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.

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.

 

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.

The interactions (captured on digital video) show Americans at their most generous. The majority seem won over by the guileless questions, like Ronnie's "What does it make you feel like to ride a motorcycle? Does it make you feel like the Fonz?" And some are shocked by the rare respect they are being shown, as when Susan interviews a homeless veteran, asking him what local sites he would recommend they check out. As the swimsuited cast hurtles into the Pacific surf, Bradford has certainly achieved a sense of triumph: The trip seems a smashing success, full of song and laughter and insights.

The nagging question is whether this assortment of Americans would have been as receptive to these people if they had not been on camera. Some surely would: When Robert gets a hotel room, the clerk on hidden camera is sweet as can be. But the fact remains that, just as in Kiarostami's film, the camera changes things. And in this case, you get the sneaking feeling that, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, we'd all be good people if there were somebody there to shoot us every day of our lives.

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