nature and architecture documentaries – 3 reviews

At this time of the year, I find myself spending more time indoors. As I’m not an indoors person, I don’t take well to the confinement. However, I do try to make the best of the situation by catching up on some reading and similar pursuits. A couple of years ago, I struck on the idea of ordering documentary movies through our library system as a way of passing winter evenings – so that’s what I’ve been up to lately. So, for the next while, I’ll try to post reviews of movies that I’m watching. Most of these can probably be seen on PBS channels from time to time, so you should be able to watch for them to be aired, or perhaps they’re available through your local library. In any case, these are movies from the past week of watching — My Architect: A Son’s Journey, and two nature-related movies, The Naturalist and Ten Days to Paint the Forest. Here are some thoughts on each of the movies.

My Architect: A Son’s Journey (DVD – 116 minutes) – To begin, here’s the first paragraph of the blurb off the back of the DVD. A riviting tale of love, art, betrayal and forgiveness — In which the illegitimate son of a legendary architect undertakes a worldwide exploration to discover and understand his father’s work and the personal choices he made. The architect is Louis I. Kahn. Whether or not you like Kahn’s work, or architecture in general, this is an interesting movie in its own right. I was familiar with Kahn’s buildings from my studies at university, but knew very little about his career and personal life. Using archival footage, interviews with friends and colleagues, footage of the interiors and exteriors of Kahn’s buildings, Nathaniel Kahn, pieces together a fascinating portrait of his father. I won’t go into any details of the story except to say that this movie makes sense out of Kahn’s unusual and complicated life. This “side” of the movie is carried off so well – and with respect, humor, and love.

Of course, architecture is the “other side” of this film and was the icing on the cake for me – especially the footage of the Kahn’s National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh, and the Institute of Public Administration in Ahmedabad, India, both of which were designed in the final years of Kahn’s life. I wasn’t too familiar with either of these buildings, so this footage was very new to me — and it totally blew me away, along with descriptions of how these were constructed using methods quite different to those employed in North America. That’s very evident when you see these buildings up close. Also of special note and interest were the interviews with Kahn’s contemporaries – architects who worked with him on projects, and others such as I.M. Pei, and Moshe Safdie. Good stuff.

The Naturalist – (DVD – 32 minutes) – This is an interesting film, but also rather odd. How shall I put this? It has a lot going for it — a fascinating subject and some beautiful nature footage, but it could have been better. This review by Matt Hudson of The Dog Pile, puts most of my thoughts into words, however, here’s my opinion in a nutshell. The movie is quite short, so it required careful editing. The subject, Kent Bonar, is a naturalist who has spent his life in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. He’s been keeping meticulous field notes and creating illustrations of his observations for decades. He is clearly a fascinating man. I wanted to hear more of what he had to say. I would have liked to have seen more footage of him showing his drawings and talking about his experiences, or more time spent following him around through his forest walks. In these type of segments, the man and his message speak for themselves. Unfortunately, quite a few precious minutes of the film were blown on a number of clips of various people who know Bonar, talking about what a wonderful naturalist he is and how he has influenced their thoughts about nature. I could see including a couple of these little pieces, but they were overused and seemed a little redundant. As Matt Hudson commented, “…the subject of the film [Kent Bonar] is so interesting that keeping it as such a short film just leaves the viewer disappointed.” That’s pretty much how I felt. A bit disappointed at the choice of footage given the short running time of the movie. However, that said, it’s still an interesting film and definitely worth a watch.

Ten Days to Paint the Forest (DVD – 82 minutes) – This movie is about an international group of artists from the Artists for Nature Foundation, spending ten days on location in the Tumbesian region of Peru and Ecuador. Much of the footage is of artists working en plein air as they observe and interpret what they see – Amazilia Hummingbirds mobbing a vine snake, Tumbes Swifts diving into a hollowed out tree at dusk – Spectacled Bears and other mammals foraging. A few of the artists sketch and paint scenes of community life — local people tending livestock, weaving, or fishing in reed canoes. As a photographer and one who does a little painting and carving, I enjoyed listening to the artists’ comments and seeing them at work on preliminary pencil sketches and rapidly executed watercolor studies. If there are a couple of weaknesses to the film, I’d say that the camera work was a little rough at times — some shaky zooming around, oddly framed or truncated shots, and several bits of footage that must have been shot hand-held, or with a steady cam set-up. I tend not to notice or dismiss camera shake in documentaries much of the time, as often, due to circumstances beyond control, it may be the only footage possible to get. However, I make mention of these points in case some of you find such footage annoying. The editing probably could have been a little tighter too, especially in the first 10 or 15 minutes. Apart from that, it’s an interesting film on an ecosystem that doesn’t seem to get much attention.

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