True Stories

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

Kiarostami's appetite for addressing social concerns has rarely constrained his probing approach to the medium of film. This is a director who once tackled the Iranian tabloid story of a man being tried in court for impersonating a movie director by casting the actual criminal and the actual director and restaging the courtroom drama. So it is that Kiarostami here points to his foreignness by revealing the effect of the camera on his subjects. Whenever he turns it on, children immediately mug and perform, reminding us that a camera can make a normal day an event. We have become inured to our "reality TV" casts living intimately with the lens while never addressing the voyeurs on the other side of the screen. These kids are the new new wave---look, the camera exists!

While ABC Africa and Children Underground bear superficial similarities in their shared themes, fascinating cultural differences dictate their different approaches. Belzberg draws out the children's personalities and opinions in an American individualist tradition--we see them as distinctive actors in the story of their fate. By contrast, the Iranian Kiarostami--witness to a more communal culture in his homeland--chooses to limit his interviews and capture instead the collective expressions of his subjects.

 

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?'

Though different in tone and structure, all these documentaries about children serve their directors' intentions of humanizing the plight of poverty. Yet nonfiction films can be similarly successful when commandeered by their subjects, veering deliciously from what seems to have been their original intent. This is the case with Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 and Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, and it only makes these projects more interesting.

Revelations (9:30 p.m. Friday, November 9) is, no surprise, the sequel to Paradise Lost, the 1996 documentary about three headbanging Arkansas teenagers convicted--with scant evidence and dubious testimony--of the ritual murders of three younger boys. The original doc appealed to goths, metalheads, and civil-liberties activists far and wide, proposing that the teens were singled out because they wore black and experimented with Wicca. The sequel finds one of them, Damien Echols, now age 24, sitting on death row, and it follows his attempt to overturn the verdict.

Only, this time documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky sort of lose control of the story to the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.This character, who was merely creepy in part one, proves so truly bizarre this time around that he seduces the directors into wrapping the sequel almost entirely around his macabre histrionics. And so we spend an hour trying to figure out why the stepfather's wife died of a prescription-drug overdose, and why he had all his teeth removed. By the end of the film, the mission to simply advertise the need for a retrial has morphed into a vigilante trial of its own, starring this cross between a low-rent pro wrestler and a Pentecostal penitent. And, possibly strangest of all, the activists who show up to lend their support to the West Memphis 3--the "there was no cult" cult who latched onto the first Paradise Lost--come off as unseemly classists, which taints their altruism.

In another fractured look at Southern small-town identity, Micha X. Peled's Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town (5:30 p.m. Sunday, November 11), documents the fight one quaint Virginia town waged against the department-store juggernaut. Life changes for Ashland the day Wal-Mart asks for a zoning variance to build a new outlet. In just a few months, the serene town is rife with animosity, split down the middle.

Peled introduces Wal-Mart with terrifying shots of an arena full of company shareholders chanting for Sam Walton. Activist stats reveal a rapacious predator--opens a new store every two days, largest retailer in the world, largest seller of popular music, largest domestic employer after the federal government, etc. Then Peled brings us home to Ashland, with its Henry Clay Shopping Center by the train station in the center of town. We meet the merchants at the boot store and the hardware store. We watch as the local women who organize to fight the megastore lose valuable support. Friendships start to bend, and cracks appear beneath the patina of Southern charm.

But while Peled's film is certainly a scathing chronicle of corporate metastasis, he unwittingly unearths some touchy contradictions. For example, we find that it is mainly Ashland's white, business-owning community that fears the effects of Wal-Mart on the town's main strip. When asked, the town's black residents opine that they see the new store as a source of jobs for their struggling young people. Residents with fixed or lower incomes say they partly welcome the arrival of lower-priced goods as a relief from Ashland's boutique-priced fare. These feelings may not shift sympathy to the megastore as much as highlight a deeper schism in the community, which Main Street and its sentimental proponents must also address.

 

If a spirit of inquiry seems to inform all the documentaries in "Get Real," the most complex and beautiful human investigation of the festival is Arthur Bradford's How's Your News? (7:30 p.m. Friday, November 9). Here, the journey really is the destination, as a group of developmentally disabled adults head out on the open road (with caretakers) to film a news-magazine show. Featuring interviews with random Americans from New Hampshire to California, this film too seems to wander according to its on-camera talent. And so we meet Susan, earnest in her "newscasts" but transformed through music into a showtune diva; and Robert, who comprehends speech but can't form intelligible language, and thus "interviews" an auctioneer by mimicking him perfectly. There's Sean, who composes impromptu poetry about Texas, and Larry, a quadriplegic, who rocks out at Venice Beach. Ronnie, a soap-opera fan, reminds us that Mary Richards visited the Empire State Building and Marsha Brady the Grand Canyon.

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