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.