By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Now in its 17th year, the festival in 2004 is heavy on political documentaries, many of which are scornfully critical of George W. Bush's administration and might play like porn to Michael Moore; the title of one compendium of short experimental films, "Regime Change," echoes the booming sentiments of the man behind Fahrenheit 9/11. There are also movies that whisper their damnations at the president, including several shot in the decimated, barricaded and abandoned streets of Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip and Baghdad. Afghanistan Unveiled, made by a team of female video journalists, reminds us that the war there is over only on the nightly news; our period is their question mark. Women have been freed from Taliban oppression only to find their liberation means a country without fresh running water and electricity. Freedom, for some, is just another word for nothing left. Period. Just as compelling is the peek Paul Chan offers in his collage Baghdad in No Particular Order, in which the filmmaker captures the vibrant life of artists and musicians in that city before the U.S. invasion last year.
Another of the fest's you-are-there offerings is director Hany Abu-Assad's Ford Transit, which puts us in the front seat of a van that shuttles Palestinians from roadblock to roadblock, where they appear to wait in an endless line in search of only another ride to some other waiting place. It's a remarkable look at the dreary life in Israel's occupied territories, where the scenery is a vast horizon of rubble and the people have been numbed to death by the threat of another suicide bomber. The riders lash out at Bush (one says U.S. presidential candidates should be forced to take IQ tests before running for office, concluding that Bush would have flunked), at the Israeli government and even their own leaders for perpetuating a pointless war over what has become a wasteland. It's most telling when a woman insists the only reason the Palestinians support Yasir Arafat is because the U.S. and Israeli governments want him gone; he's a ruler, it would seem, predominantly out of spite.
What has always been remarkable about the Dallas Video Festival is its inclusion of documentaries that read between the headlines; this is social science as infotainment, all the news that's never been fit for print or television. It's NPR with pictures, meaning it's supposed to be good for you, but some is surprisingly entertaining to sit through--even if, as an editor of mine likes to point out, filmmakers often believe it's enough to convey the shouting of debate rather than the subject of the debate itself. Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman's Thirst, about the global furor over the privatization of water in India, Bolivia and Stockton, California, is a, pardon, dry subject rendered riveting when activists travel to Kyoto to do battle with the managing director of the World Bank Group. "Somebody has to pay for water," he insists. "That's the reality." But you're left to wonder if he isn't right; clean water, be it in India or California, doesn't arrive in your sink for nothing. Thirst, ultimately, is the very thing the festival champions most: videocam activism, in which the powerful are made to look like the enemy of The People. It's not always so simple.
Then again, sometimes it's just that simple. Take Danny Schechter's WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, which would play well on a triple bill alongside Fahrenheit 9/11 and Control Room; the self-proclaimed "Media Dissector," and former ABC and CNN and MTV News producer, damns not only the Bush administration's reasons for going to war in Iraq, but also the media for being cheerily complicit by swallowing the party line without gagging even a little. Schechter, like Moore in his earlier films, is the star of his own movie, which he uses to promote his book upon which his film is based; this is as much personal essay as political doc, a movie about a former newsman's distaste for his profession. But he doesn't distract from his point, which is powerfully made by reporters and editors critical of their own organizations for either burying crucial information in exchange for access ("The press self-muzzled," says CNN's Christiane Amanpour) or abandoning context for the telegenic content of bombs destroying a country.
Most compellingly, Schechter contrasts footage from critical overseas networks, among them the BBC and Al-Jazeera and German TV, with cheerleading U.S. cable outlets for which reportage meant wearing American flags in their lapels and repeating press releases and briefings handed out at Central Command in Qatar. A German news crew, armed with Geiger counters, reveals that the U.S. military used outlawed weapons, including radioactive depleted uranium, against Iraqi tanks; Al-Jazeera continues to display the corpses of innocents who got in liberation's way. And the capture and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch becomes a sort of ground zero: Where the American networks reported that she'd been stabbed, shot and tortured while in the hands of Iraqis, the Brits counter that she was in fact well-treated by Iraqi doctors in the crude confines of a ravaged hospital. If nothing else, you will walk out of the movie thinking you can believe nothing and trust no one; even the truth tellers lie like a Persian rug.
