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Monday, Nov 14, 2011

“At the heart of apartheid is the division of the land.” This opening title card for Promised Land introduces its focus. In 1994, South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) initiated a process of reconciliation. The government promised to reallocate ownership of a third of the nation’s land within 10 years. As Yoruba Richen’s Promised Land reveals, this plan was in trouble from its inception. By looking at two particular land disputes—claims made by the 9,000-member Mekgareng community and 1,000 descendants of Abram Molamu—this smart, subtly complex documentary shows essential complications in the process. These include the government’s assumption (or best hope) that changes might be wrought based on a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In fact, most white owners are unwilling and many black buyers have been ill-prepared, their legal claims unrecorded (owing to decades of oppression, abuse, and exploitation) and their claims still stuck in a kind of first gear, grinding. The trouble is, land is never just land: it is a measure of citizenship, a means to civil rights and self-identity; it is multiply meaningful, across generations and immediately, an emblem of economic and mythic status, political and emotional well-being.


Promised Land screens at Maysles Cinema at 7pm on 14 November, part of “Doc Watchers Presents,” curated by Hellura Lyle. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Yoruba Richen.


See PopMattersreview.



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Wednesday, Nov 9, 2011

“I was always a good soldier,” remembers Robynn Murray. “She could always carry a heavy ruck,” she says of herself, “And she’s the one they wanted female soldiers to look up to, because I could suck it up and I could take their sexual harassment and I could just shut up and drive on.” The pronoun changes make sense as you listen to Robynn describe her experiences in the U.S. Army—first in Iraq and now Stateside, as a veteran contending with post-traumatic stress and red tape. Every day is an ordeal. “I’d like to say I’m super, but I’d be lying” she tells a collections agency officer on the phone at the start of Poster Girl, Sara Nesson’s exceptional short documentary, premiering 9 November on HBO2. As Robynn works through her memories and her ongoing struggles with the VA, the film shows how she’s affected by PTSD and also, crucially, how she finds strength and a sense of resilience in her art. If trauma is never quite over, Robynn is increasingly able to articulate and share her experience: she engages in protest against the war and discovers a community among other veterans—specifically, a group called Combat Paper Project that makes art out of old uniforms—Poster Girl makes the case that, as extraordinary as Robynn may be, she’s also too typical. She may have been a poster girl, literally appearing with her weapon and two women comrades on the cover of Army Magazine, but she’s also come out the other side.


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Monday, Nov 7, 2011

“You still have to be able to talk to people, and me and Adam, we work well together. We kind of go with the flow and make things up as we go along.” Detective Ronald Fountain, of the Troy. NY PD, describes interrogations as a process, means to ends. As he and his partner Adam Mason went through this process in the case of Adrian Thomas in 2008, they wanted to know if he killed his four-month-old son Matthew. As the documentary Scenes of a Crime shows, the “flow” in the Thomas interview is increasingly disquieting. From the first moments, the detectives see him as a likely suspect—even before they know a crime has been committed. The defense will end up arguing that Matthew died of an infection, that this was the reason he had trouble breathing. But while his baby is at the hospital, police bring Thomas in, noting that he’s unemployed and must be depressed, that he takes care of seven kids, that he’s “very cold when he talked about his children.” Screening at DOC NYC on 7 November, Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh’s remarkable film shows the many places where crimes can occur in this process. 


See PopMattersreview.


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Friday, Nov 4, 2011

In the burning season in Indonesia, farmers clear the land, in order to develop palm oil plantations. Achmadi is one of these farmers, introduced at the start of Cathy Henkel’s documentary The Burning Season, in 2007. Such deforestation destroys the habitats of endangered orangutans, and also comprises 20% of global carbon emissions. The film looks at the problem from multiple angles, including Achmadi’s and also 29-year-old Australian entrepreneur Dorjee Sun. A green activist and millionaire (owing to a successful recruitment software company and the creative agency, Joosed), Sun plans to “capitalize on climate change,” and help to save the planet at the same time, by selling carbon credits. Once Sun secures an agreement among three of Indonesia’s governors, the film follows him as he travels around the globe, pitching the idea to banks, Starbucks, eBay, and other corporations. His presentations appeal to their bottom lines: there is money to be made in such investments (a helpful bit of animation shows dollar signs hanging off tree branches). The film cuts back to Achmadi in tears, worrying about his family’s survival in the face of increasing restrictions and clampdowns on burning: “Who cares about us?” he worries. “They talk about arrests and bans on burning the forest. I’m already scared of losing my head.” Sun hasn’t forgotten: he hopes to put farmers to work in other ways and save the orangutans he remembers adoring as a child.


Following a premiere at the Tribeca Film festival in 2009, as well as a turn on PBS’ documentary series, Wide Angle in 2008, the film is now available on demand from FilmBuff.


See PopMattersreview of the film as it appeared on PBS’ Wide Angle.



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Sunday, Oct 23, 2011

“She functions better under pressure.” Tended by her makeup artist, the newly elected president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, sits quietly. She’s functioning exceptionally well under pressure—and has done so in the years following this moment, captured in Iron ladies of Liberia in 2006. (She is currently enduring pressure again, awaiting results of this month’s presidential election.) Recently named one of three winners of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Sirleaf in this documentary—which premieres on Global Voices 23 October—is resolved to lead her nation out of the darkness of 14 years of civil war, and following the resignation of Charles Taylor in 2003 (he’s now awaiting a verdict in his war crimes trial in the Hague). In the film, co-directed by Siatta Scott Johnson and Daniel Junge, President Sirleaf staffs her cabinet with “iron ladies.” Showing the difficulties facing Sirleaf in impressionistic, unforgettable images—kids playing in garbage dumps, demonstrations in the streets—the documentary keeps focused on the president’s good intentions and efforts, filtered through her indomitable personality.


See PopMattersreview.



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