Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dispatches from Sundance 2012: 3

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

Taras's third report from Sundance 2012 (read Dispatches from Sundance 2012: Part 1 & Part 2):

Sundance Festival has earned a reputation for lionizing documentary films that take on large issues and causes. The winner of the 2012 Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. documentary comes as no surprise, therefore - Eugene Jarecki’s (Why We Fight) penetrating account of the damage done to American society by the War on Drugs launched by President Nixon in the 1970s. The House I Live In describes how Nixon launched this war by funding largely preventive measures, for example, rehabilitating existing drug abusers. This policy is far removed from the coercive, punitive approach taken by President Reagan and followed by his successors.

Once a policy has been implemented, it cannot easily be undone, Jarecki shows. Many economic interests have been created by this capital-intensive program: the ever-expanding judicial and prison systems, the need for more police and probation officers and, most surprisingly, a growing new economic sector that does something – it incarcerates them – about the burgeoning American population unneeded by the postindustrial economy. Forty-five million arrests made in the U.S. over 40 years have created scores of jail jobs, enriched many arresting officers, kept paper pushers and lawyers busy - and forced growing numbers of defendants and convicted “criminals” into the drug trade to pay for freedom from prison. But the war on drugs has failed to undermine the drug market – illegal drugs are cheaper and easier to buy than ever.

The House I Live In shows how in the 1970s many poor people still had jobs; today the poor have no jobs and are socially and economically redundant. The film highlights the shift in the targets of the drug war that is being fought in the U.S., from poor Blacks smoking crack to middle-class Whites who are into meth. The result of the incarceration of more and more Americans on drug charges, often involving long mandatory minimum sentences, is that the U.S., with about five percent of the world’s population, accounts for 25 percent of global prison inmates. Minorities are dramatically overrepresented among them.

Talking heads define Jarecki’s films and in The House I Live In most of these are people who have been harmed by the war on drugs – not drugs themselves. David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire, is the film’s articulate anchor. At 110 minutes in length, Jarecki’s film seeks to be comprehensive. “The silence on this war must be broken,” he urged his audience at the “Best of Fest” screening. Yet the fiasco caused by the war on drugs, in the U.S. but above all today in Mexico, is self-evident and not complicated to understand. To sustain a longer documentary such as this, aesthetics needs to play a supporting role. Instead, this raw, issue-centered story runs out of steam due to its didactic, repetitive, tedious character.

No one will accuse Danish director Mads Brügger of tedium. His earlier documentaries – The Red Chapel about a small theatre troupe that goes on a cultural exchange to North Korea (the 2010 Sundance World Dramatic Jury Prize winner) and the satirical Danes for Bush - combine subtle irony with slapstick parody. The Ambassador, which left 2012 Sundance without an award, is in fact a tour de force – with equal emphasis on tour and force. How many of us are aware of the perfectly-legal trafficking of diplomatic passports? From this documentary we get fresh insight into the blood diamonds trade in the Central African Republic, the uranium mines here that the Chinese are interested in, and France’s continued manipulation of the country’s politics. But it is the straight-faced Brügger’s acquisition of diplomatic documents to represent himself as Liberia’s official consul to the CAR – a man more Danish than the name Mads – that opens our eyes to the sham of politics in developing countries and the West’s lurid role in them.

Not only is his status as a Liberian diplomat officially acknowledged, so is Brügger’s simultaneous interest in opening up a match factory in Bangui, the capital city. To better brand his product, he intends to name the matches l’Ambassadeur and to advertise them as having been manufactured by Pygmies. Two outlandish scenes from the film stand out. One, taken from a camera on the shore of the river, captures the lanky, head-shaven-bald Dane sailing in a canoe puffing at an oversized cigar while his Pygmy assistants sit nervously behind and in front of him – a parody of colonialism that might have got even Joseph Conrad to laugh out loud. The second is of Brügger ordering the Pygmies to listen to “the sounds of sea creatures” in his office: he puts on a tape of whale songs that his little African assistants become mesmerized by.

The deeper the business roots the Danish director sinks in the country, the more dangerous it becomes for him and his associates. As we learn at the end of the film, several of his interlocutors featured in the documentary have died mysteriously in the year since the film was shot. We do not know how Brügger gets out of the CAR. We do not know who put up the hundreds of thousands of euros needed to purchase the Liberian passport, pay enormous bribes to CAR government officials, and put a vast deposit down for a business partnership with a CAR diamond dealer. A woman at Sundance, who told me she works in the U.S. intelligence community in Washington – a typical character you find attending the Festival - suggested that I should not rule out the CIA. As with his visit to North Korea as a member of a touring comedy group, Brügger has uncanny social skills and cutting edge technology, including undetectable hidden cameras, to dig out prize information even as he acts the buffoon’s part. One Sundance critic described him as “A singular voice in the documentary world.” Few who have seen his films would disagree.

I’ve lived and worked in both Denmark and Sweden. I spent last year in Malmö, across the Oresund from Copenhagen, and so I wanted to interview Malmö-based Swedish documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten at Sundance about his latest project, Big Boys Gone Bananas. It is the story of the Dole Food Company’s lawsuit – and multifaceted public relations campaign - against him for having made BANANAS!* and shown it at the Los Angeles Film Festival. That documentary investigated Nicaraguan banana workers’ health problems, including sterility, that might be the product of pesticides used by Dole.

If you do not believe that Danes and Swedes come from different planets – not opposite sides of the Sound – then the contrast in filmmaking, risk-taking, belief systems, and political values between Brügger’s and Gertten’s films might change your mind.

Big Boys Gone Bananas is a courageous, earnest film about the limits on freedom of expression set by international corporations within which artists today must navigate. After unimaginable stress that, fortunately, many Swedes seem to have an innate capacity to adapt to, Gertten held out long enough to convince Dole to drop its increasingly counterproductive lawsuit. Critical to Gertten’s victory were important actors in Sweden: the Max hamburger chain that stopped carrying Dole products because of fair trade issues; two members of the Swedish Parliament who had the film shown in the Riksdag, mobilizing more lawmakers against Dole; and a counterattacking Swedish media campaign that raised new issues about Dole.

As signs point to Gertten’s success over Dole, the camera pans to a shot of the Swedish flag flying over the Parliament Building in Stockholm. Gertten objected to my suggestion that his documentary fed the image of Sweden as self-righteous moral crusader. But he did laugh when I said that the best public relations operation anywhere in the world is the Swedish state.

Stereotypes have Danes as worldly, happy, moral relativists, Swedes as self-abnegating pained, moral absolutists. One Danish writer told me that under the conservative Danish prime minister and current NATO chief, the Danes joined several wars on the urging of U.S. leaders. Sweden’s image remains one built in the Olaf Palme era underlining its fearless, moral opposition to American foreign policy. We see this contrast in the cinematic styles and methods of inquiry employed by these two Scandinavian directors.--Ray Taras

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans where he also directed its World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years.

Read--Dispatches from Sundance 2012: Part 1 & Part 2.

--Marshal Zeringue