Monday night the HBO doc on the Boston Marathon bombings aired, and on the same night I got to see the Hollywood version of the story, made by Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg, the third of their recent movies together (following Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon). It hones in on the bombings – how they were carried out, and the aftermath of how the authorities worked to find the men responsible.
It’s been 3 years since the two bombs went off at the finish line of the world’s oldest marathon, and there may be never be a good enough time to bring a movie to the big screen about those days in April 2013, but this is the first of two. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Stronger, based on the account of Jeff Bauman, also arrives early next year. And actually, given where America finds itself today in a new Trump era, the timing of Patriots Day’s heartfelt rally call works well.
There’s a good balance between the action – which unfolds akin to Zero Dark Thirty, a tense play-by-play of the hunt for the suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers, played by Alex Wolff (uncanny resemblance to Dzokhar) and Themo Melikidze (his first role), and the emotion. Stories of three of the victims who suffered the loss of their limbs are weaved in, as well as those of two others who were involved in the events that followed the bombings, in a script that Berg co-wrote.
Mark Wahlberg plays a composite character, based on two police officers who were working the marathon that day. It’s such a strong cast – rounded out by Kevin Bacon, who plays FBI agent Richard DesLauriers, John Goodman, who plays Commissioner Ed Harris, JK Simmons, who plays Watertown Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, and Melissa Benoist, who takes on the part of Tamerlan’s wife Katherine Russell. Mark spoke afterwards about how proud he is of the film, and he can be proud of the cast too. He’s in fine form as he embodies the Boston ethos – hard-headed but hard-working, potty-mouthed but persevering.
Listening to him talk about the film during the Q-and-A afterwards, you could hear the reverence Mark holds for his hometown, where he admits, he often found himself on the wrong side of the law in his youth.
I asked him and Peter how they decided on which victims’ stories to include in the film. Peter said they reached out to those who were seriously injured and started talking to them. “People were not jumping up and down to be involved in this,” he said. Some he said, agreed and then later backed out and they made adjustments accordingly. “We worked very closely with Patrick Downes and his wife, Jessica, and Steve Woolfenden.” Newlyweds Patrick and Jessica are a large part of the HBO doc, and her story in particular shows how difficult the path to recovery has been. Peter says they showed edits of the film to them and even gave them final cut, just to make sure they were happy with how everything was presented.
But as Mark himself put it: “When you’re talking about the worst day of somebody’s life they’re never going to be happy and love what they’re seeing.” Patriots Day honours them, and the spirit that brought people together afterwards – a tribute to what it means to be ‘Boston Strong.’ “It gives me great pride to present my hometown and show how people were coming together, running towards a problem, not away from it,” he said. “To share that message with the world, that’s what this is about. We continue to deal with this all over the world – these things are still happening – but we will always win and be victorious. And I know that we made them [the victims] proud. To say people are happy is an impossible feat, but I hope, day by day, they will continue to heal, and I know that we made everybody proud.”
Proud and strong, indeed. Hopefully, in running the Boston Marathon next year I, too, can add to what it means to Boston Strong.
Walking into the screening of Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing at the Savannah Film Festival, I knew I’d have a bias towards the story. I knew I’d be super emotional watching the documentary, produced for HBO and directed by Ricki Stein and Annie Sundberg. I knew this might get in the way of trying to have a somewhat objective perspective of it as a documentary, and I could feel myself tear up even just as the lights lowered and the word ‘MARATHON’ came on the screen.
Since becoming a runner, I’d always thought my first time visiting Boston would be to cheer friends running, or – dreaming bigger – to myself run the hallowed race. But my first time in Boston was not at all a good one. I went there to cover the bombs that went off at the finish line of the 2013 race. I was covering the story for Eyewitness News back home in South Africa, reporting on the 3 people who were killed, over 200 injured, and the police officer who died too. Being there during the aftermath and manhunt was one of the most intense experiences of my career.