It's a point made again in Harry Thomason's The Hunting of the President, based on the 2000 book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Thomason, the TV producer (Designing Women, Evening Shade) and best friend of Bill Clinton, sets out to prove there was indeed a right-wing conspiracy to bring down Bill and Hilary by retracing the familiar footsteps (Whitewater, Paula Jones, Vince Foster, Troopergate, Travelgate, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr) with spiked shoes. It's populated by footnoted sleazoids (Little Rock private detective Larry Case, Gennifer Flowers' left-hand man Larry Nichols), the martyred (Susan McDougal) and the misguided (American Spectator writer David Brock) and plays like a real-life version of one of Oliver Stone's conspiratorial wet dreams; either you already believe Clinton was gutted for having a wandering dick or you believe he got what he deserved, and his best buddy won't change your mind. Still, like WMD, it does make an estimable case that the media botched the coverage when reporters began believing they could make their names by ruining someone else's.
It seems to be the theme of this year's Dallas Video Festival: Trust no one. There might be someone watching you (Secret Tapes collects surveillance videos taken by the Communist police in Poland). Or someone's just plain lying to you. Dark Side of the Moon, a documentary by William Karel, stretches Schechter's premise to the snapping point; it's a "true story" with the ultimate twist, a sneering joke perpetuated with the straight face of a prosecuting attorney. Karel, using interviews with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger and director Stanley Kubrick's widow Christiane, makes the case that the man who made 2001: A Space Odyssey also staged and shot the first lunar landing at NASA's request. In exchange, he received a special camera for the shooting of Barry Lyndon; meanwhile, people who knew of the phony footage of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon were eliminated on the orders of Richard Nixon. It's all an incredibly elaborate put-on--Alfred Hitchcock fans will sniff out the ruse, given the copious references to his films--but an effective sucker-punch, nonetheless. Trust no one.
Especially not Imelda Marcos, who attempts to come off like a saint in Ramona Diaz's documentary about the former first lady of the Philippines but is revealed as a woman partially demented and wholly in denial. Allowing Diaz astonishing access not only to herself but also her children Bong-Bong and Imee and other childhood friends, Marcos gives off the vibe of a dictator who believed hers was an iron fist encased in velvet; everything she and hubby Ferdinand did, she insists, was for the good of the people. Imelda doesn't judge because it doesn't have to; history has already damned the Marcos family, even if the Filipinos continue to put them in power (the movie ends with Bong-Bong and Imee getting elected to office and dancing to Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough," heh). It simply lets her try to charm the camera, which she can do--she looks younger now than she did in the 1980s--even if the audience is smart enough not to buy the con artist's act. No wonder Marcos is suing in an attempt to keep this movie out of theaters: She looks bad, even when looking as good as she ever has.
Also in denial are the killers featured in Rithy Pahn's troubling S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine, which documents the murder of nearly one-fourth of the Cambodian population from 1975 to 1979. Pahn's film deals solely with the Khmer Rouge's S21 security bureau in Phnom Penh, where nearly 20,000 prisoners were taken for "questioning" and only three survived. Pahn returns them to the high school-turned-slaughter house and reunites them with their captors, now middle-aged men who insist they're full of regret and were only following the party's orders. What seems at first cruel, the pairing of killer and almost-killed, never becomes wholly cathartic, because in their old environs, the jailers re-enact for the cameras their old duties and seem to relish the opportunity to be cruel, even to invisible prisoners. It's frightening to watch--and to imagine what they did to so many not so long ago.
The festival's lineup, of course, does not consist entirely of despairing offerings; there are the fun documentaries about those obsessed with the video game Dance Dance Revolution (Dance Dance Documentary) and Japanese animation (Invasion: Anime), as well as a poignant film in which sons talk about their fathers (Old Man). There's a new Na-Na and Lil' Puss Puss cartoon from the locals at DNA, as well as a tribute to local advertising filmmaker Norry Nivens and another to Spalding Gray. Al Maysles, among the greatest documentarians ever to wield a camera, will once again return to hand out the award for which he's named.
And there's the fiery and rousing tale of Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972 despite being a black woman who couldn't even get blacks and women to support her bid. Shola Lynch's Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed is as inspirational as it is infuriating: Chisholm might have been a Don Quixote tilting at, among others, McGovern and Wallace, but she put herself at great physical risk to destroy an establishment that had turned her own neighborhoods in Brooklyn into destitute wastelands. Blacks didn't support her because she was a woman; women, even Gloria Steinam, didn't support her because she was unelectable. But she fought nonetheless--to get on the ballot, to join debates and to change a country that looked more like her than the men she was running against.
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