Another year, another great set of documentaries! Last year it seemed the festival had more of a theme. This time around, I saw a lot of different kinds of stories. Some were political. Several felt like advocacy pieces. There were many about music and quite a few from Middle Eastern countries. As usual, there were too many to fit in and I missed quite a few that I really wanted to see. I am hoping to get a few screeners from filmmakers that I met at the festival to rectify that situation. This post is of my first two days of viewing.
The opening night film was Best of Enemies, without doubt one of the best of the festival. It focuses on the mutual disdain that Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley had for one another, which played out for the masses on national television when they were hired by ABC News as a ploy to boost their dismal ratings during the 1968 Presidential conventions. They were expected to “debate” from their left and right perspectives, but what ABC got instead was political bloodsport. Both men were what we once called public intellectuals, as well as famous celebrities and masterful wordsmiths, and they could not have held more diametrically opposing views. Buckley has been credited with pushing the GOP to its current conservative stance and Vidal’s political leanings remained far left of center his entire life. The film, though centered on the debates, covers their lives and careers before and after, and the slander suits they filed against one another at various times in their life-long feud. It is by turns an informative, insightful and very funny movie. You will never see better insults thrown back and forth, and the moment that Vidal slams Buckley with “crypto-nazi” and Buckley’s subsequent total on-air meltdown is worth the price of admission alone. This is a must see documentary for anyone who watches political punditry now or loves an articulate argument. Opening in NY July 31.
My first film of the day was the truly sad Tyke Elephant Outlaw. It tells the story of a circus elephant who finally had enough abuse and killed her trainer in front of a packed house, then went running through the streets of Honolulu before she was shot, 86 times, and died. The film is her life story told by the people who were her handlers. This story happened in 1994, but it was not the first time she broke free and her handlers tried to stop the circus from using her, knowing that she was not going to stand for the isolation and physical abuse that she was being subjected to much longer. Interviewees include her elephant whisperer trainer who had worked with her but refused to continue after her first runaway, animal rights activists who tried to get the circuses to stop abusing their animals, and a man who was hired by Ringling Brothers to counter the backlash after the incident, rallying people in favor of continuing business as usual.
It is amazing that only now, 20 years later, are we finally seeing how wrong it is to treat these beautiful beasts so brutally. It is a tragic moment in the film when you see dozens and dozens of policemen shooting such a magnificent animal. If there are still people out there who don’t know how barbaric circuses are in terms of elephants training, make them see this. Fortunately, Ringling has seen the light and is phasing out elephant acts, and a lot of cities have banned them, too.
I Want to Be A King started with an interesting subject, but ended as a forgettable and aggravating film. Set in Iran, it is the story of a man who wants to build his own kingdom with his own tribe as a tourist attraction. Abbas lives with his wife and children in a small out of the way town. They have a decent business housing and feeding foreign tourists, but he has bigger dreams. He wants to be able to take his guests back in time, 200 years, to a tribe in the desert in tents, and he wants to be the king of the tribe. To that end, he decides that he needs a second young wife who can start the tribe with him. His current family is none too happy about it. But he does it anyway. And that is where the film ends. What was aggravating was that he seemed like a decent though perhaps delusional guy with his talk of magic and time machines right up until a scene where he loses it with his daughter who might be 12-13 and yells at her that he never loved her mother and that she and her siblings are nothing to him. The scene seemed entirely gratuitous, unless the director wanted the audience to lose all respect and affection for his main character. Up until that point, the film was a nice sort of slice of life glimpse into Iranian culture and a very quirky tourist entrepreneur. After that, I was ready to go to my next film.
I have been waiting to see The Wolfpack for a long time. The story of six brothers (and a barely mentioned sister) who grew up locked away in a New York apartment, basing their view of the outside world mostly on the movies they watched on DVD made a big splash when it hit the festival circuit earlier this year. It is indeed a very strange tale, but probably more than a bit over-hyped. The brothers are controlled by a father prone to (offscreen) violence, though the exactly details of what he has done to his family remain unsaid. And that is the biggest drawback to the film. Daddy is the elephant in the room. Why they are kept inside and why they only allude to Dad and something that happened makes this pseudo-anthropological tale incomplete. What we know of him includes some beliefs in Hare Krishna, which led him to give his children Sanskrit names, his claim to be a supreme being himself, and his profound fears of the outside world and its power to corrupt.
The Wolfpack was shot over a 5 year period, but has almost no sense of time passing. The boys are a group, none having a bigger personality than the other. They spend a lot of time dressing up and reenacting their favorite scenes from movies, most notably Reservoir Dogs. They are very creative in building film sets and making costumes, and you’re never quite sure if they are performing for themselves or for their new audience, us. As they get older, they long to get outside and finally do. But at the end of the film, you are left with A LOT of questions. Now that they’ve tasted freedom, what happens and what will Dad do about it? But also, why didn’t social services ever check up on these kids? A couple of them are moving into their own apartment and you’d kind of like to know what they’ll be doing. You also never know why the mother put up with the situation for so long. It is a fascinating slice of life sort of film, though in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker, I think it might have had a stronger narrative. Still, it is worth seeing, if only for its look into a bizarre situation you can hardly believe went on for so long under the noses of their myopic neighbors.
