Sunday, May 8, 2011

Making it Real II: Wrapping Up Hot Docs 2011

Hot Docs 2011 wraps up today having given the award of the Best Canadian feature to Julia Invanova's Family Portrait in Black and White which examines a ramshackle house in the Ukraine where matriarch Olga Nenya is raising 16 abandoned mixed-race children. While I didn't get a chance to catch that picture, there were a number of other fascinating projects that provided some inspiration for writing about them.

But one of the trickier aspects I've discovered over the years for viewing documentaries is retaining your critical perspective. While that's relatively easy to do when watching dramatic films (since they are fiction), it's more difficult when watching a movie that purports to be depicting reality. You try to trust that the director, in using their subjective voice, is open to the possibilities of being surprised by their subject; or perhaps, even have their mind changed during the process of shooting their picture. But what about the audience? Does it wish to have its mind changed? Do critics for that matter? In that sense, the onus on the reviewer to be clearheaded is even greater.You also have to be reasonably well-informed to know whether the filmmaker is honestly seeking the truth behind their chosen subject, or whether there is a whole other purpose at work. The role of the critic then becomes quite substantial because the easiest thing for a documentary director to do is to pander to the established views of his/her audience. Telling people what to think is a lot less complicated than showing people how to think. It also fits more snugly into the marketing end of motion pictures which today has become so much more pervasive in shaping public opinion (and making critics seem irrelevant).

This dilemma came to mind while I was watching Göran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 which gathered archival footage shot by Swedish Public Television during the years when the Black Power movement in the United States shifted from Martin Luther King Jr.'s program of non-violent resistance to radical revolutionary politics. Olsson assembles a fascinating collection of clips, interviews and news reports featuring some of the key figures in that story including the rise of Stokely Carmichael, the emergence of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, with Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver, the incarceration of Communist activist professor Angela Davis, right up to the drug epidemic rising in the poor black neighbourhoods in the mid-seventies. The footage is edited in order to create a chronology while Olsson provides contemporary voice-overs to comment on the material we're watching. The individuals included are Bobby Seale, Harry Belafonte, Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, Talib Kweli and Sonia Sanchez. But where I thought Olsson might employ these voices in order to provide a deeper, more honest perspective on that period, as seen from hindsight, he chose instead to perpetuate the political mythology of all the key figures. The original Swedish reporters from the seventies maybe can't be blamed for being outsiders to American culture, where through their naïveté they made certain assumptions about the components of the Civil Rights struggle. But Olsson can certainly be held accountable for not correcting it.

For instance, the general thesis of  The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 appears to be that the U.S. government declared war on the Civil Rights movement leading to King's assassination and then falsely persecuted his militant inheritors like Carmichael, Newton, Cleaver and Angela Davis. Ultimately, the authorities, according to Olsson, flooded the black communities with drugs in order to destroy the black leadership and render the populace docile and dependent. While that conforms to the radical left viewpoint on that period (and it isn't entirely inaccurate), Olsson leaves out a number of inconvenient little realities to prop it up. When he informs us that Eldridge Cleaver flees America for exile in Algeria, for instance, Olsson makes it appear that Cleaver is simply escaping the oppressive U.S. government regime. He fails to tell us that Cleaver had jumped bail after being charged in a shootout with police and then fled to Algeria. When he quotes J. Edgar Hoover saying that the Black Panther Party's Breakfast for Children program is the biggest threat to America, he's been patently dishonest. What Hoover said was that The Black Panther Party was the biggest threat because they were engaging in armed conflict. But it makes the conspiracy all the more palpable when you enhance Hoover's already raging paranoia by making it look like he doesn't want starving kids to eat.

Speaking of the Breakfast for Children program, couldn't one of the Swedish journalists have asked the Panthers questions about why, as these hungry children were being fed, they were also being indoctrinated in party ideology? We can certainly see it in the footage they've gathered. As for the later drug epidemic, it's a shame that Olsson didn't do his homework and include the unsettling irony that Huey Newton had become a drug addict in the mid-seventies who brutalized his own associates and community as well as later dealing dope? (It's also sad that Bobby Seale, in nostalgically looking back, fails to tells us that he had to flee the Bay area in fear of his life after being violently assaulted by Newton.) Olsson includes instead (for cheap laughs) an interview shot in the seventies with an editor of TV Guide who questions the bias of the Swedish journalists in their coverage. While the editor raises honest questions to be answered, Olsson instead inserts it for ridicule (as if anyone associated with TV Guide would have a worthwhile opinion on politics.)

Stokely Carmichael interviewing his mother.
Despite its doctrinaire approach, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 still has some powerful and memorable moments. There's a lovely scene of Stokely Carmichael interviewing his mother about how white racism contributed to his father's impoverished livelihood. Another moving moment shows us Angela Davis being interviewed in prison where she recounts growing up in the South during the church bombings by the Klan and finding the body parts of her friends in the street. The emotional intensity in those memories not only helps us to understand how Davis's political activism was formed, but how she would then see violence as a viable option for change. But The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 overall avoids the more unsettling questions of how righteous protest for equal rights became tragically infected with criminal psychopathy.

