Terry Gilliam spent 30 years chasing his passion project and finally completed “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” last year. The seriocomic saga folded in on itself, as Gilliam seemed to be trapped in his own Quixotic delusion that his ambitious Spanish production would ever be completed. The first chapter of that struggle was documented in directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's 2002 “Lost in La Mancha,” which itself became an unfinished story as it captured the forlorn Gilliam through a series of frustrating creative and practical challenges — from ruined sets to injured actors — until the project collapsed.
“He Dreams of Giants” completes the narrative, finding Gilliam several decades older but no less committed to his ambitious saga, now starring Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver in roles that once fell to Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort. “Don Quixote” stumbled to the finish line at Cannes last year as its closing-night selection, and turned out to be a halfway decent collection of Gilliamesque whimsy. While not exactly worth the wait compared to Gilliam's finest work, the movie did embody his beguiling aesthetic with a blend of comical high fantasy and soulful yearning.
That's the focal point for Fulton and Pepe's insightful second chapter, which evades the scandalous industrial hurdles facing the project — including a litigious producer and Amazon Studios’ decision not to release its own production — in favor of magnifying Gilliam's hubristic determination. It's hardly a definitive look at the “Quixote” saga; at the same time, it retains an intimacy with the artist at its center that positions it a cut above the typical behind-the-scenes bonus features.
In fact, “He Dreams of Giants” may work best if you haven't seen the final movie, which trickled into a few hundred theaters earlier this year after its Cannes premiere. This documentary doesn't even sample the finished product, and the filmmakers hardly delve into Gilliam's meta narrative, which found Driver playing an advertising director overseeing a troubled Quixote production.
Instead, Fulton and Pepe — who appear briefly at the start of the movie, aging alongside their protagonist — fixate on Gilliam's face: A brilliant early shot from “Lost in La Mancha” plays on one of the director's iPhones, and as they pull it away to reveal modern-day Gilliam sitting against the same backdrop, the throughline is clear. He looks shriveled, wistful, and world-wearier to the bone, but no less compelled to finish his film. That's not only the centerpiece of the documentary; it's the fascinating raison d'etre, and a mystery with no clear answer.
Fulton and Pepe gained exclusive access to the set, capturing the suspense facing Gilliam and his crew as they finally make headway. “He Dreams of Giants” drills into Gilliam's neurotic psyche, exploring the nature of his artistic drive while providing a crash course on the way he fights for his unusual visions across the decades. At long last, this bumpy real-life epic gets a happy ending.
Decades after his first gained notice as the sole American member of Monty Python, Gilliam remains an entrancing onscreen presence. More than anything else, his distinctive profile beard on one end, shaggy mullet on the other, wizened flesh in between propels “He Dreams of Giants.” As his movie finally comes together, the documentarians linger on Gilliam's shifting expressions, careening from giddiness over his performers to vulgar bursts of frustration as the production drags on.
These sequences, as well as welcome recaps of Gilliam's notorious history of studio showdowns, give “He Dreams of Giant” plenty of room to explore what makes this beleaguered artist tick. At times, Fulton and Pepe overplay their biggest trope: We hear, and sometimes see often while pacing around against a white backdrop that may as well be his own mind, Gilliam cycling through endless ruminations “Why does anybody create? We don't have a choice”. The movie winds up a bit too enamored of the tortured artist motif, and by the time clips from Fellini's “8 1/2” play as Gilliam compares himself to Marcello Mastroianni’s fictional director-in-crisis, they're practically preordained.
However, “He Dreams of Giants” excels at capturing the moment-to-moment rush and collaborative energy of film production, eschewing practical details from more immediate ones, including a charming montage that finds the cast engaged in a table read dominated by their insuppressible laughter. Cinematographer Nicola Pecorino observes how the team remains enmeshed in the “same old adventure,” and it's heartening to see Gilliam's merry band of storytellers fully in their element.
But time has not been kind to Gilliam, and one scene that finds him visiting the doctor makes it clear that he's racing against the clock. It's hard not to see shades of Agnes Varda's doctor visit in “Faces/Places,” another glimpse of an aging auteur contemplating their mortality in tandem with the recurring urge to create. More fragile than ever, Gilliam regards every small step forward on “Quixote” as a total victory. The movie's ability to capture these moments — as when the film moves into its seventh day of production, when prior attempts were mired at six — imbues it with a bittersweet yearning on par with the project at its center.
