Fighting the Power at DOC NYC
2014 brings many more films and thematic slates to DOC NYC, the festival that has staked its claim as “New York’s documentary festival” and “America’s largest documentary film festival.” Now in its fifth year, the festival keeps expanding, mixing long-term retrospective (Salesman, Hoop Dreams), short-term retrospective (the curators own “short list” of films from 2014 such as E-Team, The Great Invisible, Citizenfour), and thematic programming (Sonic Cinema, Metropolis, American Perspectives). Perhaps most important for the profile of a growing festival like DOC NYC, many of the films in these strands are US or world premieres. This year there are 27 films that the programmers chose to premiere and, equally important, that the filmmakers chose to first show at DOC NYC. Perhaps this is an indication that, as documentary film continues to grow, festivals specific to the genre will garner more attention from media and, most importantly, distributors.
One of the films premiering is The Yes Men Are Revolting by Laura Nix and the Yes Men. It is the best of the triptych of films about these original postmodern pranksters who became a part of the fabric of lefty activism dating back to the late 1990s (the previous films were The Yes Men in 2003 and The Yes Men Save the World in 2009). The Yes Men—a duo that mostly use pseudonyms—come up with lo-fi but highly developed strategies to get a message carried through the media circus (otherwise known as “culture jamming” to use a '90s term). This is often achieved by playing a representative of a huge corporation or lobby such as, quite memorably, when one of them was on BBC News playing a spokesman of Dow Chemical who said the corporation was going to pay compensation to all the victims of the Bhopal disaster. In the beginning of this film they hold a press conference “by” the politically conservative Chamber of Commerce, attended by DC media, where they claim to endorse the carbon tax, among other things. This “news” made it onto Fox and other cable channel, as did the revelations of their hoax.
Global warming is at the top of their agenda in The Yes Men Are Revolting and the realities of a potential coming apocalypse stand out more starkly in this narrative than any number of media pieces. Perhaps it’s because in their antics they distill the issue to a solitary point: Fossil fuel corporations effectively lobby against governments to make any real change and, as long as carbon levels continue, we are on a one-way track. This is the most intimate of the Yes Men films as the now middle-aged and graying duo reflect on their lives, relationships, and friendship as well as on how a career in activism can feel futile. Perhaps that is why it’s the most effective. But the comic brilliance is hard to resist as you see testosterone-laden suit-and-tie lackeys become mad and flustered in the face of their shenanigans. The Yes Men come off as nice and gentle guys, who chose a path that would never make them much money. And in this film they seem at peace with that while still being propelled to fight the power with comic mischief.
“Fight the Power” is actually a new thematic strand this year at DOC NYC. While The Yes Men Are Revolting certainly fits that bill there are other films —not specifically part of that program—about historical and current issues that are doing just that. In fact, I would argue that fighting the power is one of the fundamental and intrinsic components of the documentary genre.
This year DOC NYC bravely programmed one film about an issue shielded by a power structure resistant to probing and often effective in quashing dissent— Hollywood. In fact, the press screening for Amy Berg’s An Open Secret was cancelled at the last minute, certainly peaking the interest of New York media and numerous blogs. An Open Secret tells chilling stories of how predators—who are also agents and producers—lure aspiring young male actors that come to Hollywood into manipulative relationships that include pedophilia. The film diligently and sensitively tells the stories of many of the young men (now older) who have chosen to come out of secrecy to name names and talk about how their lives were deeply affected by the individuals and groups of men that insinuated themselves into their lives in their youth—the film includes plenty of audio and visual evidence. There is no reason that this film couldn’t find a place in theaters or certainly on CNN or PBS or other venues that regularly—though decreasingly—investigate wrongdoing in a conventional way. But there is something particularly sensitive about going after Tinsel Town especially when names like Bryan Singer (director of X Men, etc.) come up. One of Berg’s previous films was about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In the Q&A for this film, she said that as she investigated the issue she felt more and more that the power dynamic of the abuse in Hollywood is in many ways worse than in the church. Hollywood has a central place in the collective consciousness of this country and tens of millions go to big studio movies to feed the power of studio executives. So shouldn’t we know the dark and sordid histories of those who abuse their power in that context? This should be true, especially if the filmmaker is a documentarian and doesn’t care if someone tells them “You’ll never work in this town again!”
Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, and Peter Kinoy have made powerful films about inequality and violence in Latin America for years (in the case of Pamela Yates, her film When the Mountains Tremble was a seminal work around US-sponsored political violence in Guatemala in the 1980s). Their latest film is actually one in the “Fight the Power” program slate and, while the film addresses the large scope of immovable inequality in the region, this time it is not through a traditionally leftist revolutionary movement. In an elegant profile of poor women on the margins of Latin America and the initiatives of Fundación Capital, a program that is working to give these women bank accounts and teach them to save, Disruption offers a sliver of potential hope from within the system. While seemingly a conventional solution, economic empowerment, as this film shows, has startling effects for the personal lives of many and can fit into a progressive idea of social change. Currently, there are more than three million people involved and growing. While economic rights may not solve the blight of entrenched issues that plague the Global South, this film makes a strong argument that different approaches are certainly worth a try.
Salad Days: The DC Punk Revolution is also a film I would say is telling a story of fighting power as—from the late 1970s to the early 1990s (AKA the Reagan/Bush era)—the nation’s capital was the epicenter of a punk/hardcore scene that was unique in its mixture of DYI aesthetic, anti-commercialism, and at least some form of oppositional politics. Actually, this film goes into those years in such detail that you will come out of it with knowledge of how Minor Threat formed and broke up, what the “Summer of Revolution” meant to the DC music scene and how social issues and “straight edge” were both part of the scene and something that divided it. As in any detailed music film, there is a point where you ask yourself if so many details are important except for people that remember the scene itself. But voices like the now omniscient Dave Grohl and the ever-present Henry Rollins (justifiably because he gives a good interview) ground the film in presenting a larger scope of what this “movement” meant running up to the point in the early 1990s when punk generally went commercial. Ian MacKaye plays a central figure who is both slightly annoying and certainly due respect for his consistency and success as an anti-commercial icon. He and Rollins talk about being part of group of youth who at that point—because of the way they looked—were regularly being pursued and beaten up by older guys driving Camaros and blasting Kansas and Boston. These days you can look around in most any town around the country and see the styles of “punk” on the young and old. Now it is a drawn out commercial style devoid of any real threat to society. It is sobering to remember that back in the Reagan era you could make a stand and fight the power simply by spiking your hair, wearing combat boots, and listening to hardcore.
There are a lot of festivals these days—and a lot of films made. Paradoxically, for many filmmakers, it now seems like it’s now even more important to premiere at one of the Big Ones than it used to be. Alas, so it is said, an overcrowded film world needs curators to sort things for overstretched critics and distributors. But as the big festivals get bigger and more infiltrated by celebrity, money and, Hollywood angst (as they have and continue to do), documentaries can arguably suffer in the attention they receive. DOC NYC is, by design, all nonfiction, and the genre deserves to have more festivals dedicated to it, even ones that might become “big.” As is their nature, documentary filmmakers should be encouraged to break down all the walls of silence and deceit in American and global society. Documentary-specific festivals should support this. To make that happen in a more robust way, distributors will have to attend such festivals and strike deals. In the “Golden Age” of documentaries why shouldn’t documentaries keep to their own?
Williams Cole is a founding contributing editor of the Rail and a documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is Rebel Rossa.