Top Docs: Compelling 'Time'; 'Dick Johnson Is Dead'; and More

LJ’s documentary film reviewer picks four intriguing new works, now available on DVD/Blu-ray. 

Dick Johnson Is Dead. 89+ min. Criterion Collection. 2020. UPC DVD 1551526791. $29.99.

When documentarian Kirsten Johnson’s father, Dick, was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s in his 80s, she decided to face his “disappearance” head-on by making a documentary—but not a standard documentary about death. Regarding the last days of someone’s life, this film is unusual, particularly for the way Johnson embraces a macabre sense of humor by creating fantasy sequences and scenarios in which her father dies. There’s a strange mixture of heartache and joy in watching a gregarious, affable man endlessly smile in the face of what he is experiencing; it creates a touching, bittersweet connection with both father and daughter, and will undoubtedly pull at viewers’ heartstrings. VERDICT A quirky, yet unflinching, meditation on life and death.

Correction: Due to an editing mistake, LJ wrote that Kirsten Johnson is an actress; she is a documentary filmmaker (director of the 2016 documentary Cameraperson) and a cinematographer. Library Journal regrets the error.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. 112+ min. Cinema Guild. In Mandarin, w/English subtitles. 2020. DVD UPC 8116400155. $29.99.

Jia Zhangke’s (Ash Is Purest White) quietly ruminative film collects interviews with dozens of Chinese citizens about the sweeping changes they experienced in rural and small Chinese towns from 1949 (the beginning of the Mao era) through today. Focusing mainly on its interviews with writers Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong, the documentary tells of hard times and challenges as well as positive aspects of China’s changes. Jia’s film will require some patience from viewers, but by the end a detailed portrait of Chinese history emerges from its collection of stories. VERDICT A thoughtful, extremely personal look at China’s last seven decades.

Time. 81+ min. Criterion Collection. 2020. UPC DVD 1551526751. $29.95.

Telling the story of Sibil and Robert Richardson and a family shattered by incarceration, this Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Garrett Bradley (Below Dreams) finally gets a well-deserved DVD release. At the film’s heart is Sibil, whose loyalty to her children and her husband Robert is unwavering. After a desperate attempted bank robbery in 1997, Robert was sentenced to 60 years in a Louisiana prison, with no possibility of parole. As Sibil worked, without end, to free her husband, Bradley followed along, filming, over the course of two decades (some of the film’s older footage was shot on camcorder). Sibil’s perseverance is remarkable, as is the soulful manner in which Bradley constructs the narrative; it’s both a statement on prison reform and a touching love story. VERDICT An intimate, powerful account of one family’s hope and their journey through the abyss of incarceration.

The Witches of the Orient. 100+ min. Kimstim. In Japanese & French, w/English subtitles. 2021. UPC DVD 9845221673. $29.95.

Director Julien Faraut follows the septuagenarian former members of Japan’s national women’s volleyball team, who in the 1960s compiled one of the sport’s longest undefeated streaks and were dubbed the “Witches” for their fierceness on the court. After forming as a volleyball team for workers at the Nichibo textile factory in the 1950s, the Witches went on to represent Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. While holding down factory jobs during the day, the women often practiced late into the night, sometimes with broken ribs and other injuries. The film is an odd mix of interviews and art-house visuals, but the archival footage of the team’s grueling training sessions, led by a ruthless coach, is riveting. VERDICT Faraut shines a light on a lesser-known element of sports history.

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