Wrap-Up Reviews From DocFest 2019

by on June 12, 2019

Despite the title, there are no schizophrenic mutants to be found within the running time of Casey Beck’s short documentary “Legion.”   Instead, viewers will see Storm Troopers, Darth Vader, and Tie Fighter pilots in this film. That’s because the organization that plays a big role here is the Golden Gate Garrison of the 501st Legion.  For charity events, this all-volunteer group of Star Wars cosplayers create and publicly wear accurate costumes of characters who appear in these science fantasy films.

One of these Tie Fighter pilot costume wearers is Gynnie Lindquist.   When Gynnie was a relatively new member of the 501st Legion, her daughter Becka committed suicide at age 13.  Despite Lindquist’s newcomer status, other Legion members provided the emotional support the grieving mother needed.  The altruistic impulse that underlay the Garrison’s charity work can be said to extend to helping one of the group’s own members.

Beck doesn’t attempt to answer why the teen committed suicide.  Becka’s plans to join the Golden Gate Garrison after her mother would seem to bely any reason for the teen to take her own life.  On the other hand, nudging the elder Lindquist to join the 501st Legion resulted in the eventually devastated mother being among people who ensured she would not be emotionally alone in dealing with her sudden loss.

Outsiders mistakenly dismiss various forms of science fiction fandom as solely consisting of socially isolated loners.  But Beck’s film demonstrates that emotionally supportive community exists in fandom as well. Having Lindquist talk in way too general terms about the emotional support provided by other Legion members, though, proves less emotionally satisfying than seeing a “Never forget” label above Becka’s name tag or the special Legion logo created to honor Lindquist’s departed daughter.

***

The short “But I Love The Zine” offers a Bay Area rebuttal to those who think the Internet offers the only medium for creating personal bits of culture.  Fiona McDougall’s survey of Bay Area zine culture shows that the derided analog medium still hasn’t lost its punkish appeal.

For the uninformed, a zine is a handmade magazine showcasing its creator’s very personal interests.  It can be a place for an artist to engage in low-tech art experiments using as few colors as possible.  It can discuss personal experiences ranging from subway busking to the crappiness of office work. It can even find amusement in bizarre accidents or notorious crimes.  What matters is the creator’s using the medium to seriously express something deeply personal to him or her.

Zines aren’t a new phenomenon.  The easy availability of offset printing and Xerox copying technology allowed zines to boom in the 1960s and 1980s.  It could even be argued that early printings of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” counted as zines.

The technology used to produce some of the film’s interviewees’ zines may seem primitive compared to the sophistication of the digital realm.  Paper cutters, block printing, and erisagraph printing may seem time consuming for little reward given the print runs created. Yet the tactile appeal of holding actual self-printed material can’t be denied.  Also, instead of relying on anonymity to distribute the resulting zine, these creators need to engage with potential readers in real life to catch their interest and maybe even create community.

Zines are in short passion projects.  That truth explains why McDougall’s short is ultimately ineffective.  While the viewer gets told about some of the Bay Area creators making zines nowadays, the filmmaker never conveys in visual terms the pleasures associated with holding or reading a zine compared to staring at a computer screen.  Instead of instilling love for zines or inspiration to create one’s own zine, the results seen on-screen leave this subculture as nothing more than a digital technophobe’s curiosity.

***

Does eccentricity or archival commitment explain why Marion Stokes amassed a 70,000 VHS tape collection of television news broadcasts?  Matt Wolf, director of the fascinating documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,” would argue it’s both. Interviews with surviving relatives and staff members show this black Communist intellectual didn’t lightly suffer the less intelligent.  Yet technophilia plus commitment to preserving historical truth spurred her methodically collecting over three decades’ worth of news footage.

***

Jessica Bernstein-Wax’s short San Francisco-based charmer “On Retreat” shows how our City By The Bay serves as a Buddhist retreat for one unique person.

77-year-old subject Judith Skinner has been on Buddhist retreat in San Francisco for over 21 years.  (Such retreats normally last three years.) Her modest life in a rent-controlled apartment consists of admiring the textures and colors of plants, tending to the occasional stray cat, and learning the joys of living alone happily.

