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by Chris Barsanti

16 Jun 2010


The final entry in the ambitious twelve-part television documentary series How Democracy Works is a much more pragmatically delivered thing than its overly idealistic title might suggest. The last best chance refers to the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s fight in 2006 to pull together a “grand bargain” between the Democrats and Republicans to craft a solution to the country’s roiling immigration debate. Everyone knows that it failed, the drama in Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson’s film (which began the story in part two of the series, Mountains and Clouds) comes from watching how the bargain falls apart.

In a word: politics. Although revered as the grey eminence of the Democratic party, and somebody with great pro-immigration bona fides from his landmark 1965 legislation that got rid of many of the old racial quotas, Kennedy was either unlucky or just critically mistaken to have pushed this through in a mid-term election year. The cameras spend most of their time hanging around Kennedy’s offices as his team pushes and pulls to first craft a compromise bill that will placate both conservatives and pro-immigration activists.

by Chris Barsanti

15 Jun 2010


Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were all prisoners in Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary in 1972, when they were convicted of murdering prison guard Brad Miller. Afterward they were thrown into solitary confinement where the three had, by the time this film was made, spent a total of one hundred years. The three had been in for smaller crimes, robbery and the like, but because of their involvement with the nascent Black Panther Party and subsequent agitating for better conditions at the prison, they were seen as good candidates for the murder.

Vadim Jean’s vividly directed film makes the argument that not only were Wallace, Woodfox, and King (the so-called “Angola 3”) all framed for the guard’s murder, but that their time in solitary confinement constitutes one of the most clear violations of the Constitution’s proscription against “cruel and unusual punishment” as can be found in modern America. It’s a handsomely done work, with great footage of Angola – presented as a corrupted cesspool of systematic degradation and corruption – in decades past backgrounded by a stellar classic funk soundtrack and forceful narration by Samuel L. Jackson.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Jean fails to make a stronger case for the Angola 3’s innocence. His documentation of the horrors of Angola in general and solitary confinement in particular are powerful enough and nearly inarguable, and his recounting of Robert King’s arduous legal fight for release is dutifully handled. But while Jean sows plenty of doubt about Wallace and Woodfox’s guilt, he never lands that final, necessary, and critical blow.

by Chris Barsanti

14 Jun 2010


One of the most recurrent and unsolvable problems of the modern world remains that of the refugee. Almost nowhere is their plight more pressing than in the cities of Jordan and Syria, where millions of Iraqis fled in the years of chaos and internecine bloodshed that followed the United States invaded. Nathan Fisher’s heartfelt documentary shows what these refugees are going through after the initial shock of moving to a new country and finds that for the most part, they are in limbo.

A large percentage of Iraqi refugees are from the professional class, as evidenced in the subjects whom Fisher follows: a female medical researcher, a voluble and well-known Baghdad chef, an engineer, and a likeably enthusiastic English teacher. Almost none of them can find any work in their adopted homes. A clown troupe, two of whose members were murdered back in Iraq, now perform for fellow refugees while they wait to receive United Nations certification. One shame-faced family is forced to send their young son out on the street to sell food to kids his age who are going to school.

by Chris Barsanti

10 Jun 2010


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s opening night film came from HBO Documentary Films, showing again why they’re possibly the best producers of nonfiction film currently in the business. This powerful piece of work is by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, whose 2006 film Jesus Camp still stands as one of the great documents of the modern evangelical movement. Taking place entirely on one street in the town of Fort Pierce, Florida, 12th and Delaware tracks two utterly opposed viewpoints and the people who inhabit them: an abortion clinic and a pro-life center, located just across the street from each other.

Divided almost equally in half between the battling camps, Ewing and Grady’s film opens on the pro-life protestors, who pace in front of the clinic all day every day. They wave provocative signs (many covered with gruesome photos), pray the rosary, and try to talk the young women entering the clinic into changing their minds. The protesters are mostly older women, with one frightening exception: a bullet-headed biker type barely able to control his rage who seems on the verge of showing up on the evening news.

by Chris Barsanti

10 Jun 2010


The Teacher, The Dead Khan, and The Wandering Poet. Through these three distinct sections of film, director Davoud Geramifard presents a small but loud chorus of dissent against the oppressive dictates of Tehran. In the first, a scholar of an especially secular jollity harangues his students into questioning their surroundings and assumptions. Anywhere else, his actions would be simply the daily work of an effective teacher, but under the looming gloom of Iran’s theocracy, they carry an extra weight of life-risking rebellion.

Geramifard’s middle segment is its most beautiful and also its quietest. The oblique narration and long, wind-swept silences tell the story of the country’s Ghashghai tribe, an entire nomadic culture swept away by the ruling mullahs after the 1979 revolution against the Shah—their Khan executed and people scattered in a program of extirpation that the narrator (his family tending their small herds of sheep in the desert vastness) likens to the Native American genocide.

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