It also captures the evolving nature of Gilliam's filmmaking challenges in an industry that has little use for him. The movie recaps his most famous showdowns, including a public spat with studio executives over retaining his cut for “Brazil.” Gilliam even paid for an ad in Variety begging his overlords to do his bidding. He won the battle, but burned some bridges in the process.
These days, Gilliam's appeal has shrunk to a niche market. “I get the films made,” he laments, “and they don't get seen.” His last few efforts, from “Tidelands” to “The Zero Theorem” all the way through “Quixote,” bear out that observation. Gilliam remains a compelling director, but the uncompromising nature of his oddball work marginalized its commercial potential. Gilliam remains revered, and he does continue making movies, but “He Dreams of Giants” doubles as an intriguing window into the changing nature of the entertainment landscape.
With all of those variables in play, the decision to excise the final dramas of the “Quixote” saga feels like a missed opportunity. These thrilling twists, included a last-minute courtroom challenge to the Cannes premiere and Gilliam getting hospitalized for a mild stroke, feel as essential to the central mythos as Gilliam's on-set experiences. But perhaps it's only appropriate for a documentary about this interminable saga to remain a touch incomplete.
Regardless, “He Dreams of Giants” delivers whenever it returns to that face. The filmmakers appear to capture the exact moment when Gilliam wraps production, as he watches the scene unfold with a mixture of utter glee and total exhaustion. That feeling, a raw burst of emotion in a class by itself, transcends questions of whether the end result was really worth it. For Gilliam, there was no other way.
“He Dreams of Giants” premiered at the 2019 DOC NYC festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
This BBC/Starz miniseries based on a pair of Tana French novels tries to cram too much unbelievable plot into a mystery about two killings.
Sometimes the most fascinating thing about a murder mystery is how many ways it goes wrong, how it cheats and manipulates and, in extreme cases, how it even got made in the first place.
The answer to the last question when it comes to the new BBC/Starz series, Dublin Murders, is pretty easy — writer Sarah Phelps has found great success adapting Agatha Christie's works, including The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution, etc., and that gives her a lot of clout. She used it to not only tackle the works of mystery and crime fiction writer Tana French, but to sell the BBC/Starz on mashing two of French's books together In the Woods and The Likeness, which is eyebrow-raising in its audacity and, once you've seen Dublin Murders, a stupendously bad idea.
The level of gambling on one's own prowess here is raised when you consider that devotees of French often describe her work as something that would be very hard to translate onto the screen, since much of it plays out in the minds of her characters; and those same fans would be and likely will be the first to complain that mashing two books together ruins them both.
This much is true: It makes Dublin Murders a mess and, in parts, preposterous. Having watched all eight episodes knowing that an intricate OK, fine, farfetched set of plot points wouldn't come together until, at the earliest, the seventh episode, I'll just tell you since we're still in the Peak TV era with no signs of let-up: Don't bother.
It's easy to see why this might be a temptation, however. Who doesn't like a good Ireland-set TV series, all damp and green and big-city like not that Dublin proper is much of a character here. Sometimes just a different accent and a different approach to crime is welcome given how many American procedurals you've probably witnessed through the years. On top of that, the main stars, Killian Scott and Sarah Greene, are moody and engaging and can handle solid material and, clearly, elevate it at times to something better. There's also Conleth Hill Lord Varys in Game of Thrones, Peter McDonald Moone Boy and a host of other excellent character actors dispersed throughout the eight hours.
Ah, but the problems. They are many. And they can't be ignored.
Scott and Greene play homicide detectives or Murder Squad cops, as they say in this series Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox. Both have secrets, we're told, although Cassie has a couple that seem more like things she'd rather not talk about that could otherwise be pretty easily explained away.
The key, though, is that they have bonded over those secrets and, as partners, vow to keep it that way. Rob's secret is the big one — the series takes place in Dublin in 2006, but back in 1985 as a little boy, Rob, then known as Adam, was one of three kids who went into the woods near their homes and the only one to be found alive. He was found completely unharmed and without a scratch even though his shirt was sliced distinctly in the back as if by a large animal and he was standing in pools of blood in each of his shoes.
