This year, the Filmfest Hamburg designated five films in a category entitled “America before the Election.” A sixth one belongs in this group. Altogether 13 films were based on true political or terrorist events.
How did the films stack up? Two were outstanding. By that I mean they were both shocking and informative, neither was polemic and both have haunted me ever since I saw them: Hamburg Cell, a docudrama about the 9/11 terrorists, Mohammed Atta and his friends, and The Hunting of the President, a documentary about the attempt by Republicans and Ken Starr to lynch Clinton. If you thought you knew everything there is to know about either subject, see these films. You will be stunned.
The director of Hamburg Cell, Antonia Bird, has produced a fascinating piece. The film uses historical documents for the script, but recreates the events with actors. Who were the young Islamic fundamentalists who blew up the Twin Towers? How did they become terrorists and murderers? What were their motives? Bird is so focused on using only the information from transcripts of phone calls and emails, Atta’s diary and interviews with authorities, journalists, family and friends that she eschews any temptation to editorialize. The result is that despite the wealth of information, there are gaps in the narrative and the answers remain incomplete. It is as tightly written and suspenseful a thriller as you will ever see even though we know the horrifying end. And it is unnerving to see the number of times where these killers nearly changed their minds, or were almost caught. Bird maintains an admirable distance from her subjects, and neither sympathizes nor accuses. The movie was originally prouduced in Great Britain for television, and licensing problems forced the Festival to withdraw it. But, hopefully, it will be shown eventually in movie theaters.
The Hunting of the President is a true documentary, with on-screen interviews and footage from newsreels and television as well as photos, although the filmmakers, Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry, occasionally flood the screen with scenes from old Westerns and the Keystone cops. Again we know the outcome, but the conscious, deliberate and vindictive attempt to railroad Clinton began long before he delivered his enemies the perfect “gotcha” with his deplorable (to many, immoral) indiscretions in the Oval room. And it is stunning to see these people in action, gunning for Clinton from his successful run for Governor of Arkansas right up to the second term in the White House. The film is also moving. Susan McDougal, a friend of the Clintons, refuses to lie about the Clintons’ part in the Whitewater land deal. Her husband has no such compunctions, and Susan is charged with contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison. Astonishingly, she is placed on murderers’ row in a high security federal penitentiary, a move that has terrible consequences. Watching her, with tears running down her face, relate the horrors she was subjected to is heartbreaking. This film is already available on DVD through Amazon or on the website of the film: www.thehuntingofthepresident.com.
Most political documentaries are not as spellbinding as The Hunting of the President. I found Bush’s Brain about Karl Rove, Bush’s political advisor, also in the Festival category, simply boring. It had no new information for anyone who has even an inkling of who Karl Rove is, and even if you have never heard of him, a lot of talking heads don’t make a good movie, documentary or otherwise.
Another of the five films, September Tapes uses footage shot under dangerous conditions in Afghanistan, with a fictitious script written in Hollywood, about a film crew who are after Osama bin Laden. Whatever the goal of the film, it is neither a documentary, nor a docudrama, nor is it successful in terms of entertainment. It was confusing and irritating because you did not know what was real and what was staged, and if it was real, what did these idiots think they were doing there. The suspense doesn’t start until half to two-thirds of the way through, and it is not enough to sustain the movie.
Two other feature films made the Festival’s cut for “America before the Election”: Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty and a dreadful movie called Alexandria…New York which was so bad, just as a movie, I cannot understand why it was included in the Festival at all. It is completely biased and shows an America which is consistently contemptuous and discriminating of Arabs, fifty years ago as well as today. I assume that the fact that it is about Arabs in America is the reason it was chosen for this category.
Land of Plenty is Wim Wenders’ first political film. He is the German director of Paris, Texas who has lived for twenty years in the U.S.A. A fictional account of a traumatized Vietnam vet who sets out to catch the terrorists he just knows are preparing new attacks on his beloved America, Plenty is not directly based on any actual event, although 9/11 resonates throughout the film. It is funny, moving and occasionally “schmaltzy”. What I found most effective is the remarkable picture of the paranoia and fear which pervades America now, along with the devastating testimony of the awesome, inexcusable poverty and hunger in the country.
Finally, Iron Jawed Angels should have been included in the category of “America Before the Election”, although it takes place way before the present. It covers the years and the events from 1912 to 1920 when a group of incredibly courageous and single-minded women won the right for women to vote in America. This is an HBO film made by a talented German director, Katia von Garnier, which I hope will eventually appear in German cinemas (otherwise rent the DVD). It is a riveting, true tale of the suffragettes, led by Alice Paul (Hilary Swank), who persevered against every hindrance put up against them, by both men and incredibly, other suffragettes, including jail and a nearly fatal hunger strike, to win the right for women to vote as a constitutional amendment. When you see what they went through, consider it a reason never again to be too lazy or too busy to take part in your country’s elections, wherever that may be.