“Our women used to cook and farm and milk the cows. There was nothing like sports.” So proclaims a grizzled man on the street, not exactly thrilled by recent changes in Iraq. Still, as demonstrated in Salaam Dunk, those changes are well underway. Filmed in 2009, during the American University’s women’s basketball team’s second season, David Fine’s inspiring documentary keeps focused on the effects on the women, as well as their American graduate student coach, Ryan Bubalo. Introduced one by one, designated by their team numbers, the players share their initial nervousness (some had never dribbled a ball before they joined the team), their frustrations and their evolving commitment to each other.
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“The biggest mistake made about fishing is that it’s about catching fish,” observes J.T. Van Zandt at the start of Low & Clear. “Fishing,” he goes on, “is a micro examination of life itself.” The film illustrates, not only with the usual images of beautiful streams and rivers, wide skies, and rocky slopes—here shot primarily during a winter flyfishing trip to Canada. The movie rather digs into the “examination” too, offering a version of “life itself” that sets J.T.‘s philosophical bent against that of his favorite fishing partner, mentor, and friend, Alex “Xenie” Hall. While J.T. maintains that the beauty of the activity lies in perfecting techniques, in contemplating the magnificent environment and perhaps one’s place in it, Xeni is more concerned with catching fish. Indeed, he keeps a journal of his catches, as well as a calendar and an extensive visual record. “Photo album after photo album, shoebox after shoebox,” J.T. marvels, “Photos of every fish the guy has ever caught in his life.” Cut to Xeni, not quite explaining, “Just to freeze frame that moment in time, yeah, it’s a little weird.” But, he adds, “Time is precious,” and he resists “dividing it up” into a career or a family. “Right now, [J.T.‘s] behind a desk somewhere, I’m imagining, clutching his cell phone.”
“That was our objective, there was no other.” Bernardo and Lautaro Arratia are chopping trees, in the Patagonia region of Chile. This is what they want to do, they demonstrate with their focused labor, what their father did, what they’ve grown up doing. Now, however, they’re looking at the end of the future they never doubted, as corporate forces descend on the region with plans to build five hydroelectric dams, two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River.
These plans look awfully grim in Brian Lilla’s Patagonia Rising, currently screening at New York’s Cinema Village. While the dams provide electricity, they do so in a way that Stephen Hall sees as old-fashioned (other forms of renewable energy are more efficient and forward-looking) and they exact particular costs. Mitzi Urubia, coordinator for the campaign, Patagonia Without Dams, points out that the question of who has possession of the water—Chile or Argentina—is not entirely clear. Moreover, according to Patrick McCully, executive director of International Rivers, the companies in charge are less than truthful about the deleterious effects of large dams, which have been demonstrated by previous large dams, more than 40,000 worldwide: they displace populations (between 40 and 80 million people, mostly in India and China thus far), cause flooding and contaminated waters, wreak havoc with fishing and other livelihoods, spread diseases.
When the marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment enter Afghanistan in 2009, they’re told they’ll be enacting a “new” counter-insurgency strategy. Their commander names their essential contradictions. “Every interaction you have with the people is crucial,” he says, “We have to develop trust in them.” Strapping on gear and loading weapons, they are plainly “experts in the application of violence,” but they’re less equipped for developing “trust.” Within moments, these ideals are dismantled: a marine is badly injured, his buddies run him along a road, the camera jogging behind them. When the corporal dies, 26-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris steps up. He will be injured too, and Hell and Back Again, airing on PBS on 28 May, follows him home to North Carolina, where he struggles to find sense in what he’s done and how it plagues him. The film cuts back and forth, between the footage photographer-turned-filmmaker Danfung Dennis shot in Afghanistan over months and the diaristic scenes he shoots of Nathan home, talking to the camera, his wife Ashley, and his doctors. In pain and on medication, Nathan seems to be remembering what you see, but the documentary doesn’t pretend to know what he’s feeling. Instead, it observes and draws connections, scenes that show battles or Harris and his team breaking down doors or not quite conversing with Afghan locals, or more plainly showing the effects of action. These involve Ashley as much as Nathan: as she describes their journey as “to hell and back again,” you realize how they’ve paid, again and again.
See PopMatters’ review.
In 2003, Dr. Qudrat Mojadidi went back to Afghanistan, again. This time, he was accompanied by his daughter Sedika Mojadidi, and her film crew. The doctor, who has a thriving OB/GYN practice in Virginia, had for 20 years been working along the Afghan border, helping those women he could survive childbirth, disease, and injury. Now, following the invasion and the temporary defeat of the Taliban, the US guaranteed support, asking the doctor to rehabilitate the Rabia Balkhi hospital, and most earnestly, wanting to “make a difference inside the country.” In her documentary, Motherland Afghanistan, premiering on Global Voices 13 May, Sedika Mojadidi narrates their journey with a mix of concern, confidence, and wonder. The camera looks out from their car window as they drive in, observing male street vendors, soldiers in uniform, women in burqas, children as the car slows in traffic. Repeatedly, Dr. Mojadid and his team confront impossible odds, from lack of funding to distrustful communities to fearful wives and daughters. Focused through the doctor’s witty, measured perspective, the documentary makes clear the successes and the hardships of his remarkable efforts (the death of a premature baby, its tiny corpse tended to on screen, would likely have been avoided had the proper resources been available). Telling a story that is at once intensely personal and acutely political, Motherland Afghanistan offers a trenchant critique of US policy. While, as the film shows and Dr. Mojadidi says, Afghans can do take care of themselves, some small sincere, well-considered, and organized help would go a long way.
See PopMatters’ review.