Docs in Sight: Systemic Ills, Dark Fetishes, Drugs, and Guns at the Tribeca Film Festival
The Tribeca Film Festival has grown exponentially since it was largely founded as part of the rebound from a destroyed lower Manhattan post-9/11. And, as New York City has gone into gentrification overdrive, TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal for those unaware) is no longer a desolate area associated with artist lofts and underground clubs represented in the now unthinkable 1985 Scorsese film After Hours (though, to be fair, that was mostly SoHo). Now ranked with the Upper East Side in terms of income, the gleam off both TriBeCa and SoHo these days is almost blinding and one doesn’t often associate these areas as the home of cutting edge artists or filmmakers anymore (alas, the same fate has befallen my own Brooklyn neighborhood of 20 years, Williamsburg). As seen in the roster at Spring Studio, though, the festival has expanded their program of experimental and experiential media, much of it developed with the Tribeca Film Institute. And, while I didn’t pay much attention to the feature film selection (besides getting a lot of emails about celebrities at parties and Schwarzenegger’s new film), the documentary roster seemed to cut a deep and diverse path. Of course I avoided any titles that might seem to “feel good” and this is what I managed to see.
Even if you are familiar with Noam Chomsky’s work—films from Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) to Michel Gondry’s Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (2013) and, of course, all Chomsky’s books and articles—Requiem for the American Dream (2015) is still worth a watch. Billed as Chomsky’s last in-depth feature interview and filmed over four years, it is a distillation of his analysis of the structural faults of the United States, nanny-state capitalism, and global inequity fuelled by the rise of financial markets. Broken into 10 sections and elegantly animated and illustrated (this does help when the whole film is one interview subject), what comes through is a comprehensive dose of the deadpan clarity and no-nonsense realpolitik analysis that Chomsky is known for. Outlining the vicious cycle of the wealth-power feedback loop that he argues can only be broken by popular movements and organized labor, much of the analysis is an overview of the last four decades or so that have seen a concerted effort from business and neo-liberals to turn back the popular power gains of the 1960s. More to the point, deregulation has allowed the financial services sector to run amok and destabilize a teetering economy while at the same time building a nanny-state bailout model that serves their interests when the system crashes. Entwined with these dire developments is the growth of a sophisticated consent-manufacturing machine that has caught people in a rubric of consumerism and infected the election cycle to the extent that there are no rational, informed choices but only those fed by pabulum. While he doesn’t make you feel good about the world (not his role), Chomsky is rightfully billed as a thinker “widely regarded as the most important intellectual alive.” But looking at the state of the society and the world, this only drives home the fact that the forces moving the system don’t often listen to such intellectuals.
The Emperor’s New Clothes (2015) delves into many of the same themes as Requiem for the American Dream and is hosted by British actor/activist Russell Brand, who most would agree is not one of the most important intellectuals alive. Yet this sweetly annoying character of post-bohemian style has cut his own path for a few years now as someone unafraid to cut through the crap around issues of economic inequality and the prevarications of the financial markets and those who run them. With a mix of Michael Moore-like shticks (a mobile billboard with wanted signs of CEOs and a bullhorn) and one-too-many vignettes sitting down with those screwed over by the system, The Emperor’s New Clothes is effective in as much as it delivers incisive and infuriating information about the state of the US and UK with a bit of youthful panache and “don’t you see what the fuck is going on-ness.” There are some particularly interesting moments such as highlighting that times of prosperity and stability were when the richest were taxed the most and, surprisingly for a largely UK-based film, a look at the Mitchell-Lama Houses, rent control, and an interview with Mayor De Blasio. I’m not sure there’s any new information in either Requiem for the American Dream or The Emperor’s New Clothes, but they are part of an ongoing collection of films, books, and other media attempting to convey in relatively simple terms that the crisis of our time is upon us in the form of inequality, deregulation, and financial services run rampant. While you should get those people who you think don’t understand what is happening to watch these, it feels frustrating, to say the least, that even after 2008, Occupy Wall Street and anti-austerity protests, any real narrative around this in the power-political realm is still only fed by, well, pabulum.
