Tuesday, September 14, 2010


In some ways, documentary is emerging as one of my favorite genres of film. Before, I kind of had the preconceived notion that documentaries lack style, artistry, direction, narration among many other things. Documentary film, to me, was a way to collect facts, interviews, video footages and present all these elements together as a body of work. Documentaries were passive, apolitical, and historical; they did not do more than to just present an event, a person, or place.

But today, documentaries have very strong messages and are on a mission to deliver the "truth" according to their directors, however how impartial the truth is. They certainly have style and some of the most unique narration. They can be touching, infuriating, and life changing. For me, my respect for documentary started with An Inconvenient Truth. Then it reached a new height with Sicko, my favorite documentary of all time along with Chernobyl Heart, a short feature. And now Stolen.

As I wrote earlier, documentary has in some ways emerged as one of my favorite genres of film. It is one of my favorites because, more than often, it hits a subject matter that I am passionate about. (If most documentaries have a conservative, right-leaning voice, I probably wouldn't be watching any of it. But let's just face it, documentaries are mostly liberal, leftist, environmentally friendly, peace-loving. The entertainment industry is one that is not conservative except for maybe the AMPAS.) A subject that I am more interested in than anything else is art, especially Johannes Vermeer.

Stolen is a documentary on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist--the biggest in America. An estimated $200 to $300 million worth of art was stolen including Rembrandt's only seascape, several Degas, a Manet, and one of only 36 Vermeers in the world. Because of the rarity of Vermeers and the quality and significance of the Vermeer, the documentary focused largely on the this one painting.

What I liked about Stolen is the frame story, detective approach that it took to try to solve the crime and get the painting back. It interviewed art historians who put an amazing perspective on the atrocity of this crime. But mostly, it followed a detective, who specialized in art theft, on his attempt to recover the painting. The film dove so deep into the crime that the film maker and detective were literally one person away from getting the paintings back. The film also revealed the darkness of this art heist--how the mafia in Boston and in Ireland are involved, how politicians could bring the paintings back, how the FBI is more interested in catching the thieves than recovering the paintings, and even how religion can a part of the recovery process.

Needless to say, Stolen is one documentary that is extremely interesting. But of course, it has its downsides. Stolen reaffirms my stereotype that documentaries can have no style, artistry, direction, or narration. This film is carefully organized so that everything made sense, but it lacked creativity. Aesthetically, it might be no better than a home movie. It is, however, just that--a very low budget documentary that was made for television. Still, if you are interested in Vermeer, art thefts, Isabella Stewart Gardner, or her museum, Stolen offers more insights into these topics than one could ask for.

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