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: http://www.kinocritics.com/film_review.php?f=2176). 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.