FILM REVIEW: A double dose of diverse docs–“Zero Days” and “Gurukulam”

Two documentaries opening at Cinema 21 represent polar extremes of style and technique.

We’re awash in a golden age for documentary filmmaking. Don’t take my word for it cinema vérité pioneer D.A. Pennebaker agrees. Long-since liberated from its stuffy, “educational” connotations, the word can refer these days to a staggeringly wide range of topics, styles, and approaches.

That diversity is on full display this week with three very different documentaries opening in Portland. You may have heard about “Tickled,” the bizarre exposé of a giggle-inducing, fetish-video subculture that becomes a dark and twisted journey for a New Zealand journalist. Erik McClanahan reviews that one, which opens at the Hollywood Theatre and the Living Room Theater, for ArtsWatch.

Two other docs, both opening at Cinema 21, almost perfectly illustrate opposite strategies. One is a densely factual, info-dump of a film that tries to explain a complicated issue and pushes a specific agenda. The other is an observational, experiential, and literally meditative glimpse into an unfamiliar world. Both are well worth your time, but watching them back-to-back might induce some sort of intellectual whiplash.

An NSA source from "Zero Days."

An NSA source from “Zero Days.”

Alex Gibney is the most relentlessly prolific documentarian working today. He’s directed at least two features every year since 2010, profiling divisive figures (Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer, Ken Kesey, Lance Armstrong) and poking his nose into secretive institutions (WikiLeaks, the Catholic Church, Park Avenue, Scientology). His latest, “Zero Days,” takes a wonky but hot-button topic—the cyberattack known as Stuxnet that infected Iran’s nuclear facility some years back—a tries to spin it into a gripping, cautionary, geo-political thriller. It almost works.

Gibney, as usual, is able to get come prominent officials to sit down in front of his camera, including former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden and former counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, as well as a bunch of other representatives of the American and Israeli governments. Not a one will admit that those two countries were behind the Stuxnet attack, even though the fact is practically common knowledge. It’s up to anonymous sources from intelligence agencies to provide the few details “Zero Days” is able to compile, but those details are effectively terrifying.

It’s a whole new kind of warfare, and in Gibney’s considered view, the veil of secrecy around cyberwar only helps those (rogue states, terrorists) who would use the technology against us. It’s eminently possible that the comparisons made in the film between the attack on Iran and the bombing of Hiroshima are apt, and that we should expect the entire power grid of the Eastern seaboard to get taken out someday by a Russian (or Pakistani, or whatever) hacker.

Like most of Gibney’s work, even his most gripping, though, “Zero Days” isn’t terrible cinematic. Absorbing the information is one thing, being emotionally and psychologically affected by it is another, and that’s where the movie comes up short.

A scene from "Gurukulam."

A scene from “Gurukulam.”

The other documentary opening at Cinema 21 has, if anything, the opposite problem. “Gurukulam” is a measured, ethnographic look inside the daily life at an ashram in southern India. With very little introduction, we’re immersed in the mixture of the mundane and the metaphysical that dominates the lives of these students of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy.

Brief interviews with a few students who have travelled to Tamil Nadu to study with the Swamiji reveal divrse backgrounds. One woman is a former psychology professor, another a former United Nations diplomat. A young man from London frets over the anticipated difficulty he’ll have explaining to his family that he’s moving to India for good.

Mostly, though, directors Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal are content to simply be, and to record without judgment or promotion the gentle rhythms of existence. If you’re looking for an escape from the overstimulating world, ducking into a theater and riding along on this wave of on-attachment might be just the thing.

GRADES: “Zero Days”: B; “Gurukulam”: B+ (Both films open Friday, July 8, at Cinema 21.)

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