Teaching to the Converted
Jesse Owens, directed by Laurens Grant, Reportero, directed by Bernardo Ruiz), and The House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki, fall into our elective affinities category of things we know all about but don’t know anything about. Most of us (liberal documentary-goers) have heard of Jesse Owens’ triumphs of the will at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; likewise, no one would be surprised to learn that corruption, bloodshed, and narco-trafficking are all the rage along the Mexican border; and it’s an article of faith in these parts that the War on Drugs in the United States has done more harm than good.
Rather than breaking new ground, cinematically or conceptually, these films fill in the blanks of our knowledge with compelling narratives, images, histories, contexts and arguments. There’s something to be said for preaching to the converted.
Jesse Owens, co-produced by Stanley Nelson, who was honored at this year’s festival, was selected as the opening night film at the magnificent Fletcher Theater; it was also the film’s world premiere. There’s no denying the symbolic importance of Owens as an athlete and cultural ambassador, however ambivalent and, in the end, embittered. But at 54 minutes, the film has the look and feel of made-for-public television educational fare; it will surely live a long and life in American high school social studies classes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it just seemed an uninspired, if eminently safe, choice to kick off the festival.
Reportero is a non-sensationalistic portrait of courage and journalistic integrity in the face of very real danger at the hands of drug-dealers and politicians, more often than not one and the same. Sergio Harto is a veteran of the groundbreaking newspaper Zeta, which was founded in the ‘80s by Jesus Blancornelas with the mission of exposing corruption and exercising journalistic freedom.
Unlike the firebrand Blancornelas, who narrowly survived an attempt on his life (he was critically injured; his bodyguard died), Haro is an unassuming hero. Despite death threats and the loss of several friends and colleagues, he goes about his work as a matter course, driven by a thirst for mere truth and justice. The sheer numbers of drug-related shootouts and assassinations, however, along with the public’s thirst for bloodshed and the paper’s need to sell copies, leaves little time for the in-depth investigative journalism that Haro strives to produce.
Just as Haro observes that the lure of narco-trafficking is fueled by poverty and inequality, The House I Live In explores the ways that the War on Drugs has exacerbated poverty and inequality in the United States. In short, the War of Drugs is a war on the poor, and especially, but not exclusively, on African-Americans.
Again, for your average documentary-viewing liberal, this is hardly new stuff. Rather, with an updated cast of talking heads (notably, The Wire creator David Simon and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander) and case-study profiles of convicts and cops and families devastated not only by drugs but by the draconian (read: racist) sentencing practices politicians so shamelessly exploit to gain an edge at the ballot box, the film serves mostly to reinforce what we already know or believe.
Jareki’s focus on the family of his childhood nanny adds a strained personal note to the film and is presumably the inspiration for its title; but whereas her story is entirely sympathetic and illustrative, his self-referential musings on his own privilege and complicity, while not irrelevant, are somewhat distracting. Some of the most compelling interviews in the film are those of law-enforcement officials – judges, police-officers, corrections officers – who have come to see the counter-effectiveness, to put it mildly, of our tough-on-crime regime. One imagines that if anyone could move the hearts and minds of the unconverted, it would be these guys.
The House I Live In
All In the Family
This year’s thematic program, curated by Ross McElwee, was on family documentaries, the products of those who point the camera at their own flesh and blood. Being huge fans of McElwee, we made sure to check out a couple of films in this program. Intimate Stranger, made by Alan Berliner in 1991, is an absolute gem about Joseph Cassuto, Berliner’s maternal grandfather. The film is made out of an archive of letters and photographs (and postage stamps) acquired by Berliner after his grandfather’s death.
Cassuto, who was a Jewish businessman in Egypt early in the 20th century, moved the family to Brooklyn during WWII and then spent the rest of his career in Japan doing business. There is no great revelation of story in the film, but it masterfully deploys the sounds of old typewriters, rhythmic graphic treatments and the hilarious voiceover from his mother and uncles as they comment on the virtues and failures of their father. The film pulls us through the 20th century in a way that reflects both the shifts in world events and the personal repercussions of an individual life.
McElwee’s latest film, Photographic Memory, had its US premiere as a centerpiece at this year’s Full Frame. It’s a dense and intricately constructed film that interweaves the story of the strained relationship between McElwee and his adolescent son ,with the return of McElwee to a small town in Brittany, where he spent a meaningful stretch of his own youth. Thematically, it explores the entanglement of technology and human relationships, and the disjunctions between memory, photographic reproduction and present experience.