My Canadian colleague and friend MJ and I had teamed up, driving there together and sharing a room. Walking on Boyleston street felt like walking through an action movie set that had just cut for a break, with plates and glasses left shattered at sidewalk cafes and bars, and messages of support for runners shredded from some windows.
During the manhunt for the two suspects, a few days after, the car MJ had rented was running out of petrol and we struggled to find a gas station for a while, until we stumbled upon two, right across from each other. We pulled into up into the Shell, but we could have easily gone to the other one. We were just so relieved to have found petrol before breaking down, unaware that an hour or so later, the brothers would car-jack a guy at the same petrol station.
I thought about some of these moments while watching the opening of Marathon. Produced together with the Boston Globe newspaper, the doc pieces together the events of the day, using surveillance footage, news clips, home movies and interviews, to bring it all together, with a sharp focus on 3 families and how their lives were impacted that day.
Like Tower, another excellent documentary that I saw at SavFF, this doc concentrates on the victims, families whose stories weren’t really as prominent in the press at large, beyond the Globe. Newlyweds Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, who had gone to support the annual Boston tradition, mother and daughter Celeste and Sydney Corcoran, and then Norden brothers Paul and JP, who were all heinously injured that day. It follows their recovery over 3 years, as it looks back on the event, how it happened, and touches on the why, by briefly looking at the Tsarnaev brothers. Dszhokhar, who was sentenced to death, is still awaiting his execution, which could take years to happen.
It’s hard to watch the actual moment the bomb goes off. But it’s harder to watch Celeste Corcoran watch it, even though she has, many times. There are other difficult-to-watch moments, like witnessing someone as bubbly and vivacious as Jessica Kensky fight not just to save her second leg from being amputated, but her personality from darkening too.
The doc stays with these families, as we really learn about the little victories and terrible set-backs they’ve faced while trying to make peace with such an event. As runners, we rely on the people who cheer for us, who support us, from afar, yes, but especially those who come out to raise a voice or ring a kettle bell in person. These are the people who suffered the most as a result of the bombings. They didn’t have a particularly special relationship to running, but one of the people featured in the doc does end up developing one, and it’s truly moving to see.
As such, I found Marathon to be a valuable part of the greater healing process. I know I still tear up at the sight of the word marathon because it means so much to me in the context of someone who has a deeply personal love of running, but also because it represents a time when a terror act intersected with this revered space, and all that it has come to mean. It’s a kind of impact I can’t quite explain, but watching a film like this, to see those who really have reason to be upset and saddened and angry, work through all these feelings, extends the healing to those of us who weren’t at all physically impacted. I am deeply moved by their strength, and I know those who watch it will be too. Boston’s strength – shared with the world.
The moment I finished reading the last line of the final chapter in Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, it felt like I was left sitting in a cinema after a really good film has played. You know those moments, when the credits are rolling, the lights are slowly coming back up, people are scurrying out to leave, but you can’t move just yet because you’re still thinking about everything you just saw. Only in this case, it’s what was just read. And instead of a cinema, I was in an Upper East Side coffee shop, Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing coming back into ear-shot over the speakers, a woman across from me looking at me with that mix of should-care-but-don’t-want-to-get-involved New York attitude. I realised it’s because I had a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Tears I didn’t expect to shed reading a book about South Africa’s biggest comic star.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the scene with which Trevor ends the book is one anyone who knows his back-story will familiar with – the story of how his mother was shot by his stepfather, twice. Once in the head. But, if we stay with the film analogy, consider that the trailer stacked with the most dramatic part of the film’s action, intended to hook those with a passing interest. The full story, the way Trevor builds up to this moment through his collection of stories, give that moment its real meaning and significance in the life of The Daily Show host.
Born a Crime is dubbed as a collection of stories about growing up in South Africa on the brink of Apartheid’s end, but it amounts to an autobiography, detailing Trevor’s life as a kid with a with a white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother. His life reflects some of the peculiarities of the country at the time, from living in township to a suburb.