The Mothers of Bedford.
You could call The Mothers of Bedford a political documentary as well. But it doesn't have an agenda, or even an axe to grind. It's a thoughtful advocacy film which looks at five women being held in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility who just happen to be mothers. The movie examines the role of the non-profit Children's Centre inside the prison that are helping these women develop (and strengthen) their relationships with their kids. Director Jenifer McShane illustrates how many of these women aren't really career criminals, or even heartless murderers, but people who are doing time for crimes committed under adverse circumstances. One woman was a drug addict who later learns to clean up; while another, a black woman, was victimized by a drunken racist in a bar whom she stabbed to death when he stalked her later that evening. The Mothers of Bedford delicately uncovers the dynamic between mothers and children where the parent's infantile tendencies becomes challenged by the need for adult support by the kids.

No Entry No Exit.
No Entry No Exit takes on the difficult subject of rape and vigilantism in a small German village. The directors, Mareille Klein and Julie Kreuzer, openly explore a case that has instant polarizing aspects. Karl D. is a sex offender who has just served 14 years for committing a vicious rape. When he's released, he moves in with his brother, Helmut, to get his life together. But the town is in an uproar that he's staying there and set up daily vigils to protest his presence. The filmmakers begin with the story of that conflict, but soon delve into whether Karl was guilty of the crime, the effect the protests have on his brother's life, and the intent of the protesters themselves. (Some of the women show up looking like rape victims and others bring dolls that are laid out on the street with their legs spread apart.) If The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 already has its mind made up about its subject, No Entry No Exit is always in the process of becoming. The directors don't settle for depicting what seems obvious. Unfortunately, though, despite the honest intent of the filmmakers, the picture suffers from lack of insight. Their eyes may be open, but the film doesn't provide the clarity of what they discover about themselves (and the subject) in making the picture.While depicting the complicated sequence of events that unfold, No Entry No Exit ultimately lacks an evolving point of view. Without it, the story becomes a redundant cataloging of disturbing behaviour.

Mama Africa.
You certainly wouldn't accuse director Mika Kaurismäki's Mama Africa, a biography of South African singer Miriam Makeba, of dullness. Mama Africa was the most exciting piece of work I saw at Hot Docs. Ironically, Kaurismäki was originally set to follow Makeba during her 2008 world tour, but she died on stage performing in Italy before they could work out the film's structure. Mama Africa became the result of Kaurismäki going through some riveting archival material as well as interviewing her collaborators and family to create a deeply engaging portrait of an artist in exile whose music created a pining for a sense of home.

Watching the film, though, I was also overwhelmed by factors outside of the picture itself. As I wrote earlier on Critics at Large, I met Miriam Makeba by chance in my Rouge Hill, Ontario, neighbourhood around 1963, when I happened upon her daughter, Bongi, playing in my backyard. (Bongi would grow up to write songs for her mother and tragically die giving birth to her fourth child in 1985.) Having vivid impressions of hearing Makeba sing just a few feet in front of me as a young boy, the sound of her voice in the film (strong yet poignant) took me whirling back to that impromptu living room concert. It was also strange watching Bongi, this young girl I so vividly remembered looking so out of place in my suburban (mostly white) community, grow up to be an artist and mother. She was also a muse to Miriam.

Mama Africa traces Makeba's early South African roots, her first marriage to musician Hugh Masekela, the world tour with Harry Belafonte (when I met her), and her exile and subsequent marriage to Stokely Carmichael. Mama Africa points out that Makeba was the first performer to speak before the United Nations in the early sixties about boycotting the South African apartheid regime. As a political performer, which she most certainly was, she described herself this way: "I do not sing politics, I merely sing the truth." Mama Africa is a moving tribute to that legacy.

You've Been Trumped.
Recently I was in a discussion where it was brought up that Donald Trump might make a good President of the United States because he understands business. The dubious theory expressed was that, since countries are businesses, why not have a businessman run one. Besides strongly taking issue with that particular notion of what a country is, the folks I was speaking to might come to reconsider those views if they ever see Anthony Baxter's You've Been Trumped. You've Been Trumped is a rousing and engaging bit of guerrilla film-making without a trace of soap-boxing. The movie examines the controversy concerning Donald Trump's plans to build a huge golf course in rural Scotland (a plan originally rejected by the Scottish government because of legitimate environmental issues surrounding the Aberdeen area's eco-system). But Trump's power and money convinces the local government to turn turtle and before long residents are losing electrical power, their water supply and the destruction of their marshland.

Baxter follows the teaming events with his camera in hand until he gets arrested and briefly jailed. Meanwhile Trump continually hangs himself by describing one protesting local farmer, Michael Forbes, as living "in a slum." He also claims that environmental groups are supporting the project when, in fact, Scottish Natural Heritage, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have all come out against it.  You've Been Trumped aptly incorporates contrasting scenes from Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) which was also about an American industrialist (Burt Lancaster) who wants to buy property in Scotland to set up a refinery. He sends one of his employees (Peter Riegert) to seduce the locals. But Local Hero is about how a company man gets transformed and enraptured by the culture around him. Donald Trump, on the other hand, with his overinflated ego and megalomania, simply imposes himself on the landscape while the locals (and us in the viewing audience) look on appalled.

Bill Forsyth's Local Hero.
Baxter had to raise the money for You've Been Trumped since nobody wanted to touch the subject given Trump's rampant habit of suing people. But the picture is a useful reminder of how an artist, who feels so passionately about his subject, need not soften his argument just to win the approval of backers. In his film, Baxter proves himself to be documentary filmmaker as local hero.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier concludes his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) Tuesday, May 24th at the Revue Cinema in Toronto at 7pm. His five-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, continues at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesdays from 1pm-3pm.

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