The Three Hikers is a well told story of three young Americans who went hiking in Iraq, but accidentally strayed into Iran and were arrested and accused of being spies. This political tale is told from the personal perspectives of the families of the hikers, as they call on anyone and everyone to intercede on their behalf with the Iranian government to bring their daughter, son, brother, friend home. All three Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal had been working on humanitarian causes before their arrests so labeling them imperialist spies would have been a grand irony if it had not been so scary. The film presents their prison experience in well shot recreations, with Sarah being in solitary confinement for much of her somewhat shorter stay. (Shane Bauer was at the Q&A after the screening and attested to the realism of the recreations.)
The families and friends of the hikers worked tirelessly for two years to get them back, with Sarah spearheading a “Free Shane and Josh” movement when she returned home. Between all the families and the US State Department, the Iranian government heard from a wide variety of people — from Cesar Chavez to Ban Ki-Moon to Desmond Tutu to Mohammed Ali to Sean Penn and many more. But it was the government of Oman that finally brought Iran around. The political back channels that were opened in the push to free the hikers were also credited for opening the crack that led to the current Iran-US nuclear negotiations. It is a fascinating political tale and very well done. The only thing I’d change was the cheesy music when the men are reunited with their families. I was instantly reminded of a reality show when the final contestant is crowned the winner. And the film should have ended there rather than having two more endings. Nevertheless, I would recommend it to folks interesting in international politics and prison reform, since that is what the experience led all three of the hikers to pursue on their return home.
In Transit was the final film of legendary documentarian Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens.) The entire film takes place on a train The Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle and back. It is a series of interviews with people who are in transition in their lives. And they find some fascinating characters willing to share their stories. There is no through line narrative, and I was afraid that I might get bored, but it is so well constructed that you just go along for the ride. The idea that people take trains so that they have time to think becomes clear as you meet a number of people who are at crossroads in their lives. There is a young pregnant woman three days past her due date who is fleeing an abusive relationship, a young man hoping to make his fortune in the oil fields of North Dakota, a single mother with a bunch of kids heading home to see her family for the first time in years, an elder black man who marched with MLK counseling a younger man on the responsibilities of being a good father. The cuts between the stories don’t seem haphazard at all. They flow like the train through the landscape. It is a beautiful film about human stories.
The Russian Woodpecker has to be the quirkiest film I saw at the festival. At its center is a very oddball Ukrainian artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, who was born in Chernobyl, but evacuated at the age of four when the “accident” occurred. Fedor has discovered a massive antenna called the Duga that is just next to the Chernobyl plant and was known as the Russian Woodpecker for the sound it sent out on radio frequencies around the world that sounded just like a woodpecker. The Duga was built to penetrate US radio signals, but what Fedor discovers through his film investigation is that it never worked, was more expensive to build that the actual Chernobyl plant itself, and was going to be tested 3 months after the “accident,” which would have spelled political doom and possibly a one-way trip to the gulag for the man who was in charge of it. Fedor believes that the “accident” was a smoke screen that saved this bureaucrat who subsequently moved up in the Russian hierarchy, but is now dead and cannot be held accountable. It is a strange and twisty conspiracy tale, but there are quite a few officials who weigh in with corroborating evidence that lends it more than a bit of credibility. But at the end, Fedor and the audience are left with lots of questions, that may someday be settled when the documents that reside in Moscow are made public. Until then, this is a very nice little thought provoking thriller.
Peace Officer was one of my favorites. It is the story of William “Dub” Lawrence, a popular sheriff in Utah who brought them their first SWAT team in the 70s. Retired from the force and now a plumber, he is pulled back into the law enforcement world when his son-in-law is killed after a stand-off with a SWAT team. Dub investigates how it happened and several other cases where an overly militarized police force used SWAT where cooler heads might have ended situations without loss of life. The film’s biggest asset is Dub with his warm smile and dogged determination to get to the truth of his son-in-law’s and others’ deaths by sifting through the evidence, ultimately turning up proof that the official story is just a fabrication to excuse murder. The film is a thorough indictment of the over-militarization of local police departments and the complicity of local DAs in their excessive use of force in situations that don’t warrant it. Dub is all the more credible since he was an officer and knows procedures. It is a must see film. Mark your calendars, it opens in October.
What Happened, Miss Simone? won the audience award for the best documentary of the festival and I would whole-heartedly agree. It is a beautiful film about an amazing artist. I’ve always loved Nina Simone’s music, but I found out so much more about her tragic life though the film. She was born very close to where I live in the mountains of North Carolina, in the days of segregation, but her musical abilities set her apart. She trained to be a concert pianist, but despite being extremely talented she wasn’t accepted to the program she deserved because she was black. In order to make ends meet, she accepted a job playing piano in a club in Atlantic City. But they told her she had to sing, something she had not been doing until that time. And the rest is history. She had a distinctive voice and rose to be one of the most famous singers of her day. But her choice to write and perform songs of protest during the Civil Rights era derailed her career. And living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder nearly wrecked her life.
What Happened, Miss Simone? explores her very dramatic off-stage existence. She was in an abusive relationship with her husband/manager, had a difficult time with her daughter, made friends with some of the biggest names in the Civil Rights Movement, rose to amazing heights and nearly ended up in poverty. But through it, she remained true to herself and her ideals, and was one of the most amazing performers ever. If you’ve loved her music as I have, this film with make you appreciate her on a whole other level. See it now on Netflix!
Best of Enemies
Tyke Elephant Outlaw
I Want to Be A King
The Russian Woodpecker
What Happened, Miss Simone?