Tormented not especially logically by the parents of the two dead kids to reveal where they were and what happened to them Rob/Adam has almost no memory of what happened, Rob/Adam was sent by his parent to England, where he started a new life using his middle name, became a cop and came back to his hometown to, you know, help figure things out, never revealing who he really is.
Not long after, a young teenage girl is killed in the same woods, her body posed on a rock by the killer; Rob and Cassie land the case.
OK, well, that's interesting. And it stays that way for an episode or two until the weird tics of the plot start to reveal that Phelps, as a storyteller, likes red herrings and creative detours. Like Rob seeing a wolf that may or may not be real. And, when he does, his neck constricts down to his shoulder as if he himself is turning into, wait, a werewolf? Nope. Thankfully. Are there supposed to be horror elements here? Because, with all the creepy laughing in the wind, blowing through the trees in the woods, it soon starts feeling like it until — nope — that oddity is dropped only to be picked up again in the most maddening way possible in the final episode.
There are whispers from neighbors implicating people who look like they could have done it and oddities that are meant to make you suspicious of other characters, plus numerous flashbacks to 1985, strung out in a way that's meant to reveal, little by little, what happened in the woods. But mostly we see kids running a lot, and looking back over their shoulders as they do. Over and over again.
When one character is introduced to add an element of either fear or weirdness to the situation, the end result — if you've seen Catastrophe — is loud laughter, because it's Fergal, or more accurately, the actor Jonathan Forbes, who is so great as Fergal in Catastrophe that the moment you see him in Dublin Murders you'll die laughing.
Which is not the intent.
But that's not even remotely the biggest problem. Dublin Murders starts a side story for Cassie that is mysterious and intriguing until the preposterous nature of it is revealed in the fourth episode. It's convoluted enough that this qualifies as a best guess: When she was a little girl, Cassie and her parents were driving in remote Ireland and they hit a deer, flipping the car and killing both parents. Cassie survived and, as she stood there in the dark bordering the eerie woods, another little girl looking exactly like her, wearing the same clothes, walked out of the dark again, seems kind of like a horror thing for a moment and said that her name is Lexie and they will always have each other to rely on.
Great, that's just a visual interpretation of Cassie dealing with trauma by inventing an imaginary friend, right? Well, sort of this is milked in boring ways during the middle stretch of boring episodes. But we soon find Cassie being called off of her case with Rob, pulled into a side situation where a girl is murdered — a girl who looks exactly like Cassie. In fact, they could be twins. The girl was even killed, via a knife wound, in the exact spot that Cassie got stabbed working undercover. Cassie stares at her twin, stunned but not stunned enough, really. Then the dead girl's ID is pulled from her pocket and, oh my gosh, her name is Lexie. This doppleganger is not only using Cassie's imaginary friend's name, but that name is also the same fake identity that Cassie chose when she was working undercover. So weird.
Or, if you prefer, so absurd.
That storyline, based on the second of French's books to be used, ends in a way not worth telling because it's not even momentarily interesting.
Meanwhile, the dead-girl-in-the-woods case ends in a shocking and not really believable twist, though if you're looking early on you'll see the signs that one character will be the culprit. The part that's maddening, separate from the ending, is that Phelps then uses this surprise murderer to reveal to all that Rob is really Adam, the boy from the woods all those years ago, thus making this case allegedly not one that can be prosecuted even though the killer confesses? This all seems muddy. Like the plot.
At that point, if you make it that far — and don't you have other shows you can watch with those limited available hours? — you will want some closure on the 1985 killings that poor Adam/Rob had to be a part of. But, oh the horror, you're not likely to get it in a way that seems satisfying or believable.
Cast: Killian Scott, Sarah Greene, Conleth Hill, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Moe Dunford, Leah McNamara, Sam Keeley, Amy Macken, Peter McDonald, Kathy, Monahan, Eugene O'Hare, Jonny Holden, Jonathan Forbes, Vanessa Emme, Ian Kenny, Antonio Aakeel
Created and written by: Sarah Phelps
Based on the books by: Tana French
Directed by: Saul Dibb, John Hayes, Rebecca Gatward
There is a lot of water imagery in “Dublin Murders,” from the perpetual Irish rain to shots of the Irish Sea. It's atmospheric, but it also serves a bigger purpose: a reminder that far off ripples can expand into devastating waves.