If Skinner’s life in retreat seems formless, that’s not a bug in her life path.  There are no formal rules to being on retreat except the ones she’s chosen. In her case, this practicing Buddhist prefers the freedom of making up the rules as she goes along.

This unconventional religious practice makes sense once the viewer learns more about Skinner’s life.  Her mother encouraged her and her fellow siblings to choose their own religion in life. Skinner eventually lapsed from Catholicism and embraced feminism.  A picture of Skinner holding a sign saying “Eve Was Framed” shows just how far she had come emotionally. Lama Kunga Rinpoche served as Skinner’s teacher in Buddhism, but the relationship got complicated after they became lovers for a time.

Conventional members of society might see Skinner’s extended retreat as an inability to deal with the world as it is.  But Bernstein-Wax’s film shows that her subject’s retreat is her way of carving out a satisfying life for herself on her terms.

***

Sean Devlin’s “When The Storm Fades” declines to do yet another cinematic rah-rah for the resilience of the human spirit in the face of natural disaster.  Since two of the film’s producers are Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, this mix of documentary and dramedy focuses on larger issues raised in a disaster’s wake. Its Filipino subject family are given more agency than suffering nobly.  Equally importantly, “When The Storm Fades” calls out both white savior syndrome and disaster capitalism.

2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the poor Philippine village of Tacloban, destroying the home of the Pablos (playing themselves) among others.  Three years later, the family’s rebuilding efforts still crawls along. The only Emergency Shelter Funds the Philippine government is willing to release depends on the recipient permanently moving out of Tacloban to allow foreign development of the area.  Consequently, there still aren’t any doors in the Pablos’ home. Also, daughter Lovely Pablo needs money to go abroad and receive professional training. Snack vendor Imelda sells lumpia and other snacks to raise money for Lovely’s costs, but accumulating the needed funds is a slow process.   Into the Pablos’ lives and those of their Tacloban neighbors come Clare (Kayla Lorette) and Trevor (Aaron Read). They’re a pair of volunteer Canadian tree planters whose White Savior complex prevents them from truly seeing what the people of Tacloban need.

The film frequently teeters close to having Clare and Trevor steal the film’s focus from the Pablos.  Admittedly, the actors playing the tree planters are comedians while the Pablos are non-actors. Yet it can’t be unequivocally claimed that the film shows enough of the Pablos’ lives to make their daily existence interesting.  There is some friction between Lovely and grandmother Nilda over the young woman’s growing independence. Younger mischievous son Arnel at least treats his encounters with Trevor as an opportunity to cultivate a possible future source of help.

Any sympathies a viewer may have for these white First World volunteers disappears quickly with exposure to their cultural cluelessness.  Clare comes off as patronizing when she assumes Mrs. Pablo is unfamiliar with the scent of lavender. But Trevor displays a higher degree of privileged obtuseness.  Tree-planting is not good work but an opportunity for a selfie. He tries to build a compost bin without asking the Tacloban residents whether they actually need one.  Clare and Trevor’s differing reactions to Jerry the sleazy disaster capitalist’s dinner conversation fortunately offers a hint of redemption for at least one of the two Canadians.

What eventually becomes clear is that the Pablos’ slow recovery process isn’t the product of personal shortcomings.  The government has little actual interest in helping Tacloban’s poor get back on their feet. It’s not said outright, but it’s clear government officials are more interested in using “Haiyan recovery” to line their own pockets.  The breakwater project isn’t intended to benefit the town’s villagers; its presence implicitly re-assures foreign investors that anything they build on Tacloban’s land will not get washed away with the next typhoon.

Of course, saying no to the government’s attempted bribing of Tacloban’s residents comes with costs.  The Tacloban villagers’ own financial resources don’t compensate for the absence of government support.  50 pesos may seem a small sum to Americans as it’s about a dollar and change in U.S. currency. But to the older Pablos, Arnel’s spending 50 pesos in one month is a major expense.  Yet in the long run, the Philippine government’s imposed hardships feel less onerous than the prospect of permanently losing one’s home.

“When The Storm Fades” did provide some real life benefits to the Pablo family.  However, Devlin is clear-eyed enough to recognize that the tremendously relevant long-term question of who should pay for the effects of repairing climate change-related damage remains unanswered.  A $1.2 trillion (and counting) price tag does wonders for cooling developed countries’ eagerness to address this question.

