Post-Modernity and Human Rights Activists in Latin American Cinema


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My last of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble in relation to post-modernity and human rights activists in Latin American Cinema.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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“You can say a story is fabricated. You can say a jury is corrupt. You can say a person is lying. You can say you don’t trust newspapers. But you can’t say what you just saw never happened” (Speakers, 1). This is the message written in WITNESS’s promotional video, an organization co-founded by Genesis musician Peter Gabriel that encourages worldwide human rights activists to make changes through the use of video. This objective reflects Gabriel’s message that an event should be captured by an activist to expose injustice and reveal the truth. Relating to the general topic of Latin American Cinema, three filmmakers will be discussed in relation to Peter Gabriel’s solution for truth: Vicki Funari, Sergio De La Torre, directors of the 2006 film Maquilapolis and Pamela Yates, director of the 1984 film When the Mountains Tremble. The main difference between the directors of each film is that Yates, unlike Funari and De La Torre, Yates, is a New York citizen and an outsider from Latin America, but they nonetheless share the same concern for each film’s subject matter. When the Mountains Tremble documents the horrific genocide of the Mayan civilians by the Guatemalan army while Maquilapolis documents the lives of maquiladora workers who are experiencing the weakening effects of the toxic industrial waste of the factories.

Both films challenge social justice while also being part of the post-modern era of documentary filmmaking. As theorist Linda Williams describes it, post-modern documentaries share the earnest approach to a subject as always but the truth is constructed by docu-auteurs who whether on or off camera have control of the shots (Williams, 104) and as writer Gloria Galindo expands on Williams’ theory, this style borrows features from fiction film in their construction (Galindo, 83). Integrating Peter Gabriel’s message of truth with Linda William’s theory of post-modernity, Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble are films that represent truth by being made in collaboration with human rights activists while the filmmakers construct the film with a post-modern approach by blurring the lines of documentary and fiction. To write chronologically, I will begin the development of my thesis with When the Mountains Tremble. 

Theorist Teresa Longo expresses the same concern I explained earlier: When the Mountains Tremble was a United States filmmaker making a film about a Third World Country. Despite the U.S. involvement, Yates was intrigued in telling a story of what she describes as a “hidden war” and led to the director making a film that was more “transcultural than ethnocentric and objectifying” (Longo, 77), meaning the director documented the genocide by the Guatemalan army through the eyes of the Maya people and not with a U.S. perspective. This was made possible by collaborating with human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu who served as a storyteller with an indigenous (meaning original and truthful) voice (Skylight Pictures, 15). Menchu’s importance in the film is evident in its opening sequence as she delivers the first dialogue. Wearing a distinct blue ensemble, Menchu stands out strong from the black background and introduces herself as part of the Maya people, giving authority to the film. This collaboration also has an important relationship to the visual imagery selected by the director and even more so to the re-enacted scenes, an aspect of the blurred lines of documentary and fiction.

Menchu introduces the re-enacted scenes based on declassified U.S. documents by stating, “However, some years ago there was hope for a democracy”. Both re-enacted scenes of the dinner with Guatemalan President and the CIA command post were juxtaposed with monologues by Menchu and at one point, her voice acts as voice-over to the reenacted sequence. This is one of the examples given by Teresa Longo that made the film transcultural as it joined images of Menchu and the fiction-based conventions of the director to explore the U.S. history in relation to the events in the Third World Country (Longo, 79). The collaboration with activists and post-modern filmmaking demonstrated in When the Mountain Trembles has been explored twenty-two years later in Maquilapolis. 

While taking a course on Latin American Cinema, professor Elizabeth Miller sparked an interesting discussion on Maquilapolis, which was that we (the class) has previously discussed the aesthetics of hunger in relation to the Cinema Novo Movement, but now with Maquilapolis, how would we describe its aesthetics of access? This was interesting as it reflects the collaboration between Vicki Funari, Sergio De La Torre and the maquiladora workers. The directors wanted to work with women who are activists and they taught the woman factory workers how to use a digital camera, film techniques, sound recording, and writing skills in order to tell their story (Fregoso, 3). This collaboration offered a personal insight to the women’s lifestyles while granting extraordinary access to the factories they have suffered in and the unprivileged homes they live in with their family. The access seen in the film at the factory justifies the gritty and toxic surroundings the woman are standing up against while the access in their homes and lifestyle justifies their strong-willed characteristics, making the audience realize that they deserve better. The collaboration offers subjective truth, an aspect of post-modern documentary, a mode that also includes fictional elements.

Along with this collaboration, the filmmakers combine the documentary realism with choreographed performances of the maquiladora workers that acts as the film’s fictional elements. The workers, dressed in blue, demonstrate a repeated movement of their hands that resemble the work they do in the factory.  The docu-auteurs add a personal touch to the film by juxtaposing beautiful imagery of the dance with the dark undertones of the factory. Now free from work at the factory, the film concludes with the workers slowly spreading apart from line and walking free as the camera moves further to a Bird’s-eye Point-of-View shot. Sounds like a scene in a Hollywood movie. Like Linda William’s explains, post-modern documentary take part in “a new hunger for reality on the part of the audience apparently saturated with Hollywood fiction” (Galindo, 83). As director Funari explains, it is the combination and the dynamics you get of the performance and the standard verite elements that makes the project interesting while expressing the films themes, characters, and place (Fregoso, 176) – a true representation of facts in a post-modern approach.

