Boots Riley and Reviews from the SF Film Festival

by on April 17, 2019

Curious Western viewers may have checked out Mariam Ghani’s documentary “What We Left Unfinished” for its window into the previously unseen world of Afghan film.  But a few tantalizing insights ultimately can’t compensate for a highly unsatisfying experience.

Several films made under the auspices of Afghan Film were left unfinished when the Taliban took over Afghanistan.  The incoming rulers regarded cinema as an instrument of the Great Satan, so the already shot footage was presumed either lost or destroyed.  Rediscovery of the supposedly lost footage eventually led Ghani to interview surviving directors and actors about the stories behind these uncompleted films.

Social prudery wasn’t the only reason the Taliban condemned the cinema.  Afghanistan’s Communist government treated movies as a soft power vehicle.  Films sponsored by the government could entertain Afghans and teach them that Afghanistan would ultimately benefit from the Communist takeover.  Thanks to such sponsorship, filmmakers could expect generous financial largesse or even the services of actual government troops. A typical day at the government movie studio Afghan Film would see five different production teams head to various parts of the country to make their movies.

Such state largesse did have its drawbacks.  Even with government support, blank bullets were difficult or impossible to come by.  So the film crews had to rely on live bullets and the skillfulness of soldiers’ shooting to avoid injury.  Hong Kong film legend Chow Yun-Fat would probably relate to the Afghan film crews’ situation. Chow’s “Hard-Boiled” director John Woo nearly blew him to bits filming the climactic explosion sequence just to get Chow to deliver the right facial reaction.

However, onscreen excerpts from these unfinished films suggest incompletion wasn’t that great a tragedy.  The closest analogy to these Afghan films is typical Hollywood trash. The plots of these films include: two brothers on opposite sides of the government vs. majahidin struggle eventually reconcile thanks to (ta da) the power of familial love; government agents work to shut down a conspiracy of opium manufacturers working with international criminal organizations; and a dramatic recreation of the revolution that brought a government leader to power.  On this last project, the interviewed director doesn’t really consider that having said leader play himself raised the spectre of hagiographic intent.

But these films really can’t be condemned for their cliched content.  As another interviewee notes, the government was quite happy to encourage filmmakers to exercise their freedom of speech.  However, obtaining the largesse of government resources required demonstrations of a pronounced fealty to the existing government.  Otherwise, potential filmmakers were on their own.

Condemnation on “What We Left Unfinished” can be leveled against its inadequate treatment of the subject of Afghan culture’s unwillingness to support artistic endeavors.  Why did this attitude exist? In such an unsupportive environment, why did these interviewees try anyway to make films? Ghani’s film is lessened by not devoting more time trying to answer these questions.

***

Qiu Sheng’s “Suburban Birds” delivers enigmatically entertaining storytelling.  Han’s survey team investigate mysterious sinkage in a neighborhood’s buildings. Young Communist Chinese schoolchildren look for a vanished fellow classmate.   Is the Xiao Hao who appears in both stories the same person at different ages? If not, why do elements from both stories bleed into each other? If the director isn’t quite Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s second coming, at least her film will spark lots of entertaining post-screening arguments.

***

This year’s State Of Cinema Address unexpectedly began with a powerful poem praising those whose daily struggles include being charged for cashing a check or having their electricity regularly turned off.  But given that the speaker was musical activist/filmmaker Boots Riley, that gritty opening provided a tremendous reality check for the audience.

Riley was here to talk about the creative feedback loop between film and rising social movements.  A comment from a book of conversations between famed film editor/sound designer Walter Murch and writer Michael Ondaatje provided the Coup frontman with his talk’s next point.  When is a society fully ready to handle the implications of a technology that arrives in its midst? The phenomenon Riley referred to, memorably called “Steam Engine Time” in a short story of that name, had real world examples.  The Aztecs, for instance, thought the wheel would be nothing more than a mere toy. Thanks to the democratization of filmmaking technology (e.g. cell phone cameras), the musician/first time filmmaker contended Steam Engine Time had arrived for filmmaking.  This writer notes this moment comes nearly 125 years after the Lumieres’ famed short about their factory workers, with the observed now having the ability to become the observers.

