Afghan Star, Crude, Mrs. Goundo's Daughter and more
Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, and each one more than made the case for being booked at both. Havana Marking’s Afghan Star follows the four top finalists (two men, two women) in Afghanistan’s improbably popular version of American Idol. The women’s appearance on the show sparks controversy and the campaigns garnering text-votes for different performers rage like revolutionary street protests. Neither overly hopeful nor reflexively cynical, Marking’s film uses a seemingly meaningless bit of pop ephemera as a sharp lens through which this country can be seen in a whole new way.
In Crude, Joe Berlinger, who directed the great American gothic nonfictions Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper takes on the issue film with a precisely focused anger. Tracking the twisted and lengthy trail of one of the world’s largest and longest class actions suits—one filed against Chevron in the early 1990s on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians charging the oil giant with polluting their rain forest homeland—Berlinger faces corporate obfuscations and numerous legalistic frustrations. Though the film does founder a bit after the introduction of celebrity activist Trudie Styler, Berlinger keeps Crude sharp.
Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter
Three other films from the HRWIFF took on problems in Africa with equal parts fervor and compassion. In Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, a Malian mother living in Philadelphia fights her threatened deportation on the grounds that if she is forced to return home, family and tribe members will force her baby daughter to undergo female genital mutilation. Anne Aghion’s My Neighbor, My Killer tracks the painful, problematic ordeal of the open-air tribunals set up by the Rwandan government to help resettle genocidal killers in villages with people whose families they butchered in 1994. Also refusing to provide easy answers, Landon van Soest’s Kenyan-set Good Fortune is a brave riposte to the Western assumption that foreign aid and investment will solve the Third World. Sometimes it just makes things worse.
Mugabe and the White African
Like van Soest’s film, Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson’s Mugabe and the White African challenges assumptions. Winner of Silverdocs’ Sterling World Feature Award, the film highlights Mike Campbell, a 75-year-old white Zimbabwean farmer threatened with eviction under President Mugabe’s policy of seizing land from all white farmers. Ostensibly created to help some of the country’s many poor and landless black peasants, the policy is revealed here as a land grab for Mugabe’s pals as well as a cynical bit of racial scapegoating by a leader who has done everything in his power to ruin Zimbabwe. The documentary vividly captures the bravery of Campbell, his family, and their black employees, as they quixotically fight Mugabe’s cronies in court and in the fields (beatings and kidnappings in the dead of night are the norm, advanced age being no protection). Mugabe also quietly wrestles with the larger question of whether a white man can even be considered an African, helping to make it one of the most heartrending films of the year.
Tears were copiously shed at a screenings of two American-set films that, somewhat coincidentally, also featured some of the world’s cutest dogs. In Geralyn Pezanoski’s Mine, Hurricane Katrina victims forced to leave their pets behind face the added indignity of having to fight to reclaim them from their adopted families who frequently don’t want to give them up. The comfortably bourgeois animal advocates clash with the former owners, claiming that Katrina was “the best thing that could have happened” to the dogs they rescued and then essentially kept hostage. Given the humble charms of many of Pezanoski’s subjects (particularly the happy-go-lucky widower who strikes up a surprising friendship with a Canadian volunteer half his age), it’s difficult not to feel a swell of outrage at the callousness of those who say they want to help.
The Way We Get By
In The Way We Get By, a trio of retirees (one of them director Aron Gaudet’s mother) spend many of their waking hours at Bangor International Airport, greeting thousands of grateful, jet-lagged soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Although all three have problems (ranging from prostate cancer to bankruptcy), their volunteer duties come first. While the soundtrack veers to the sappy, that’s about the only wrong note in Gaudet’s film, which shakes off any hints of sentimentality by dealing straight-on with both its subjects’ impending mortality, and the unceasing tragedy of those lines of camouflaged figures coming home from foreign battlegrounds.
Best Worst Movie
Strangely enough, next to Mugade and the White African and The Way We Get By, the most affecting film at Silverdocs was Michael Paul Stephenson’s hilarious and strangely meaningful Best Worst Movie. Examining the enduring legend of the little-seen 1990 “horror” flick Troll 2, in which Stephenson starred when he was only 10, the film tracks down the rest of the cast and filmmakers, who range from the nearly insane to the merely grandiose (the editor claims in all seriousness that the film paved the way for the Harry Potter series). The clear standout is the blond and broad-shouldered George Hardy, a gregarious and ridiculously likeable Alabama dentist who gets sucked up into Troll 2‘s dangerous circuit of anti-fame and becomes the genuine hero of Stephenson’s film.
Stephenson includes choice bits of Troll 2, showing that its bargain-basement awfulness eclipses even Ed Wood’s oeuvre, with vegetarian goblins instead of trolls, and more dreckish acting than a half-dozen Michael Bay films. The documentary also dissects its continuing popularity among Mystery Science Theater-types. Emerging from beneath all this pop-culture rubble is an unexpectedly honest plea for the greatness of Troll 2. Shots of revival screenings prove that viewers’ laughter has a genuine and unsnarky quality to it: any movie that has brought so much joy to so many people is a special sort of art.