Based on the first two novels in Tana French's bestselling and Edgar Award-winning Dublin Murder Squad series, “In the Woods” and “The Likeness,” “Dublin Murders” is, on the surface, about two homicide detectives, Rob Reilly Killian Scott and Cassie Maddox Sarah Greene, trying to solve the murder of a young girl whose body was found ritually posed at an archaeological dig in the woods. In was in these same woods 20 years earlier where two children disappeared, leaving behind their friend who was found hugging a tree and screaming, wearing ripped clothes and shoes filled with another child's blood.
There are other complications to this visceral set-up — and in “Dublin Murders,” it is these complications that significantly elevate the story above the typical police procedural. Both Reilly and Maddox have big, big secrets that they have to keep hidden to maintain their jobs — and their sanity. This is not a dramatic overstatement; the entire eight-episode series is a meditation on the long-term impact of trauma on children. It's an empathetic psychological thriller that hammers home the fact that time cannot heal all wounds.
To say more is to give story-ruining spoilers, but needless to say, “Dublin Murders” could come with a laundry list of trigger warnings: child endangerment, rape, and police brutality among them. It's not an utter downer of a slog because Scott and Greene are ludicrously charismatic performers. They send jittery sparks across the screen playing opposite each other as chain-smoking, smart-mouthed police partners; individually, it allows them to keep the audience's sympathies despite each character making profoundly self-destructive choices.
Filmed in Belfast — with a crew that was just off the freshly-wrapped “Game of Thrones” — the show's vaguely supernatural undercurrent is deftly inserted into the gloom; it never veers into jump scare fun house parody. All of this stays true to the swirling atmospherics of the original novels; French weaves allusions to Celtic mythology and folk tales throughout her work. The titular woods are looming and gorgeous as they appear and recede in the mist, but sight is never lost of the fact that humans are the animals who lurk there, and they are the true threat.
This adaptation by showrunner, writer, and executive producer Sarah Phelps — who also wrote the outstanding 2015 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” — is right up Starz's “Outlander” alley. TV versions of sprawling, eerie, complex storylines have found a resonant home with their audience. There are two types of people in the world: those with an obsessive devotion to French's books — and those who haven't read them yet. I will bet that there is a strong Venn Diagram overlap between “Outlander” readers and French die-hards. Among the obsessives are myself and none other than Stephen King, who in his review for French's “The Witch Elm” for the New York Times, wrote that “to read a French novel…is to enter an O.C.D. world where madness seems very close.” It's almost like this guy King is a helluva writer.
But the choice to combine “In the Woods” and “The Likeness” into one story creates the only true hitch in “Dublin Murders.” While French deftly introduces the lead of the next book in her series during the current novel, this is harder to pull off in a television series. “In the Woods” is Reilly's story; “The Likeness” is Maddox's, and both tales are dense narratives full of shifty characters and moody locations. “Dublin Murders” flips between the two tales in such a way that doesn't feel organic; a viewer gets into the flow of Reilly's tale and then is jostled back to Maddox. Maddox's storyline starts to seep in your bones and then the action returns to Reilly.
The saving grace is that both plots are deftly told; you root for Reilly and Maddox as they are fighting the rip current of their buried histories. Lucky for us, “Dublin Murders” revels in characters that can both sink and swim.
“Dublin Murders” premieres Sunday, November 10 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.
TV has a way of robbing a term of its meaning through over/misuse. “Bottle episode.” “Cinematic.” “Event series.” After a few years of genuine genre experimentation, particularly in half hour series, dramedy is one of those terms that could apply to just about anything now. Rarely, though, has a show felt like such a savvy and necessary blend of the two than Daisy Haggard's six-part series “Back to Life,” premiering on Showtime after airing in the U.K. earlier this spring.
But it would be just as much a shame to reduce what's happening in this show to a single word, given that the main thrust of the entire series is that trying to box in a feeling, or an event, or individual into one easy-to-categorize description can be as pointless as it can be destructive. It's so dedicated to that idea that much of the opening chapters in the story are deliberately oblique when it comes to the circumstances surrounding Miri Matheson Haggard returning home after a long absence.
