22nd United Nations Association Film Festival Reviews

by on October 22, 2019

Whatever feelings a person may have about the Chinese government’s machinery of dissention repression, its effectiveness in obstructing political naysaying can’t be denied.  The Great Firewall of China blocks Chinese Internet users from easily accessing information about their government’s brutal repression of democracy protesters on June 4, 1989.  Troublemakers who advocate for democracy can choose from either onerous prison sentences or effective exile from China. And for dissenters who still have family members living in China, “casual” police visits to such family members might as well be an “Any time I want” message written in blood red letters.  


            Such considerations are precisely why Badiucao, the pen name of a prominent  anti-Chinese government artist, moved to Melbourne to ply his critical craft.  To further ensure the security of himself and his relatives, the political artist hides his face from Danny Ben-Moshe’s camera lens behind masks and even a frumpy woman’s wig.  He also refuses to share any personal information on screen about himself or his relatives.  


Whether Ben-Moshe knew his subject would impose such limits on his documentary “China’s Artful Dissident” is not clear.  But the director does do his best to make sure only the back of Badiucao’s head or his body is seen on screen. Given that the film follows Badiucao from Melbourne to Paris to San Francisco over the course of its running time, remembering to avoid giving the Chinese government visual clues to the artist’s identity was definitely not an easy task for Ben-Moshe.  Early on in the film, Badiucao confesses that he’s not interested in being the Chinese Banksy. Then again, the works of the Western graffiti artist hasn’t aroused the ire of the powerful to the same degree as the Chinese artist’s drawings have. 


The artist’s pen name has no personal significance.  It’s the product of combining three random syllables together.  Yet unlike his working name, Badiucao’s art has meaning and a point.  His visual criticism of the Chinese government’s shortcomings is far from political comfort food whose base ingredient is a re-heated popular caricature.  Other cartoonists may content themselves with simply lampooning Chinese President Xi Jinping’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh. But Badiucao chillingly goes further with an image of Xi confronting the upper half of the “silly little bear”’s body…which is mounted on the wall like a hunting trophy. 


            Other samples of Badiucao’s work seen throughout the film display similar levels of acerbity.  One drawing involves a group of Chinese officials having a meal where each man is stealing something valuable from their neighbor.  A drawing labelled “Gongle” points out how a certain Internet search engine has censored the artist’s existence for the sake of doing business in China.  Badiucao’s illustration of the late Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo embracing his wife Liu Xia delivers an artistic middle finger to Chinese government efforts to have the Nobel Laureate’s work and life forgotten.


The dissident artist achieves these effects on the viewer by drawing on a rich variety of visual styles.  They range from callbacks to early 20th century woodblock illustrations to pointed parodies of classic works of Western art.  Detractors may claim Badiucao’s art panders to Western audiences and presents a skewed picture of modern day China. Yet Chinese government denial or concealment seems an overreaction to supposedly pandering art.


            As Ben-Moshe’s film shows, the fire that fuels Badiucao’s work comes from resisting the ongoing Chinese government erasure of the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests.  Whether it’s illustrations referencing the date of the protest or an international performance art celebration of Tiananmen Square’s Tank Man, Badiucao’s art could be called a creative way of paying forward the sacrifices of those who gave their freedom and even their bodies for the cause of bringing real democracy to China.  The dissident artist’s meeting with a couple of actual survivors of the Tiananmen Square protests quietly thrills the viewer as an encounter between two different generations of history makers.   


            An effort to mount an exhibition of Badiucao’s work in Hong Kong brings a central dilemma facing the dissident artist to the fore.  Should he hold the exhibition and risk arrest or possible abduction by the Chinese government? In this sequence, the viewer learns something essential about Badiucao’s character.  He will not impulsively throw his personal life away for the sake of a political ideal. But that’s not necessarily the same thing as being permanently cowed into silence.


            One chilling revelation from Ben-Moshe’s documentary is learning that the Chinese government has been actively trying to squash its overseas critics.  Australia National University was hit by a China-based hacking attack. Overseas Chinese dissidents have been kidnapped for forced return to the Mainland.  The latter development will raise viewer suspicions that the proposed extradition law that sparked the current Hong Kong protests would have allowed such abductions to be more openly brazen. 


            Lack of greater Western outrage over these Chinese government activities is not surprising.  Deng Xiopeng had Western countries’ number back when talks of Western sanctions arose in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre.  The Chinese president said, “Don’t worry, China is a big fat piece of meat; they’ll be back.” Controlling commercial access to a country whose populace numbers well over a billion people does wonders for quelling foreign concerns over domestic political abuses.  But if Western companies have gorged on the commercial meat regularly dangled by the Chinese government, Badiucao’s work reminds the viewer just how politically tainted that meat is.



