrean — showing up on his land scared, starving, in need of shelter or medical attention, he decided to do something about it…In the documentary To the Four Winds (Libre), Herrou’s friend Michel Toesca trailed the farmer over the course of two years, following his many excursions through the woods, on trains and in cars, and then into the courthouse as he tried to assist hundreds of asylum-seekers on their quest to find refuge. Shot in a rough you-are-there style, with the director forever on the move as he chronicles Herrou’s actions, this Cannes special screening should drum up interest in France and other European nations where the migrant issue remains both crucial and unresolved.

-Allan Hunter, Screen
Michel Toesca’s thoughtful, involving, grass roots documentary brings a fresh eye to the plight of migrants seeking asylum in Europe as it charts the conflict between an implacable force and an immovable object of public activism.

-Fabien Lemercier, Cineuropa
Michel Toesca’s old DV Cam and mobile phone have recorded three years’ worth of commitment from a man who is quite charismatic and very kind but, above all, who understands the importance of a simple approach in life. It’s a pretty picture. It offers a great deal more in terms of human value than it does directorial verve, but this isn’t hugely important; substance far outvalues form in this instance.