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back issues

 

August 2003
Film Reviews

 

Get Real!
Doctors Without Borders: Life in the Field
(National Geographic Channel; Wednesdays at 9 pm ET/PT. Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland.

This is the ultimate “reality TV” show: follow around doctors and nurses who have volunteered for the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (aka Médecins Sans Frontieres or MSF) on their assignments in some of the most remote places on earth.
This series started off with a bang last month with a profile of “cool hand Luc,” a seasoned nurse caring for prisoners in an overcrowded prison on the Ivory Coast. In a candid interview Luc admits he has to be somewhat crazy to work in such a place, but with a grin, he adds that the rewards make it worthwhile and he’ll keep doing this work for the rest of his life.

It’s hard to imagine waste management as exciting stuff, but watch as engineer Richard Mowll tackles his task of draining several years’ worth of human waste from the basement of a hospital in Uzbekistan. Soon you’ll be grinning with him as a ceiling-high room full of stinking sludge slowly turns into a dry, clean basement.

Much of the shows center on logistics, which may seem boring, but much of the work of MSF volunteers is simply—or not so simply—getting to the places where they are needed. One segment follows Peter Rietveld and Maria Kantilli on their mission to survey the health needs of remote villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Scores of people are rumored to be wasting away from an unknown disease in the “land of the skeletons,” an area that hasn’t seen health professionals in more than a decade. Watch as Rietveld and Kantilli doggedly make their way through the wilderness on small motorbikes, getting stuck in mud, crossing streams by balancing on logs, and fending off large insects at night. They arrive to find villages plagued with people on the verge of death, reduced to skin and bone, and shunned by other villagers. One woman is found to have leprosy. Although heartbreaking, Peter Rietveld manages to find hope, thoughtfully commenting that at least help is now on the way. Due to his report, MSF will soon establish a clinic to restore health to the villagers. It’s inspiring—and sobering—to see each volunteer stare disaster in the face, yet find hope in spite of it all. —C.C.

“What If?”

28 Days Later directed by Danny Boyle (Fox Searchlight, 2002).
Believe the hype. This film is scary—very scary.

Set in London, 28 Days Later begins in a research laboratory. A restrained chimp lies spread-eagle with wires attached to his head, staring at banks of screens displaying horrific images of extreme violence. A band of animal liberators sneaks in, shocked by what they see: rows of fish tank-like containers, each holding a cramped, restless chimp. A researcher happens upon them and panics, warning that the chimps are infected with a dangerous virus, screaming that the activists don’t know what they’re doing. A young woman opens a cage and is immediately attacked by an angry chimp.

Twenty-eight days later a young man wakes up in a hospital bed. Disoriented, he removes the IV tube and wanders into the hall. Nobody’s there—the hallways are empty. Outside, the city lies silent—not a soul around.

The chimps had been given a highly contagious virus, which causes uncontrollable rage within seconds after infection. When the chimps were released, it jumped the species barrier and spread among people like wildfire, turning them into vicious zombies. (Don’t worry—I haven’t given anything away; this all takes place within the first five minutes.)

28 Days Later is a classic sci-fi thriller, mixing science with fiction to make a scary story with complex and interesting characters. What’s so great about the film is that it defies the conventional scary movie plot twists. Just when you think you know what’s going on, something entirely unexpected happens.

What is so disturbing about 28 Days Later is how conceivable the scenario is. Researchers mess around with dangerous viruses and bacteria all the time, injecting them into animals and watching what happens. In the playground of the laboratory, scientists come up with all kinds of inventive ways to kill masses of people. But even with the greatest precautions, such contagions can be—and are—released, or simply sold, no matter how corrupt or evil the buyer may be (smallpox and anthrax anyone?).

There are moments when you can’t help thinking that the live humans may be even more evil than the rabid zombies. 28 Days Later will tickle your intellect, making you seriously consider a frightening “what if” scenario. It’ll also trigger that “fight or flight” instinct and leave you sweating in fear. It’s fun. It’s scary. Check it out. (Note: those of you yearning for movies about animal activists, this is not your film—the activists appear only in the very beginning.) —C.C.


A Whale of a Story

Whale Rider directed by Niki Caro (Newmarket Capital Group, 2002).
Whale Rider is the coming-of-age story of Pai, a 12 year-old Maori girl struggling for the affections of her chieftain grandfather, Koro. He would have preferred she were born a boy so that she could continue the family line of great leaders descending from Paikea, the tribe’s legendary ancestor who rode a whale’s back to New Zealand 1,000 years ago. While Koro overlooks Pai and searches for a leader amongst village boys, Pai doggedly works to show him that anyone can be a leader. Director Niki Caro adapts the beloved bestseller by Witi Ihimaera (the first Maori novelist to be published in New Zealand) into an artful, intelligent film that is touching in an organic fashion rarely seen in its genre.

