Back Row Thoughts – I’ve Got a Little List, Part 1

In the leadup to next year’s Oscar Blitz, I focused a lot of time over the past two months on clearing as many International Feature submissions as possible, netting myself 10 of the 15 films eventually shortlisted by the Academy. On the flipside of things, this means I wasn’t nearly able to spend as much time on documentaries as I normally would. And of those I did see, most were left off the list of the final 15 hopefuls.

Still, the goal is ever the same, to clear the shortlist before the nominations come out in just under six weeks. I saw three of the semifinalists before yesterday’s announcement (Flee, The Rescue, and Summer of Soul), leaving 12 to complete the task. So over the next few days and weeks, I will attempt to see as many as possible (no word yet on whether the Academy will resume the “Oscar Spotlight: Documentary” series they ran for two years before the pandemic hit), and I’ll recap them here in groups of three.

Why three? Well, two reasons. First, after running through the gauntlet on foreign films, doing reviews of six at a time became quite cumbersome. This should ease things a bit. Second, as of right now I do not have immediate access to two of the entries (Attica and Writing with Fire), and there’s one I really don’t want to watch (guess). That means I can, in relatively short order, dispense with nine of the remaining 12, so multiples of three seemed like the neatest way to go about this. As I do every year, if I can watch the entire shortlist, I’ll include a final ranking when I officially break down the Documentary Feature category during the Blitz.

President

A lot of times, a bit of star power can help a documentary get distribution and present itself as having a bit more credibility than others. If a famous actor or filmmaker is behind the project, or at least helps fund it in exchange for an Executive Producer credit, it can give a film that extra bit of heft to get the Academy’s attention or attract audiences. It’s not always a guarantee, as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Riz Ahmed attached their names to the shortlisted Flee, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s clout was not enough for The Loneliest Whale to make the shortlist.

I only bring it up here because President is partially propped up by its support from Thandiwe Newton and Danny Glover. And I think in this case, their respective Q-ratings were the lynchpin in getting this advanced in the nomination process. Because honestly, it’s not very good. There are important points brought up in this film, but there are some major problems with credibility and production value that all but sink its overall quality.

The movie centers on the 2018 Presidential election in Zimbabwe. After dictator Robert Mugabe was deposed in a military coup by his own Vice President, a new election was ordered. While there were several candidates overall, the race came down to two potential leaders: Acting President Emmerson Mnangagwe of the ruling ZANU-PF party, and Nelson Chamisa of the main opposition party, MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), who had to take over the campaign after their original candidate died four months before the election.

The film follows Chamisa and the MDC team throughout the campaign and its aftermath. This is the first of many structural problems with the film, as we quickly speed from four months until Election Day to four weeks, then two, then one, all before we reach the 45-minute mark. The remaining hour-plus is devoted to the slow process of counting the votes and the resultant legal challenges once the tallies are announced. This is a pace that’s really not sustainable, and because of that, the truly intense back half of the film feels interminable at times.

As Mugabe’s regime was known for despotism and corruption, the need for a truly transparent, free, and fair election is paramount, and ZANU does itself no favors by appointing an election commission (ZEC) consisting only of members of their party, and begins printing ballots with no public-facing security measures put in place (and completely without MDC’s input). As such, Chamisa’s team goes in acting as if the election will be rigged in some way, and the film is along for the ride.

This approach stretches credibility in two major ways. For one thing, we are given no political platform for either candidate, but the film insists we root for Chamisa. I’m not saying he’s the good guy or the bad guy. What I’m saying is that we don’t know going in, and the film refuses to remain neutral on this front without giving us a reason for their favoritism. There’s vague talk about bringing more jobs to the people and ending corruption, but the filmmakers go into this project on the assumption that Mnangagwe is just as corrupt as Mugabe was. Maybe he is, but they don’t show it. They just take it as read that we’ll instantly go along with this assumption, and I’m not down for that.

For another thing, by leading with the assumption that the election will be fraudulent, it robs the film of any real stakes, because it just wouldn’t make narrative sense for everyone to be suspicious the whole way and then have Chamisa win. We know he’ll lose, and we know he’ll cry foul. What matters is if they make a compelling case, and if there will be any justice in the wake of it all. This goes back to the pacing problem, because the first half of the movie is now rendered meaningless. It’s all window dressing and false suspense leading to a result we all know is coming, and none of that time is used to show us why Chamisa was the better candidate.