To synthesize both films as a part of post-modern cinema, both films show a constructed truth by the directors with the help of human rights activists. Peter Gabriel’s WITNESS promotional video concludes by demanding to give cameras to the world to start shooting and revealing the injustices of the world (Speakers, 1), which is what Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble does effectively in collaboration with human rights activists. As Gabriel optimistically explains, this approach to a self-reflexive style of documentary is expanding especially with the technological developments of portable camera-phones where practically any human rights activist can be a docu-auteur and reveal the truth.


Galindo, Gloria. Bus 174 and Post-Modern Documentary. Theoria, Vol. 18 (1): 81-86, 2009.

Fregoso, Rosa-Linda. “Maquilapolis: An Interview with Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre”. Camera Obscura 74, Vol 25, Number 2, Duke University Press, 2010.

Longo, Teresa. “When the Mountains Tremble: Images of Ethnicity in a Transcultural Context” Framing Latin American Cinema, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 189-206.

Maquilapolis. Dir. Vicki Funari and Sergio De La Torre. California Newsreel. 2006. Film.

Skylight Pictures. Granito Press Release. Press Release. 2013.

“Speakers Peter Gabriel: Musician, Activist.” Peter Gabriel. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

When the Mountain Trembles. Dir. Pamela Yates. Skylight Pictures. 1983. Film.

Williams, Linda. “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary” New Challenges for the Documentary Ed: Alan Rosenthal and John Corner. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005.


Bus 174 and City of God


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My second of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films Bus 174 and City of God.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, a young man in his twenties, holds a hostage in his arms with a gun at her head inside Bus 174 of Jardim Botanico, Rio de Jeneiro, Brazil. The man yells at the camera, “This is not an action movie, this is a serious matter!”. One without a hint or clue of this scene description might possibly convey it as well-written dialogue in a self-reflexive fiction, meaning, “consciousness turning back on itself” or films which call attention to themselves as cinematic constructs (Siska, 285). Unfortunately this is not the case. Albeit its self-reflexivity, the 2002 film Bus 174 directed by Jose Padilha documents the event of young protagonist Sandro who holds a bus hostage for four hours. The camera he addresses is part of a flock of cameras covering the event live for television and there is no one to yell cut to his actions. The event and consequences are real, which overall depicts the violence of Brazil’s society.

The year 2002 was a witness to another great Brazilian film City of God directed by Fernando Meireilles, a film about the growth of a crime gang in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Now why would the fiction film City of God be mentioned in the same breathe as the documentary film Bus 174? Ask the critiques of Bus 174. To select a few, Jamie Russel of BBC states, “A stunning indictment of Brazil’s social meltdown, this startling documentary plays like City Of God – except this time the bullets are real” and Empire summarizes that, “If City Of God cracked the skin, Bus 174 digs deep into the wound”. These are brief comments about the films similarities but they are accepted in a movie review. As Timothy Corrigan explains, movie reviews are an introduction of the film to the general public, but he also explains the critical essay, a deeper evaluation that focuses on the film’s themes and any other filmic observations (Corrigan, 7-10). That is my job here. Collecting opinions of theoretical author’s and my own, I will analyze what makes City of God similar to Bus 174. In terms of form, while one is a documentary and another a fiction, they each contain a small but significant element of their opposite form to blur the lines of documentary and fiction. Thematically, both films depict the aspect of violence in Brazil’s society. Combining form and theme, Bus 174 and City of God realistically portrays the social issues in Brazil that ultimately categorizes both films under the Cinema Novo movement of Latin America, a movement that captured the underdevelopment of Latin America.

Else R. P. Vieira, Professor of Latin American Studies, states that City of God utilizes hegemonic models and mainstream film language (Vieira, 51). The open sequence of the fiction film is a representation of this. It begins with fast-paced, extreme close-ups of knives, the celebratory Brazilian community killing chickens followed with another stylized sequence of a chase with guns for a fleeing chicken. The sequence ends with our hero, Rocket, a young man with a camera, who stands close to the chicken while confronted by a gang on one end and the police on the other. While contemplating whether he should take a picture of the event, he narrates, “A picture could change my life, in the City of God, if you run away, they get you and if you stay, they get you too. It’s been that way ever since I was a kid”.

Comprising mostly of fictional elements, there is still subtle documentary traits that incorporates filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch’s ethnofiction genre, a subgenre of docufiction that means, “any fictional creation with an ethnographical background” (Ross, 1) by using actors and scripts. The film utilizes the docufiction technique by using real people from the favela as actors. Expanding on this, Vieira explains that two hundred children and adolescents were trained during preproduction allowed great spontaneity in the film, which would need a handheld camera to capture it. Real people and handheld cameras are usual motifs to the documentary genre to capture the truth and reality of a given topic or event – this being violence in Brazil that was also depicted in Bus 174. 