Riley then turned his talk to the gains of the American labor movement, particularly thanks to the Communists and other leftists’ efforts.  The flexing of that power, such as the 1934 General Strike (which happened 85 years ago this year), would not have been news to the old leftist troublemakers in Riley’s audience but may have impressed the younger members who were unaware of this history.

A particularly powerful point in Riley’s discussion of the labor-capitalism relationship was that ending unemployment and supporting capitalism were mutually contradictory goals.  Full employment came with the power to demand truly fair payment for one’s labor. But capitalism needed unemployment to exist so that workers could be controlled through the ongoing devaluation of their labor.  Getting work done as cheaply as possible or avoiding paying workers what they were truly worth went hand-in-hand with maximizing stock values and business profits.

Riley felt that public understanding of the capitalist system being rigged and the people’s power to fight the system got thrown away through several tactical mistakes.  One was having the more radical elements of labor go underground…where they wound up getting picked off thanks to McCarthyism. The other big mistake was the blind mass acceptance of locating the source of societal problems solely in a person’s individual shortcomings rather than society itself.  It took the post-talk Q&A period to reveal that Riley referred to the resolution of the police brutality episode of Jordan Peele’s “Twilight Zone” reboot. He felt way more needed to be done than just using cell phone cameras to combat racism.

Riley felt it was the committed filmmaker’s job today to go beyond merely raising awareness of how the world really works…even if such revelations won’t fit into the niches of comfortable algorithms.  His suggestion was for filmmakers to connect with activist movements and use their talents to show their audiences they can go beyond learned helplessness into taking action.

Riley’s solid talk fell short of “let’s make Molotov cocktails and use them now” territory thanks to a couple of unanswered questions.  One was how a filmmaker could connect with and chronicle a movement without descending into hagiography or political propaganda. The other was whether Faux News and other right-wing media outlets could fairly be called the evil version of Riley’s proposal.  Those outlets actively align to promote the Republican Party agenda through their regular avalanche of lies. If Riley lacked specific answers, at least his talk got the conversation started.

***

Fortunately, the festival’s political rousing of the audience slot was more than amply filled by Rachel Lears’ documentary “Knock Down The House.”  Unless the viewer supported the non-boat rocking political status quo pushed by Washington’s “moderate” Democrats, it proved hard to not wish all four of the film’s subjects succeeded in their Congressional races.

In the wake of the 2016 American electoral disaster, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats began a recruitment drive to find and field real progressive outsider candidates to run for Congressional office in the 2018 midterm elections.  Lears’ film followed four of these candidates, and went into their motivations for running these admittedly long-shot campaigns.

Paula Jean Swearengin comes from a West Virginia family of coal miners.  She fears seeing her children joining her neighbors in falling victim to the cancerous poisons regularly generated by the mining industry.  Swearengin’s opponent, veteran Senator Joe Manchin, definitely deserves unseating. He’s happily in bed with coal companies or other industries able to buy his political loyalty.

St. Louis nurse and pastor Cori Bush became a political activist thanks to the Ferguson police’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown.  She happened to live just six miles from Ferguson, Missouri and could see how established politicians did little to rein in the Ferguson police’s militarized response to the community’s outrage.

Las Vegas businesswoman Amy Vilela lost her daughter to a pulmonary embolism.  Early discovery and treatment of the life-threatening condition would have saved the young woman.  But questions about the young woman’s medical insurance coverage caused the hospital to refuse to perform the necessary tests.  The grieving mother wants to change a health care system that allowed this tragedy to happen.

