Back Row Thoughts – Continuing Documentation

At last check, I had seen seven of the 15 shortlisted films in the Oscar Documentary Feature category. The goal for the last few years has been to see all of them before the nominees were announced, thereby saving myself one more group during the annual blitz. A couple years ago I saw all but four before the nominations, with only two that needed to be found. Last year I missed one, and it wasn’t given a nod anyway (nor did it deserve one). This year, I had only seen three when the shortlist came out, and I was able to knock off a third of the remaining field fairly quickly, but how I was going to get the other eight was a huge challenge, as several had either already cycled through the theatres or hadn’t gotten a release date?

Well, thanks to the Laemmle chain of independent cinemas here in Los Angeles, I will be able to accomplish the goal at last, barring some major complications. And given that I’ve already had a medical wake-up call AND car troubles this week and still got to screenings, I think it’s a safe bet I’ll make it through. Over the course of the last two weeks, the shortlisted docs have been rolled out in special weekend or one-day engagements in Santa Monica and Pasadena, most with Q&A sessions from the directors and producers afterward. Of the remaining eight films, I have ratings ready for four of them, with the other four due to be completed next Monday. Viva Laemmle! All of these films are worth seeing, though some don’t have full distribution just yet. Keep an eye out, though, because there are some truly amazing stories here.

Directed by Anna Zamecka, the film follows a teenage girl named Ola, the de facto head of household for a dirt poor Polish family. Her mother has left the house and moved in with a boyfriend, the father is a drunk, and her younger brother Nikodem is autistic with myriad behavioral issues. Over the course of several weeks, she runs the house and helps her brother prepare for his first Holy Communion, an event that will force her mother back into the picture, hopefully for good.

It’s a beautifully crafted film, set in the tightest, most intimate spaces possible, as the family apartment is literally two cramped rooms. Ola is a deeply tragic, almost Job-like figure, as all she wants is a normal life and a loving family, but she’s constantly waylaid by obstacles. For example, Nikodem’s autism is never spoken of aloud, as the family and the schools do everything in their power to ignore him, hoping he’ll simply learn to behave. The film opens with him getting increasingly distracted trying to accomplish the simple task of belting his pants. Ola is the only one who’ll pay attention to him and she tries desperately to help him advance academically and spiritually, because no one else will. In a truly heartbreaking scene, Ola goes to a school dance and has a legitimately fun time, only to come home and see the TV missing. She breaks down crying because Nikodem can’t offer a cogent explanation and her father is drunk in his lounger, barely conscious.

In the Q&A after the film, Zamecka noted that she had spent a year with the family before the cameras were even allowed in the room. She was that committed to gaining their trust. Knowing that Poland is a heavily Catholic country (there’s a portrait of Pope John Paul II in one of the rooms of the flat), I asked her if there was an intentional religious throughline to the film, and she told me there actually wasn’t. Obviously the word “communion” has a double meaning for the film, in both the ceremony and the hope for familial harmony that Ola craves, but really the religious education is just something that’s considered normal for the area. If Poland was a secular country, she’d be telling the exact same story, because it’s all about Ola.

I actually found that uplifting. Rarely do you have the chance to ask an artist about their influence and the meaning behind their work, and even rarer do you find out that your interpretation is flat out wrong. It was refreshing, and I was grateful to learn about this family’s story and about Zamecka’s process. I sincerely hope this film gets wide distribution, because it’s beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time, yet simple enough to be completely poignant and relatable.

Grade: A-

Of Fathers and Sons
Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki, who currently lives in Germany with his family, took an enormous risk in returning to his hometown, under control of ISIS at the time of filming. There, he ingratiates himself with a local radical who takes pride in raising his sons to join the caliphate and fight both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and coalition forces from the West. The family patriarch Abu so loves his violent extremism that he named his two oldest sons after his heroes, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The film alternates between Abu’s violent activities, his constant war zone outlook on life, and the development of the boys in this environment. Abu is an explosives expert, so part of his job is to search for land mines that they and other al-Queda linked groups have planted over the years. The boys learn the ways of the radical, getting ISIS camp training while exercising low-grade violence in the streets. The only times females are seen in the film are at a local school, where Abu’s sons and others throw stones at them for daring to read. One of Abu’s wives is briefly yelled at off-camera when Abu is injured in his efforts. Eventually, there is a schism in the family, as Ayman and Osama go on polar opposite paths, and it is clear which one Abu thinks is strong, and which one he thinks is weak.

There are some compelling explorations here, and Derki is to be commended for even attempting such a dangerous endeavor, much less surviving it. But I have to admit, I was kind of bored. I nodded off a couple of times, and I checked the time on my phone on multiple occasions. The pacing of the film is just all wrong. I noted that the three-hour Never Look Away felt like a normal feature-length film, but this 95-minute movie felt like an eternity. I think part of it is just the fact that, for his own safety, Derki could never really challenge or comment on anything that he was observing. There are bookend narrations, as well as a couple midway through the film, but for the most part his camera is a fly on the wall with Abu commenting directly to him, and after several repetitions, it kind of got old. Again, it’s a fascinating first-hand look at the dangerous minds the world is still fighting, but as a slice of Syrian life, it just didn’t quite get there for me.