Author Gloria Galino categorizes Bus 174 under post-modern documentary because it borrows features from fiction film. This is evident in the opening frames of the film as it begins with a near four-minute long shot of Jardim Botanico as it gets close to the scene of Sandro’s crime accompanied with a string-orchestrated soundtrack. Gloria Galino is inspired with theorist Linda Williams’ who states, “post-modern documentaries take part in a new hunger for reality on the part of the audience apparently saturated with Hollywood fiction, but with a sense that truth is subject of manipulation and construction by docu-auteurs who, whether on camera or behind it, are forcefully calling the shots” (Galino 83). Director Jose Padilha has power to make the film how he wishes which develops into a documentary that displays the intensity of a fiction. This also relates to self-reflexivity, which as mentioned previously, addresses the construction of a film where the voice of the director is evident.

In my opinion, the most effective choice made by the director was to break time and space by juxtaposing footage of the live event with parts of the film that reflect on Sandro’s traumatic past of his mother being murdered by interviewing people who know him. Linda Williams calls this aspect of the film, “mirror with memory” (Galino, 84). Since they are exploring the past, this cannot be captured, therefore it needs to be constructed through memory and as French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines it, memory is a “work of fiction”. It is subjectively constructed from an individual while viewing objective accounts (Ranciere, 158). Theorist Belinda Smaill expands on the director’s decision to not organize the film to offer a single, one-sided reading which makes the documentary provoke drama and suspense because of the analysis of the protagonist’s psyche (Smaill, 185). I mentioned Else R. P. Vieira’s statement earlier that City of God utilizes hegemonic models and mainstream film language. Bus 174 follows that statement and she continues that both qualities are necessary to achieve success internationally. Bus 174 is the first Latin American documentary that was show in cinemas and film festivals around the world. Along with City of God, it was an international success.

To synthesize both films as a part of Latin American Cinema, City of God and Bus 174 represent Cinema Novo, a movement that represents Latin’s “cultural manifestation” of violence (Vieira, 54). Inspired by Italian Neo-Realism, both of the documentary and fiction films utilize real people to demonstrate the truth of violence in Brazil whether it is on an animal, an inanimate object such a soccer ball or on each other. This movement, and the effectiveness on documentary and fiction film is proving to be inspiring young Brazilian filmmakers such as Maria Clara Escobar. Having the opportunity to view her film, Os Dias Com Ele (2013) at the Montreal Festival Du Nouveau Cinema, I can see the influence of Cinema Novo as she uses memory to blur the lines of fiction and documentary to reflect on Brazil dictatorship of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I predict the value of constructing documentaries and fiction with this approach will only grow.


Bus 174. Dir. Jose Padilha. Zazen Producoes. 2002. Film.

“Bus 174Documentary about the Kidnapping of a Bus Full of People in Brazil.” N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

City of God. Dir. Fernando Meirelles. Miramax Films. 2002. Film.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. Second Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1992, 6-15.

Os Dia Com Ele. Dir. Maria Clara Escobar. 2013. Film.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2006. Print.

Reuben, Ross. “Ethnofiction and the Work of Jean Rouch | UK Visual Anthropology.” UK Visual Anthropology. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Russell, Jamie. BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Siska, William C. “Metacinema: A Modern Necessity.” Literature/Film Quarterly, 7.1 (1979): 285-9.

Smaill, Belinda. The Documentary – Politics, Emotion, Culture, 2010, p 182-188

Vieira, Else R. P., Cidade de Deus: Challenges to Hollywood, Steps to The Constant Gardener In Contemporary Latin American Cinema (pp 51-66).

Guzman: Intersecting Fiction and Documentary


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My first of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films of Patricio Guzman: The Battle of Chile and Obstinate Memory.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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Ignacio, an eighty-year-old man, sits at his piano and performs a melancholic composition that appropriately acts as a diagetic soundtrack to the film Obstinate Memory, a 1997 film directed by Patricio Guzman. The filmmaker asks the man, “What does remembering mean to you?” and he replies, “Remembering is returning to the past… you see the past as it was”. Ignacio refers to the events chronicled in Guzman’s three-part documentary The Battle of Chile. Returning to the past is not only significant to Obstinate Memory but also a reference to Latin American Cinema as its origin reigns from the critical realist style of filmmaker Fernando Birri (King, 417), a style that is present in Obstinate Memory and Battle of Chile (Guzman, 1975-1978). True to John King’s explanation of Latin-American Cinema, the films have a desire to, “Explore a fractured past and imagine different futures” (King, 417) while The Battle of Chile’s cinematic sensibility and Obstinate Memory’s subjectivity challenges truth and representation as Guzman intersects fiction and documentary.