More than that, it essentially is about his mother – the source of his comedy. Trevor’s often said in interviews his mom is the one who gave him his comedic outlook on life, and he explores that in the book, in between moments of great sadness and shame and empathy and, yes, entertainment (Toffee apples and fake Adidas shoes, nogal).
It’s a personal and honest account – Trevor shares stories of being so poor and hungry at one time he ate Mopane worms and not for the exotic culinary delight of it. But through it all, there’s the humour. Even with the embarrassing moments that arose out of his being an outsider, not just racially but geographically, and how he struggled to make friends, to the point that he would look in on other houses to see what they were doing: “I was like a Peeping Tom, but only for friendship.” From his days as a tuck-shop hustler to a stint in jail, his experience with hair relaxer and a Matric Farewell date gone wrong, he relays them all. Some parts lend themselves to humour much easier than others. But somehow, he – or his mother – would find it.
He himself admits time has given him the benefit of hindsight. He writes with an empathetic voice, and I found it made me willing to reconsider some of those who may have injured me in the past. And while it’s written for an American audience as well, some of the explanations will be useful to South Africans too. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t know the origin of the word “cheese-boy” even though I had sung it as a lyric in kwaito songs over and over.
There are some really poignant moments, particularly when he talks about what his relationship with his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, taught him:
“I saw more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence, but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them…”
Oh, but did this part get to me! Especially as he goes into detail about what led to the realisation. I’m a fan of Trevor’s comedy, yes, but after reading this book I’m rooting for him even more. In tracing his life, and his comedy, backwards, he, in a sense, sets up his future: a life that can only go forward. It’s a great example for anyone to be inspired by.
When the person sitting next to you on the plane tells you they made the Weiner documentary, it can be hard to suppress the urge to geek out entirely and bombard them with questions about how they made the film, which follows the former NYC mayoral candidate as he attempts to mount his great comeback. How he let them continue to shoot even when he’d been caught again for his sexting exploits (and this was even before the latest Hillary-enveloping development); how each new scandal has affected their film; whether they’d go back and do a follow-up. So many questions.
Finding myself next to directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg on my flight to Savannah was a good indicator of what lay ahead in the coming days. While I tried not to jump straight into journalist mode on a very early Saturday morning, they were amiable to chatting about the film as we got settled into the flight, and to answering some of my questions.
Like me, it was their first time travelling to Savannah, and the film festival that’s been held there for the past 19 years. While Josh and Elyse would only be there for the weekend, I was staying for the week, co-hosting a series of Facebook Live chats for the festival, together with my friend Stevie Wong. I’d been to Georgia before (for this Walking Dead set visit in Peachtree City, and an Allegiant set visit too, in Atlanta). But Savannah is a different experience – so many sweeping Spanish moss trees, massive antebellum mansions and yes, pockets of spookiness. I didn’t have much time for exploring any of the ghostly or haunted parts of Savannah – I was too busy enjoying meeting the living, breathing filmmakers, each possessing a love for the medium, both in documentary and narrative form.
Prior to the fest, I’d already seen Weiner, an excellent study into what drives a politician, in front of and behind the camera and his constituents. It was part of a strong line-up of docs at the fest, which were also the subject of a great panel, held by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg. While at SAVFF, I did get to see three more well-crafted documentaries, Tower, Gleason and Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing. I will write more in a separate post about the last one, for reasons mostly personal. The first two shook me in their own ways – Tower, through its use of animation to re-create the point of view of people affected by the first mass sniper shooting in Austin, Texas, in the 60s, and Gleason, with its vlog-style diary of former NFL star Steven Gleason, which shows what the disease ALS really is about, beyond ice bucket challenges and news stories. Deeply, deeply moving. I urge you to seek them out.