Haggard who co-wrote all episodes with Laura Solon presents Miri as someone forced to approach every part of a strange new existence with a tentative preservation. Over the course of the season, it becomes apparent that her return to her seaside hometown is not a happy one. On top of the melancholy echoes of her childhood ringing around her old house, her parents can only shield her so much from the ill will some in the community still harbor against her.
Situating back into something close to a regular routine, Miri encounters a series of people who know why she was forced to leave 18 years ago her childhood pal, her ex-boyfriend and who only know her as an unfamiliar face in town her neighbor Billy. Director Christopher Sweeney frames these encounters with alternating approaches, moving from intimate handheld-shot scenes to ones seen through more of a hazy remove.
For those reuniting with Miri, there's also a fascinating tension playing out between those in “Back to Life” who have spent the better part of 18 years blaming their own shortcomings on events completely outside their control. As Miri tries to forge her own shot at a second chance, the people in her orbit are also realizing that they've used their lingering uncertainty about her well-being as a crutch to wallow in their own insecurities. “Back to Life” is a three-hour musing on responsibility, what we owe to those we've wronged and our willingness to reconcile mistakes and intentions.
There's a confidence in the way Haggard tells this story, in front of and behind the camera. There's a knowing messiness to it, too. When confronted with the unthinkable, “Back to Life” has a firm grasp on how capable people are of bizarre behavior at any given moment. Whether from Miri herself or those floating around her, “Back to Life” is filled with rash decisions and shocking choices. Some are very purposefully jarring, some come across as attempts to mine conflict more for story purposes than out of character-based necessity.
As Miri tries to reckon with her own version of what took her away two decades ago, “Back to Life” shifts between the different ways her current life is see-sawing. She gets closer with Billy a wonderfully cast Adeel Akhtar, and hints of a muted romance start to peek through. The more that Miri discovers about what has happened with her parents in her absence, her interactions with mother Caroline Geraldine James and father Oscar Richard Durden waver between touching, sympathetic moments and emotionally wounding airing of secrets.
Even though Miri is under the most trying set of circumstances, “Back to Life” underlines how all of these individuals are searching for their own idea of “normal.” In some ways, “Back to Life” takes a straightforward approach to a first date or a trip to a grocery store just to show how much going through the motions is a welcome change for Miri. Simple becomes profound through the lens of a woman who wasn't sure she would ever have a regular job or trip to the beach ever again.
With almost everyone in the town aware of the tragedy in Miri's past, the mere act of trying to bring it up in a delicate or different way is its own dark joke. When she starts to make light of her own trauma as a way to deal with it, the tension eases and the recalibration begins. It's six episodes of general uneasiness, but Haggard and Solon still manage to find ways to give all of these struggling people and emotional toolbox to draw from as needed. Miri's story would be absurd if it wasn't so tragic, so “Back to Life” gives the viewer plenty of chances to see where both can be true.
So rather than picking just one character in this tangled web to empathize with, “Back to Life” makes kind of a radical decision to choose “all of the above.” With a different perspective, any number of these people could be monsters. That “Back to Life” gives them a chance to laugh off that possibility and wrestle with the unknown makes for a much more rewarding series.
“Back to Life” premieres Sunday, November 10 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
What the documentary “Tyson” lacks in insight, it attempts to make up for with access: emotional and often volatile one-on-one interviews with the eponymous heavyweight champion, a variety of Tyson-sympathetic talking heads, and illuminating archival footage that traces his rise to athletic fame. Told over the course of a slim running time, “Tyson” tries to cram a decades of tragedy, controversy, pain, and success into a tidy package, complete with a feel-good ending that does little to dispel the truncated treatment of the more horrific elements of Mike Tyson’s life. It ends on a high note for the troubled star, with an eye towards a bright and perhaps unexpected future, temporarily diverting enough to make the film itself feel revelatory.
That’s “Tyson,” the James Toback-directed documentary from 2008. It is also, strangely enough, David Michaels’ “Tyson,” a new documentary about the former boxing superstar that offers almost exactly the same film as Toback’s — same title, same problems, same arc — a decade later. The only real difference between the two is the talking heads though the ones that are missing are damning and more screen time dedicated to Tyson’s “Hangover”-driven resurgence in popular culture. While Toback’s documentary provided a look at the champ just before he returned to the public’s good graces thanks to a cameo in Todd Phillips’ comedy hit — complete with tigers and that signature face tattoo — the similarities between the two films is baffling.