Guzman’s film, The Battle of Chile, is a documentary that incorporates fictional and cinematic sensibilities that heighten the critical-realist style of Latin American Cinema, a style that, as John King describes it, represents and encourages social change (King, 399). The political background of the film begins with the bombing of the presidential palace. This marked the end of Popular Unity, the democratically socialist government under Salvador Allended, and initiated a dictatorship (Klubock, 272). The event provoked the citizens of Chile to protest, which was effectively captured by Guzman and his crew.

The documentary aspect of the film is evident. It utilizes a cinema-verite style that was developed in the 1960’s after the innovations of transportable cameras and synchronous sound, technologies that allow a true representation of reality (Glossary, 1). The film demonstrates the ability of the handheld camera for flexible coverage as it captures the events up-close and personal. Sound technology is also visible to the viewer as the sound operator strikes the microphone to allow post-production syncing. Although this would be cut in most films, cinema verite encourages the filmmaking process and this only heightens the reality of the moments captured.

The advantages of transportable technology to capture live events are not only evident in the film, but also the history of its production, which is detailed in The Battle of Chile’s Press Release. Guzman explains that, “You would be sitting in a café, working on a script, and all of a sudden a group of picketing workers with red flags would pass by… How could you not film that? Why distance oneself from that reality?” (Icarus Films, 13). The small anecdote validates the reality of the film. It explains the ability to capture events that have no schedule – they can happen anywhere, anytime. Although the film is labeled as a documentary, Guzman wanted to avoid the typical, informative style of this category.

As a filmmaker who studied fiction film (Icarus Film, 14), Guzman’s The Battle of Chile offers a cinematic and fictional representation of true events. The film includes cinematic coverage of the interviews, where the focus is not solely on one person and their opinions, but also the emotions they convey. This is executed through extreme close-ups and unusual camera angles. For example, an interview includes an upset but passionate woman who is covered in extreme close-ups, a type of shot that compliments her emotions. Another interview includes a woman expressing her views with pride and confidence, hence a low-angle camera angle is used.  This evokes the power and strength of the woman’s message and personality while also covering the crowd that stands strong and proudly with her. As authors Victor Wallace and John D. Barlow examine Guzman’s cinematic sensibility, it is a “Hollywood portrayal of the forces of liberty opposing those of tyranny” (Wallace and Barlow, 410). “Hollywood portrayal” is an interesting choice of words for Wallace and Barlow as it explains the fictional elements of Guzman’s coverage of the Chilean citizens. Observing reality with fictional terms, the film’s main actors are real, working class Chileans, who serve as clear protagonists to the military coup, the antagonist.

Guzman’s intention with The Battle of Chile was to make an analytical documentary that can be observed and studied by Chileans in the future (Icarus Film, 14), which supports John King’s explanation of the critical-realist style of Latin American Cinema that suggests social change. I believe that because Guzman captured the events in such a cinematic way, the power of the film is heightened which allows an effective and emotional analysis for future Chileans. Guzman’s intention became a reality when his 1997 film Obstinate Memory was released.

Guzman screened The Battle of Chile to his Chilean community for the first time after being band for decades by the authorities (IMDb). Separating The Battle of Chile from Obstinate Memory, Thomas Kublock describes the 1970’s three-part film as, “Cinema verite. It was an unrepeatable social experience. The second [Obstinate Memory] is a more personal film about remembering” (Kublock 125). In Obstinate Memory, new generations of Chilean citizens reflect then events they barely remember along with those who lived it. Consistent with the ideology developed in The Battle of Chile of combining documentary and fiction, Guzman utilizes “memory” as subjectivist fiction (Rodriguez, 47) in Obstinate Memory.

As French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines it, memory is a “work of fiction” Memory is subjectively constructed from an individual while viewing objective accounts (Ranciere, 158). Relating Ranciere’s theory to the film, Obstinate Memory includes youths and elders watching The Battle of Chile (objective), and later includes their reactions and reflections (subjective). Guzman uses the film as a way to access memory and does effectively as it sparks an inspired debate amongst university students, and emotional reflections from those who experience the terrors of that period. According to Ranciere, “Cinema is the art best equipped to represent the operations of memory because it is the combination of the gaze of the artist who decides and the mechanical gaze that records, of constructed images and chance images” (Ranciere, 161). The film reflects this quote as segments of the film show archival footage from The Battle of Chile that are cinematically edited by juxtaposing images of the citizens between now and then, while also creating spaces where citizens watch the three-part film in groups or individually.

Memory as fiction in Obstinate Memory does challenge the notion of truth and representation. Thomas Kublock explains that critics believe oral testimonies do not allow a true understanding of past experiences because memories can be mistaken and distorted (Kublock 275). For example, Ignacio struggles to remember and conveys this in a comical manner as he tries to play the soundtrack to the film “Beethoven’s Sonata”. Guzman introduces his uncle Ignacio and narrates, “He still has good memory. I think”. Guzman is not sure of his uncle’s ability to remember, therefore labeling his memory as subjectivist fiction. Although subjective memory challenges truth and representation, the film is definitely true to John King’s idea of Latin American Cinema. Obstinate Memory “explore[s] a fractured past and imagine[s] different futures” (King, 417). This film succeeds as it initiates discussions between students of what is right and wrong in order to build a better society.

