In the last two weeks I've seen two documentaries that I can't help but think about comparatively. First I saw The Queen of Versailles a little over a week ago. A surprisingly touching documentary about what has become the extreme American dream. Told through the story of an over-the-top wealthy couple, the Siegel's, who are living what they consider to be the high life, until they suddenly find themselves under great financial strain. Of course it's all relative. You'd think a story with characters like this would garner more of a reality television feel, and at first it does appear suspiciously so, but it reaches much further. The film creates a powerful cultural and societal study on America, our unrealistic expectations and ideas of what it means to be a success.
Nicely cut together by Victor Livingston, (who also edited Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, which I saw at last year's New York Film Festival and thought it was cut in a fast, fun style worthy of the film's subject). Versailles offers both the expected laugh lines of the rich and clueless, but also presents the characters somewhat sympathetically. The story is universal in that most of America knows what it's like to be affected by the economy, either directly or indirectly.
That's not to say I felt sorry for Jackie and David Siegel, but I didn't feel angry either, as I thought I might have toward their grotesque appetite for spending without conscience. Oddly enough, the Siegel's are people one can identify with. They don't come from upper class stock, like a Kennedy. They come from humble beginnings. Despite their individual modest starts in life, however, they seemed to have made money where opportunity presented itself. They don't appear to put much thought into potential long term effects or consequences on themselves or others. This is a story of a modern day American societal problem.
The film, by Lauren Greenfield, allows her audience a peek inside the super-sized, bigger is better, more equals success, ridiculousness of excessive living. Their in-home staff of immigrants work in the States in hopes of saving money, return to their native country and buy a home of their own. Their goals refreshingly simple and modest (I think Americans used to be happy with a similar set of goals) seem to go unrealized even though they work for a couple who are building a 90,000 square feet home. One nanny hadn't seen her son since he was in grade school. That son is now in his twenties. This illustrates the two extremes and the increasing divide in this country between the rich and poor, but not just financially, also the human-to-human connection between economic classes withering away. It's not to imply that the Siegel's don't care about anybody, they do show concern over friends hardships and feel bad over the may employees they've had to lay off. They do, however, come across as unaware.
By extreme contrast, a few days ago I went to see Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a documentary by Alison Klayman which chronicles the Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, who uses not just his art, but social media to speak out against the supressive regime of The People's Republic of China. This film reflects a set of values rooted in responsibility and accountability.
With Ai Weiwei, everything has a social/political message, whether it's through his art, his tweets or his tireless efforts to uncover the number of children killed by a school building during an earthquake. A figure the Chinese government refuses to release. Ai Weiwei believes this is due to cheap construction of schools and he stops at nothing to investigate. Ai Weiwei is so outspoken the government shuts down his blog, so he turns to twitter. When he is abused by the police, he files complaints, documenting and posting everything with his phone camera.
Ai Weiwei could easily be presented as a do-gooder saint, but Klayman is careful to show us his flaws. Later in the story, it is revealed that Ai Weiwei has a toddler with a woman outside of his marriage. When asked about the circumstances, it is the only time he appears uncomfortable and without conviction. That humbling experience when asked about the mother of his boy, brings Ai Weiwei down to earth. It's as though the imperfection reminds us the artist is also human like us. He is both selfish and selfless.
Editor Jen Fineran uses footage that might otherwise be considered as mere b-roll, for defining moments in the story. The film opens with the artist's cats milling about inside and outside his studio. The audience hears the artist talk about the cats. At one point he says that one of the cats can open the door (and indeed it can). His voice closes the scene by saying the difference between humans and cats is that humans will close the door behind themselves. I couldn't help but wonder where in the post production stage that became the opening scene. Was that something the filmmaker realized the potential of at the time Ai Weiwei said it, or was this something that occurred to her and/or Fineran during initial screening of the raw footage? Or even later? Regardless of when or how the opening scene came together, it's rather brilliant. A beautiful introduction to the artist and his perception of the world.
Is it the cultural differences that make one couple, the Siegel's, so seemingly unconscious and removed, and Ai Weiwei so aware and active? Is it that American freedom, as we define it, created a society that cares less than those who live under an oppressive one? Or are they simply completely different people and situations with very different experiences? I'd say a little of both. It's not like there aren't artist activists in America speaking out. It's just that there is less risk here in speaking one's mind. It doesn't necessarily make it less noble, but watching these two documentaries around the same time, I couldn't help but think about culture and society and what influences it, and how we are, for better or sometimes for worse, defined by it. Although the Siegel's are in the 1%, I'd say that others might view America to be like them, self absorbed and detached. Maybe to varying degrees there's some truth to that. Both documentaries offer an entertaining experience and an interesting study about modern times and how we respond to those times as a culture.