Docs in Sight: A Spring Festival Doc Roundup

Given the onslaught of new films in recent years, festivals have become more important as a siphoning tool for the public and the media. While a cynic might say that many festival programs have turned into conduits for high-powered distributors and sales agents, it’s still true that festivals are also the place that one can see great emerging films. Many of these will get passed over by distributors because of timing, bad luck or, more often, because money is rarely risked on topics that haven’t previously “proven” themselves. This is especially true for the burgeoning market of documentaries. Luckily, here in NYC, we have numerous festivals that line up largely undistributed documentaries for your viewing pleasure way before the general audiences will see them (if they ever do). Two sought-after festivals this spring season are the Tribeca Film Festival (that took place from April 25th to May 6th) and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which is in the second half of June. Here are just a few of the docs that are on the festival circuit. —W. Cole

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (June 15–28) by Williams Cole.

Strange Culture

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s creatively rendered story of one of the more surreal and absurd post-9/11 persecutions, Strange Culture uses actors including Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan to partially recreate the ordinary life of a radical and kooky artist and member of the Critical Art Ensemble, Steve Kurtz, whose life descended into chaos when his wife died of a sudden heart ailment. When the paramedics came to Kurtz’s home, they discovered bacteria culture and biology equipment that Kurtz used in his artwork; the paramedics then called the Feds, who came and confiscated everything, including Kurtz’s wife’s body. The Feds then put Kurtz in lockup for months as a suspected bio-terrorist. It’s an incredible story of incompetence and sloppiness by the post-9/11 feds, who essentially let an overeager young prosecutor try to make his name on a flimsy case. Unfortunately, that case is still not over with. While the film is geared toward the art community (as its experimental style suggests), it also shows how such a community can come together and expose the sheer awfulness and insensitivity of a case like this one. One only wishes that those being deported, detained, and renditioned daily under the US government auspices had such a community to fight for them.

The Devil Came on Horseback. Photo: Gretchen Steidle Wallace.

The Devil Came on Horseback

Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s powerful film tells the first-person story of a US Marine (who came from a long line of Marines) who retired and ended up as an unarmed observer as the horrors of Darfur unfolded before him and his camera lens. Brian Steidle’s visual journal is not only poignant in the sheer graphic nature of what he documented but it also relates to his overall transformation into an activist who helped fuel awareness of the genocide. His frustration is emotional and palpable as he asks why he didn’t stick his knife in the neck of a general he met who he knew was responsible for the atrocities he saw every day; instead, he “stood there for six months and watched people die and took pictures of them.” What this film really ends up asking is, even when confronted with ultra-disturbing images of the burned, mangled and tortured bodies of men, women and children, when will the public and the politicians be moved to action? The answer is nothing too new: besides the momentary blips that poke through the media haze and the few brave souls who keep the outrage present, often once something has gone through the media circus—and there is no motivation for those in power or much of the public to keep it afloat—then it can easily fade into the background as other hellish events regularly occur all over the world.

Banished

Marco Williams’s film is a deft drilling down into a little known or consciously forgotten about piece of American history, when whole communities of African Americans were driven from their land in the time between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Williams profiles a number of families whose descendants revisit the communities where their relatives were chased out and their land appropriated by whites. He also explores counties around the country where the lack of African Americans (who once lived and owned property there) has attracted Ku Klux Klan leaders and retirees who openly praise the lack of colored people in the community. In one of the small towns profiled, the current residents first congratulate themselves about helping an African American family retrieve one of their ancestors from a graveyard; the town folk, however, then go up in arms when it’s suggested that the town foot the bill for the grave-digger. In the end, Banished is an important film that renegotiates the issue of reparations often easily dismissed by the mainstream media by bringing it to a local level and by profiling charismatic descendents of the banished.

"Manufacturing #17", Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005. Photo: Edward Burtynsky.