The Battle of Chile and Obstinate Memory is an ideal combination of critical-realist films from Patricio Guzman as both incorporate fictional elements in the documentary category. Interestingly, recent Latin American Cinema has witnessed a reversal of this idea as documentary elements are incorporated in the fiction category. No, a 2012 film directed by Pablo Larrain, is based on true events of an advertising executive that creates plans to promote the NO campaign to oppose a plebiscite on the Chilean dictator. For authenticity, Larrain did various things: to recreate the look of the period, the film was shot on a 1983 U-matic video camera in a 4:3 ratio, he used many TV spots from 24 years ago that were seamlessly accompanied with new footage, and similar to The Battle of Chile, it was shot hand-help for spontaneous coverage (Sony Pictures Classics, 10). As Pablo Larrain’s brother and producer No expresses in the film’s Press Release, “Pablo wants the camera to be as much a participant in scenes as the actors. [He] likes his camera to get dirty” (Sony Pictures Classics, 9).

The Chilean filmmakers Pablo Larrain and Patricio Guzman seem to have adopted the style of filmmaking that Fernando Birri has established for Latin American Cinema. Although The Battle of Chile, Obstinate Memory and No are in different film categories, they are example of critical realist films with great cinematic value that reflect social change and truth. When films offer critical and truthful insight of the past, they will always remain significant. Whether documentary with fictional elements or vice-versa, it serves as a document of the past. Audiences can learn from cinema and gain knowledge on how to shape society’s future.


“Chile, the Obstinate Memory.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.

“Glossary of Rouchian Terms.” Glossary of Rouchian Terms. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.

Icarus Films. “The Battle of Chile Press Release”. Press Release. 1998.

King, John. “Chilean Cinema in Revolution and Exile” in New Latin American Cinema: Volume Two: Studies of National Cinemas Ed. Michael T. Martin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. 397-419.

Kublock, Thomas. “History and Memory in Neoliberal Chile: Patricio Guzman’s Obstinate Memory and the Battle of Chile” Radical History Review, Issue 85, winter, 2003. 272-281.

No. Dir. Pablo Lorrain. Sony Pictures Classics. 2012. Film.

Obstinate Memory. Dir. Patricio Guzman. Icarus Films. 1997. Film.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2006. Print.

Rodriguez, Juan Carlos. “The Post-Dictatorial Documentaries of Patricio Guzman”. Duke University, 2007. Print.

Sony Pictures Classics. “No Press Release”. Press Release. 2012.

The Battle of Chile. Dir. Patricio Guzman. Icarus Films. 1975-1978. Film.

Wallace, Victor and Barlow, John D. “Documentary as Participation: The Battle of Chile” in Show Us Life: Towards a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984, p. 403-416.

Lost in the Mirror: An Insight on Alan Zweig

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“Lost in the Mirror: An Insight on Alan Zweig” is an essay that analyzes Zweig’s self-reflexive documentaries Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon, and Lovable
Authors: Alberto D’Onofrio and Jonathan Bosco 
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Close-up: the cameraman enters the frame, changing the standard lens to a telephoto lens. He pans the camera to its side and continues filming the subject. This sequence is one of many in the documentary Man With A Movie Camera (Verkov, 1929) where the filmmaker is visible in the filmmaking process distinguishing the film as an early example of the Reflexive Mode of documentary. Making the audience aware of the film’s process is a standard in the Reflexive Mode, allowing an honest and truthful portrayal of a subject (Nichols, 3). Since then, filmmakers have made a reflection on their subjects through this mode, but some used the Reflexive Mode to make a reflection on themselves, thus exploring the personal documentary. George Semsel explains the importance of personal documentary in Notes from a Journal. He states, “You cannot make a film which can effectively alter the world until you have really looked at yourself and made an honest, forthright evaluation”. The trend of personal cinema began with Richard Hancox in the 1980’s as he encouraged personal documentary and motivated his students to “investigate questions of time, memory landscape and documentary convention” (Cole, 6). One student who emerged from Hancox’s schooling was Toronto native, Alan Zweig. Using the modes and conventions of the Reflexive Mode, Zweig makes a candid evaluation of himself, late in his career, in a trilogy of films (recognized as the Mirror Trilogy): Vinyl (2000), I, Curmudgeon (2004), and Lovable (2007). Showing truth to Semsel’s thoughts of personal documentary, Zweig’s Mirror Trilogy allows him to make an honest evaluation of others outside his reality in A Hard Name (2009).

