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by Bryce J. Renninger
October 3, 2013 4:02 PM
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How Much Power Do the Little Guys and Gals Have? 4 Poltical Docs at Camden

"Public Hearing"

At this year's Camden International Film Festival, several films reminded viewers of the political power they held within them.  Or maybe they told us that we are all deluded about how much power we all really have.  Therein lies the challenge presented by films like "Caucus," "Public Hearing," "Terms and Conditions May Apply," and "Town Hall."

Here's a take on all four films and their complicated engagement with the questions we encounter when we see ourselves as citizens, looking out for ourselves and each other:

"Public Hearing," James N. Kienitz Wilkins

When Kienitz-Wilkins introduced his film "Public Hearing" to a Camden audience, he told us to act like we would at a public hearing. This implied that, like public hearings IRL, this film would also have lulls, we'd often be pulled out of the goings-on and into our mental checklists and taking a look at the back of our eyelids.  This, to a degree, turned out to be true.

The film, shot in black and white on film, uses actors to recreate the transcript of a public hearing that was a formality in the quest to expand an upstate New York Wal-Mart into a Super Wal-Mart, complete with a grocery and oil, lube and tire station. The hearing starts with the testimony of consultants hired by Wal-Mart and experts at purely procedural meetings like this. This section drags, as the director warned, but that is the point. Global capitalism ravages in bureaucratic and mundane ways. But global capitalism often pins people into compromising corners. It creates a world where Wal-Mart makes food substantially more affordable, which benefits those who scrape by in the most dramatic ways. But it also takes opportunities from competition and local go-getter entrepreneurs. People in both of these categories are warned by the droning bureaucrats that Allegheny, New York has no statute that prohibits big box competitors from expanding unless there is an environmental concern.

The beauty in the film are these citizens' impassioned pleas, which sometimes try out last ditch attempts at getting themselves heard, like arguing that the development might harm local salamanders.  But mostly, they're able voice grievances even they've been warned they will have no sympathetic ear. Lost jobs, stores that will close and make it difficult for older citizens to get their groceries, the loss of a small-town feel -- all go up against a few citizens who are excited about the Super Wal-Mart's affordability and convenience. The film stays close to its subjects, taking breaks from long speeches to cut to often comical fiddling. The film only ranges from closeup to extreme closeup, so while we get intimate with individual members of this forum -- and that can inspire everything from heartbreak to extreme boredom -- there's not much outside of their words to help us link these citizens to the fellow citizens that surround them.

"Terms and Conditions May Apply," Cullen Hoback

Shahid Buttar, Amie Stepanovich, and Ben Wizener in discussion with Charlotte Cook (Hot Docs) at the Camden International Film Festival. Bryce J. Renninger
Hoback's film about privacy on the Internet has already begun a city-by-city theatrical run in the United States, and its screening at Camden was a showcase of the kinds of conversations the film festival is able to host.  Following the film's screening, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project Director Ben Wizener, the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Domestic Surveillance Project Director Amie Stepanovich and Executive Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee Shahid Buttar discussed their tireless work advocating civil liberties, which has been nonstop since the Snowden leaks.

At the heart of Hoback's film is the goal of making certain viewers -- individual Americans that feel they have nothing to hide from the federal government -- care about the governmental policies that, many would argue, infringe on some of our Constitutional rights.  In the film's most original and impactful segments, Hoback travels to the everyday people who faced the suspicion or the violence of the state when their Internet actions were seen as threatening to state order.  A young man from Ireland is stopped at security for tweeting that he wanted to "destroy America" on a vacation (i.e. party party party til he -- and America -- are destroyed), a LA-based television procedural writer whose suspicious, murderous search terms caused deep suspicion, a group of actor-activists who were pre-emptively stopped for some street theater at the last UK royal wedding, and a comic who made a bad joke quoting some violent lines from "Fight Club."  The state's violent responses to these everyday citizens made a strong case. 

The success of these stories to persuade a certain kind of viewer was made apparent when the panel of experts engaged in a lively, fantastically persuasive discussion after the screening.  As strong as this discussion was, though, the panelists' reliance on discussions of policy and law reminded one of how difficult this issue is to convey.  To its credit, "Terms and Conditions" is an excellent entry point for the apathetic into this discussion.  Everyone is implicated, the film reminds us, with its approachable storytelling and comprehensive explanation of the information ecosystem we live in.

"Caucus," AJ Schnack

When "Caucus" premiered at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival, Indiewire interviewed Schnack and his producer Nathan Truesdell.  "Caucus" screened at Camden this weekend, and viewers were once again treated to a film that rises above the cable news buzz and reminds us that politicians and constituents are both humans and cogs in well-oiled machines.

Michele Bachmann (and her husband Marcus) join eventual Iowa Caucus winner Rick Santorum and several other Republican candidates in this dynamic look at the on-the-ground engagement of voters in the much contested 2012 Iowa Caucus.  While we all know that the Governor from Massachusetts won the nomination and lost the general election, "Caucus" is a reminder of how well-intentioned yet fickle voters can be in choosing the right candidate and the right direction for the country.  In so doing, watching is uneasy, but it's so much more of a rich experience than any cable news can ever manage.

"Town Hall," Sierra Pettingill & Jamila Wignot

"Town Hall"
Outside of the context of Glenn Beck's well-documented rallies on Washington, DC, the 2010 mid-term elections, filled with town halls galore, that tipped the scales to the right in the House of Representatives and the individual elected officials from the far right wing that have shaken things up in big political events like the government shutdown, the Tea Party has not been documented in a way quite like Pettingill and Wignot do in "Town Hall."

The Tea Party's concerns are the accumulation of its individual members' concerns.  Two of those members of this movement give access to their lives in the lead-up to the 2012 election.  One, Katy, had her fifteen minutes when she claimed then-Senator Arlen Specter's policies were going to turn the U.S. into the Soviet Union.  Another, John, is the leader of one of two Tea Party organizations in his county (the other, according to him is full of hicks); he also must deal with the contradictions he encounters as his political ideology confronts his need to take care of his mother in ailing health, something he is running out of money to do.

In these two Tea Partiers we see two different narratives of political enlightenment.  Katy was a Democrat until she married a conservative, became a stay-at-home mom and was lured in by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. She refers to the former by first name, taking his words as gospel.  Despite her past, she is resolutely confident that the majority of Americans identify with the core beliefs of the Tea Party, Rush especially, just as she does.

From his description of his politics, John seems primarily lured to conservatism by the way his home city of Reading, Pennsylvania went from being an important center of industry (There was, as Monopoly players know well, a whole railroad named after it.) to a poor city filled with immigrants from Latin America.  At one Tea Party meeting, when the topic of the reality of a globalized economy comes up, John jumps up and exclaims that this should not be taken for granted and it should be fought.  It must be said, Reading is in Berks County, where I spent much of my childhood.  And so these arguments feel at once honest and familiar to me.

But both Katy and John, when given the space to explore how they came to their current beliefs, remind us how much all of our lives are affected by dogmatism of many types.  Their own faults in logic are, we see, not unlike our own everyday faults in logic.  For those of us who may feel ourselves very repulsed by the ideology of the Tea Party, like those who attend documentary film festivals or those who called Katy after her town hall video went viral and called her a racist, "Town Hall" is a reminder of the complicated human beings who are involved in all social movements -- full of love, good intentions, misinformation, and, yes, misplaced devotion. 
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