Tibetan Snow Leopards, the Velvet Underground, and Ingenious Venetian Engineering | Real Reels

This month’s must-see documentaries include a chilling look at the history of police and protests, the awe-inspiring simplicity of nature, and scientific efforts to keep Venice’s waters at bay. 

Riotsville. U.S.A. 91 min. Magnolia Pictures. 2022. DVD UPC 7696401776. $26.99.

The late 1960s were a turbulent time in American cities, with protests rising up regarding the Vietnam War and social justice issues. “Law and order” politicians opposed the protests, and fake towns dubbed “Riotsvilles” were created by the military in Virginia and Georgia as training grounds for police learning to curb protests with extreme force. This was the beginning of the militarization of police, and for many social activists in 2023 it is hard to tell the difference between police and military in certain cities. Directed by Sierra Pettengill, this film is compiled of archival footage of actual training sequences and the violent ways the training was introduced in Chicago and Miami later in the 1960s. VERDICT A chilling and surreal look at the history of police and protests, with a philosophy that is still relevant today.

Saving Venice. 55 min. PBS. 2022. DVD UPC 4188704687. $24.99.

Venice, Italy, one of the world’s most unique cities, faces a dire future due to rising sea levels and the erosion of land. Part of PBS’s Nova series, this film follows the attempts by engineers and scientists to hold nature at bay and prolong the life of the beloved, picturesque city. To do this, the Italians will have to spend billions to build complicated, ingenious dam systems and reintroduce natural marshes into the lagoon, but will it be enough? Saving Venice is not only fascinating in its discussions of the power of science but infuriating, as many of Venice’s issues are man-made. VERDICT Equal parts engineering spectacle and warning call for other coastal cities that may face similar issues with rising sea levels due to climate change.

The Velvet Queen. 96 min. Oscilloscope. In French w/English subtitles. 2021. DVD UPC 5001080457. $34.99.

A French photographer and writer journey into the Tibetan highlands in an attempt to photograph the elusive snow leopard. That’s the quick recap of this documentary. As the pair travel across the vast emptiness, it becomes so much more, evolving into a profound, meditative, dreamlike, and stunning viewing experience. They capture the world in front of them while ruminating to each other, illuminating both the beauty of this environment and the limitations of the unnatural world when compared to the awe-inspiring simplicity of pure, unspoiled nature. There is a moment in this film when an animal looks deep into the camera lens that is pure cinematic magic. VERDICT A beautiful, powerful meditation on the wonder of nature.

The Velvet Underground. 120 min. Criterion Collection. 2021. DVD UPC 155152791. $29.99.

Director Todd Haynes makes a bold choice in his celebration of the Velvet Underground, which began as the house band for Andy Warhol’s “Factory” art scene in New York City, playing dark and gritty music and clad in black clothes in an era of flower-power psychedelia. Haynes deploys near-continuous split screens, incorporating an avalanche of visual material. This strategy allows him to access the huge amount of footage shot by Warhol and his acolytes during the peak Factory days. The film looks vividly at not only the band and its key members (Lou Reed, John Cale, Moe Tucker) but also the broader context of the world they inhabited. VERDICT Split-screen nirvana for fans of the Velvet Underground or this era in the NYC art world.

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