In Alan Zweig’s Vinyl, the first film within the aptly named Mirror Trilogy, he focuses on record collectors and their huge collections. Zweig tries to go deep within the psychology of the collectors to discover the reasoning behind the big collections. He often inquires them about their collections, trying to deduce why anyone would continue on with such an over abundance of records within their domestic residence. In between his interviews with the record collectors, he monologues to a mirror, talking about his own experiences with record collecting and sharing anecdotes and personal stories, some of which are occurring at that moment. In reference to mice being found in his laundry:

“It was like it was saying: “Hey! Give up. Doesn’t matter, clean up, change your life, doesn’t matter we’re gonna be there… sullying everything, making everything seem like crap, all your efforts”.

(Alan Zweig in Vinyl)

The viewer is introduced to a very interesting cast of characters throughout the documentary. One man wants to collect every single record that exists, while another has half a million records in his house, filling up his entire cellar and even his bathroom. One man, after surviving testicular cancer, went to collecting to cheer him up, and another lost half his collection to his ex-wife in a divorce.

As the documentary progresses, the viewer really gets a feel for each person and an understanding to their desire of records. One collector describes that feeling of magic upon discovering a song he’s never heard and another describes the thrill of being at a record store and searching through albums. However, most of the collectors and even Zweig had noted that it’s not just about the music, for some it was (they would collect because they enjoyed the music), for others, it was an obsession. Just as a nail biter would keep biting his/her nails as a form of “grooming”, the record collector will keep buying records as his/her form of “grooming”, even if they do not necessarily need the record, it is that feeling of satisfaction that drives them. A moment happens to Zweig, where he buys a stack of old Jewish records, stating he does not need them but he cannot just leave them there – it is like a siren call. One man describes the obsession to collect as a form of psychological illness, whereas unresolved problems from a person’s life can lead them to collect as a way of compensating for that.

As the documentary progresses the viewer quickly realizes Zweig’s intentions, he seems to want to find an answer as to why he is single with no kids. He feels his collecting is the leading cause of this problem in his life and, through the film, is trying to have that theory validated. He often questions the collectors about their personal and romantic lives and always acts shocked when he hears that one of them has a girlfriend, stating it must be incredibly difficult due to all the time it takes to be a collector, as if the prospect of a romantic relationship just cannot happen due to collecting. The viewer gets a closer look at his sad life and his yearning for a wife and family as he tries to discover the real reason for being single. This common theme also appears in his second film, I, Curmudgeon.

I, Curmudgeon is the second film in Zweig’s personal Mirror Trilogy, which offers another insight on the filmmaker – his bad-tempered, disagreeable, and stubborn personality. In the film, he reveals the irritable nature of his personality with the reflection from a mirror, which is explained in three categories:

“Popular culture and all its crap, category 1. Category 2 is how my life did not go the way I wanted it to. Category 3 is man’s inhumanity to man, lack of charity, lack of kindness, lying, phoniness, cowardliness, all the stupid things done in the name of religion and patriotism, war, pestilence, violence, and mistreatment, and pollution, alienation, stupid, stupid people, all the horrible things in the world”.

(Alan Zweig in I, Curmudgeon)

Zweig describes his life as a three-act division where he finds himself growing bitter in the second act of his life, when he was in his twenties. At this time, his filmmaking career was not successful, a passion that developed at the end of his first-act. When others started calling him a curmudgeon in his thirties, Zweig thought it was the world around him causing this. As he was about to quit his filmmaking aspirations, he got lucky, thus starting the third act of his life where he tries to figure out the fallout and resolution to his negativity. This is an issue Zweig deals with the cast of curmudgeons as he provides an insightful study of their lives.

From the personalities Zweig used in the film, a few were recognizable figures – comedian Scott Thomson, authors Cintra Wilson and Fran Lebowitz, and comic book writer Harvey Pekar who also appeared in Vinyl. The others are ordinary, everyday people with a unique story to tell that all communicate their pessimistic character. Stories range from personal anecdotes to discussions with Zweig who is evidently in the room with them behind the camera. Some describe small but significant stories. If someone extensively describes his or her great and successful life, he’ll be happy on the outside but inside he’s saying, “Go f—- yourself”. Or if someone says, “Hey, lets go see this movie”, he’ll say, “Nah, it’s a piece a crap” or if one says, “Nice weather”, he’ll reply, “It could be better”. The same person defined his negativity as a smart-ass quality rather than depressive, and points out that there is difference. Zweig demonstrates this as well with his selection of personalities. Some will show a heavy frown while others will have a smirk or a smile.

Zweig makes appearances from the reflection of a mirror also telling us anecdotes from his life to track the sources of his personality. He describes an event where his friends spoke about a sneaker commercial that they really enjoyed where Zweig was the one thinking it was terrible and expressed this truthfully. While he was serious about his opinion, others felt pity and told him the little value of that commercial. Even one of the cast members told Zweig that he took it too seriously, and his friends were right. This also demonstrates the therapeutic, and analytical discussions between Zweig and his fellow curmudgeons.