After the screening, I sat holding a soggy Kleenex, too emotionally drained to evacuate the theater. The performance of Keisha Castle-Hughes (Pai) and Rawiri Paratene (Koro) convinced me that I have lived this story—we all have. It deals with the universal conflict between the individual and the society into which one is born. While it is often argued that a person must adapt herself to the environment in which she lives, this inspiring film is proof that occasionally the individual does win.

I’m not surprised that Whale Rider has won several audience awards. In about 90 minutes, it was able to place six year-olds, senior citizens and my 20-something year-old self all in an emotional collective—this film has something for everyone. Those interested in world culture will enjoy the wealth of Maori folk art, music, language and tradition. World travelers and authenticity zealots will appreciate that it was filmed in Whangara, author Witi Ihimaera’s native village, and many members of the community were extras in the film. Cinemaphiles will enjoy the crisp imagery. Children will respect that the film doesn’t treat Pai and the other young characters as cute intellectual midgets, but rather as individuals with rich and complex emotional inner lives. Those disgusted by movies that romanticize imperialism will love that Whale Rider exposes, if ever so gently, the corruptive social effects this institution has had on New Zealand aboriginals. Overall, anyone who has ever challenged a system she feels is oppressive will get a gust of vicarious energy from the triumphant Pai. Yep, I think that’s just about everyone. —Olivia Lane


A Tip of the Iceberg?

Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death produced and directed by Jamie Doran (ACFTV, 2002).
I fear Afghan Massacre indicates only the tip of the iceberg of something most of us would prefer remaining ignorant of.

Jamie Doran’s controversial documentary presents compelling evidence of the massacre of thousands of prisoners who surrendered to America’s Afghan allies after the siege of Kunduz in November, 2001. Loaded into containers for transport to prison, trucks carried their live cargo on a grueling journey that lasted up to four days. The lucky ones died straight away. The rest suffered from acute dehydration, forcing many to do unspeakably grisly things just to survive. Desperate cries for air brought bullets, as soldiers were instructed to shoot directly into the containers—not above prisoners’ heads but at body-level. Up to 3,000 now lie buried in a mass grave.

Afghan Massacre tells of how American Special Forces took control of the operation, re-directed the trucks into the desert and stood by as survivors were shot and buried. After a screening of the film last fall, the European Parliament called for an investigation. The UN has agreed to send a special envoy but is holding off because their safety cannot be guaranteed. Meanwhile, two of the eyewitnesses in the film have been killed.

Afghan Massacre premiered in the U.S. on the Pacifica radio/TV show “Democracy Now” and broadcast repeatedly on WorldLink TV last month. Excerpts can be viewed for free at www.democracynow.org. This Just In: The latest documentary by Jamie Doran, The Need for Speed: Going to War on Drugs, examines how the Pentagon has been issuing a concoction of mind-altering drugs to its soldiers and airmen, resulting in the accidental deaths of allied forces, civilians and, almost certainly, their own men. Videotapes of both films can be purchased from ACFTV at www.acftv.com. —C.C.


Guns: Making the World Safer?

Guns and Mothers directed by Thom Powers (Sugar Pictures, 2003).
Guns and Mothers is the work of a filmmaker who, having grown up in the early 80s in Detroit—then the “Murder Capital” of the nation—wanted to explore from both sides the highly controversial issue of gun control in America. Thom Powers uses two mothers’ contrasting stories to portray why individuals become so passionate in their standpoint on gun control that they dedicate their lives to fighting on behalf of it: Frances Davis, who lost all three of her sons (and two nephews) to gun violence, and Maria Heil, a “Second Amendment Sister” who believes that maintaining (or achieving) real safety rests upon the right to bear arms.

The opposing sides are really means to achieving an ironically similar end—increased safety. To implement stricter gun control laws with the goal of reducing the tragedy we see in the streets, versus zero gun control in the name of one’s “right” to bear arms. No matter what your position on the issue—and everyone has one—watching Guns and Mothers fosters an understanding of the other side, which otherwise often goes unheard (or more correctly, unlistened to). There’s one particular scene that portrays this persistent mental block well—a conversation between a group of pro-gun protesters and passersby starts out with what seems like a genuine interest to engage in real dialogue to hear each other’s point of view, but quickly disintegrates into a shouting match involving a growing crowd competing for the louder voice.

