Two recent documentary releases make for an interesting comparison – and both are already candidates for best film of 2013.
McCullin, focusing on the life of heralded war photographer Don McCullin, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, focusing on a man considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef, share a genetic connection: the subjects of each respective documentary are effectively defined by their work.
Both films are engrossing experiences. McCullin explores the extraordinary career of the former Sunday Times photographer, as he rose from poor beginnings in London’s East-end to effectively find his calling amid horrendous war-zones. He eventually went on to document conflicts in Vietnam, the Congo, Lebanon and elsewhere – and in charting McCullin’s rise, the film makes several potent points about journalistic integrity.
After all, how does one convey atrocity to the world in visual form without ever exploiting it? It’s a harrowing moral crisis relayed in powerfully lucid detail by the eloquent, silver-haired McCullin, a beacon of integrity who has fought all his career to maintain a distance between himself and the horrors that he’s documenting.
There’s also a lyrical point made in between the harrowing cutaways to his photos and McCullin’s own gut-wrenching accounts of the human squalor he’s experienced. At one point, he explains he has always felt empathy with those ordinary folk caught up in the middle of a warzone – empathy which, he believes, stems from his own tough upbringing in London, an empathy that invests his photos with a sense of raw compassion.
Would his images have proven as memorable had they not resonated with this sense of understanding? The stars really did seem to align when it came to McCullin’s career – a fusion of upbringing, creative freedom (he bloomed during the counter-cultural 60s) and innate human decency. He’s a man defined by his (remarkable) work.
Likewise, unassuming sushi chef Jiro Ono has effectively devoted his life to one cause: the quest for that perfect sushi recipe. Owner of a miniscule, 10-seat sushi restaurant tucked away in a Tokyo subway station, Jiro has nevertheless managed to amass 3 Michelin Stars. It’s the sort of reward that can only come from years of commitment to your craft – in the case of 85-year-old Jiro, said years form the best part of his life.
Possessed of a Zen-like single-mindedness to his craft, Jiro lives for the moment when the client hungrily tucks into his cuisine. In the words of Alan Partridge, this is his canvas; his coal face; his lathe. The man openly admits that he despises holidays and days off, demanding absolute perfection from the apprentice chefs who labour away for years in the kitchen just to make the egg sushi.
The tactile visual quality of David Gelb’s film wonderfully mimics the subject’s near-fetishistic attention to detail in the kitchen. With a flick of the hand, a tiny portion of sushi is neatly doled out in extreme close-up, Gelb’s camera wonderfully intuitive of the craft that went into its making. It’s the perfect marriage of subject and visual language – like Don McCullin, Jiro’s life is measured by a physical end-product. It’s just in this case, it’s food rather than photography.
And, as with McCullin, the film also examines the sacrifice that the subject has made in order to achieve his goal. McCullin mentions that his devotion to his photography cost him his marriage – but Jiro Dreams of Sushi goes further. We find out that both of Jiro’s sons have also moved into their father’s business – whether it’s of their own volition is debatable. The film skirts edgier material here, hinting at Jiro’s failings as a father, and painting a picture of complex family relationships. It’s not just a foodie documentary; it’s also story of devoting oneself to a single goal, even at the expense of those you love.
McCullin and Jiro Dreams of Sushi: two documentaries about very two different men who are poles apart yet connected through utter devotion to their work. Both films are utterly terrific and worth seeking out.