Despite International Conflicts, Docs Don’t Forget Domestic Problems
by Nick Poppy
Not long before the start of our most recent war, documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus boarded a flight back from Baltimore. She was returning from a shoot for her film “Girlhood,” and it had been a rough time — someone she knew from the project had died, in part because they lacked adequate healthcare. Garbus was stewing over the injustice of it when, as if sent from some irony-appreciating angel, Secretary of State Colin Powell got on the plane and sat down right across from her. Although she knew Powell had little to do with the domestic agenda, she recalls, “I was sitting there looking at him, and I felt so angry…I didn’t say anything, but that crystallized it for me at that moment, thinking about what was happening in Baltimore.”
War has a way of narrowing our focus, to the exclusion of other issues, other places; to what’s happening stateside, in Baltimore, Kansas City, Eupora, Mississippi, and downtown Manhattan. Among the hundreds of offerings from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival are several documentaries that ask us to redirect our attention from the place burning across the way, that we might smell the smoke coming from our own house. Peter Scarlet, executive director of the festival, explains, “I’ve felt throughout my life, for many years now as a festival programmer, that it’s a responsibility to hold the window open to the world for people.” Scarlet is proud of the global reach, as well as the sheer number of offerings in Tribeca’s documentary program, noting, “there are just about as many documentary films as fiction films, and I find that very healthy.”
Health itself is a central concern to “Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 Years of ACT UP.” Produced by ACT UP member and archivist James Wentzy, “Fight Back” is documentary film in its strictest sense, a compilation of archival video footage from the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power’s first protests up to the present. The film humbly claims no narrator and little explanatory text, preferring to let the footage, and the ghosts therein, do the talking. “Fight Back” gives us a stirring portrait of passionate, and remarkably well-organized, political activism by people who were fighting for their lives.
The issues have shifted somewhat from ACT UP’s early days, but many of their concerns remain. The AIDS crisis still looms as a global health threat, it is still under-acknowledged, and much needs to be done, both at home and abroad. This is the driving force behind Robert Bilheimer’s beautifully shot “A Closer Walk,” which presents a kaleidoscopic, global view of the disease and its effects. The film visits treatment centers in Uganda, India, Haiti, and the Ukraine, as well as prevention activists in Kansas City, and shows how we are all tied together by the virus.
There is no shortage of September 11 movies in Tribeca this year, including John Sanborn’s “MMI” and Jim Hershleder’s fiction feature “Ash Tuesday.” One of the most interesting works in the 9/11 subgenre is Aileen Ghee’s documentary about documentation, “Witnessing.” “Witnessing” looks at the popular Here Is New York photo exhibit, which — as New Yorkers may well recall — featured a vast collection of 9/11-related photos donated by amateur and professional photographers. Although it may stir up unpleasant memories, “Witnessing” transports viewers back to fall 2001, and shows how we observed the event and how we processed it. No one needs help remembering that time, but “Witnessing” points to the redemptive power of vision, and suggests how by revisiting the past, we might make our peace with it. Almost without trying, the film performs the same function it seeks to document.
One of the surprising delights of Tribeca’s documentary competition is Laura Gabbert’s “Sunset Story.” This portrait of L.A.’s Sunset Hall retirement home for political progressives — probably the only nursing home in the country with “Free Mumia” posters and large-print “Complete Works of Lenin” in the library — features two very funny, endearing characters in Lucille (95 years old) and Irja (81). These women, who are sharper than most people half their age, attend protest rallies and speak cogently on world affairs. In their refusal to retire, they remind us that political involvement and social activism, as well as chutzpah and humor, are not confined to the young.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Rory Kennedy’s “A Boy’s Life” focuses on the travails of seven-year-old Robert Oliver, a Mississippi schoolboy with behavioral problems, and his overbearing grandmother, who may be making matters worse. The film proves a fascinating study of child welfare and family dynamics in an impoverished rural community. As Robert is “rescued” from his family, and begins to thrive in school, the film makes a strong case for intervention on the part of educators, and speaks to the innate, unique talents we all possess, if given a chance to use them.
Taking some time off from his celebrity muckraking, Nick Broomfield serves up his second film on Aileen Wuornos, with “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.” With his 1992 film “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” the chatty, British and short (on shame) Broomfield met Wuornos, and presented an unnerving picture, both of her crimes and the sometimes criminal way in which her case was mishandled. In this installment, Broomfield tells the story of Wournos’s early years, and her final days, and leaves one queasy about capital punishment (as almost any depiction of capital punishment is bound to do). Florida Governor Jeb Bush (candidate Bush in ’08?) makes a cameo appearance, taking after his brother as an avid and eager signer of death warrants. And though he is a ubiquitous presence in the film, Broomfield seems somewhat muted in “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” as if he’s finally come up against something so heady that clowning doesn’t work.
Finally, a rather more uplifting film on the criminal justice system can be found in Garbus’s “Girlhood,” which spends three years following two teenage felons, Shanae and Megan, as they attempt to reenter society. A moving piece of verite filmmaking, “Girlhood” asks us to reconsider how we deal with juvenile offenders, and ponders whether anybody is well-served by giving children lengthy sentences. Garbus explains, “I think what “Girlhood” shows in the end is, that rehabilitation does matter.” She likes to think that her film will make a difference, but notes, “I don’t have the illusion that a film can change the world or change policy. What I do think is that it can become a part of the dialogue.” Her hope is that once someone sees a film like “Girlhood” (or “A Boy’s Life,” or “A Closer Walk,” or any number of other films in the festival this year), “they might have a face to put to an issue, and make their hearts have a little more compassion. Once you get away from people as statistics and look at the individual story, I think it can help.”