Zweig closes the documentary with ideas relating to the theme of love. He introduces this with a story about his smoking habits. Smoking was a way to relieve his negativity to others with a big puff of smoke to their face. When quitting, he had to find other ways to express this. Subtly, he advises, “If a women says I hope you’re not quitting for me – it means she’s out [knows she won’t be in the relationship much longer]”. When a man confronts Zweig asking about his level of happiness, he replies, “two… two-and-three-quarters if I had a girlfriend”. Zweig continues, ultimately providing a fitting end to I, Curmudeon by confessing his biggest problem: “I’m not happy, I’m alone”. Zweig directs his love dilemma to the final chapter of his Mirror Trilogy, Lovable.

The common theme is most apparent within Alan Zweig’s Lovable, the third and final installment of the Mirror Trilogy. In it Zweig interviews single women with the intention of discovering the reason for them being single. The viewer is presented to a lovely group of women, all attractive with great personalities, who, despite their best efforts, still manage to remain single. Throughout the film, the women continuously try to understand it themselves, often expressing their frustration and just trying to find an answer to the question: “what is wrong with me?” The women come up with various theories to this question. One believes her aura presents a feeling of “I don’t need a man”, another believes there is the possibility she just is not marriageable and another who felt she lost her chance by not staying with a high school sweetheart (she considered staying with one as archaic). Sadly, it does not end there; most of the women are heavily affected by their single lives. One woman finds it difficult to stay occupied being single, another women’s grandmother was easily willing to give up a tea set she was saving for her granddaughter’s wedding, that’s how little faith she had in her granddaughter finding a husband, another has breakdowns just seeing regular couples and another contacts old boyfriends when she’s ovulating to fill that void in her life.

In between interviews with these women, Zweig reflects upon his own single-hood. He mentions his favorite activity as sitting at a café, watching the people go by, especially the women. Occasionally, a woman would go by and he would think to himself, “What would my future be like with her?”. Zweig, also, describes a great amount of dates that he went on throughout the documentary, most ending really badly. One date, he had mentioned to the girl the great chemistry they had and she replied, “Well that’s too bad”, and another broke up with him because of her many experiences of short relationships, which she felt would repeat with Zweig. He continues on dates hoping to find the one during the filming of the documentary, so there can be a happy ending. Sadly, that is not the case as near the end of the film he explicitly says, “I give up”. This ending really hits hard as throughout the documentary Zweig describes this undying want to have a wife and kids. This want had become so deep for Zweig he would end a relationship for the sole reason that a kid was not desired. He had not truly felt that gap in his life until a friend told him that he “Wants to have a full life, to experience everything within reason that life has to offer” (Friend by Zweig in Lovable). This was a defining moment for Zweig as this absence of a family he had barely felt before had blown up to great proportions. He stated that when searching on dating sites, he does not look for someone who seems fun or pretty, but someone who he could spend his life with (which, has not worked in his favor). This need is so big for Zweig that he acts completely shocked when a woman actually says she is perfectly happy being alone and in fact, enjoys it. Zweig seems to be completely baffled at the fact that someone can be content with the idea of being alone. Zweig ends the documentary by stating he will still be searching and believes it to be self-destructive yet hopeful, quoting a song “I believe my dreams may still come true, someday you’ll show me they really want me to. Gee whiz, that’s not the way it is, but that’s my favorite dream”, ending the documentary on a bittersweet note.

The Mirror Trilogy, unofficially referred to as the “Trilogy of Narcissism” (Michael, 1), although set with different subjects and opinions, it is all dealt in the same reflexive way. Most evidently, Zweig uses mirrors to reflect upon his views and personal life. Although, the mirror seems to be an obvious metaphor to the reflexive mode and his self-reflexivity he’s portraying in his documentaries, it works as a simple and effective tool. The mirrors put him in a vulnerable position that allows him to express his emotions sincerely to the camera (Michael, 1). The way his mirror shots are framed, in terms of mise-en-scene, are also reflective of his personality and emotions that he felt during that stage of his life and at that specific moment as well. For example, in I, Curmudgeon, one of his mirror set-ups include a book titled “Tell me About Chanukah”, a bah-mitzvah story prayer book, reflecting his Jewish heritage. In another mirror shot, he includes his cab driver’s identification card, reflecting his early life as an unsuccessful filmmaker before the Mirror Trilogy. In Vinyl, various vinyl records are often seen around the mirror in his mirror shots. The records often reflect either a mood he is feeling or relates to the story he is telling, for example a Curtis Mayfield album is shown while he talks about his experiences collecting Curtis Mayfield albums. The same occurs within Lovable, where most of the vinyls shown have a feminine or female figure on the album cover. Some of the last mirror sequences in the trilogy, seen in Lovable, involve Zweig cleaning his mirrors, a possible metaphor for him cleaning up his life in the aftermath of the trilogy. The most obvious aspect of the mirror shots seen in all three films is the presence of the camera.

