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The Various Faces of Reality
by Marinell Haegelin

Stitching together interviews, cinéma vérité/archival footage, and/or  reenactments, the seven documentaries I screened contained some element of war.  War rooted in drugs, ideologies, personal volitions, global stock markets,  politics: World War II, Mexican drug cartels, Indian sweatshops,  gentrification, Middle East insurgents. A more difficult needle for  documentarians to thread is impartiality; non-fiction films that present facts,  opinions, and a message creatively that will captivate audiences. The following  seven documentaries took audiences on journeys where those conditions, to  varying degrees, were attached.

Focusing on drug cartels warring for profit along the USA and México  border, Cartel Land confirms the  resultant mayhem and crippling societal issues. It should’ve been riveting,  since interviewees are on both sides of the border. What dilutes Matthew  Heineman’s film is length, and confusion due to disproportionate Mexican  coverage; by comparison, the US border is dull. In México’s southern state of  Michoacán, Jose “El Doctor” Mireles leads a self-defense paramilitary group  against the Knights Templar Cartel. When Mireles refuses to join the Government  Rural forces, his fate is sealed. Current and archival footage and interviews  bounce us around México, whereas US exposure is exclusively with ex-soldier  “Nailer” Foley’s Arizona Border Recon militia. Still, after screening the  fictitious Sicario that some  journalists thought was Hollywood’s version, explicit footage in this doc  negates that notion. Ending where we began—with meth cooks—reminded me of David  Evans’ A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers  Did.

Also nominated for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Political Film award,  Evans’ brilliantly assembles interviews with Niklas Frank and Horst von  Wächter, together with the renowned British-French human rights lawyer Philippe  Sands. Appointees Hans Frank, General Governor of Poland, i.e. the “butcher of  Poland,” and Otto von Wächter, Governor of Galicia were among Hitler’s inner  circle; the two families were friends. Traveling to Nazi Holocaust war crime  sites in Poland and the Ukraine includes the site where a majority of Sands’  ancestors perished. Whereas Niklas’ disgust, contempt is honest and scathing,  Horst ignores obvious facts. He clings to the belief that his father would’ve  been exonerated, if he’d been tried; Hans Frank’s Nuremberg trial verdict was  hanging. Sands admits his judicial background was important in his guiding  their conversations. Niklas and Horst’s outlooks, and perceptions,  categorically alter before the we return to where we began, and the film ends.  Not-seen-before photos from Frank and von Wächter’s personal family albums,  some including Hitler, are shown. Well-edited, the balance between archival  footage, and interior/location interviews with the two, then three men, is  laudable.

Another documentary resonating  with World War II’s aftermath is Every  Face Has A Name. Thousands of concentration camp survivors arrived via  ferries in Malmö, Sweden on April 28, 1945. Film crews documented their reentry  into civilization. Seventy years later, while viewing this material for the  first time, some are amazed and surprised to see themselves, or relatives. An  American, a youngster disguised as a girl, and resistance fighters are a few  that talk on camera. Spread around the world, lots of background work went into  this film. What jars is the introduction of refugees (one group) landing in  Sicily, Italy in July 2014. The comparison seems inappropriate: choice was not  an option for the millions taken by force to Nazi  ghettos/concentration-extermination camps. Still, Magnus Gertten won the  Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Political Film award.

In He Named Me Malala, a Political Film nominee, Davis Guggenheim  introduces us to an adolescent global activist. Malala Yousafzai recounts her  horrific encounter with Taliban in native Pakistan. The family fled, taking  asylum in England, yet her passion for education and women’s rights is stanch.  Her father’s succinct: “It was not a person (who shot Malala), it is an  ideology” (see film review:  Whereby, director Chloe Ruthven’s Jungle  Sisters, another Political Film nominee, almost cost her her sister’s friendship.  Orlanda, a British ex-pat in India, indirectly works for global greed, i.e. the  garment industry. The company supplies factories with workers; Orlanda recruits  girls from rural, impoverished villages in east India. Bhanu and Buntu, from  one such village, want to earn their own money, not just marry. But the  reality, during training and then working in a factory, is far from what  Orlanda described. This enormous “army of workers” isn’t without deserters.  When confronted with Chloe’s footage, Orlanda undertakes change; yet changing  mindsets is a daunting task.

The crux of Frederick  Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights is urban  warfare. The neighborhood’s strength, in the New York City borough of Queens,  is cohesive ethnic and immigrant diversity. Nowadays, they are fighting  gentrification. Even so, factions within different groups are divided. For  example, some members of the Gay population want their own community  center—rentable space is available in a neighboring district—while others  advocate for status quo, i.e. continue renting space, and supporting, the  Jewish mosque. At risk is the communal spirit that’s enriched and fostered this  area for years. Direct Cinema maestro Weisman and fly-on-the-wall cameraman  John Davey participate at: different groups’ meetings, trailing the local  Councilman with constituents and his staff at work, as merchants talk about  being forced out by exorbitant rent increases, and ethnic community  celebrations. Dispersed throughout are slice-of-life scenes displaying a  vigorous, harmonious community. Weisman’s message is clear, as usual—his  notorious Titicut Follies, 1967, was  finally released to the public in 1991. The very elements that are appealing  are, in the name of progress and motivated by greed, being destroyed. Root for  the community, but the reality is it’s a battle being lost across the USA,  Europe, and beyond.

To encapsulate the magnitude of Peggy  Guggenheim: Art Addict is daunting. This is a compelling look at 20th  century’s social history through modern artists and their masterworks,  following the life and loves of a fascinating woman. Outstanding introduction  titles combine art, graphics, and beguiling music, setting the film’s tone.  Born into a wealthy New York City family in 1898, the 1929 stock market crash  and the “RMS Titanic” tragedy implicitly altered her life. Director Lisa  Immordino Vreeland harnessed taped interviews, previously believed lost, with  Peggy Guggenheim from 1978 and 1979. Peggy used art as a vehicle to being  independent. From bourgeois to bohemia, she liked to shock, had an insatiable  sexual appetite, and moved between Europe and the USA. A seven-year marriage to  Dada sculptor and writer Laurence Vail produced two children; she divorced  German painter Max Ernst after five years. Peggy’s candid, revealing  observations about herself, and now renowned artists—friends and  lovers—accompanies mesmerizing archival footage: Jackson Pollack, Ezra Pound,  Picasso, Lucien Freud, John Holmes, Miró, Samuel Becket, Marcel Duchamp, and  many others. An eminent collector, Peggy wielded influence with her keen,  innovative intuition: she embraced Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism,  children’s art, and first exhibited solely women artists. During World War II,  Peggy saved artists, and their works, from the Nazis. She was instrumental to  her uncle’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and in 1949 established the Peggy  Guggenheim Collection in a Venetian Palazzo on the Grand Canal that is one of  the most visited museums in the world. (Interestingly, a Modigliani recently  sold for 170 million dollars.) The world owes this feisty, courageous woman  gratitude for the beauty—European and American modern art—she saved for our  prosperity.