Sometimes when watching a documentary you get the feeling you are looking through a porthole into a dystopian vision that is not really so far from your own reality. Ukraine is a country that seems to have developed into such a place, devoid of social services, lacking effective police, and—post-Soviet Union—sucked into a vacuum littered with drug-addicted orphan vagabonds and now embroiled in an epic struggle between East and West. The title Crocodile Gennadiy (2015) comes from the name of a ruggedly handsome pastor who often wears a frock and weight-lifting gloves, and has made a name for himself for over a decade by proactively taking young drug addicts off the streets, often by force, in order to give them a chance to get clean and find a home. Emerging from a broken society, Crocodile Gennadiy at first butted heads with city government but now runs a well-established network of shelters, often playing role of pastor, ambulance attendant, and policeman, dealing with domestic abuse, addiction, and rape. The film—with a striking score by Atticus Ross and a remarkable visual style—captures character and place with all the visceral and emotive intensity the story deserves, while also lightly opening the questions that arise from being a vigilante for good. Your heart aches for the children, of course, but also for this man as he grapples with the punishing context his country has fallen into, one that seems to be descending into something even harsher than the post-Soviet times.
Armor of Light (2015) follows the intersection of Evangelical preacher Rob Schenck (who was key figure in Operation Rescue) and Lucia McBath, whose son, Jordan Davis, was killed by an NRA member espousing the Florida “stand your ground” defense, as they open up the “gun issue” to Evangelical Christian faith. What becomes crystal clear is that Evangelicals, beginning with a concerted effort under President Reagan, were co-opted by the NRA and that propaganda has become deeply entrenched, unchallenged, and potentially unethical. As anyone who has delved into the “gun issue” knows (as I did for a number of years when I produced a film with Barbara Kopple for HBO called Gun Fight ), one comes away with a certain sense that there are seemingly intractable beliefs at play. But most importantly for me—and for Pastor Schenck it seems—is the understanding that the “pro-gun” line is largely based on fear. As Schenck says at one point in his coming-out process, “Is having a constant defense position ethical within Christian thinking?” followed by clips of NRA President Wayne LaPierre rattling off a litany of fears from the vague “criminals” to the vague “terrorists.” And this fear is powerful, the baseline for a worldview in many ways. When Pastor Schenck opens up the subject—even lightly—to groups of white Evangelicals, he is immediately confronted with verbatim lines like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In one somewhat-contrived but telling scene there is a luncheon between Schenck, another like-minded pastor, and two pro-gun pastors that immediately erupts in heated cross-yelling ending with the Pastor more sympathetic with Schenck bellowing “That’s the most delusional pile of crap I’ve ever heard!” “Simple answers can be like heroin in your veins,” the Pastor says at one point, adding that it is something people get used to if all information comes from Fox News and the NRA. One should appreciate Armor of Light’sapproach to such bifurcated issue and hope, above all, that “people of faith”—i.e. largely white, rural, Evangelical Christians in this case—would be an audience that would use it as a tool for discussion. The question is if that would actually happen.
Thought Crimes (2015) is an HBO-produced film that belongs in the doc genre “don’t underestimate how twisted humans are” (a pretty big genre, actually). It focuses on the “Cannibal Cop” case of a young NYPD officer who was arrested and tried for participating in online chats associated with violent and deviant sexual fetishes, largely to do with the kidnapping, torturing, and cooking of women. Stomach-curdling chats are juxtaposed with hanging out with the fellow himself, a seemingly mild-mannered Gilberto Valle, a Queens Italian guy who eats a lot while staying with his doting mother. Tried for the criminal act of using an NYPD database to get information about real women he knew in his life, the film explores the gray area between when fantasy becomes action and where the line is crossed enough to put away someone for conspiracy. Valle claims engaging in these chats was his way of blowing off steam and that, after a session, he would go back to being “normal.” He says that in this cyberspace there was a sense of one-upmanship about who could be the most outrageous which resulted in a lot of the sick plans. His fetish is also vaguely blamed on Catholic school, a lack of candid talk about sex, a disciplinarian father, and an innate taste for bondage, which found an outlet on the Internet. Whatever the case, Valle was clearly obsessed, enough so that his wife, often caring for or asleep with their young baby while he was chatting away online, installed spyware on his computer and discovered what he was doing. Justifiably, most people will think this man is a sick person who needs help. But the film does capably open up fundamental questions for our screen-enmeshed world: At a time where people can live parallel lives indulging and talking about their fetishes, no matter how twisted they are, where does that line get crossed? It’s not so clear.
Williams Cole is a founding contributing editor of the Rail and a documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is Rebel Rossa.