            Quite a few European villagers who were neighbors to the Jewish death camps of World War II later claimed ignorance or at least lack of concern over the activities in those camps.  Stewart Detention Center may not kill the 1600 undocumented men imprisoned there. But with a 98% deportation rate, often to countries where their lives are likely to be in serious danger, the prison run by CCA can be thought of as an indirect death camp.


“Lumpkin, GA,” the title of Nicholas Manting Brewer’s short documentary, refers to the town that’s a neighbor to Stewart Detention Center.  An economically dying town with a 1,000-person population, Lumpkin happens to be located in one of America’s 20 poorest counties. Brewer’s impressionistic documentary is a portrait of both the town and its semi-symbiotic relationship to the privately operated prison.  


            Racism’s ugly legacy seems part of the very soil that the town sits on.  Wilson Lumpkin, the man the town is named after, happened to be the architect of the federal campaign to remove Native Americans from lands coveted by whites.  Land around Lumpkin was cherished as prime cotton-growing territory. A monument to Lumpkin residents who fought for the Confederate Army still stands in the town.  There is a MLK Jr. Way in Lumpkin, but there’s also a CCA Road as well. So unconcernedly being neighbors to a prison dedicated to enacting Stephen Miller’s most vile nativist dreams isn’t a huge stretch for Lumpkin’s history.


            Brewer isn’t interested in automatically condemning the Georgia town.  His portrait immerses viewers in showing why the private prison’s existence might not be as objectionable to Lumpkin’s residents as might be expected.  Boarded up storefronts, barely there stores and deserted streets make a private prison seem like a financial savior to the townspeople, especially as the construction of some new factory seems very unlikely.   It feels tragically ironic that such capitalist concerns as good credit history and exploiting cheaper labor combine to cut the Lumpkin townspeople off from the benefits of CCA employment.


Only a generic promotional film from CCA touting the virtues of public-private prison partnership with interested counties represents CCA’s position.  But aside from paying Stewart County what’s essentially 1/5th of the county’s entire income, CCA’s operations lack any ethical support. An immigration attorney angrily notes it’s not a coincidence that places like Stewart Detention Center are located in areas which make visitation difficult by either relatives of the imprisoned or attorneys trying to defend their clients.  There’s a chilling account of how prison visitation rules led to the suicide of a mentally shaky detainee.


            The director doesn’t let his film sink into utter despair.  The local non-profit organization El Refugio gives relatives of the imprisoned a free place to stay during their visit to Stewart Detention Center.  And an undocumented immigrant whose story opens and closes Brewer’s film declines to totally succumb to hopelessness. In an odd way, that immigrant’s attitude matches that of the Lumpkin residents who still find a reason to love their town.  




If there’s a film that embodies this year’s United Nations Association Film Festival theme of “Scales Of Justice,” it would have to be the documentary “Decade Of Fire.”  Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vasquez’ film is partly a historical exoneration of New York City’s South Bronx residents and partly an indictment of powerful and influential people who have escaped historical blame for decades.  


The titular decade refers to the period between 1968 and 1978 in New York City’s South Bronx.  Fires seemed to strike the area at least once a week during that period. The result was the loss of nearly 80% of the area’s housing and nearly a quarter of a million people left homeless.  Official accounts blamed the “fire plague” on the alleged moral and/or social flaws of the Bronx’s mainly black and Latinx population.  


HIldebran and Vasquez’ film argues that the causes of these fires involved something other than victim-blaming.  These factors include rentier capitalism, redlining, and deliberate benign neglect.


            For film narrator Vivian Vazquez Irizarry, the subject of the South Bronx fires happens to be a personal one.  She grew up in the South Bronx before and during the period in question. So she witnessed the area’s transformation from a multicultural haven full of still sturdy pre-World War II built buildings into a crowded and trash-strewn area full of decrepit housing.


Redlining and rentier capitalism were major contributing factors to the conditions for the South Bronx fires.  Thanks to the deliberate denial of credit to blacks and Latinx, interested South Bronx residents could neither afford better housing nor even have the money to upgrade their existing homes or businesses.  The speculators who bought area buildings were more interested in regularly extracting rent from the buildings’ poor tenants than in keeping up the plumbing or having heat in the buildings during cold winters.  Forcing these poor tenants to rely on electric heaters for warmth taxed building wiring unable to handle such electrical demands.


Irizarry’s detective work uncovers how government-sanctioned racism worsened the fires’ occurrences.  Fire Department of New York chief John T. O’Hagan turns out to be particularly culpable. If fires were frequently happening in the Bronx, why did O’Hagan decide to cut the number of fire engine departments serving the area?  Concerns about helping to stave off the city’s looming bankruptcy don’t fly when it’s revealed that the Fire Chief also increased the engine departments serving the more well off areas. The FDNY practice of deliberately under-reporting fire occurrences in the South Bronx also shows a practice of withdrawing fire protection from the area.  


