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Sundance 2018: "306 Hollywood," "Our New President"

306 Hollywood” has a unique place in Sundance history by being the first documentary to ever premiere in the forward-thinking NEXT category, which is often the place for filmmakers who take decidedly different approaches (two of my top 10 films from last year, “Menashe” and “Lemon,” came from this category). The categorization of the documentary was enough to make it of specific interest, which heightened when the introducing filmmakers, Elan Bogarin and Jonathan Bogarin, even spoke about how the film strives for “magical realism” within the documentary form. 

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In their debut, the brother and sister visual artist duo focus on something very personal, the passing of their Grandma. They saw her every Sunday for 30 years, and filmed her for many years (in their precise manner, they reveal that they asked her exactly 87 questions). Along with an affection for family they also have a shared fascination with her stuff in her house, and the history that even the smallest items hold. When the house is set to go on the market, they decide to keep it for eleven months, to excavate it emotionally and poetically. Going through her dresses, nicknacks, schedules, and more, they document their collective approach, where items are meant to be full of life in more ways than one. 

There is a commendable boldness to this story in how it plays various documentary storytelling instruments, such as voiceover, reenactments, or using archival material. With the brother and sisters’ voices alternating as they talk about memories of their grandmother, it becomes a type of joint diary between the two, welcoming us into their collective heart. And the meticulous “reenactments” show people who’re committed to visuals with vintage costume design and dreamy ideas. But the idea of archival is taken to the very next level, as they collect parts of the grandma in ways they speak of whimsically, dressing up like archaeologists and later calling themselves time travelers. Many neatly composed images of Grandma’s belongings follow, their purpose heightened within their dedicated but twee style.

The visual ambition of “306 Hollywood” is commendable, especially when documentaries can easily try to get away with alternating between talking head interviews, B-roll and various archive images. But it’s the manner in which this is story is told—the tweeness is polarizing, if not teeth-rotting. Entire montages are composed with title cards and item neatness as if straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. A dreamy dance sequence on the lawn of the titular location is elaborate but doesn’t add to the story, it only brings whimsy. The experimentation with magical realism starts out with promise, such as when their voiceover talks about dreams of a portal in a kitchen as if it were a fact that is then visualized, but later the expressiveness just becomes hammy. 

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“306 Hollywood” succeeds at being a unique project, but that distinction only goes so far. In the world of documentaries, it is bold, if not a landmark. But considering how many narrative movies look just like it, this film is just more wholesale indie quirkiness. 

The key word to the documentary “Our New President” is the first one, “Our.” In the mind of Russian filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin, the president is not just America’s in this case, but that of Russia, if not more so. His documentary is a like a nervous video essay comprised strictly of Russian media images, related to Trump and the biased media seen widely throughout Russia. Pozdorovkin uses the footage to create a horrifying mirror, showing us that things are much worse and not as different as we may think. 

Expanding upon his short (which you can now view on Vimeo to get a feel), he makes it about the type of media industry values that created the ideas and popularity of a Trump. In the case of Russia, it’s government-run media like the global RT (Russia Today), in which one of the key news figureheads says its “propaganda of common sense,” while leading various segments that are edited like action movies and often sing a song of fear. The main headlines are familiar to the crackpot Facebook posts we all saw in 2016 and earlier: Hillary Clinton is the enemy, and the conspiracy theories brought up against her are no different than ones that got traction from Americans—about Clinton supposedly having failing health, the idea of Bill Clinton and a pedophile sex ring, the various people who must’ve been killed by the DNC, etc.  

The key to this movie is that while it goes deep into the archives to create an abrasive video essay, the movie is not a conspiracy theory itself. The images of flashy biased news speaks for itself, especially within the context of Russian news progressively losing its independence. While the movie is not about information first, it does offer a disturbing glimpse into how a government could destroy free speech and control the message of the media. Bonded with the footage that Pozdorovkin collects, it is not fake facts. 

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“Our New President” is treasure trove of strange finds from YouTube, of different vloggers singing Trump’s praise. These fascinate to a sociological end—mostly wannabe macho males of various ages, alone, speaking, sometimes singing to Trump as if he will ever hear them. Pozdorovkin doesn’t use this to show numbers; these could be specific crazier members of it, but they tie into the many images of Trump in Russian pop culture. 

And while there is little that is shocking when it comes to the ideologies behind Trump, there is an especially bombastic moment in the film, involving the type of “troll farms.” With various Russian citizens discussing them as a matter of fact, like a business they see people run into early in the morning and at night, they become all the more real. “Our New President” also has a stolen glimpse from inside one of these troll farms. It’s telling that this matter-of-fact confirmation of Russian interference is not the most disturbing aspect of this wild documentary. 

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