Tag Archives: DocEdge fest

DocEdge 17 | The Last Laugh

Is it ever acceptable to make jokes about a real tragedy? This is the question at the heart of Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary The Last Laugh, which focuses on humour and the Holocaust. The documentary includes interviews with a range of comedians, directors and actors, from the legendary Mel Brooks to Judy Gold, Carl Reiner and Sarah Silverman. It also explores a number of musicals, films and skits that address the Holocaust in a comedic light. Examining the fine line between bad taste and successful comedy, the documentary pushes viewers to consider the concept of free speech in our increasingly PC world

To clarify one thing, in no way is The Last Laugh trying to claim that the Holocaust itself is funny. “But survival, and what it takes to survive…there can be humour in that,” Reiner points out. Furthermore, humour can be an avenue for coping with trauma: “it’s a way of dealing with an unbearable reality,” writer Etgar Keret says. “It’s a way of protesting [and] keeping your dignity.” Is it then simply a matter of time that makes it acceptable to joke about extreme tragedy? Does time make a difference, or will it never be okay? “You cannot forget,” claims one survivor at the Holocaust Survivors Convention in Las Vegas. “The shadow is following me all my life.” To her, and several others at the convention, it is wrong and deeply offensive to joke about the Holocaust. However as Renee Firestone, another survivor who features throughout the documentary, notes, you have to learn to live your life away from the shadow. Mentioning her three great-grandchildren she laughs, claiming “that’s my revenge” against Hitler.

Does this mean it is then a question of who can tell a story? Is it acceptable for Jewish survivors to joke about the Holocaust, but implausible for anyone else? The documentary looks at other examples to broaden the scope of the argument, comparing the situation to 9/11, the aids epidemic, slavery and white supremacy. It’s certainly thought-provoking, begging the question that, in a world of supposed free speech, are the people who have experienced a tragedy the only ones qualified to publicly address it?

Regardless, the interviewees all agree on the difficulty of joking about such a tragic historical moment. There is far more pressure for risky comedy of this nature to be humorous, Gold claims. “You can’t tell a crappy joke about the biggest tragedy in the world!” Despite the risk, Silverman believes that comedy should be used as a way of contemplating devastating occurrences. “It’s important to talk about things that are taboo,” she says. “Otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous.” By discussing a topic only through education, museums and other ‘acceptable’ channels, do we lose sight of its importance and relegate it to a thing of the past? Perhaps. The Last Laugh will make you consider all of the above questions and then some. Maybe, however, we should just maintain Reiner’s personal view: “I don’t have a philosophy about it,” he states. “I just know that it’s a lot more fun to laugh than not to laugh.”


The 12th DocEdge Festival takes place Auckland 24 May – 5 June – www.docedge.nz

DocEdge 17 | The Pulitzer at 100

Kirk Simon’s documentary The Pulitzer at 100 explores the legacy of the Pulitzer Prize a century on from its origin. The Pulitzer Prize is a prestigious award for high achievement in literature, journalism, photography, drama and music, with yearly prizes awarded in twenty one classes. On his death, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer donated his fortune to Columbia University to create an award recognising extraordinary artistic and journalistic skill, and in 1917 the Pulitzer Prize was established. For 100 years, it has endured as the utmost level of merit. “The Pulitzer stands on integrity and a standard, it’s a standard of excellence”, says Wynton Marsalis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997.

The documentary consists of interviews with a large range of award recipients, from musicians such as John Adams and David Crosby, to journalists ranging from Carl Bernstein to David Remnick, to writers including Toni Morrison and Tony Kushner. The recipients discuss their award-winning work and explain what receiving a Pulitzer Prize means to them and their career. As they describe the “humbling” and “emboldening” effect of being given such an award, Simons examines their skill, guts and commitment. The interviews are intertwined with readings of famous literature by respected actors, such as a passage from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence by Helen Mirren. We are also shown several of the recipients at work, for example Marsalis playing a captivating tune on the saxophone.

While the documentary does touch on some of the history behind the Pulitzer Prize, its primary focus is the people who won it and what their individual stories reveal about history. Ultimately, The Pulitzer at 100 asserts that the Pulitzer Prizes are historical artefacts that reveal valuable information about the American society and culture from which they sprung. “We can trace American history by looking at the prizes that have been given over the years,” Roy J. Harris Jr., author of Pulitzer’s Gold, explains. Indeed, examining the long list of awards displays a clear trend in historical importance: the awards all connect to significant historical moments, from World War One and the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. As such, this is an important documentary because it not only acknowledges the talent of some of the world’s most influential people, but chronicles ground-breaking moments in our history.