Now, once Mnangagwe is declared the winner and the MDC sues, we do get some decent insight into how this vote most likely was stolen, including some pretty lazy attempts to pass off suspicious vote tallies as legitimate. In one case, a precinct reports a certain number of votes approximately 90 minutes before the polls close (and once they’re closed, anyone waiting in line does not get to vote), but then the number more than doubles in that last hour and a half. In another instance, 16 precincts have identical vote tallies, which is mathematically impossible.

This is the meat of the movie, and it only lasts about 10 minutes. The rest of it is basically the African version of the Trump campaign’s tactic of trying to delegitimize the election before it happened, saying that if they lose it has to be by fraud. The only real difference is that the alleged fraud in Zimbabwe was perpetrated by the party in power, whereas here the President accused Joe Biden of having some kind of outside apparatus to rob him of power, which is just dumb to be kind.

The thing is, this film may have the opposite result to its intent. There are parallels between what happened in Zimbabwe and what almost happened here. The problem is that this film illustrates exactly what Republicans need to do to make sure they can rig elections going forward, some of which they’re actively doing right now. Georgia, for example, in their massive voter suppression bill from this year, created a system where the GOP can oust nonpartisan election officials and place themselves in administration roles for all future votes and simply overturn the result if they don’t like it. A Supreme Court packed with judges hand-picked by Mugabe and the ruling party literally rules against the MDC, saying they didn’t prove any of their assertions because numbers don’t matter… in an election. Every woman in this country is about to lose her constitutional right to bodily autonomy because the GOP has been running that game for five decades. Anyone in this country who cares is already aware of this stuff. What we as a country lack is the political courage to do anything about it. By showing this same stuff happening in Africa, even after a dictatorship is toppled, is just confirmation to authoritarians that they’re doing exactly what they need to do to keep a stranglehold on power, and that’s demoralizing in the extreme.

But more than anything else, there’s one element about this movie that pissed me off immensely: the subtitles. Normally I wouldn’t even think twice about this, but it’s such a glaring issue here that it can’t be ignored. Everyone in the film either speaks English or Shona, but everyone is subtitled, presumably because some of the people involved have thick accents. Now, I don’t know Shona, so I can’t say for certain how well the translations worked in this movie, but what I can say is that nearly every sentence spoken in English is not properly transcribed on the screen, even for people with light accents like BBC journalists. Almost every time someone opens their mouth and speaks our language, the onscreen titles do not match, and there’s no reason for it.

From a production aspect, this is just lazy. I work as an editor sometimes, and depending on the assignment, subtitling is part of the job. If I ever put English subtitles on English speech that didn’t match verbatim, I’d be fired. And this happens just about every time. But also, it hurts the film’s overall credibility, because you can literally look at the screen and use your ears, then scream, “THAT’S NOT WHAT HE SAID!” How do you expect any audience to take you seriously if you can’t be bothered to be accurate in such a simple aspect?

I get what the filmmakers were going for, but this is a dud. It cuts corners left and right, attempts to prejudice the audience to one side without any concrete reason to support one candidate over the other, might be defeating its own purpose by giving authoritarians a blueprint for success over democracy, and made such basic errors in production that it’s hard to take anything seriously.

Grade: C-

Julia

This may be another film that’s uplifted by its Hollywood bona fides, in this case the directors and producers. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer serve in Executive Producer capacities, while the actual film is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, previously nominated for the underwhelming RBG. This time their subject is legendary chef and TV personality Julia Child, and the overall project is done in a more traditional manner, with no attempts to turn The French Chef into a TikTok star.

There really isn’t much to say on this one. It’s completely enjoyable from beginning to end, filled with great stories about Child’s life and career, as well as some pretty humorous moments, even in the midst of tragedy. There wasn’t a single instance watching this film that I thought about checking my phone, or wished I was watching something else.

But there’s really no insight here. It’s just a nice profile of a nice lady. Most people interested in her already know about her work with OSS (the forerunner to the CIA) during World War II, her bout with breast cancer, and her extraordinary sense of humor. There’s really nothing new apart from a few anecdotes about her husband, Paul, and a completely glossed over mention of her advocacy. She was pro-choice and used to say, “Homo” until a closeted gay friend of hers died from AIDS in the 80s. That’s all we learn about her political life.