Bronx-based bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noticed that powerful current representative Joe Crowley provided plenty of lip service about addressing Bronx residents’ needs while actually doing nothing.  Her brother nominates her to run to unseat Crowley.

Knowing how Ocasio-Cortez’ unlikely race turns out doesn’t subtract interest from the film.  For Lears’ film focuses more on the willingness of people to undergo hardships in support of an admitted long shot to bring about societal change.  By mutually supporting each other, (e.g. Ocasio-Cortez’ morale-boosting call to Vilela), these candidates make a shared enterprise without assurance of success a little less lonely.   As Ocasio-Cortez memorably notes, “a hundred of us will have to fall before one succeeds.”

Lears doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties these four women face fighting against the machine candidates.  Campaigning for office doesn’t mean quitting the day job when you’re a working class candidate. Ocasio-Cortez is shown still mixing drinks at the bar she works at.  In fact, it also means finding ways to overcome the barriers established candidates put up to stay in office. For example, when the election judges owe their jobs to your opponent, getting onto the ballot means going a few extra miles to qualify.  While 1,250 valid voter signatures is normally needed to get onto the New York City ballot, Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign aimed to gather 10,000 valid signatures to ensure there would be no dispute about her qualifying for the ballot.

Popular attitudes and prejudices about the public behavior of women add another layer of difficulty to the candidacies of Lears’ subjects.  From Ocasio-Cortez’ opening comments about male sartorial options vs. female clothing options to Vilela worrying about the amount of grief she can publicly show, the experience feels like walking a high tightrope semi-blindfolded.

As the day of their respective primary elections approaches, Swearengin, Ocasio-Cortez et al. have stress-filled moments where they second-guess themselves.  Is a public debate with the established politician an opportunity for the incumbent to publicly humiliate the outsider candidate? Should the difficulties of raising small dollar donations mean rejecting corporate money was a mistake?

On the other hand, the end credits note that Manchin and the other Democratic candidates being challenged by Lears’ subjects decline to be interviewed on camera.  It seems doubtful that these experienced politicians feared the possibility of looking bad on the record. But did they secretly fear that acknowledging Lears’ outsider candidates constituted admitting that these women actually posed a threat to their ability to stay in office?

Bothsiderist-minded political pundits will try to simplistically equate the efforts of Lears’ subjects with supposedly similar campaigns on the Republican side.  These four Democratic outsider candidates are admittedly trying to primary established Democratic incumbents. But at least the outsider candidates operate out of real concerns such as fear for the safety of their children or making one’s father proud.  Any material weaknesses in their campaigns can be inventively worked around. On the other hand, Republican candidates trying to primary their party’s incumbent usually favor a position more unhinged from reality than that of the sitting politician.

While three of Lears’ subjects have individual moments to shine, Ocasio-Cortez stands out with her straightforwardness and unpretentiousness.  Throughout the film, the Bronx resident’s willingness to work hard at her candidacy doesn’t totally erase her doubts about her actually winning.  Her riding a scooter days after her astonishing victory feels natural instead of an act of public pandering.

***

Luke Lorentzen’s ride-along documentary “Midnight Family” joins the Ochoa clan on their private ambulance service’s nightly operations.  As they struggle to save lives (and honestly get paid) on Mexico City’s nighttime streets, the Ochoas must also deal with such challenges as rampant poverty, a badly under-resourced public medical system, street races with other private ambulance services, and double-edged police bribery.  Raymond Chandler would have called Lorentzen’s subjects neither mean nor tarnished nor afraid common men.

(“What We Left Unfinished” screens at 8:30 PM on April 16, 2019 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission Street, SF).  “Suburban Birds” screens at 9:00 PM on April 19, 2019 at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF). “Knock Down The House” will receive limited theatrical releases as well as a Netflix premiere on May 1, 2019.  “Midnight Family” screens at 6:00 PM on April 18, 2019 at the Creativity Museum Theater (221-4th Street, SF). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to http://sffilm.org .).

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