***

The investigative documentary “Factory of Lies” will leave a sick feeling in the stomachs of viewers who treasure the intersection of democracy and social media.  Jakob Gottschau’s film shows what might be called the dark side of organizing the Arab Spring protests. The Russian disinformation efforts that helped swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Trump turn out to be just the most familiar exploit of an operation that had been running for several years.

As digital forensic researcher Ben Nimmo notes, the first of Russia’s pro-Putin troll factories began back in 2011.  What was once an organizing medium for Putin’s opponents became through the Kremlin’s superior resources a weapon for spreading pro-government disinformation.  One ongoing trolling project involves spreading fake stories about the supposed cruelties of Ukrainians to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Gottschau’s film shows other notable examples of Russian disinformation.  Video of an alleged black American soldier using the Koran for target practice inflamed Islamic anti-American sentiment.  Faked stories about waves of immigrants overrunning the EU and bringing their social problems along create disincentives for people seeking alternatives to Putin’s government.  Mass manufactured comments exonerated the Russian government of culpability in the murder of Putin opponent Boris Nemtsov. This last example of disinformation implied Putin’s government could kill anyone with impunity.

Far from ideologues, Russian troll factory workers turn out to be modern examples of what Hannah Arendt famously described as the banality of evil.  Former troll Olga Balaleika had ordinary interests and treated her deliberate spreading of disinformation as just a job. Another ex-troll, Alan Barkaev, unselfconsciously described his work as sowing social discord through such fake identities as a Kentucky redneck or a New York black man.  Admittedly recreated images of a troll factory don’t suggest a slick gleaming institution, but a work environment not too different from a Silicon Valley startup.

To the Russian trolls’ discredit, their efforts also proved highly effective in America.  If readers have heard about such ideas as mining the Mexican border to deter undocumented immigrants, supposed plans to steal the 2016 presidential election for Clinton, or slick online images arguing for “securing” the Mexican border, they can thank a Russian troll.  But the foreign trolls have also shown their skill as organizers of fake events. Their success at turning people out for a supposed free hot dog event in New York City eventually led to their creating fake political rallies in purple states in mid-2016.

Gottschau’s film offers a ray of hope by following the efforts of several journalists in Russia and elsewhere to expose Russian disinformation efforts.  The BBC Russian Service reporter Andrey Soshnikov doggedly hunted for the spot in Russia that served as the stage for the Koran shooting video. Margo Gontar of StopFake regularly debunks lies about supposed Ukrainian cruelties.  Swedish journalist Jessikka Aro regularly reports on Russian information warfare. The job downside of these reporters’ debunking efforts is that uncovering the truth behind a particular bit of disinformation can sometimes take several months.

These journalists’ efforts have definitely succeeded in striking a nerve.  Aro has been subjected to doxxing and receiving hate e-mails from Russia. Former troll turned independent reporter Lyudmila Savchuk has had her kids threatened in retaliation for her reporting efforts.

On the other hand. “Factory of Lies” doesn’t indicate that Russia has abandoned its efforts at information warfare.  Some debunking efforts have only resulted in the production of slicker and more polished examples of disinformation.

The above comments should not be taken as deliberate ignoring of the United States government’s own past efforts at interfering in other countries’ elections to get results favorable to US moneyed interests.  Those past actions deserve condemnation.

Yet Russia’s ongoing electoral disinformation efforts are more than a case of poetic justice.  It’s about the long-term discrediting of popular democracy as a system and building acceptance of autocracy.  Would Russian disinformation efforts in other countries’ elections be treated with more public urgency in America and the EU if it were called Russian government-sponsored political sabotage?

***

Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop’s wildly entertaining Closing Night Film “I Want My MTV” recounts the birth and growth of the Music Television (MTV) cable channel.  Personal blindness and happy accidents affected MTV’s fortunes as much as the then-novel music video medium. The channel’s racism and sexism problems still feel like self-inflicted injuries.  Yet overall, hearing about Ukrainian fans who loved the channel underscores that MTV’s presence changed music culture for better and for worse.

(“I Want My MTV” screens on June 13, 2019 at 7:01 PM at the Roxie Theatre (3117 – 16th Street, SF).  “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” has been picked up for commercial distribution. For further information on these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com .)

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