Both groups are working fiercely toward their respective agendas, and the battle between them is a difficult, emotionally inflamed one. On one side are the countless victims of gun and street violence, and the loved ones they’ve left behind to wonder why; on the other are individuals concerned about being able to defend themselves should the threat of an attack present itself. Personally, I’m of the opinion that guns don’t have a productive role to play in society and our everyday lives, and I’d never understood the logic of people who think that they do. But now I do, at least more so. I still may not agree, but I can better understand the thinking of someone who doesn’t agree with me either.

To read an interview with the filmmaker or more about gun control, visit www.pbs.org/independentlens/gunsandmothers. —R.C.


Do You Know Where it Goes?

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage directed by Heather Rogers (AK Press, 2002).
This film is, well, just what it sounds like—an exploration of what happens to the trash we produce (at a rate in NYC of 13,000 tons a day) once it leaves our bins and our sight. Filmmaker Heather Rogers maps out, in approximately 20 minutes, how “built-in obsolescence” has come to dominate our market economy since the second world war. So many of the things we’ve come to “need” on a daily (or more) basis are now disposable, to the point where it’s often impossible for even the most conscientious individual to be waste-free.

Gone Tomorrow
examines waste disposal from a broader perspective than the simplistic and ubiquitous yet underutilized mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It contemplates why we have so much waste in the first place, as well as the complexities of recycling itself, which despite its reputation as the miracle and only necessary solution, is in reality more of a band aid approach. Some examples: to recycle plastic involves melting it down and then reconstituting it into a material that’s usable and marketable—processes that aren’t so ‘green,’ thanks to the amount of energy they require; and recycled plastic is more precisely termed “downcycled” because the bonds holding the plastic together lose much of their strength with each cycle of reuse, and the downgraded material thus needs to be blended with a great deal of virgin plastic in order to achieve a certain quality material.

With the film, Rogers raises serious questions about the full life-span of the products we absentmindedly consume, from their final stages in the recycling and waste disposal industries, to their birth in the industrial plants that produce them for us—at a cost, measured in units of waste, of 70 times what we as consumers throw away. Yep, 70 tons of industrial waste for every household ton.
Gone Tomorrow may be one of those films that raises more questions than it answers, but it provides critical insight into what people too often think of as end-all, be-all solutions—misconceptions that don’t adequately equip any individual to enter into a constructive discussion about how to address these urgent problems. It begs the question—if recycling isn’t as benign as we thought, what do we do? Here’s a thought: consume less.

Recycle This!, a Brooklyn-based recycling and waste reduction advocacy group, is organizing a NYC inter-borough tour of the film this fall. To help organize or attend a screening, visit www.RecycleThisNYC.org. To learn more about the film, email gonetomorrowthemovie@yahoo.com. —R.C.


Big Tobacco’s New Face

Making a Killing directed by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold (INFACT, 2000).
Any living—breathing—person knows that cigarettes are bad for one’s health, and most assume it’s safe to say the industry that produces and promotes them is just as inconsiderate and harmful, if not more so; but to articulate exactly why is more of a challenge. Making a Killing is a quick lesson in just that: an important and intense film about the global tobacco industry. The effects on people’s health in the U.S. are relatively well known; but the film shows how the industry’s influence doesn’t stop at U.S. borders. Big Tobacco’s effects can be traced to every corner of the world, not least of all poor countries that faced ample problems before cigarette addiction—and the monetary expenses it accrues—were added to the load.

Making a Killing is sort of an exposé of some of the marketing strategies that catalyzed much of Philip Morris’s corporate growth, such as luring children into cigarette addiction (the one most conspicuous in the U.S.) by marketing to them with free cigarettes and ‘cool’ gear, preventing governments worldwide from acting in the interests of public health, and skirting what attempts governments do make, such as implementing legal advertising restrictions, in oh-so-sly ways. Then there’s the move—much overlooked with consequences greatly underestimated—of acquiring all-American Kraft Foods, which provided the tobacco giant with a more wholesome (and consumer-friendly) foot to put forward.

A collaboration of filmmakers Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold and INFACT, a group “challenging corporate abuse / building grassroots power since 1977,” Making a Killing is a 29 minute film that juxtaposes promotional materials from the early days of television with more recent footage of board meetings, interviews, etc. to shed light on how the industry has evolved to wield the immense political, economic, and social power—in overt and subtle ways alike—that it does today. (Perhaps most shocking was the revelation that Philip Morris shares a board member with Sloan-Kettering—as in, yes, the esteemed cancer center.)

Nowadays ‘smoking endangers human health’ is more common sense than a theory up for debate, yet we still are vulnerable to influence by the industry that essentially catapulted lung cancer rates to unprecedented levels—“tobacco is wacko” seems to ring truer than ever.

To learn more about INFACT or how to get the video, visit www.infact.org or call (617) 695-2525. —R.C.