And yet at least some of Michaels’ documentary predates the Toback project: in 2003, Michaels was the producer of an episode of AMC’s sports documentary series “Beyond the Glory,” which similarly attempted to unpack the Tyson mythos. While that episode was also compelled by first-person interviews with the former champ and his inner circle, it at least offered insight from former Tyson confidants who weren’t necessarily happy to only sing his praises, including ex-wives Robin Givens and Monica Turner. Neither woman appears in Michaels’ latest effort, making it far too easy for both Tyson and his friends to toss off horrible assessments of them with no one on hand to hit back.
The film’s opening sequence promises something different, however, with a seemingly candid and often confrontational Tyson racing through the topics that will be covered in Michaels’ documentary. Alternately crying, swearing, and staring head-on into the camera — Tyson’s many interviews are lit so that he’s the only thing in focus, and even the dark background melts away — the boxing star and former criminal is impossible to turn away from. While Michaels’ truncated documentary draws a straight line through Tyson’s life, all the better to zip through a fraught existence with the minimum of genuine reflection, even Tyson balks at connecting the dots so easily, instead viewing his life through a thematic lens, a series of stories involving people “fucking with him.”
Perhaps that’s true, but it’s a concept Michaels fails to interrogate, instead ceding narrative control over to Tyson and a series of talking heads who only spout facts or, at least, their idea of “facts” about Tyson’s life, barely considering the deeper implications of a story that demands more introspection. It’s hardly a glossy story, but it is glossed over; while it attempts to be comprehensive, surveying the biggest events — both good and bad — in Tyson’s life and career, it’s so fast and shallow that nothing is given proper attention. While Tyson’s sobriety and strengthening relationship with his wife have apparently made him a better man, tragedy has inevitably aided it too, including the accidental death of his daughter Exodus, which his son Miguel points to as a major point in Tyson’s growth. The access Michaels has to Tyson is remarkable, but the insight far too thin.
Tracking his current life as a self-professed “tennis parent” all the way back to a tough childhood in “crime-infested” Brooklyn, “Tyson” is a Cliffs Notes version of a much bigger story. Little insight is given into his career a handful of big bouts are raced through, the ear-biting misadventure with Evander Holyfield gets the most screen time, and even that’s not enough, though some key archival footage shows off Tyson’s inherent athleticism — even now, it’s remarkable how fast, how big, how skilled he was as just a teen — more than any chattering talking head ever could. There’s no question Tyson has been subjected to tremendous tragedy, and if anything, “Tyson” is less about people “fucking with him” than people being taken from him, from his mother to his beloved manager and trainer Cus D’Amato, all of whom haunt the film and Tyson himself.
For all the depth of feeling Tyson is able to conjure in regards to his own trauma, crying and screaming in equal measure, both Tyson the man and “Tyson” the film have little interest in digging into the pain of others in his life. The film demonizes Tyson’s first wife Robin Givens, as members of Tyson’s inner circle blithely accuse her of a variety of misdeeds, from overtly using him for his money to lying about being pregnant when they got married to inventing very public claims that he was abusive and manic depressive. Tyson’s reflection on the 1988 Barbara Walters interview in which Givens said as much, while he sat next to her on a plush couch? “I feel like kicking her in the fucking head, but of course I wouldn’t dare.”
Later, Tyson’s rape accuser Desiree Washington is billed as one of many women “clawing” at each other to get to the champ during the 1991 Miss Black America pageant where the pair met “Tyson” includes some chilling archival footage of the two before the crime that ultimately sent Tyson to prison for three years, but Michaels seems unaware of how to frame such compelling material. Tyson’s own biographer, Larry Sloman, uses the segment to engage in some casual victim blaming, while Tyson at least offers a version of the story that involves no criminal activity and alleges his victim only accused him because she was mad he didn’t walk her out of his hotel. Tyson’s take: “Bullshit lies!”
