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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Compelling documentaries command attention at Tribeca

05/18/2016

Gerald SchmitzThe Tribeca festival’s non-fiction selections seem to grow stronger every year, evidence of the vitality and creativity of documentary filmmaking. This year there was also a clever hybrid of “docu-fiction,” Houston, We Have a Problem! (Slovenia/Croatia/Germany/Czech Republic/Qatar) in which director Ziga Virc purports to tell a Cold War story of how former Yugoslav president Josip Tito sold his country’s faulty space program to the Americans durilmost believable. Appearing periodically are the arch commentaries of philosopher Slavojng the Kennedy space race of the 1960s. Archival footage and interviews make it almost believable. Appearing periodically are the arch commentaries of philosopher Slavoj ZiZek who sums up: “There is no simple lie . . . Even if it didn’t happen it’s true and that’s the crucial message.”

I was reminded of the Sundance selection Operation Avalanche, exposing a supposed Cold War-era conspiracy of how undercover CIA agents, posing as a documentary film crew, were sent to NASA in 1967 to find a suspected Russian mole and instead discovered the “truth” about the Apollo missions to the moon.

Back on solid ground, here are some of the straight-up documentaries that most impressed:

After Spring (U.S. http://www.afterspringfilm.com/)

Executive produced by Jon Stewart, directors Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching capture the human face of the Syrian refugee crisis, focusing on the plight of several families among the 80,000 inhabitants of Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp, 58 per cent of whom are children. We see a story of struggles and hopes through their eyes, and also through the work of UNHCR counsellor Maram, camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt, and a Korean benefactor who institutes a martial arts program for the youth.

Tickling Giants (U.S. http://ticklinggiants.com/)

The subject doing the satirical “tickling” is Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon turned television comedian sending up the powerful on his popular show (simply called “The Show” in Arabic) during the flower of the Arab spring, earning the moniker “the Jon Stewart of Egypt.” Director Sara Taksler came to the subject as a senior producer with Stewart’s Daily Show on which the charismatic Youssef appeared. It’s a great story though his show went off the air and he left the country in the chill of the media repression under the current El-Sisi strongman regime. The day I saw this Egypt witnessed the largest public protests in two years — a hopeful sign perhaps even if it takes more than laughter to move from authoritarianism to democracy.

National Bird (U.S. http://nationalbirdfilm.com/)

Executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck helms this stunning examination of the U.S. Air Force’s predator drone program through its effects on both former operators and civilian victims of its “collateral damage.” On the American side, mounting concerns and regrets are expressed through the testimony of three subjects and whistleblower legal advocate Jesselyn Radack (profiled in the documentary Silenced). The voice of the victims is expressed most powerfully by Afghan survivors of a 2010 attack on an unarmed funeral procession. Essential viewing in light of how the military use of drones has expanded to Orwellian proportions and made remote-controlled warfare seductively easy.

Betting on Zero (U.S. https://www.facebook.com/bettingonzero/)

Directed by Ted Braun, this incisive exploration of an ongoing high-stakes corporate battle pits Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management hedge fund against the “Herbalife” empire and its CEO Michael Johnson. Ackman has spent many millions trying to prove that Herbalife’s marketing practices amount to a pyramid scheme, allegedly targeting the Latino community in the U.S. and the gullible in over 90 other countries where it operates. Ackman’s fund has so far lost millions more in “shorting” Herbalife stock (i.e. Pershing gains the more Herbalife’s value drops to zero). While disgruntled former Herbalife distributors protest “Herbalies” and federal investigations continue, the ultimate winner remains to be decided.

Life, Animated (U.S./France http://www.lifeanimateddoc.com/)

Roger Ross Williams won a Sundance directing award for this moving account of the life of the autistic Owen Suskind, now a young man in his 20s living on his own through special care arrangements. Initially unable to speak, parents Ron (whose book on his son inspired the film) and Cornelia painstakingly taught Owen to communicate through an immersion in Disney animated movies. Owen not only knows all their lines by heart, he has created his own character as a protector of fellow “sidekicks.” He’s also supported by big brother Walter in learning to navigate the complications of adulthood. (The same day I saw this, a new issue of The Economist was published with a cover feature on how to deal with autism, the incidence of which has increased enormously in recent decades.)

Shadow World (U.S./Belgium/Denmark http://www.theshadowworldbook.com/the-film/)

Drawing on the prodigious research of Andrew Feinstein’s Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, director Johan Grimonprez delves into the highly profitable complicity among weapons manufacturers, dealers, and governmental elites, a clubby covert world awash in corruption. It’s a challenge for peace activists as new opportunities abound in the long “war on terror” and the burgeoning drone market. (Scheduled for future broadcast on PBS as part of its Independent Lens programming.)

Keep Quiet (U.K./Hungary http://keepquietmovie.com/)

Directors Joseph Martin and Sam Blair investigate the rise and fall of Csanad Szegedi, a notorious Hungarian anti-Semite and Holocaust denier who rose to leadership positions in the far-right Jobbik party, was elected to the European Parliament, and helped found the fascistic Hungarian Guard. That all crumbles when he discovers his maternal grandmother was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. Guided by a sympathetic rabbi, Szegedi renounces his past and transforms into an observant Orthodox Jew, though skeptics persist and the filmmakers wisely keep an ambivalent reserve.

