This week in New York, Marco Williams screened his Sundance doc “Banished”, alien abductees put together the UFO Film Festival, PBS’s “P.O.V.” series celebrates twenty years.
AMERICAN IN EXILE
At Lincoln Center on Thursday night, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, in conjunction with the Film Society’s bimonthly American documentary series Independents Night, showed Marco Williams‘ Sundance documentary “Banished“, about the after effects of several southern counties that engaged in racial cleansing at the turn of the 20th century, threatening, assaulting and executing their black inhabitants while repossessing their land when the remainder fled.
Williams is on camera for a surprising amount of time considering this is not an autobiographical documentary, and yet it works well; much of the film’s power comes from observing the discomfort felt by extremely isolated white people upon being interviewed by a black man. People stare at Williams in outdoor markets, KKK members falter in attempts to justify their hateful rhetoric, and one woman comments “Oh, we always said that in Forsythe County, you just don’t see any…” and struggles for awhile to find an appropriate substitute from the word clearly in her head before deciding on “colored people.”
“The reaction, to me, underlies the consequence and the impact of these banishments,” said Williams in a Q&A following the screening. “They have no contact with someone who’s black, so there’s no opportunity to understand commonality or difference.”
Throughout the film, Williams deals both with out-and-out racists (footage taken in the last decade shows civil rights workers attempting to enter Forsythe County only to be vastly outnumbered by KKK members throwing rocks) and with the more insidiously upbeat citizens who attempt to explain away the damage inflicted by these banishments, explanations which hold fast in their minds because of the continued absence of any other races to contradict them. Said Williams, “As far as the banishments, one chamber of commerce has a published history saying a ‘race riot’ took place. Now come on. Those blacks were being dumped into the river, their homes were being burned, I’m not sure which race was rioting. When the words ‘race riot’ are used, it clearly implies that it’s Detroit, it’s Watts…. they exist in this half-denial. I think it comes back to the absence of any kind of contact.”
Williams plays on a distinctly American sense of decency by appealing to his audience’s notion of property rather than justice: “We wanted to reintroduce the thought of reparation or reconciliation around an idea that’s perhaps more tangible to people than solely reparation for slavery.” The film will air on PBS later this fall.
THE TRUTH IS WAY OUT THERE
The wildest cinematic experience to be found this week was at Pioneer’s Two Boots Theater, where the first annual UFO Film Festival, organized by alien abductees as a fun way for believers to converge and spread awareness, kicked off its three-day run on Friday night with a screening of the 195* camp classic “Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers“, the film which provided a generation of nostalgics with footage of a wavering UFO knocking over the Washington Monument, followed by a spirited panel of abductees.
“This movie actually depicts real events that really happened,” said UFO Magazine publisher William Birnes. “‘The U.S. vs the Flying Saucers’ actually was a shooting war between the U.S. government and flying saucers for 6 years. This is known. This is when the government cover-up began.”
“The mind wants to make sense of things; when it meets something that it doesn’t make sense of, it shuts down,” said New Realities TV host Alan Steinfeld, explaining the more sinister view of UFOs. “It’s trauma, we are traumatized by these beings because we cannot comprehend them.”
Agreed festival organizer and abductee Jeremy Vaeni, “It’s very important to remember that these beings read your mind, and if you think that you are your thoughts, and something can suck those out of you, what are you?”
Fellow abductee, artist Melissa Reed expressed a more positive viewpoint, saying “There’s so much more going on than this them-vs.-us scenario… In the post nuclear age, perhaps there are various beings that are really being parental to us and they have come in and stopped nuclear tests and what have you.”
“What is important to remember,” said a dissenting audience member, “Is that Jesus Christ is real. His light is real. This has been suppressed.”
“I’ve been told this is absolutely true by someone with connections up in Brewster. Most of the so-called military industrial complex was penetrated by organized crime families together with the aliens years ago,” said Birnes. “so what this person was talking about is the military is ‘The Sopranos‘ meets ‘E.T.‘ This is true.”
“The thing that’s so hard about this subject is that it attracts lunatics,” said Vaeni. “It’s hard to decipher what’s real and what’s not
THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED
On Saturday at the Museum of the Moving Image, PBS celebrated 20 years of its award-winning P.O.V. series, a spotlight of contemporary issue-driven documentaries that provided an early televised showcase to such films as “Roger and Me“, “Hearts of Darkness” and “Gates of Heaven“, among 250 others. “Every year, POV gets over 1,000 entries, and we show between 12 and 15 films,” informed P.O.V. vice-president Cynthia Lopez, before screening July’s P.O.V. entry, Mary-Lou Tibaldo-Bongiorno‘s “Revolution ’67“, the story of the 1967 race riots in Newark, New Jersey.
While the riots were officially ignited by the arrest and rumored police beating of a black taxi driver, the film presents conflict as inevitable due to the complicated background of Newark, where growing poverty and unemployment plagued the city while its white residents, panicked about the increasing black majority, disenfranchised its black residents through horrifically racist housing and employment policies and by decimating their neighborhoods with a series of interstate highways and government-sponsored building projects. When the riots broke out and turned to chaotic looting, the National Guard was called in, and engaged in gun battle with alleged “black snipers”, which the film argues may not have existed. When the riots ended six days later, 26 people were dead and 725 were injured.
The film has a lot of ground to cover, as it admirably attempts to explore the entire history of racism in one urban center; as a result, it can often get rapid and staccato, diminishing its overall effect, but its clearly a film made by somebody who feels a personal attachment to the area, as it should: Tibaldo-Bongiorno is a Newark native.
“I was too young to remember the riots personally,” she said after the screening, “but I grew up in a city that was scarred by what happened – you felt it, it was palpable. You shopped in New York, I was educated in a different suburb. I never went to downtown Newark.”
The “disturbances”, she said, were not limited to Newark: “We did some research about how many ‘disturbances’- there were 150 in 1967 alone, and then 3,000 throughout the 1960s… We had audience members at one screening who were from Detroit, who said all we had to do was change the archival footage, and we’d have their story, both then and now.” The film will be aired nationally on P.O.V. on Tuesday, July 10.
IN THEATERS THIS WEEK
“Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox” (June 29), directed by Sara Lamm. Distributor: Balcony Booking & Releasing. Official website
“Vitus” (June 29), directed by Fredi M. Murer. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics. Official website