Grade: C

Dark Money
Produced and distributed by PBS (available through their streaming service for members or on iTunes), the film follows investigative reporter John S. Adams, founder of the Montana Free Press, as he works to uncover corruption through corporate dark money donations in Montana. The state is used as a microcosm for the problem of money in politics, as it was one of the strictest states on campaign finance laws due to copper mine interests basically buying the state legislature 100 years ago and polluting the state to an insane degree. Of course, the state’s efforts were eventually undone by the utterly horrible Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court.

With a brief aside in Wisconsin, where dark money corruption went so far as to buy off elected judges so that the crimes couldn’t even be investigated, the movie sticks with Adams and Montana, as local candidates from both parties deal with a deluge of lies and slander from moneyed interests and SuperPACs trying to elect pro-business candidates, almost exclusively Republican.

Incremental changes are made to state laws that can withstand judicial scrutiny in the wake of Citizens United, and in the process a prominent member of the State House is indicted for essentially being bribed by undisclosed corporate donors. The lengths to which this individual goes to attempt to put himself above the law are compelling and disheartening, because this is precisely what anyone who watched the Citizens United case could have predicted.

The film does a good job of explaining how dark money donations work, and it’s kind of fun to see an intrepid journalist who shares his first and last name with two US Presidents work so tirelessly in his own way to fix a genuine political problem in this country. Unfortunately, because it’s PBS, it’s a little too safe. No real solutions are offered on how to end this political scourge, nor are there any real avenues for advocacy and activism explored. It competently shows the problem, and it grants us a bit of catharsis when one crooked politician goes down, but that’s about it. Really it just preaches to the choir, as most people who would bother seeing this already know that corporate donations are bad, and likely are already educated on the relevant cases. It was interesting to see a solidly conservative state like Montana be the vanguard of this battle that favors their side of the political aisle to a large degree, though. It’s good to know that there are some Republicans still out there that put the people over their party or themselves.

Grade: B-

The Silence of Others
Husband and wife duo Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo follow in the footsteps of Joshua Oppenheimer – who directed Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, about the extrajudicial killings of suspected communists in Indonesia – with a similar story about injustice and indifference in Carracedo’s homeland of Spain. Under the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who is still dead!), soldiers and police tortured and killed tens of thousands of people, with civilian loyalists also taking part in the atrocities. After Franco died, King Juan Carlos I became the head of state, and the Parliament passed an amnesty bill which freed all political prisoners, but also mandated a “forgive and forget” policy towards those who carried out the genocide.

As such, for 40 years the victims and their survivors have not been allowed to seek any justice or restitution for their suffering. The film opens with the elderly Maria Martin, who can barely speak above a whisper, walking with her daughter along the side of a road, where she ties flowers onto the guard rail. Somewhere in a field on the other side of the street, her mother was murdered by Franco’s men and buried in a mass grave. Due to the amnesty law, she has never been able to have her mother’s body exhumed and returned to her for a proper burial. Elsewhere, a man named José Galante (who has appeared in other documentaries about Franco’s regime) literally lives a few blocks away from the man who tortured him in prison for over 40 days, a gleeful enforcer nicknamed “Billy the Kid,” who has enjoyed a life without burden since Franco’s days, and has even run in the New York City Marathon.

The film follows these victims and more through the process of filing an international lawsuit through universal jurisdiction, petitioning a judge in Argentina to preside and overrule the Spanish government, in hopes of bringing these people to justice. It is a long and difficult process, and not everyone survives it, but it is essential to them to be recognized and acknowledged, because the amnesty law is so ironclad that streets named for Franco and his deputies are still in place, and school children don’t even learn about the horrors he inflicted.

The stories are, by their very nature, heartbreaking. Some cannot claim their lost relatives. Some have to live with the knowledge that their tormentors walk free. Some have had babies practically stolen from their wombs and sold off without their knowledge or consent. The Argentinian judge is able to grant some small victories along the way, but the government of Spain is so committed to the amnesty that silver linings are few and far between.

What really makes the pain palpable is that for a lot of these people, they don’t seek revenge, only closure. These crimes were committed decades ago. Many of those involved will die sooner rather than later if they haven’t already. As one person notes, their biggest obstacle is time itself. So in that vein, most of these folks just want the piece of mind that comes with real closure, not the kind their government forced on them through legislation in the 70s.

Grade: B

That’s it for this round. Next week should see the completion of the shortlist for the first time ever. If you have an indie house or chain like the Laemmles in your area, do yourself a favor and see as many of these as you can!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which of these films have you seen? Which ones do you want to see? Would you ever have thought that exhuming a skeleton would be a good thing? Let me know!

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