Midsummer in Newtown (U.S.https://www.facebook.com/midsummerinnewtown/)

In 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, was the scene of the horrific Sandy Hook massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults. Director Lloyd Kramer shows how music has helped some of the families recover from the tragedy. One of those killed was Ana Grace, the daughter of Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist Jimmy Greene. The film, a runner-up for the audience award, follows the extraordinary collaboration that took place among Newtown children (some surviving classmates), parents, music and theatre professionals in mounting an exuberant child-centred rock-pop version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s an intimate testament to the transformative and healing power of art.

Command and Control (U.S. http://www.commandandcontrolfilm.com/)

Drawing on the eponymous book by Eric Schlosser, director Robert Kenner investigates the dark side of America’s embrace of nuclear weapons and the missile-building binge in a nuclear arms race that has come perilously close to civilizational suicide. Among the near-miss accidents, a particular focus is on a covered-up 1980 incident at a Ttitan II silo in Arkansas in which catastrophe was narrowly averted. Extremely timely given renewed political attention to the dangers of a nuclear-armed world, Tribeca also presented a related panel discussion and a groundbreaking immersive production, “the bomb,” which was projected over 360 degrees on huge screens with live musical accompaniment.

My Scientology Movie (U.K.)

Directed by John Dower for BBC Films, this is a more humorous and idiosyncratic but equally disturbing exposé of the “Church” of Scientology following on Alex Gibney’s Going Clear. In Michael Moore fashion Louis Theroux, aided by former Scientologists, sets out get to the bottom of the cult’s bizarre but profitable practices, celebrity recruitment, harassment of apostates, and hierarchy presided over by the omnipotent secretive David Miscavige who has been accused of violent abuse of subordinates. (In television interviews and the new book Ruthless, Miscavige’s own father Ron has denounced him after escaping the church’s California “Gold Base” headquarters.)

Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray (U.S.)

From CNN Films and director Jenny Carchman come this cautionary tale of the self-improvement guru Ray who soared to highly profitable heights selling “Harmonic Wealth” events and a promised path to personal success in books like The Secret. His empire came crashing down in 2009 when three followers died during a sweat lodge ritual as part of a “spiritual warrior” retreat and Ray spent time in prison for negligent homicide. Still one senses Ray will never stop selling himself and motivational dreams (see http://jamesray.com/my-story/).

I Voted? (U.S. http://www.ivotedmovie.com/)

Extremely timely in this U.S. election year is writer-director Jason Grant Smith’s penetrating analysis of “how sloppy and faulty” are the voting systems in place in most American states, which jealously guard their jurisdiction over voting methods in the absence of national standards. Especially prone to error if not corrupt manipulation are various electronic systems lacking any paper trail to verify the results. Among the harsh critics is Deforest Soaries, former chair of the Congressionally mandated Electoral Assistance Commission who assails the “hypocrisy of Washington” and concludes that “our country would be found grossly deficient” in the eyes of international observers. The film appeals for citizens to demand paper ballots than can be audited (i.e., a national system like Canada’s).

I wasn’t able to see Do Not Resist, on the militarization of American police forces, which took the jury documentary award. However, I can recommend four more strong documentaries dealing with the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems.

The Return (U.S. http://www.thereturnproject.com/)

Recipient of the documentary audience award, directors Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s film follows the return from prison of over 2,000 inmates, almost all racial minorities, released under a 2012 reform of California’s infamous 1994 “three strikes” law that resulted in some 10,000 life sentences, most for minor non-violent offences. It’s an intimate moving look at the re-integration process as well as moment of reckoning on the manifest failures of mass incarceration. (Scheduled for broadcast May 23 on the PBS Series POV.)

Solitary (U.S.)

This HBO film directed by Kristi Jacobson probes the effects of solitary confinement on the tens of thousands of U.S. prisoners locked up in “seg” (segregation) in 8X10-foot cells, 23 hours per day, for years even decades. It does so through the stories of individuals in Virginia’s Red Onion state prison, one of 40 “supermax” prisons. The system of dehumanizing isolation, akin to being buried alive, is stressful for staff and guards too, almost all of whom are white in contrast to the majority of inmates. Not surprisingly, those in solitary account for half of prison suicides.

Prison Dogs (U.S. http://www.g2p2films.com/prisondogs )

There are prison stories that offer a measure of hope and redemption. Such is the case with the “Puppies Behind Bars” program in which prisoners apply to be matched with dogs which they will train as service dogs to provide therapy for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although not every prisoner is successful and not every dog successfully placed, directors Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir’s film is a deeply affecting look at the healing transformations that are possible.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four (U.S. http://www.southwestofsalem.com/)

Director Deborah Esquenazi explores the outrageous miscarriage of justice which, in a climate of homophobia and hysteria, led to long prison sentences for four young Latina women accused of abusing two little girls in 1994. The case has been described as “the last gasp of the Satanic ritual abuse panic.” A Canadian, Darrel Otto, an instructor at Yukon College, played an important role in reopening the case, which has also been taken up by the Innocence Project of Texas. Although the four have been released on the basis of exonerating evidence and the recantation of one of the alleged “victims,” amazingly after so many years they have yet to be cleared and face a possible retrial.