DOC NYC 2011: Girl with Black Balloons + Greater Good + Standing Silent
Three films at DOC NYC consider the relationship between self-expression and community, as well as the ways that responsibility shape either side of that relationship.
"Those are details from my different projects, each one represents an entire project," says Bettina, the singular subject of The Girl with Black Balloons. The camera shows a wall full of photos and art, Bettina too, as she sits inside the narrow confines of her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, small amid the many pieces of the project that is her life, cardboard boxes and lampshades and scarves and hats and mirrors and a travel clock. "I tried to get the same consciousness throughout the whole thing," Bettina goes on, "because you're looking for an umbilical cord. I tried to find all the parts and hang them up and see them together, so that I could show how one relates to another."
As she speaks, you begin to glean the immensity of her art, or maybe the immensity of the art of her life. You also wonder how she's come to see it.
This question hangs over Corinne van der Borch's film, more or less unanswered. Screening on 7 November at DOC NYC, The Girl with Black Balloons poses other, related questions: what are the functions of art? What is the relationship between self-expression and community? And how does responsibility shape either side of that relationship? Two other films screening on 7 November approach the latter questions from other directions: Kendall Nelson and Chris Pilaros' The Greater Good looks at the politics of vaccination in the US, and Scott Rosenfelt and Malachi Leopold's Standing Silent follows the efforts by Phil Jacobs, executive editor of Jewish Times to expose sexual abuse in Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community.
The Greater Good begins with the story of Gabi Swank, a Wichita, Kansas high school student who fell ill after she received a Gardasil shot. As she and her mother Shannon Schrag recall, a 15-year-old Gabi was convinced by Merck's advertisements on MTV that she needed to be vaccinated against Human Papillomavirus (HPV), in order to "be one less" cervical cancer victim. The film points out that Gardasil is the vaccination Rick Perry required for Texas schoolgirls, and also that Perry has "several ties" to Merck, as part of its case that drug companies and government generally collude in imposing vaccinations on individuals.
The counter-argument, made here by a couple of doctors, including Director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Paul Offit, is that parents who choose to delay or reject vaccines altogether, are making decisions that are "ill-conceived [and] poorly founded," affecting their surrounding population by risking contagion or epidemic. This is the concept of the "greater good," which Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, submits allows for the sacrifice of some victims of adverse reactions when drugs are fast-tracked for market or benefit from well-funded DC lobbying. Fisher notes there has been an "explosion of chronic disease and disability among our children" that has not been properly investigated or even acknowledged.
The film features animations to illustrate such broad assertions ("Merck spent $100 million on advertising," reads an animated billboard), as well as heart-wrenching stories of families with children with autism and other afflictions, Gabi Swank included. This emotional appeal tends to overwhelm the presentation of history or science, and the film doesn't spend much time digging into details. Comprised mostly of talking heads -- parents who have by necessity become experts in their kids' conditions, as well as professional experts -- it articulates a generalized distrust of government regulation and overweening corporate interests, a combination of concerns that can sometimes seem opposed (especially in the divide between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement).
Standing Silent makes another sort of deeply felt argument, in part a function of Jacobs' dedication to the cause and also his status as a sexual abuse survivor. As the film opens, the camera drives past suburban homes and lawns while Jacobs describes his own working class, secular Jewish childhood: "I was like a puppy dog kid, a happy trusting kid" he says. It was only later in life that he and his wife "became religious, because we thought that we would be safe." The film cuts to the Jewish Times office, where Jacobs and editor Neil Rubin discuss and dread making a phone call with a rabbi who has been accused of abuse by two women. The rabbi denies the accusations, and, according to Jacobs' notes, typed out while he's no the phone, "There's no way, no way at all I fondled her," Jacobs repeats, "This is way out of my line. If you print this, it's stupid from stupidland."
The emphatic response doesn’t surprise Jacobs or Rubin: they've been pursuing the story for years. As demonstrated in the now notorious Catholic church abuses and just now, the Penn State abuse charges, insular communities (religious, institutional sports) don't usually allow scrutiny from the outside. And as they "investigate" or cover over scandals, they also deny victims' experiences. As Julie A. Drake, chief of Baltimore City’s Felony Family Violence Division, notes, a "strong us against them" sensibility prohibits kids from speaking out (and community authorities even threaten them if they do): "I don’t get the sense at all that they're getting the help they need within the community," she says, "The rabbis are more concerned with protecting their reputation than protecting victims."
Jacobs' answer is to male stories public outside the community. "What they have done over the years is broken," he points out, "The only way to get this done is to put it in the media. If they're embarrassed, oh well. If you put your hand on a kid's penis, this is what's going to happen to you." His anger and commitment are shared by victims who agree to be interviewed, for his stories and now also for the film, another means of taking cases to the public. Survivor Yacov Margolese notes, "It wasn’t just a sexual abuse that occurred, it was a spiritual abuse." He crouches in a corner of his home as he describes his experience, the camera hovering over him: "It's not rocket science: when you damage a child, shit happens, self-doubt, addiction, suicidal tendencies." Since he has come forward, as an adult, Margolese has hardly felt support from his local community. Instead, he says, he's been advised to "stop being on this crusade… to destroy people, [to] stop pushing the agenda of pushing sexual abuse education out in the public."
Revealing such history isn't an end in itself, Jacobs says. It may lead to legal action (sometimes frustrating and devastating in itself), but more importantly, it helps survivors to see themselves anew. They're not only deviant, crazy, or victimized: they are validated, they're self-defining, and they're not alone.
As both The Greater Good and Standing Silent consider the consequences of feeling alone, so too does The Girl with Black Balloons. As van der Borch documents her evolving friendship with Bettina, locked away in her apartment for some 40 years, she sees her subject's past and also her own possible future. "She seems so sure of her work," the filmmaker narrates, "but it's never seen the light of day. I'm drawn to her because of her devotion to her work, at the same time, I guess I'm afraid to end up like her, with boxes of films that no one's ever seen.'" Bettina's boxes are filled with photos of herself as a young woman, photos she's taken from her window looking down on passersby, as well as some images taken face to face, on sidewalks and in evocative interiors. She keeps dresses and shoes and a blue wig, makeup and papers, all scraps of the person she once was or might have been.
As Bettina recalls her decision to have an abortion years ago, not to get married, she observes, "I live in a totally different world, I feel badly, but my work should not have superseded family relations and then it became such a mess in that studio. Alone, it's difficult." When Bettina ends up in the hospital with a fractured leg, van der Borch films in handheld close-ups and a glance at the unrecognizable food delivered on a tray to her room. "I love my work," Bettina says, prompting van der Borch's projection: "I don't believe that that's the only thing you have ever loved and will love." Bettina smiles, "I don't know about 'will love,' but 'loved.'"
And so the film becomes its own sort of work, as the women collaborate, Bettina granting van der Borch access and also gently instructing her. The film asks whether art needs to be public, needs an audience, to have meaning, and also how art affects individuals, artists and consumers, communities who find mirrors in culture, in the striking structures of the Chelsea Hotel, the busyness of city streets, the framed space offered by mirrors and lenses. As Bettina looks into van der Borch's camera, she offers her own reading of the process and potential ends. "Let's find out if you're going to be true to yourself," she says, "You will either develop a conscience, a soul and a conscience, that's all you need. Until that time, just collect material and store it." She laughs, barely.