True Stories

A Festival of New Documentaries Presents a "Reality" Where More Is at Stake Than Who Gets Voted Off the Island

It seems like only yesterday that we had nothing to fear but Fear Factor. Now look at us. In a span of weeks, we're all crack epidemiologists, so engaged in the ethnic politics of the Hindu Kush that we can't be bothered to worry about who's macking on Lori in Real World: New York. You really have to wonder just how history will judge all our kicky pre-jihad parlor games--watching ourselves (as represented by a few expertly mussed gamines) swallowing live insects for a chance at an endorsement deal. That was "reality" before reality bit. Of course, Survivor--our culture's trashy millennial Rashomon--also reminded us that truth always belongs to the best storyteller.

The opening shot of Mike Majoros and Bestor Cram's Unfinished Symphony is a sidelong view of an airborne military plane. Bombs cascade through the clouds with a benign grace, a cool clone litter issuing from the womb of the hold. This efflux occurs in isolation, absent the din of engines, without a hint of impact. As the dumb shells fall out of the frame, the first movement of Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs begins.

Cut to New England. It's 1971. An antiwar crowd cheers returning vets who vow to mail their combat medals back to Nixon. Through a pastiche of archival footage, shell-shocked interviews, news clips, quotes, and stats, the directors reconstruct a remarkable act of protest theater. "Operation POW" had vets marching in uniform with toy guns through Lexington, Massachusetts. Following the path of Paul Revere's freedom ride, they held the goal of symbolically invading and occupying an American village, bringing a dose of Mekong reality to a somnolent majority. The directors splice back and forth between the march and the raw accounts of atrocity recounted by boys just back from hell.

Inside edition: Developmentally disabled adults (with filmmaker Arthur Bradford, second from right), make a video travelogue in 'How's Your News?'
Inside edition: Developmentally disabled adults (with filmmaker Arthur Bradford, second from right), make a video travelogue in 'How's Your News?'

"Operation POW" represented an attempt to corrode support for the misguided war machine through the power of story and symbol. And, in piecing together their riveting homage, Majoros and Cram surely could never have guessed just how timely the recounting would prove.

In a similar spirit, the ten films in "Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival"--screening Thursday, November 8 through Sunday, November 10 at the Oak Street Cinema--take on even more urgency when watched through the lens of recent world events. ("Get Real" opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday with a screening of Home Movie, introduced by the film's director, Chris Smith) For budding activists, artists, and propagandists alike, these stories blueprint both fresh and classic methods of alerting us to beauty, jolting us into empathy, cajoling us into reflection, or even rousing us to participation.

Documenting the difficulties of the poor may seem like one of the most straightforward functions of nonfiction film. Yet the three pictures here that present the predicament of children in poverty vary widely in style and tone. Prepare to be jarred and transfixed by Edet Belzberg's Children Underground (5:15 p.m. Saturday, November 10), a vérité immersion in the lives of Romanian street children surviving under Bucharest's Victory Plaza subway station. In LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, Deborah Dickson, Susan Froemke, and Albert Maysles offer a traditionally shaped account of a woman raising her grandchildren in the Mississippi delta. And ABC Africa finds Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami exploring the art of observation in his spare and kinetic encounter with Ugandan children who have lost parents to AIDS.

In her first feature-length film, Belzberg lets her five Romanian subjects speak for themselves of their days and nights as fugitive scavengers. (For more on Belzberg's experience making Children Underground, see "Beneath Bucharest," right.) Their days careen from scuffles to soul-sustaining binges on toxic Aurolac paint, with plenty of boredom in between. Resisting the urge to intervene, Belzberg captures the raw details of the kids' drug use, beatings, and even self-mutilation. Ten-year-olds huff bags of inhalant--the silver-metallic paint coating their noses and lips--and they dance around with glee. "It's like paradise," says a dazed 14-year-old beauty called Macarena. "You dream that you eat."

In LaLee's Kin (7:30 p.m. Sunday, November 11), two little boys haul buckets of water from a communal tap back to their crowded rural trailer while their grandmother gathers greens from a near-fallow field. The story of the children's daily routine is juxtaposed with the sorry history of the farm mechanization that condemned cotton workers to destitution, and a dynamic tale of the local school district's new superintendent and his Sisyphean quest to remove the district from Mississippi's crisis list by raising test scores. But even a test-score triumph is of little help to a family suffering like LaLee's, and the footage of kids chanting about test day is ultimately deeply discouraging. In a troubling testament to the family's almost total cultural disenfranchisement, the filmmakers put subtitles onscreen to ease the viewers' confusion about the dialect.

Grandmothers also pick up their children's parenting burdens in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's ABC Africa (7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 10), which sees the director travel to Uganda to document the lives and music of the children left behind by AIDS casualties. Kiarostami has been celebrated for his work involving children (Where Is the Friend's House?, First Graders, Homework), and here he returns to familiar territory. For this film, he takes a surprisingly passive approach, moving contemplatively through the streets and markets of Kampala to the interior of a death-drenched AIDS center, and then on to an outdoor classroom where lessons culminate in ecstatic song.

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