Two docs which screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival revel in the cult of personality and dangers of demagoguery.
The first—AL FRANKEN: GOD SPOKE sends longtime D.A. Pennebaker collaborators Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, (a DP often credited as James Desmond) back into the political arena of THE WAR ROOM. Whereas THE WAR ROOM tracked the behind the scenes Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, pulling back the curtain to thrust charismatic spinsters George Stephanopoulos and James Carville into the spotlight—a position from which neither has strayed; AND GOD SPOKE chronicles the two year campaign during which Al Franken launched Air America, his progressive, left wing radio network.
Adhering closely to direct cinema style, the film allows the story to unfold naturally. But so much of this process involves Franken narrating his own adventure. In car rides, he recounts childhood memories for the camera. Throughout, he tells his version of his story on his own terms, in his own words. Franken clearly views his venture as a crusade, his grand attempt to balance the scales by providing a truth antidote to the poison pill of right wing radio.
But his is a fool’s quest. Watching fictional spin-meister Nick Naylor break down the rules of engagement to his son in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING shows how simple it is to undo even the most righteous argument:, “If you argue right, you are right.” Inside the beltway, one doesn’t need to win an argument, one only needs only muddy the water.
In the face of right wing punditry, Franken is doggedly determined to prove that the truth will set him free. He drops references to lies perpetuated by the right as if his revelations are revelatory.
(Pssst. They don’t care!)
Franken falters, I think, when he abandons humor for the more serious discourse. (The most effective and resonant voices from the left are not those on Air America—they reside in the satire of Bill Maher, Chris Rock, Howard Stern, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. )
When Franken gets political and serious, and puts away the irony, he smacks of arrogance. Watching an overconfident Franken, on the eve of the Kerry/Bush election, ask his staff if there is a funny way to gloat on the air is wince inducing—partly because we know that a rude awakening is in store, and partly because we remember what it felt like being soooooo sure that this time, it was in the bag.
Worse, Franken engages those on the right with the righteousness of a zealot. In one telling sequence, Franken spars with Michael Medved, arguing like a despondent third grader over the way Kerry’s voting record on a litany of military hardware was portrayed in a speech at the Republican Convention. Franken becomes so caught up in the minutiae of his point, and his tone (downright whiney) is so unbecoming, that the cooler (but wrong) headed Medved prevails.
Franken can comes across as self-important, indulgent and an immature bully. If he set out to be the left wing version of Bill O’Reilly: Mission Accomplished.
With JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE documentarian Stanley Nelson takes the subject of Jonestown, an event that had become a pop-culture punch-line (how often do we casually use the phrase “drink the Kool Aid?”) and treats an unfortunate tragedy with requisite dignity and gravitas it deserves.
Nelson, whose past subjects have included THE BLACK PRESSMARCUS GARVEY, and THE MURDER OF EMMITT TILL is no stranger to historical documentary form—and he effectively utilizes the PBS-style to tell the story of Jim Jones—tracing his life chronologically from childhood to its tragic, and abrupt end in the rain forest of Guyana.
Interviews with friends andformer members of the Temple are interspersed with archival footage (including personal accounts from Jones himself) to tell the story of the Peoples Temple.
A disenfranchised youth appalled by the racism and inequality he witnessed in the U.S., Jim Jones turned to religion at an early age to formulate his own brand of liberation theology—a cross between Southern Evangelical and Socialism. Fueled by his charismatic style and his message of social change, Jones appealed to a wide variety of followers, many African Americans.
How these humble beginnings lead to the deaths of 900 loyal followers (including 200 children) in a South American jungle is the subject of Nelson’s fascinating, engrossing, and thoroughly researched film.
Revealing interviews with Jim Jones, Jr, (who attended the screening for a Q&A that can best be described as bizarre) as well as the only surviving witnesses from Jonestown are among the film’s most effective elements. One describes holding his dying child. Another explains that an armed militia of true beleivers surrounded the compound as Jones called everyone as he offered everyone the chance to “die with dignity” proclaiming his plan for a mass suicide as an act of revolutionary defiance.
The film includes remarkable footage of a celebration held in honor of California Congressman Leo Ryan’s ill-fated trip to Jonestown at the bequest of concerned relatives back in the States. The evening is filled with song, dance and genuine jubilation.
The harrowing events that transpire the next day, captured on audio tape, tell a completely different story.
The most remarkable accomplishment of the film is that Nelson brings depth and dimension to Jones’ religious movement.
One comes away from the film not only with an understanding of what motivated Jones’ followers—but with the frustration that Jones’ vision failed. His utopian ideals were corrupted by his paranoia and perversions. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then it is easy to see how Jones, a charismatic leader, is so quickly undone by his growing political influence (for his help in a San Francisco mayoral election, he was appointed to the City Housing Commission, an act which drew critical press attention.)
A resonant image in the film shows Jones surrounded by his congregation, people who believed in him and his ideological dream of escaping the racism and injustice of the U.S. and establishing an agrarian utopian society in South America? He stands in front of a banner that reads: “Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.”
It should be hoped that a film such as this will prevent the ascent of future zealots like Shoko Asahara, David Korresh, or Osama Bin Laden.