Documentaries aside, I also got to see two narrative films I’d missed at the Toronto Film Festival, Moonlight and Lion, and have since, also added my voice to the chorus of good reviews urging others to see these films too. Lion, starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, when it comes out on November 25th, and Moonlight, which currently is showing, and held the highest per theatre average on its opening weekend. The film is a tender portrait, a personal coming-of-age story about a black man that we don’t get to see much of on the big screen. Talking to the film’s Ashton Sanders and Mahershala Ali for our Facebook Live chat was definitely a highlight of the fest. As was eating all that Southern cooking! To temper that, I ran a lot too. In between watching films, I’d take in as much of the town as possible, and I recorded an episode of The Rundown, as an ode to it and, of course, Forrest Gump, where the opening scenes of the film were set and shot.
My festival was book-ended with another filmmaker sitting in the seat next to me on the plane ride back to NYC. This time, Ricki Stein, who co-directed the Boston Marathon Bombing documentary. As someone who just qualified to run the marathon next year, you just know I had a whole lot of questions for her.
Oh, how I’ve grown to love the Foreign Language category of the Oscars. When I was younger and watching the ceremony, I’d usually pass it over, because there were no recognizable stars to me, and, what kid is really watching films with subtitles? Thankfully, growing up and into my cinema tastes opened a whole new world, and movies with subtitles have been some of the most rewarding film experiences I’ve ever had. Especially in my own home country of South Africa, where foreign language unfortunately also encompassed 9 of the 11 official languages.
It’s been 10 years since South Africa had a film competing for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. That film was Tsotsi, and it, as we know, went on to win. Next year marks 60 years of the category itself, and to celebrate the Academy has put out a playlist of speeches from the winners. Personally, I think it would have been better to have some of the best clips from the films, but it is fun to see how Italy has dominated this category, from La Strada through to recent times.
As for South Africa’s chances this year – well, I recently had the chance to watch Noem My Skollie, or in English as it’s known, Call Me Thief. Living in NYC, I rely a lot on online buzz and the film has been generating a lot of that for telling the story of a man who escaped the clutches of the infamous Numbers gang in prison by himself telling stories. The National Film and Video Foundation, which also helped with developing the script, decided to submit it for Best Foreign Language. This kind of exposure for the film is great. It does not, as many outlets in SA have erroneously stated, mean the film is up for an Oscar. Not yet, at least. It still has to make the short list and then after that actually make it into the list of official nominees. Only 5 films will make that list and then, it will be true to say the film is ‘up’ for an Oscar. We – and the other 84 countries with submissions – will find that out in January.
But, accolades aside, the film is still worthy of attention. For South Africans, it’s a story many will be familiar with – the Numbers gangs, 26s, 27s, 28s – have been the subject of films and documentaries before, and most extensively in the award-winning book by Johnny Steinberg, The Number. In this film, which is based on the real life of John Fredericks, who penned the screenplay, we see how someone tries to make another way for his life, in spite of his prison circumstances. Fredericks directed a documentary about Mr Devious, an emcee from the Cape Flats who, too, tried to use his words to escape a life of gangsterism, but wasn’t as fortunate, and died at the hands of a gang. Noem My Skollie, while specific in its plot, is a story of hope where there really seems like there is none. That may seem cliched to say, but you can never have too many reminders of how true this is, especially when it’s done as well as it is in Noem.
The movie, directed by first-timer Daryne Joshua, took Fredericks about 16 years to get to the big screen, according to an interview in the Mail & Guardian. The time it took to get from initial idea to credits rolling is a small factor now that it exists. It wasn’t an easy write for Fredericks, who says the script for Noem My Skollie was written on a typewriter that his dad got from a dumpster near where they lived. It’s this kind of detail included in the film that makes it sincere and genuine in its approach, from the dialogue to the cinematography.
When the Best Foreign Language category is announced, some of the films I’m sure will make it as nominees will surely include Germany’s Toni Erdmann, which had audiences in Cannes raving about it, and me too, when I finally saw the drama/comedy about a father-daughter relationship in need of salvaging, in Toronto; France’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman who develops a kind of weird relationship with her rapist; and Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s It’s Not the End of the World, which walked away with a prize at Cannes (as have practically all of his other movies). Perhaps maybe, just hopefully, there’ll be a spot left for a South African gem of a film too.