The 12th DocEdge Festival takes place Auckland 24 May – 5 June – www.docedge.nz

seen | Garnet’s Gold

Garnet’s Gold is the story of the lovable character from down the road, the one that every community has. Considered quirky by some but always revered for his ability to go out there and do something different. Garnet seems to float through life, considered very smart but never quite able to follow things through to success.

The film follows what appears to be a final expedition of sorts, retracing his steps to find the spot he found a mysterious staff in the back country of Scotland in hopes of finding a golden treasure supposedly lost in the area. He feels it’s his last chance of his life coming right, or as he puts it “something good finally happening in my life”.

The cinematography of this film is absolutely brilliant, the framing of the mood completely drew me into the experience of Garnet’s journey through the glenn in which he almost died tramping 20 years earlier. During this journey Garnet comes face to face with his own morality, and the fleeting nature of his own and others lives and is a very emotionally charged journey.

To find out how he deals with this you’ll just have to go watch the film for yourself, highly recommended, a wonderful documentary.  For tickets, click here.

seen | The day that changed my life

I went into this film with a sense of foreboding that only someone about to watch death can.  The Day That Changed My Life starts my showing scenes of the earthquake hitting Christchurch on February 22nd, this imagery is always bound to bring out tense feelings, wondering if the person in front of you will live or die in these few moments on camera.

The overall story is told from the viewpoints of several different people, using real footage from a press videographer that isn’t in the public domain. The first story is shot moments after the quake as both the cameraman and the Christchurch Press journalist on screen try to maintain their composure; they of course fail in the face of such a calamity. Seeing their own friends injured or dying during the aftermath.

A second viewpoint is told from the point of view of an ambulance officer whom on the day was helping lead the Latimer Square trauma centre. His tale is both inspiring because of the leadership role he took and devastating because of the decisions he had to make. Of course resources were constrained during the time of crisis and listening to this decision maker telling you how he had to let people die for the greater good is no easy task.

This documentary is well worth a watch for anyone and really does a good job of conveying the emotion of the moment to the viewer; one might find themselves holding back a tear during the final scenes.  Buy tickets here.

seen | Actress

We see a woman washing dishes in the kitchen sink. Shot from the back, red dress, white apron, in dreamy slow motion. The voiceover comes in, an actress describing how she identified with one of her roles, a character who “tends to break things.” As she says this, something crumples inside the woman, she slumps down. This is our introduction to Brandy Burre.

A mother of two living with her partner Tim, Brandy is attempting to re-enter acting after the hiatus she took to raise a family. Directed and edited by Robert Greene (who recently edited Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, and his forthcoming Queen of Earth) Actress comes off as both a dirge for the end of a relationship and a compassionate portrait of someone trying to move forward once stagnation becomes unbearable.

We are quickly introduced to the facts of Brandy’s home life in Beacon, NY. Getting the kids ready for school, cleaning up (in one relatable scene she has to scoop food scraps out of the sink with her fingers), waiting for a husband who often works late. She sits down in her childrens’ toy room and addresses the camera. “I moved to Beacon, I’m not acting, this is my creative outlet.” She says it twice, making it seem like a mantra rather than an offhand explanation.

It’s been years since Brandy’s most high profile part (a recurring role in HBO’s The Wire), for which she still receives paltry residuals cheques, which serve only as a nostalgic reminder rather than meaningful income. Like many women who put their career on hold for their family, she is struggling to reassert herself in the acting business, which has a dearth of parts for a woman in her thirties, at one point sardonically observing that she is too old to play a character her own age. A vivacious and self aware woman who knows the dire situation of her home life, Brandy tries to find the passion she feels is lacking at home in her work, though she has doubts as to her own motivations. Is she trying to move forward with something, or just running away from fixing her relationship with her partner?

She reads notices for auditions, trying to see herself in the vague character summaries. She gets a makeover to try to achieve industry standards of appearance, (that were restrictive even when she was in her twenties, we see an old head shot with the note “Could you make your teeth look less snaggly?”) At the same time her relationship with her partner Tim reaches a point of no return, and she has to adjust to what this means for her family and barely resuscitated career.

Actress is an empathetic film about a woman reaching the middle of her life and trying to fit the roles assigned to her by others and herself, while also figuring out what she wants to be as she starts over. See it at the Documentary Edge festival from tomorrow.  Click here for more info.

Reviewed by Bradley Calder