One thing that tends to endear viewers to a film is something that has been described as a “personal” style of filmmaking. When the director finds something that they have a deep personal connection with and they present it to us in an authentic, unpretentious way, that is usually something to be commended. Unfortunately, it is also possible to become too personal, giving up certain aesthetic qualities in favour of familiarity. When that happens, the viewer is left with honesty, but not much else. Jake Oelman’s Learning to See: The World of Insects is just such a film; a documentary which almost gives up its status as a feature film because it is far too close to a vanity home movie.
Learning to See: The World of Insects tells the life story of the director’s father, an insect photographer who has traveled the world and photographed – and occasionally discovered – a vast variety of insects. The photographs are as gorgeous as one could imagine. The problem is the film they’re contained in. The filmmaker, with his close connection to the subject, refuses to really step out of his comfort zone and looks at everything as a son would; ultimately making a documentary that would be shown at a retirement party than at a cinema. The utilization of the normal documentary tropes (talking heads, subject walking through a program of his works) does nothing to legitimize this doc either, as there is not much being said at all. The thesis seems to be, “look, photographs!”
Oelman’s doc does itself no favours with its basic visual structure either. When it began, this reviewer actually thought that the film was unfinished, but it soon became apparent that the cheap editing program aesthetic was either intentional or out of necessity (when the first title card appears, it is obvious that this is not a professional production). That is not bad in and of itself, but – together with all the other elements – it does not make for pleasant viewing.
Those interested in insect photography might be better off googling the artist, Robert Oelman.
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