Keeping Hope Alive Through Music

The Flute Player directed by Jocelyn Glatzer (Over the Moon Productions, 2003).
The Flute Player is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dismal and somewhat doomed situation—the loss of culture in a land that used to be filled with and defined by it. The film tells the story of Arn Chorn Pond, a Cambodian man who survived the 1975 genocide that killed two million of his country’s people, his family included.

Traditional Khmer music had always played an integral role in Cambodian culture, but with no one left to keep traditions alive, was almost wiped out by the genocide. What enabled Arn to survive the Khmer Rouge takeover was actually his musical talent, but after four years of living on the frontlines and traumatized by the horror that life in the Killing Fields was, Arn fled his country for the U.S. in an effort to move on—find a “new” life perhaps. Faced with the guilt of feelings of abandonment, however, Arn goes back to Cambodia to try to spread his knowledge of the music that is quickly disappearing as the last generation in which it thrived is slowly lost. Arn faces a tough challenge as he tries to revive what the younger generations often see as un-“cool.” But he’s making progress: the Cambodian Master Performers Program that he founded is slowly gaining ground—and students—in preserving Khmer traditional arts.

The Flute Player begins with a brief history of the genocide, but the majority of this hour-long film is focused on Arn’s current struggle, which involves scrambling to find and talk with elders and absorb from them some of his ancestry before it’s too late to do so. Arn is an internationally recognized and award-winning activist who has established, among other initiatives, Peace Makers, a U.S.-based gang intervention project for Southeast Asian youth, and Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development, which organizes community rebuilding projects for young war victims in Cambodia.

Screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in June and on PBS in July, The Flute Player is bringing attention to a somber issue that would otherwise slip through the cracks. Anyone who gets the chance should see this touching portrayal of a man trying to restore and preserve the disintegrating fabric of a once close-knit people. —R.C.


Where to See It

Television Trust for the Environment (TVE)
TVE is a nonprofit, independent production and distribution film company. Since its 1984 inception, the organization has produced over 1,000 films that specialize in environment, global development, health, and human rights issues. The three series produced by TVE are Earth Report, Hands On, and Life.

Earth Report focuses on the health of our planet, but the cleverly slanted programs in the weekly series are anything but the drab documentaries many of us were forced to endure in high school science class. An upcoming documentary will cover the efforts of citizens’ groups in five cities around the world to improve their environmental standard of living. Hands On reports monthly on breakthroughs in green business and technology. The Life series, which reports on the effects of globalization on poverty and social development, is in hiatus through January 2004, however, synopses of past shows are available through the website. TVE’s programs are first aired on BBC World, and many later appear on PBS. Brief clips and descriptions of all programs may be viewed on their website: www.tve.org. —Olivia Lane

WorldLink TV
There’s a good reason to fork over the cash for a satellite dish or Direct TV: WorldLink—Television Without Borders. At last, there’s a source for real international news, documentaries and films, culture and music!

Here, you’ll find all sorts of things you won’t see on other channels in the U.S., like their daily hour-long news show, Mosaic, which features selections from TV news programs from throughout the Middle East (subtitled in English when necessary). Chat the Planet is a new series that links young people from around the world in real-time dialogue to foster understanding and tolerance. Bridges to Baghdad I and II is an honest and moving discussion between two groups of teenagers, one American, the other Iraqi. The first show was filmed before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the second was taped after. The anger, confusion, empathy, humor, and discovery of commonalities between the groups is electric and refreshing.

Worldlink’s website boasts: “90 percent of our programs have never been shown on U.S. television.” One controversial film reviewed in this issue, Afghan Massacre, supports their claim, and was aired repeatedly last month. Tune in or visit www.worldlinktv.org to learn more. —C.C.

Watch Free Films Online

In addition to the in-theater and video rental films exposing important issues, there are plenty of flicks on the Internet doing the same. There’s a growing number of groups working to improve access to news and activist media—a refreshing and much-needed effort—often by streaming them online.

A great example is The Pie’s the Limit, a film about the hilarious pie-throwings by the infamous Biotic Baking Brigade, a group that has developed its “guerrilla media and ground war with the titans of industry,” into a full-blown Global Pastry Uprising. Watch otherwise unpunished environmental offenders be pied in the face (with vegan cream pie!) and be deeply satisfied as someone who will probably never see the world from behind bars is brought down from his top-ranking business position to a more human level.
Integrated with the humorous moments are the serious, urgent issues for why the “victims” were chosen to be pie’d in the first place, featuring interviews with activists and excerpts from meetings and speeches of corporate leaders. The video is educational and a hoot to watch at the same time, and is available, along with a few others, to download and view at www.whisperedmedia.org/watch.html. —R.C.

 

 


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