Severin continues to release the films of Patrice Leconte to a North American audience and now gives the acclaimed French director his domestic Blu-ray debut with this release of Dogora, an odd documentary that is really, technically speaking at least, little more than footage of Laconte's trip to Cambodia set to an instrumental score. There's no narrative here to speak of, no plot to elaborate on, and no performances to judge, but Laconte's picture is an interesting one as it not only offers us a glimpse into Cambodian life, which is quite different from much of the western world's lifestyles, but which also shows us the side of the country that their tourism industry would probably rather ignore.
Laconte's camera doesn't shy away from showing us images of frightening poverty, but there's no preaching here, it's simply a portrait of how a certain segment of the world's population goes about their daily lives. While it may be shocking to us to see needy people scouring the contents of a garbage dump looking for anything of value or practical use, the people who Laconte shows us shake it off as part of their lives. Likewise, while in the western world we learn that sweatshops are horrible and immoral and something to be despised, the people of Cambodia, young women in particular, go off to work each day just as some of us go to the office. We're not asked to pity them nor are we asked to condemn those who own the institutions or the government that allows this to occur, we simply watch and see for ourselves. At the same time, it's hard not to compare how these people live to our day to day existence, particularly when we see them come home to living conditions many of us would be appalled by, completely accepting of their lifestyle and their culture.
Laconte shot all of the material in this film himself, often with a handheld camera, and he shot all of it in high definition. Much of what the man has captured with this project is remarkable - striking shots of cities contrast startlingly with beautiful sunsets and shots of the flora and fauna that are native to Cambodia. The camera also manages to capture a lot of footage of the citizens of the country, none of whom seem startled or irritated that they're being filmed, in fact, many of them don't seem to realize it. This gives the film an oddly voyeuristic quality and can suggest the illusion that we're watching safely out of a window.
Set to an impressive score by composer Etienne Perruchon, Dagora relies on music the way most films rely on dialogue. The film is edited in such a way that the score compliments the visuals and vice versa, and as the music changes tone so too does the visual style or the subject which we're viewing. It works quite well, at times bringing to mind some of the documentary work of Werner Herzog, albeit without the narration that is generally a trademark of his work.
Considerably more experimental than the romantic (and often times erotic) dramas that Leconte is known for, Dagora won't appeal to everyone and in fact a lot of people will probably find it dull. The lack of context can make it a little alienating if you're not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it but there's a strange soothing quality to the film that can actually be pretty captivating. It's a very creative film but at the same time it's also very blunt in that it shows us the good and also the bad aspects of a country that has seen more than its fair share of problems over the years. At roughly eighty minutes in length, the film doesn't overstay its welcome and actually moves at a pretty good pace. Again, it's not a documentary for the masses, but anyone who can appreciate the unique blend of sight and sound that Leconte has managed to create with this unusual project should be able to find Dagora an original and rewarding viewing experience.
Dogora arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p 2.35.1 high definition anamorphic widescreen transfer that generally looks quite good. Detail varies a bit from scene to scene but generally it's strong enough that you always know you're watching and HD presentation. Color reproduction is nice, letting the blues of the skies contrast against the brown water in a river underneath or allowing a hot pink pitcher resting atop a rusty oil drum to contrast against the tanned body of the woman sleeping next to it. Texture is generally well defined, as a close up shot of veils and scarves worn by some of the local women will demonstrate, while black levels are, if not always completely inky black, generally pretty deep. This isn't reference quality - the camera moves a lot and things get a bit shaky here and there - but it's generally a very nice looking effort from Severin.
Two audio options are offered - a 48kHz 1.5 Mbps DTS-HD 5.1 mix and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track. Not surprisingly, the DTS track sounds considerably more full and robust, using the rear channels to spread the score around nicely. There are periodically background effects worked into the mix that are also well handled and well directed. The score is quite immersive, using a lot of horns and sometimes some choral arrangements to nice effect.
The only extra of much substance on this release is Leconte On Leconte Part 3 (HD, 38:53), the third part of a featurette spread out over Severin's other releases from the director. Here Leconte continues to discuss his films, noting that there's a distinct lack of coherence in his filmography before elaborating on what his films do and do not have in common. He talks about Ridicule, what it was like to work with Belamondo, working on action movies, and hw he wound up making The Girl On The Bridge. He covers aspect ratios, color versus black and white, making Intimate Strangers and then finally, how and why he came to make a film like Dogora. It's quite an interesting self examination and it makes for an intimate look at the director's work delivered in his own words.
Aside from that, look for the film's original theatrical trailer (HD, and in French language), animated menus and chapter stops.
Dogora won't ever find a mainstream audience but those who can appreciate the beauty and sometimes unsettling truth that an artisan's camera can capture should appreciate what Leconte has accomplished with this picture. It's sometimes sad, sometimes a little grim even, but just as often it's beautiful and mesmerizing as music and imagery combine to make for a fairly remarkable and unique experience. Severin's Blu-ray looks and sounds quite good and while it's not jam-packed with extras and could have used a commentary track, it does offer an interesting featurette and comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.