Manufactured Landscapes

Jennifer Baichwal’s film profiles the work of Edward Burtynsky, who specializes in large-scale studies of the industrial landscapes produced by globalization. Much in the line of Koyaanisqatsi (the score is certainly Glass-esque) or 2005’s Workingman’s Death by Michael Glowagger, the film concentrates on the imagery of a rapidly changing terrain complete with unbelievable piles of both detritus and the raw material that this modern age seems to demand. While the photographs are best appreciated on a large screen, the narrative journey has its own unhurried highlights, mostly in China, where the film concentrates. From the opening shot—an extremely long slow dolly moving along a factory floor that in itself conveys how vast and organized Chinese industry can be—to the epic imagery of construction on the Three Gorges Dam—the largest dam ever (being) built—the film conveys the massive, mostly destructive transformations of the current Chinese landscape. Other standouts include a scene where the photographer is trying to convince some skeptical Chinese officials that his photographs of a humungous toxic field of coal will look beautiful, as well as footage of government workers destroying the very cities in which they live—so that when the cities are flooded over for the Three Gorges, ships will be able to pass over them on the surface of the new lake.

Documentary Highlights from the Tribeca Film Festival by Pamela Grossman.


“Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body”: That’s the slogan on a t-shirt worn by Wisconsin teenager Nick Jerabek in this moving documentary, the first from director Civia Tamarkin. Nick’s older brother, Ryan, a Marine in Iraq, was killed there just months after his basic training; now Nick himself wants to join the Marines and serve in the Infantry. Tamarkin interviews Nick and Ryan’s parents and older brother, along with Ryan’s squad members and childhood friends, for this intimate look at the Iraq war and its various costs. Ryan’s fellow Marines speak of their disillusionment with and anger toward the Iraqis they thought would welcome them (“They turned on us,” one states; “Now I pretty much just want to kill them,” says another) and are near tears as they remember Ryan, who was clearly beloved. Meanwhile, in the Jerabek home, Ryan’s mother cries openly as she sorts through Ryan’s belongings—while Nick watches a Marine recruitment tape in the next room. Tamarkin, who covered Vietnam as a journalist in the beginning of her career, brings to the film a reporter’s careful attention to detail— but she also brings tremendous empathy and warmth. The candor with which her subjects speak is a credit to her abilities, and the result is a work of intelligence and strong compassion. If you can’t fathom what Bush supporters could possibly be thinking, this film will shine some light.

We Are Together

If this were a fictional narrative, viewers might complain that its premise seemed unbelievable: Children orphaned—mostly because they had AIDS—in South Africa, with some of the loveliest and, in fact, sunniest natures you could imagine, bolstering themselves by singing. Singing? Sunny? Wouldn’t they be enraged and acting out? But this is a documentary, and indeed, the children sing like angels, all the while supporting one another and navigating life with a joie de vivre that makes the word “inspiring” seem insufficient. This film may well break your heart, a few times over, but don’t worry: It will also put your heart back together, in better condition than before. Sorrow is evident—within the central characters, the orphanage and the country at large (“We must remember we are not the only ones,” says an elder sibling, struggling to process a painful loss)—but the film is not about sadness: It’s about hope, resilience, love, and the ability to find joy. And it will likely compel many toward activism to address the fact that in Africa, many are dying for lack of AIDS drugs that are readily available here. We Are Together won the coveted Audience Award at Tribeca. It will be on HBO next year but may—and certainly should—get theatrical release before then. Proceeds from the film and from the Agape Choir’s CD benefit the children, the orphanage, and HIV/AIDS projects (see wearetogether.org and keepachildalive.org).

Shame

In the summer of 2002, the younger brother of Pakistani villager Mukhtaran Mai was accused of a crime, and the village’s tribal council approved a punishment to be taken against Mai herself. It’s unclear what the sanctioned punishment to be delivered actually was; but Mai was gang-raped and then held on display before her townspeople. The traditional response for a woman thus “shamed” in Mai’s culture is suicide—but Mai decided to seek justice through the courts, stating that she would rather “go out fighting” than harm herself or cower in fear. This first documentary feature from director Mohammed Naqvi could just as aptly have been called “Courage,” or perhaps “Strength”: Rejecting the shame she’s told must be hers, Mai becomes a model of determination and grace as the film explores a social/political system in which our access is generally limited. Naqvi both calls upon and confronts his own Pakistani heritage in order to understand this story in context: The film’s title refers not only to the shame Mai was told to accept but to the shame of a culture that views and treats women (and particularly women from poorer families) in this manner. He conveys the narrative with depth and true sensitivity, bringing us along as Mai is celebrated by human-rights groups (and attendant celebrities) internationally while facing death threats—and the overturning of her attackers’ verdict—at home. All the while, she refuses to falter. “If you can help me get justice,” she tells the court before her initial trial, “then I am ready.”

Contributors

Williams Cole

Pamela Grossman

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