The presence of the camera within the mirror shots is one of the defining characteristics that define this trilogy within the reflexive mode of documentary, making the viewer aware of the film’s process. Even during the interviews, the camera and Zweig himself can often be seen reflected in windows in the background. Sometimes, Zweig is also seen manipulating the camera. For example, in I, Curmudgeon, one of the personalities asks Zweig if he can zoom in to get a medium shot. Zweig agrees and does the change. In other modes of documentary filmmaking this scene would usually be cut out in the editing process, but Zweig includes it, maintaining the true nature of his work. This occurs, as well, at the beginning of Vinyl, where the first thing the viewer sees is Zweig fixing the camera to frame himself in the mirror. With the evident jump cuts, camera work and on-screen microphones, the viewer is left with an informal style of work. Subsequently, this style translates into his interviews.

His style of interview is anecdotal; it feels like a therapy session whereas the interviewees have an unscripted and natural essence to their dialogue. Not only is this helpful for the interviewee but important for Zweig as well, as he tries to reflect upon his similar problems. As he mentioned in a TVO interview, he does not meet up with his interviewees before the interviews. He sets up his camera within five minutes and starts recording as soon as it is set. He described his way of interviewing as spontaneous; he has no agenda nor a list of questions, he lets it happen. As Zweig says in the same interview, “When other people do their research… I shoot my research” (Zweig, TVO). This form of filming allows for a deeper connection with the interviewees. As Zweig stated for the TVO website, “For me a good documentary story is anything that has a whiff of honesty or authenticity about it… Humanity will shine through the screen” (Zweig, TVO). This very thing occurs with each and every individual interviewed. The interviewees are relatable people and through their humanity leave the viewer wanting to know more about them. Zweig does not involve a whole crew to do his interviews, it is only him and his camera, allowing there to be more intimacy between him and the interviewee. As one interviewee said, “Being interviewed by Alan certainly gave me the feeling of being a bug under a microscope because the personal nature of his inquiry brought me to a new level of self-reflection” (Cole, 4). Michael Cartmell, filmmaker and participant in I, Curmudgeon also complimented Zweig’s ability to talk anecdotally and “and [to] do so coherently, humorously, touchingly. This is his master trait; it’s who he is, as far as I’m concerned” (Cole, 2). The relationship between Zweig and the people, along with all the technical qualities involved, is the most common characteristic that translates into Zweig’s most ambitious project A Hard Name.

With Zweig’s personal, self-analytical work in the Mirror Trilogy, he was able to grow as a filmmaker and a person. Zweig was able to make a forthright, truthful evaluation of himself in the Mirror Trilogy, therefore allowing him to make an honest observation on a deeper subject with different personalities than himself. Following George Semsel’s ideals on the personal documentary, Zweig focused on his next film, A Hard Name, a film about eight middle-aged ex-convicts and their struggle to live normal lives. It follows the same reflexive approach he took with the Mirror Trilogy but he focuses on the ex-convicts rather than himself. His usual mirror set-up is not included but Zweig’s presence is still felt because his voice is heard from the sincere, therapeutic conversations he has with the people. The development of Zweig’s career and personal life is evident from the success of A Hard Name and the long road it took for him to get there with the Mirror Trilogy. A Hard Name deservingly earned Zweig a Genie Award, honoring him as a successful Canadian director and since then has started a successful family of his own (Pevere, 2). This perhaps extends his three-act-structured life to four – the fourth being fatherhood.

Zweig’s efforts, put into his most successful film A Hard Name, would not have been possible if it were not for his journey of self-reflexivity, seen in the Mirror Trilogy, which is made up of Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon and Lovable. In order to truly make a film about the humanity of people, he had to understand his own humanity first. His look into himself, be it his obsession with record collecting, his negative, curmudgeous ways or his investigative search into the truth behind bachelorhood, allowed him to create a film that could represent the humanity of others as if they were himself. Along with his unique filmmaking style and his knowledge of documentary, from an education provided by Hancox, Zweig was able to truly create films with heart. As George Semsel stated in Notes From a Journal, “Film, like education, comes out of the heart: one teaches because one loves and so one makes films”. Through his love of film, Zweig has taught us all lessons in humanity that one will never forget.


A Hard Name. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2009. Online.

“Alan Zweig.” TVO. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.


Cole, “Focus on Alan Zweig: The Curmudgeon Turns Lovable,” Point of View, No. 82 (Summer, 2011), 4-8.

“Hot Docs Q and A on A Hard Name with Alan Zweig and Others.” TVO. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.


I, Curmudgeon. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2004. Online.

Lovable. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2007. Online.

Man With A Movie Camera. Dir. Diza Vertov. 1929. Online.

Michael, Joseph. “Behind the Doc: Alan Zweig.” BlogTO RSS. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.


Nicols, Bill. “Modes of Documentary.” Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

Pevere, Geoff. “Alan Zweig, the Man in the Mirror.” Web. 10 Dec. 2012.


Semsel, George, “Notes from a Journal,” (condensed by Hancox), unpublished, 1976, 1-2.

Vinyl. Dir. Alan Zweig. 2000. Online.

Takes Two to Hustle

– – – “Takes Two to Hustle” is my latest film. It is shot on 16mm and Mini-DV. The process for this film was an incredible learning experience; from pre-production, shooting, and editing – definitely my biggest production so far. … Continue reading