“The original title was ‘The Nigger Who Sat by the Door,’” remembers Sam Greenlee. “But when Dick Gregory brought out this book called Nigger, I figured he had taken the sting out of it.” And so the writer of The Spook Who Sat by the Door decided on a “much more subtle” title, as “spooks” refer to blacks, CIA agents, and “the armed revolution by black people [that] haunts white America, and has for centuries.” Greenlee’s memories are among the most vivid in Christine Acham and Clifford Ward’s documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door, which premieres on the Documentary Channel on 28 February. As he and other participants—including actors J.A. Preston and David Lemieux, as well as editor Michael Kahn and Berlie Dixon, widow of director Ivan Dixon—it becomes clear not only how difficult it was to make the movie, but also how clever and committed they were to getting it made.
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Late last year, Nuon Chea, better known as Brother Number 2, was charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, in a UN-based court in Phnom Penh. On the second day, the prosecution played a clip from a documentary, Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin’s Enemies of the People.
The film uses multiple interviews with Nuon Chea, conducted over years, to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge from a distinctly, agonizingly personal perspective. Sambath begins by remembering his father’s murder. “They arrested him and took him to the rice field. They killed him by thrashing by knives,” Sambath says. “He did not die immediate. He very, very suffer. My brother, he watch.” Now a senior reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, Sambath has spent years seeking answers to the question that has shaped his life: “Why the killing happened.” His film includes interviews with several killers, now living un-special lives in villages, as well as Nuon Chea. As these interview subjects sift through memories, they sound variously true and delusional, fragmented and self-serving, working their way to confessions in roundabout ways. You can’t know whether this is a function of fading memories, confusion or deliberate obfuscation. “Frankly,” one says, laughing weakly, “Without the wine, we wouldn’t dare kill people.” At the same time, the film’s compositions insist on the layers of storytelling, showing multiple frames within frames, arranged in camera lenses and mirrors, doorways and monitors. The effect is complex, brilliant, and devastating.
When she first meets Queen Farah, filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani remembers her own past. One of the revolutionaries who took to the streets to cheer the banishment of Farah Pahlavi and her husband Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, in 1979, Sarvestani was then targeted by the Ayatollah’s regime. She escaped to Sweden, where she pursued a career as a documentary maker, and now, in an effort to understand her own journey—from a child who admired the queen on television to revolutionary to an exile—Sarvestani asks Farah if she might film her. “Something about her still intrigues me,” she says. Their evolving relationship is revealed in their film, The Queen and I, available on Link TV and online beginning 21 February. As they become what she calls “friends,” Sarvestani comes to appreciate Farah’s complicated life and admire her persistence under duress, even to like her. She finds that they “share a profound longing for the Iran we both love and dream the same dream, to touch its soil again.” The trick here is parsing the “Iran we both love.” While both women deplore the ongoing rigid religious rule and efforts to keep citizens—especially women—ignorant, they remain split on the efficacy and benefits of a monarchy.
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“Nobody knew how the revolution would end, but the event itself was extraordinary,” says Masud Kimiai, “And full of idealism and beauty.” As the director of Snake Fang (Dandan-e-mar) and The Journey of the Stone (Safar Sang) remembers the Iranian Revolution in 1979, you see a mix of footage, crowds waving flags in the street and women dropping flowers from balconies, and a few shots later, police chasing after citizens, helmets white and guns raised. Most viewers of Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution, will know that this shift from exhilaration to fear and aggression had its seeds in decades of corruption and resentment, in weak internal infrastructures and not-so-secret interventions by the West. What may be less well known is how closely the film industry in Iran has mapped, anticipated, and helped to shape the nation’s political movements and fractures.
This story is unveiled in Nader Takmil Homayoun’s 2006 documentary, available now on Link TV‘s excellent broadcast and online series, A Bridge to Iran. In tracing how movies in Iran have been put to use by both Reza Shah Pahlevi and his son, and the fundamentalist religious regime under Khomeini, the film makes the broader point, that media shape, support, and can challenge other regimes, even when those regimes don’t think of themselves as such.
“My partners and I are always searching for Dr. King’s perspective,” says Tavis Smiley during the first minutes of his documentary, Stand. In 2008, Smiley wonders, “How did we arrive at this critical place in our history?” And so, as Barack Obama is running for president, poverty growing, the US is engaged in two wars, and more black men are incarcerated than ever before, Smiley and a group including Michael Eric Dyson, Wren Brown, and Cornel West (“Definitely,” he says, “not your typical black men”) take off on a bus trip to look for Martin Luther King Jr.‘s perspective. Screening on the Documentary Channel this month, the documentary is comprised of footage by Smiley’s professional crew and also by two teens from Memphis, Robert Smith and Daron Keith Boyce, who wield their digital camera with a mix of enthusiasm and awe.
Much like the ride in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, this one alternates betweens on the bus (the space tight and the conversation lively) sand setting down the passengers in a series of locations (though here, they always have places to stay and eat). It also provides multiple occasions for sharing stories and some wisdom too (Dyson: “It’s hard sometimes when you’re in the parade to see what’s on the float” or again, West: “Don’t confuse your voice with an echo”). When a new partner joins in, like Dick Gregory, Smiley uses the opportunity to historicize: “Comedy has been important for black folk,” he asserts, “Things have been so challenging and bleak for us at times,” that it’s helped to have artists who “say stuff on stage that we can’t say, who are willing to check America, check white folk.” What the riders say here—and they can claim a large stage, to be sure—is less directed at white folk than black men, words of encouragement and direction, exhortations to excellence and consciousness. They’re a small, atypical group, and they listen to one another.