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Race, Religion, Immigration: 5 New Documentaries That Capture Our Divided Times — NYFF

In this report from the NYFF Critics Academy, several new documentaries wrestle with the biggest problems facing the world today.

“The Venerable W.”

“El Mar la Mar”

The U.S/Mexico border is one of the most politicized landscapes on the planet, and in “El Mar,” the filmmakers let the environment speak for itself. Despite production predating the then-President-elect’s racist “build the wall” chants, the film premieres right on time, painting a poetic avant-garde portrait of an ongoing calamity. Against the backdrop of the scorching hot Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest, filmmaking duo J.P. Sniadecki (a Harvard University Sensory Ethnography Lab alumni) and multi-hyphenate newcomer Joshua Bonnetta cultivate a quiet-yet-audacious amalgamation of oral accounts in breathtaking 16mm footage. Interviewing humanitarian aid workers, smugglers, and border agents on their first-hand accounts navigating the border and its cursed terrain, El Mar doubles as a ghost story, excavating the nearly 6,000 human remains that have been discovered on the border alongside images of abandoned cell phones, clothing, and everyday supplies. The film totally evades the usual route of exploitation when it comes to these narratives of plight, instead opting to follow Brett Story’s “The Prison in 12 Landscapes” blueprint, highlighting American life under the shadow of the prison industrial complex in a series of vignettes, and not actually showing a brick and mortar prison until the final shot. “El Mar” does that, but with the border, deliberately choosing not to document people in times of duress and revealing their humanity in a visually arresting manner, a documentary trend that will hopefully spread like wildfire.

“Sea Sorrow”

vanessa redgrave sea sorrow documentary

“Sea Sorrow”

What “Sea Sorrow” lacks in cinematic technique it makes up for in its narrative intensity. Shot all over Europe, actress-turned-first-time-director Vanessa Redgrave creates a cri de cœur for migrants in a quintessential “celebrity using platform for good” movie. Employing fellow British actors Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes, British Labour leaders, and harrowing interviews with refugees from Guinea, Afghanistan, Syria, and more, Redgrave illustrates the immediate importance of open borders. The film isthe long-awaited visual testament to Redgrave’s radical political sensibilities, which parallel her status as one of the greatest actresses in the English-speaking world. Recruiting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the United Nations in 1948 to contextualize the modern refugee crisis in tandem with other massive political injustices, the documentary is easier to comprehend once you realize its prosaic nature and engage with it as a public service announcement to European leaders.

“The Rape of Recy Taylor”

As the founder of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Nancy Buirski has a penchant for nonfiction. Making the leap to directing can prove difficult with any subject matter, yet Buirski continues to profile groundbreaking race-related stories, first with “The Loving Story,” the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on interracial marriage, and now exposing the ignored account of sexual violence in “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” The documentary provides a disturbing retelling of the criminally-neglected 1944 case of 24-year-old African American sharecropper Recy Taylor, who was brutally raped on her walk back from church by a gang of six white men on a warm September night in rural Abbeville, Alabama. Her subsequent quest to seek justice in the face of a racist judicial establishment and an absentee police force was a bold demonstration of real-life courage in the face of apathy. Although the title of the film and certain images might trigger debate about the (un)necessity of displaying black bodies being used and abused on screen, mirroring the debacle earlier this year when white artist Dana Schulz’s “Open Casket,” a painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial, sparked a heated conversation on black death being a spectacle for the white gaze, spearheaded by fellow artist Hannah Black.

The documentary is much more nuanced and doubles as a heartfelt letter to the neglected labor of black women in times of struggle and resistance. With Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo providing voiceover of a younger Rosa Parks, who aided Taylor and her family in their fight during her tenure at the NAACP in the face of police intimidation, this humbly provocative film belongs in a #SayHerName film syllabus—a minuscule canon that deserves to grow alongside the movement for Black Lives. The combination of close-ups and interviews with Taylor’s younger brother and sister emphasize an intimate study of a horrifying story that helped lay the blueprint for the impending Civil Rights movement. The film serves as a reminder for us to believe survivors of sexual assault, to acknowledge black women’s historic and ongoing third class citizenship, and that in the face of colossal injustice, there is always power in numbers.

“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?”

“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?”

The title is rhetorical. We know who fired the gun. In 1946, S.E Branch, the great-grandfather of filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, shot and killed Bill Spann, a Southern black man in a Dothan, Alabama, grocery store. The murder occurred two years after Recy Taylor’s assault and a mere 30-minute drive away—a brutal reminder that racist terror is a neighborly characteristic of American life. In this hybrid multidimensional documentary, Wilkerson posthumously charges his relative in cold-blooded murder, blending elements of true crime and horror into a confrontational Southern Gothic investigative tale (which can unfortunately veer into navel-gazing).

One can’t help but think that Ed Vaughn, an elderly Civil Rights activist and interviewee who doubles as a human encyclopedia on his militant family history and surrounding areas, should’ve consumed a larger portion of the film. In fact, the subsequent boycott of the store by the black community and the private detective hired by Wilkerson to uncover more about Spann’s descendants should’ve rated more screen time than it gets in his one-note voiceovers. What “The Rape of Recy Taylor” gets right in its intersectional focus is what “Gun” gets wrong, and vice versa. Where “Recy Taylor” offered a lackluster aesthetic template, Gun offers deliberately powerful score and visuals: unfortunately, the latter lacks a careful examination of black lives in Deep South.

“The Venerable W.”

In “The Venerable W.,” the audience bears witness to the rare invention of extremism. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General has stated that Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh is “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.” And in Barbet Schroeder’s completion of his Trilogy of Evil series—alongside “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait” (1974) and “The Terror’s Advocate” (2007)—we observe Ashin Wirathu, the Buddhist monk that serves as the instigator for this mass exodus. Muslims in Myanmar represent only 4% of the population, creating a perfect scapegoat for taking over the nation’s land and businesses, a relentless description that follows ethnic minorities in nearly every human genocide. What makes “W.” so intensely fascinating (and equally disturbing) is Wirathu’s calm approach to his vile rhetoric, a sociopath describing his hatred in a respectable manner, alongside amateur footage of the chaos wrecked on Muslim property and lives courtesy of his speeches. Schroeder also interviews journalists and Wirathu’s religious peers, who disagree with his statements. Unfortunately, he only features one Muslim, Abdul Rasheed, the chairman of the Rohingya Foundation. Still, “W.” shows that it’s sometimes necessary to look directly at the face of evil if we are to eradicate nefarious beliefs.

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