The documentary film is, in its purest form, unbiased truth warts and all. Genius documentarian Albert Maysles, co-director of such classics as Gimme Shelter (1970) and With Love from Truman (1966), once said of documentary film:
I think it’s inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling and more important kind of film than fiction… In a way you’re on a serendipitous journey, a journey which is much more akin to the life experience. When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.
The greatest documentaries take the viewer on a journey of discovery of the individual and through the individual. As such the audience has a dual experience of learning what came before and watching what unfolds. My love of documentaries first came from the film The Last of the Gladiators (1988). Though it is certain that I had seen many documentaries before, The Last of the Gladiators held for me something quite special, the breadth of which I didn’t come to realize until much later in life. For people in the 1970’s Evel Knievel was as mythic a figure as you could get. He was a man on the ragged edge, able to come back from things that would kill most mortal men. He was cult figure that transcended the boundaries of what stuntmen had been before him, and even since. Only someone like Tony Hawk could be compared on a cultural impact scale alone. Yet in the film Knievel allows himself to be presented with all his flaws, baggage, wear and tear in a stark contrast to the myth that decade created. Here was Knievel the man, for the first time. Suddenly he was very human, relatable, and without overstating it, the film was as flawless a document of the man as you could get. I didn’t realize just how special the film was until the recent wave of opinion based “documentary” films overtook this amazing genre. For the longest time I was left holding onto brilliant films like Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1998) for pure subjective presentation. That was until a 54 minute gem came across my desk; Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever (2010) is a masterful work of non-fiction that restores my faith in the genre but moreover repeated my experience from that 1988 film I love so much.
Award winning Australian director Josh Lee (A Dollar for the Good Ones) does what most documentarians have seemingly forgotten how to do: he presents a very personal film with an objective and unflinching eye. Rooted in a love of Cambodia and the people there, and further spurred by volunteer time in the country, Lee found the experiences had
…strengthened my bond with the country, and cultivated a desire to develop a documentary project with a Cambodian backdrop. The next step was to find a topic that was both achievable and resonant with my interests.
That subject soon presented itself in the form of his brother Nick Tower. A budding kickboxer, Tower had competed once before in Cambodia and won. Now years later, in a bid to salvage his own life, Tower would devote himself completely to the sport leaving his hell-raising and hard drinking lifestyle behind.
When I watched the film I purposely did not read any of the advance material before hand, nor any of the credits. I experienced the film raw, without any knowledge the director or his subject knew each other. It is a testament to both men that the finished film plays so unbiased, starkly showing Tower battling his demons, and for the most part succumbing to them. At first you don’t know if you like or understand Tower, but Lee deftly weaves together a texture of conflicting personalities with footage of his brother sober and intoxicated. It is a masterful touch, constantly walking a tightrope, and knowing just when to offer up the counterpoint. It illustrates a man at war with himself without adding bias or opinion, something that must be applauded.
Everything about the film belies its origins. Here Lee demonstrates a breadth of ability far exceeding his age; everything from the pace of the film, to the use of counterpoints at perfect junctures is so far advanced that you expect a seasoned veteran, not someone in the twenties. The brandishing of the term wunderkind is something quite apt when discussing Lee. The setting of Cambodia is masterful, as is the stunningly beautiful camerawork (again Lee) which captures both the colour and texture of the country and adds a wonderful subtext to Tower’s journey. It is a perfect backdrop for a man battling back from a world he feels alienated from; in Cambodia Tower is the alien and yet feels more at home. The sound is also brilliant; each scene is crystal clear and layered with sounds of street music, traffic and the rich culture. It also possesses one of the best endings to a documentary I have seen in years, and fitting conclusion to a wonderful journey.
Lee has crafted a remarkable film. Its lean 54 minute running time could have easily been longer, but it is such an accomplished piece that you’re left wanting more. From the opening moments to the closing credits it is a challenging, uplifting and richly textured journey. Tower’s story is so pragmatically universal that it teaches us about ourselves and rewards the viewer with inspiration and joy. It is as if both men inherently knew the truth of what John Grierson once said of the genre:
The only reality which counts in the end is the interpretation which is profound.
Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever is an amazing journey, a fantastic film and one of the very best documentaries I’ve seen in years. What a privilege it was to have that experience.