“This is the one, man. This is it. You’re gonna have the best time in this one.”
The upbeat prediction was made to me by a glassy-eyed, weather-beaten fellow who happened to stagger past as I stood in line for The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, the film adaptation of J.T. Leroy’s autobiographical novel of the same name. “Uh, thanks man,” I offered before he moved away, listing unsteadily down the street. In retrospect, I probably should have seen such a drunken endorsement as some kind of bad omen and stepped out of line. Instead, I marched into the theater, fully unprepared for what lay in store.
Inside, a second omen awaited me. Before the screening, one of the film’s producers read an introductory e-mail from Leroy that, in between its lengthy meditations on the redeeming power of film and art, mentioned on numerous occasions the writer having undergone eleven years of therapy. Just why he needed such intensive treatment is readily apparent to anyone familiar with his writing, and quickly becomes evident to anyone that sits through more than ten minutes of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. The largely autobiographical film tells the story of Jeremiah, a young boy who is separated from a loving foster home after his mother—a drug addict in her early twenties named Sarah (Asia Argento, who also directs the film)—comes back to reclaim him. On his first day home, Jeremiah is shown to a stained mattress and handed a plastic plate of uncooked spaghetti-ohs for his dinner. And this is as good as his life will get for the remainder of the film. Sarah jumps from one boyfriend to another, one desperate situation to the next, dragging Jeremiah along for the ride. He’s variously abandoned by Sarah without food or money, abused (both physically and sexually) by her many boyfriends, and left generally to fend for himself in alleyways, truck stops, and methamphetamine labs across America. In his introduction and in interviews elsewhere, Leroy is insistent that his writing is an act of survival and it’s not hard to see why, given the unspeakable torment recorded in this adaptation of his book. The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is far from a stirring tribute to the triumph of the human spirit, though. It seems designed instead to provoke audiences with its stark catalog of neglect and abuse that both shocks the imagination and turns the stomach.
A different kind of childhood, though similarly troubled, is recorded in the documentary Strange Fruit (directed by Regis Trigano). Keith is a young boy growing up in the ghetto of Belle Glade, Florida. One of several children in an impoverished household, he attempts to negotiate the dangers of his environment and avoid the same pitfalls to which his older brother—who’s in and out of jail during the course of the film—has succumbed. Alarmingly, Keith openly contemplates suicide on camera as an escape from the surrounding ruins, and there seems to be little that his harried mother can do to sway him from these tendencies. On its own, Keith’s story is compelling enough to fill out the narrative of the film, but Strange Fruit also takes on the story of Ray Golden, who was found in May of 2003 hanging from a tree in the front yard of his home (not far from where Keith’s struggles take place). The film alternates between the pseudo-murder mystery of Golden’s death, the racial tensions brought to the surface by his hanging, and the difficulties faced by Keith and his family. Ultimately, though, apart from living in Belle Glade and being African-American, Keith and Ray Golden have very little in common. As a result, the film fails to fully explain what one story has to do with another. It’s possible that Strange Fruit is inviting us to consider the depths of despair that would drive a man like Golden to kill himself, or a boy like Keith to even consider the prospect. Eventually, though, Golden’s death is ruled a suicide by a public inquest (his hands were shown on police video to be at his sides, not tied behind his back as his family and other members of the community allege). The meandering narrative of the film, ultimately, never makes any concrete connections between its stories. Instead, the audience is left to float, rudderless, through Strange Fruit‘s compelling, if incoherent, contemplation of the hardscrabble nature of life in a Florida project.
Our Brand is Crisis
The questions on the mind of the documentary Our Brand is Crisis, by comparison, are crystal clear. Directed by Rachel Boynton, the film investigates the role of an American consulting firm—Greenville, Carville, and Shrum (GCS)—in securing the 2002 election of a Bolivian candidate for president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (“Goni” for short). The film interviews the members of the firm (showcasing several entertaining exchanges with an animated James Carville) as they disclose their commitment to democracy, progressive politics, and globalization. Over the course of the story, the firm uses sophisticated campaign techniques (such as focus groups, advertising strategies, and polling interpretation) as well as unsophisticated means (whisper campaigns, mudslinging, and media manipulation) to put Goni over the top, despite his trailing in the polls by double digits just 60 days before the election. On the surface, it’s a remarkable feat. The reality of the situation, however, is that the man the firm puts into office is spectacularly unqualified to lead his country. Although he served a previous term as president of Bolivia, Goni is shown in the documentary to be woefully out of touch with popular sentiment, and particularly insensitive to an increasingly hostile indigenous population. He manages only a few months in office before violent protests force him to hand over power to his vice-president and flee the country. Our Brand is Crisis powerfully demonstrates that just because GCS can institute a political reality doesn’t mean that it should do so. In the end, it wasn’t just Goni who was out of touch with his own people. The consultants themselves, admitted outsiders, were unable to foresee the complications that would arise by placing their client in power. And when the film concludes by listing over fifty countries in which GCS has clients, the audience is left to wonder just how far this company’s reach extends, and just how appropriate such influence might be.
The fraught processes of US foreign policy are also highlighted in Cavite, a film that contemplates an American perspective on a global war against terrorism. Adam (played by Ian Gamazon, who co-directed with Neill Dela Llana) is a Filipino American living in California. He’s forced to fly to the Philippines, however, after receiving an emergency call from his mother. Upon arriving, Adam is contacted on a cell phone by a member of the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf, who’s holding Adam’s mother and sister hostage. The remainder of the movie centers around the various tasks Adam must perform in order to meet the demands of the disembodied voice on the other side of the phone and keep his mother and sister alive. The camera follows Adam as he moves through the city streets and slums in and around Manila, soaked with sweat and wracked with anxiety about his endangered family. With quick cuts and a driving, rhythmic soundtrack, Cavite is, as the directors noted in introducing the film, a “quick eighty minutes.” More than a simple thriller, though, the film frames Adam’s conversations with the Abu Sayyaf operative in order to raise questions about the isolation and insensitivity of Americans to the daily struggles of people living in other parts of the world. Adam must not only confront his family’s kidnappers, he must also come to terms with an ancestral culture and, more importantly, a people he had all but forgotten in America. The true value of Cavite, then, is the attention it calls to the conditions of poverty and disenfranchisement that create militant extremists, as well as to the myopic isolationism that ignores such conditions.