It’s all a little unsettling and strange. No matter how one feels about the accusations of abuse, violence, and rape that followed Tyson for decades, “Tyson” provides zero fresh insight. The documentary covers well-trod ground with little new to say even when Tyson himself is nattering away about all manner of things. “Tyson” only gets somewhere new and revelatory in its final act, as the boxer opens up about his struggles with sobriety, the love of his wife Kiki, and his hard-won dedication to his offspring. Late in the film, Tyson sits down with a group of wide-eyed high schoolers to talk about his path, and when he starts crying in front of the shocked kids, it’s the only time “Tyson” pulls no punches, and hits hard.
“Tyson” world premiered at the 2019 DOC NYC festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
Sahand and Leila weren’t asking for much when they fled their native Iran in 2012. As Leila explains during one of many interviews during Eva Mulvad’s aching and intimate documentary “Love Child,” the couple wasn’t looking for “a good life” elsewhere; they just wanted the chance for a normal one, where their relationship and the very existence of their son Mani wasn’t a death sentence. And they were right to be afraid.
Nearly a decade ago, the couple plus Mani left behind everything and everyone they knew to escape to Turkey, convinced that their adulterous relationship and the physical manifestation of it was going to get them killed. As Sahand explains during his own interviews, he can still remember incidents during his childhood when people guilty of his same apparent crimes were stoned or hung in public, murdered by the government for their life choices. Yes, they were right to run, but were they right to believe that life elsewhere would be at all better?
Mulvad’s insightful doc picks up just as the trio are making their escape to Turkey, complete with Sahand furiously packing the few belongings he can manage, all while telling the camera that he’s “not sure if, tomorrow, I’ll be dead or alive.” Mulvad takes her time explaining Sahand and Leila’s predicament, but never skimps on the obvious urgency of their plight. Once relatively safe in Turkey, Leila takes a moment to call her mother, sobbing on the phone that she’s worried that her actions could still endanger her mom’s life. Her raw emotion, coupled with Sahand’s own palpable pain, starts the film in a place of great honesty and intimacy. It never lets up.
At its heart, “Love Child” is a story about a fractured family attempting to make their way in the world and with each other. For many years, young Mani didn’t know Sahand was his father, and as he acts out against both parents, the domestic squabbles are just as stirring as the bigger picture. As the shape of Leila and Sahand’s unlikely love story is explained thanks, again, to the many long-form interviews that appear throughout the documentary, Mulvad excels at holding stretched out sequences; the emotion and drama of it all is staggering, and so are the stakes. Even more impressive: that the pair let Mulvad follow along with them for so long, capturing every inch of their struggles, from the baffling process by which they apply for asylum with the UN to the everyday occurrences like a trip to the beach or the purchase of a new bicycle.
At times, it feels almost too intimate, the emotions and stakes too high to just sit idly by and watch. As the weeks spread into years, the film takes on a rangy quality, and while Mulvad attempts to wrangle it through the use of intertitles to tip off the year, much of it melds into one long narrative. That may be the point, however — a cinematic representation of the limbo the family faces, moving through time without any fixed end point, only waiting for answers that might never come.
No matter the time or the place, Sahand and Leila’s bid for asylum would be fraught, confusing, and totally at the mercy of a byzantine bureaucracy. Throughout “Love Child,” the pair idly check the UN’s website for a status update on their claims — what a horrible way to learn about what will quite literally become the rest of your life! — and are unable to truly move forward until it’s resolved. Malvud’s film illuminates yet another hard truth: Their timing couldn’t have been worse. Kicking off at the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, Sahand and Leila must contend with an influx of other people fleeing for their lives, hoping for something normal, something just a bit better. Frustrations boil over, hearts are broken, and friends are lost. But “Love Child” soldiers on, if only because the lives it follows have to as well.
Early in the film, Sahand attempts to comfort a crying Leila, murmuring to her not to worry, because “nothing’s going to happen.” It’s an assurance based on nothing but blind hope, a sentiment that guides so much of “Love Child.” Nothing’s going to happen, but everything does in the course of seven years, and inappropriate as it may seem to chalk a family’s very real life up to cinematic twists and turns, Mulvad’s film is one of the most absorbing dramas of the year. That it’s real only makes it’s an object of further fascination, fear, and raw hope.
“Love Child” screened at the 2019 DOC NYC festival. It is currently seeking distribution.