McElwee’s voiceover, cinematography and editing create a nuanced piece of art that is as much literature as it is film. That said, the character of McElwee in this film is somewhat harsher than the wry, gentle, forgiving character of his earlier films. He’s demonstrably frustrated with his son and with his own apparent inability to avoid repeating the relationship his father had toward him as a young man.
Some of the shots of his son absorbed in texting on several screens at once were clearly framed in anger, even as McElwee tries to connect with him from the far side of his own camera. Photographic Memory is both a testament to McElwee’s craft and an indication of hard times in the McElwee home.
The Spirit and the Flesh
Two films, neither about religion per se, raised questions for us about the role of the spirit in a secular age. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple screened at Full Frame as part of this year’s tribute to director Stanley Nelson. The film was made in 2007 for the PBS series American Experience. Jonestown feels like a made for TV doc, but it also packs several punches. This is in part because it offers a sympathetic perspective on cult members who followed Jim Jones from Indiana to California and then to Guyana, where over 900 of them committed “revolutionary suicide” in 1978.
The power of the story also derives from the way Jones forged his own charismatic power from several more mainstream religious and social movements of the time. He dealt in the ecstasies and trickeries of Pentecostal Christianity, as well as in the social causes of racial integration and communal living. He moved easily in the political hierarchy of San Francisco and was appointed Chairman of the Housing Authority Commission by mayor George Moscone. Jones developed a tyrannical cult of personality in the idiom of mainstream society.
The third punch comes from the unbelievable fact that the mass death in Guyana occurred when Congressman Leo Ryan and a news crew were in Guyana investigating the Peoples Temple. Video, audio and photographic documentation confronts us with the moment when the spirit, in the form of Jim Jones, turned on its followers.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
We now turn to the Q&A that followed the film, which offered us another perspective of elective affinities—that of the director and his editor. Nelson made it known before the film began that his editor, the very talented and accomplished, Lewis Erskine, resented that the audience never directed any questions toward the editor. Nelson asked us to prove him wrong.
We’ve heard this complaint from many an editor before, that they don’t get the glory of the director, but feel they are usually just as responsible (if not more so) for the outcome of the film. When the film ended the two stood before the audience side by side. Three questions in, and still none were for Mr. Erskine. Finally, we posed one for him. His spirits were notably lifted.
A different kind of spirit, and a different kind of cult, possesses Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, directed by Matthew Akers with Jeff Dupre. In case you were not in New York and at the Museum of Modern Art between March and May of 2010, Marina Abramović is a performance artist whose retrospective involved her sitting in a chair every hour the museum was open for three months, available to audience members should they want to sit in a chair opposite her.
Marina Abramović has been performing body endurance art for over 40 years. The question she claims to have been provoking and avoiding all that time is, “Why is this art?” But our question is, “Why is this not religion?” Simeon Stylites lived on top of a column for 37 years and it was clear to everyone in the 5th century that such ascetic practices were a form of religious devotion. Much of the vocabulary of Abromavić’s art, self-flagellation, nakedness, endurance walking, comes directly from religious traditions in which the flesh is there to be tormented.
The centerpiece of the film is the drama of getting the MOMA show up and then surviving it. The film nicely presents Abramović both as a charismatic figure of true devotion and as a showwoman with a taste for very expensive fashion and an ability to market the purity of her endurance. The museum-goers respond to her performance with instinctive religiosity. Unfailingly, those sitting across from her burst into tears. One woman pulls off her dress.
The cult grows and people wait days for a chance to sit before her. All are religious gestures detached from any organization and displaced from the church into the museum. A curator at the MOMA comments on Abromavić’s intense need for the audience. Tellingly, Simeon Stylites climbed up the pillar to get away from the crowds who wanted a piece of his holiness. This distinction reveals more than anything the role of the spirit in the modern age.
Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
All’s Well that Ends
At the closing night party, a cluster of some of the finest editors known to the business of documentary were gathered around a small table sipping free Pino and nibbling on some local North Carolinian hors d’oeuvres (of the salami rolls and cheese sort). As they gazed at their peers, an elective affinity of directors, cinematographers, producers, one editor noted that this crowd wouldn’t look like much to anyone who didn’t know who they were (think Pennebaker, McElwee, Berliner, Nelson, Froemke and Hegedus, to name a few). But if a bomb dropped on this party right now, the history and future of documentary would pretty much be obliterated. Nobody laughed.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.