Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dispatches from Sundance 2013: 4

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 fourth report from Sundance 2013 (read Dispatches from Sundance 2013: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3):

Four Documentaries: The Stories We Tell; The Stuart Hall Project; Narco Cultura; We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

“I’ve always liked documentaries more than fictional narrative film,” says Canadian film director Sarah Polley. “I can sit through any documentary and it will be educational even if it’s terrible, but a bad feature film can make me want to die.” Let’s review four 2013 Sundance documentaries to gauge how valid such a claim is.

Polley has been coming to Sundance since 1999, when she was just nineteen, in support of films she has been cast in as well as the shorts, drama, and documentary she has directed. Her earlier dramatic feature, Away From Her, was based on a story by fellow Canadian Alice Munro and she is at work on her next one, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. But at this year’s festival she showcased Stories We Tell, a critically-acclaimed documentary that hit the major autumn film festivals in Venice, Toronto, and Telluride. It is in the Sundance Spotlight program which offers a “tribute to the cinema we love.”

After its screening this week Polley noted how essential it is to create narratives about our lives. The documentary comprises stories told by members of her family and their close friends about her parents. It leads to the discovery that Polley’s biological father is a Montreal writer. This fact (99.3% probability in the paternity test) in no way alters her loving relationship with her English-born stepfather – “Dad” she always calls him in the film.

Stories We Tell, then, is less about the art of storytelling (in which Alice Munro may be unrivalled) and more about how memory serves people in different ways. What the documentary has in common with Away From Her, which portrays an older man’s responses to his wife’s progressing Alzheimer’s, is a woman out of reach to nearly everybody (Polley’s frolicking mother in Stories We Tell) and a man elegantly responding to hurt (as Polley put it in a question-and-answer session).

Stories We Tell is not a pathos-drenched film, as you would expect from an animated, self-deprecating film director like Polley. “The word ‘celebrity’ wouldn’t even apply to what I am in Canada.” Summing up her week at Sundance, she cautions: “How destructive is it to sit for days on end and speak to people only about yourself, and not ask them any questions in return?” It can lead to becoming a total narcissist, she adds.
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If my memory serves me right, it was about 1972 that I developed a new course, Film and Politics, which I taught at a university in the West Midlands. Watching The Stuart Hall Project made me realize why I had been drawn into the emerging field of communications studies (a second course I taught at that time was a History of the BBC): Stuart Hall was making a mark at the University of Birmingham with pioneering work in the new field of cultural studies.

But director John Akomfrah’s documentary focuses less on Jamaican-born Hall’s academic work, which hatched such vibrant fields today as migration studies, critical theory, and film studies,
John Akomfrah
as his radical politics embodied in the British intellectual journal New Left Review.

I asked what the catalyst had been for making the movie. Akomfrah told the story of listening to the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs on which Hall had stressed the importance of Miles Davis’s radical music to his life. The documentary’s powerful sound track features excerpts of Miles’ music from the 1950s through the 1980s.

“Stuart saw the film last week and was thrilled,” Akomfrah told us. As a social history of Britain spanning the period from the arrival of the first large groups of immigrants from the Commonwealth to the hyper-diversity the U.K. exhibits today, this informative documentary also succeeds in chronicling the provocative writings, media work, and times of Stuart Hall.
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Shaul Schwarz
One of the most courageous of the documentary filmmakers this year has to be Shaul Schwarz, a former photojournalist. His Narco Cultura offers a first-hand look at Mexico’s powerful drug cartel originating in Culiacán, capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. The town’s garish, ever-expanding cemetery, which Schwarz and his crew were able to visit in vans provided by narco bosses, is a symbol of how much wealth drug trafficking has brought to this previously unremarkable part of Mexico – and how much death.

Much of the film is shot in the strategic trafficking city of Ciudad Juarez which the Culiacán cartel has terrorized. Home to a business estimated to be worth more than $40 billion, close to 4,000 homicides took place in Juaraz in 2010 alone, a toll higher than all American combat deaths in Afghanistan since 2001. Fifty yards across the bridge in El Paso, five murders were committed that year making the city the safest in the United States.

Emphasizing his main theme of Americans’ studious obliviousness to Mexico’s drug wars, Schwarz put it this way: “No one wants to know what’s going on across the border.” To support this argument, the documentary explores the rising popularity of narcocorrido music in the United States.

Singing the praises of cartel heads and thugs who torture, maim, and behead, the best known of the Mexican-American bands tour and sell out performances from Los Angeles to North Carolina, and places in between. The film shows fans – young men and women - chanting lyrics about killing. Banned in Mexico itself, the drug ballads of the Movimiento Alterado, endorsed and embraced by the Sinaloa cartel, can be bought in a Walmart in the U.S.

Let’s set aside the familiar arguments about the U.S. as creating the demand for drugs and as supplying the weapons for drug wars in Mexico. Narco Cultura tells us that narco values and cultural practices have become cool in the U.S. They aid and abet Mexico’s drug wars while insidiously poisoning some of America’s most fundamental values.
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“We steal secrets” is a phrase uttered by Stephen Hadley, former U.S. National Security advisor, to describe what American intelligence agencies do. So in the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, the two principal foci of Alex Gibney’s film, have done nothing that the U.S. government doesn’t officially do.

Alex Gibney
It is Manning about whom we learn much new information, from his childhood to his life in the army where he expressed a desire to change gender identity even as he accessed and passed on secret U.S. cables from around the world. Why none of Manning’s superiors has been held responsible for allowing a troubled but computer savvy young man to steal from the stealers is a key question raised by Gibney. Manning’s introspection about his gender identity and sexual orientation largely makes us sympathetic to his actions – not his principles against unjust war and occupation.

 The documentary treats Assange differently. Covering not much new ground about the world’s best known hacker, through a series of interviews with people he has worked we observe how he becomes steadily abandoned and isolated. From Mick Jagger star power at the height of his fame, “Assange has become little more than a paranoid hermit hiding out at the Ecuadorian embassy in England,” writes Eric Hynes this week about his interview with Gibney for the official Sundance daily report.

Assange has pointed out that googling the word “rape” will produce hundreds of thousands of hits about him even though he has never even been charged with this crime. Gibney’s original contribution to the Assange case is an interview in Sweden with his principal accuser Anna A. From his initial assumption that the criminal investigation of Assange was a “stunt,” Gibney has now concluded that “this isn’t a ridiculous case.”

In her interview the accuser asserts that she cannot discuss the Assange case as it is under legal review. All we have, then, are her style and tone which seem cocksure and intimidating. Some may be reminded of past interviews with Lance Armstrong. Gibney does himself no good in striving to tell the WikiLeaks story by interviewing a woman who is emphatic that Manning and WikiLeaks are topics separate from Assange.

To examine secrets in Sweden, Gibney would do well to learn from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy with its presumption of a powerful Stockholm political establishment which spawns a corrupt underworld. This is a subject skillfully and repeatedly treated in earlier fictional explorations of corruption in this country. Plausible explanations for why Assange ran aground in Sweden may be found, then, in fictional narrative film (and literature) about Sweden. It is not always the case, as Sarah Polley has suggested, that documentaries invariably are more informational than fiction.--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.

--Marshal Zeringue