Now, if she were alive today, the fact that she ever said such things means she’d get cancelled by the very Twitter audience Cohen and West were trying to reach when talking about Justice Ginsburg for the crime of not being born perfect. That’d be an interesting angle to pursue, but we’re not going to go into that kind of nuance. This is a puff piece, nothing more. Hell, there’s a good couple of minutes devoted to how much of a flirt she was, without ever suggesting that such behavior would be inappropriate. It’s just part of her jovial personality. I’m not saying anything Child did was wrong, but the fact that it’s presented with no hint of irony is a bit alarming given how quick to judgment we as a society have become about anything not politically correct.

Contrast this with a film like Roadrunner, where we truly got into the warts-and-all of Anthony Bourdain’s life (both movies were distributed by CNN, oddly enough). We all knew he could cook, so we dispensed with that and took a look at the person. Half of this film is not just about Child’s love of cooking, but it actually includes slow, highly-produced interstitials of the types of meals Child would make. This is about as close to literal food porn as you’re going to get.

Every year I go on this mission trying to figure out what the Documentary Branch’s collective mindset was, and this is a textbook example of why. What was it about this movie, which again, is delightful throughout but offers no new information, that got it shortlisted while the deep dive into Anthony Bourdain’s life was left off?

For what it is, this is absolutely fine, but it’s the documentary equivalent of a placebo. It’s good and fun, I won’t deny. Then again, the least essential nominee from last year ended up winning the whole thing, so what do I know?

Grade: B

Procession

Now this, THIS, is something special. There’s been a great deal of films – fiction and non – over the last several years regarding the abuses of children by members of the clergy, particularly in the Catholic Church. Deliver Us From Evil was nominated in this field about 15 years ago (losing to An Inconvenient Truth), and Spotlight won Best Picture for its dramatized account of uncovering the full scope of the problem. The fact that there are still so many stories to tell in this regard is tragic in the extreme, but at least some good can come from the horror through some catharsis for the survivors.

And that’s the key word here, survivors. The film focuses on six men who were abused as children growing up in the Kansas City area. With the help of the filmmakers – as well as a drama therapist – these men take a crucial step in their quest to go from “victim” to “survivor” by recreating their trauma through the moviemaking process.

This is a brilliant concept, mostly because while we hear about the hundreds of thousands of victims the world over, we never really go into detail, either because it can be too graphic, or too painful for the people who go through this to process. Here, these six courageous men cope in real time, reliving the worst experience of their lives as they scout for locations where it all happened, write their individual scenes, and then direct them for all the world to see.

One of the survivors, Tom Viviano, arguably has the hardest job of the bunch, because his case is still pending in court, so he’s not allowed to write or film his story. As such, he’s the lead actor in most of the other men’s recreations, taking on the role of the priest or bishop doling out the abuse. Watching him portray the worst kind of betrayer is soul-rending. The same can be said for a local child actor named Terrick Trobough, cast to be the young victim in each of the dramatizations. It’s amazing, and at the same time very sad, to see this boy treat the worst thing that can happen to a child as any other role. His professionalism is astounding, but you have to wonder how someone so young can be so desensitized to this.

What really sells the drama for me is that with each vignette, we really don’t see the physical abuse, but rather the psychological. There was no way they were going to reenact actual rape, especially not with a child. Instead, each short film focuses on the manipulation that leads to these crimes. A lock on the confessional door, an “independent commission” set up by the Church to judge the situation that’s staffed by other priests, threatening the children with excommunication and damnation if they tell their parents, convincing kids that it’s their fault this is happening. It’s all so sickening because it’s all so easy to pull off, and for so long, because these men purported to be emissaries of the Almighty, they kept getting away with it, and still do today.

These scenarios are haunting because it could have been any one of us, and the fact that there are still active measures taken to not stop the problem and continue to assert Church authority is one of the great failures of our society. But Procession is, I believe, a strong step in the right direction. Some more cynical people might dismiss the film – and its success to date – on the Academy loving films about film. But take this for what it really is, a new avenue to explore and process trauma, and to tell stories that have for too long been hidden due to pain, shame, and gross abuse of the judicial system. And what is film if not the ultimate medium for telling the essential stories?

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which is your favorite? What nuances of Zimbabwean politics do you want discussed through cinema? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts – I’ve Got a Little List, Part 1

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