But dishonors for the most egregiously racist public official award would have to go to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Not only did he advocate “benign neglect” as a government policy for tamping down racial tensions in black neighborhoods, but he also publicly suggested that the South Bronx fires were indicators of its black and Latinx residents’ social pathologies.  Footage of Moynihan’s plump self-satisfied face making such bigoted pronouncements may inspire viewer hissing or worse.  


            Given such powerful forces, it’s not surprising that government promises of aid to rebuild the South Bronx repeatedly came to nothing.  Nor is it surprising that after landlords extracted what would be insurance payments worth $250 million in today’s money for buildings which “accidentally” burned down, they had no interest in rebuilding the devastated neighborhood.


            Yet if people outside the South Bronx had given up on the area, “Decade Of Fire” shows that the remaining residents didn’t share that feeling.  Embracing a “stay, fight & build” attitude, these residents are shown finding various ways to rebuild the South Bronx. Ramon Rueda of the People’s Development Corporation trains residents to spend sweat equity to make decrepit homes habitable decrepit.  Culturally, hip hop music was born on the South Bronx’s streets.


            Early in the film, a TV news clip shows a TV reporter being told by a South Bronx resident that his neighbors served as their own fire rescue unit.  The modern day version of that attitude of neighborhood self-empowerment may very well be the key to a better future for the South Bronx. 



            Margo Guernsey’s documentary “Councilwoman” delivers a portrait of one of America’s most unusual politicians.  Subject Carmen Castillo serves as one of Providence, Rhode Island’s city Councilwomen. But because pay for this public service is only $18,000/year, Castillo’s obligated to keep her day job as a hotel housecleaner.


Ordinary people may intellectually agree with the democratic sentiment that anybody can run for public office.  But emotionally, such people are usually biased in believing that people belonging to certain professions such as law have an edge in qualifying for public office.  Maid service to such people does not suggest a capability to make decisions on whether the city minimum wage should be raised.  


Castillo’s political career as captured by Guernsey’s camera is not directly dedicated to rebutting her naysayers.  Instead, she tries to govern according to her sense of doing right by the community. Following in the footsteps of her deceased community-oriented predecessor Miguel Luna, the new councilwoman brings to City Hall her real world experience regarding the effects of government decisions on everyday people.  For example, raising the minimum wage may affect hotel operations’ bottom line. Yet raising the minimum wage to a livable level would also mean people won’t need to live lives of daily exhaustion working two different jobs.


Guernsey honestly shows the difficulties of this neophyte politician balancing sometimes conflicting community interests.  Making sure a neighborhood restaurant continues thriving clashes with the restaurant’s backdoor attempt to create a nightclub.  However, “Councilwoman” doesn’t do much to show how Castillo handles the deal-making that’s part of the political machinery.


            It’s not clear if it is Castillo’s desire for privacy or Guernsey’s choice that explains why  the increasingly strained relationship between the Councilwoman and boyfriend turned husband Jonathan doesn’t get fully developed.  An occasional small hint, such as Jonathan’s unhappily drinking alone at a political fundraiser, does suggest Castillo’s estimation of Jonathan’s support is badly mistaken.  Yet there’s no telling moment shown on screen which captures problems in Castillo’s relationship.


            The emotional intensity of Castillo’s tough re-election campaign would have worked better had the viewer been given a better sense of either the depth of community unhappiness or the gap between Castillo’s plans and her actual accomplishments in office.  That lack of information lessens any suspense regarding the campaign’s resolution.  


            While Castillo may be a potentially interesting subject, Guernsey’s film fails to make her more than a political novelty.  There’s a feeling of too much information missing from Guernsey’s account (e.g. how did being elected Councilwoman affect Castillo’s relationship with the hotel she works at) for this to be a decent film.




            A far more satisfying account of female self-empowerment can be seen in Carol Dysinger’s short “Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl).”  Who knew that learning to push off or doing tik-taks could be a way to build confidence in girls?


            But then, Afghanistan is still an awful place to be a girl.  Even without the Taliban’s oppressive presence, female illiteracy and early marriage at age 14 are still common phenomena.  Enter Skateistan. This Kabul-based school teaches poor girls both basic literacy and skateboard-riding skills. Dysinger’s film follows one such Skateistan class over the course of a full year.


            The director centers her film on showing how learning something as supposedly frivolous as skateboard riding helps to build a sense of courage in its young female students.  Skillfully riding a skateboard symbolizes freedom. Yet it’s only boys who are socially encouraged to practice the sport. For a girl to learn how to ride a board without falling down means taking a first step in learning to live free.


            That sense of freedom proves particularly poignant when some of the girls and even a mother or two give more details about how restricted their lives would be without Skateistan.  One girl talks about the possibility of being dragooned to sell chewing gum on the streets to help out her family. Another girl wishes she could skate forever by not growing up and consequently having her freedom curtailed.  Most poignantly, a mother of 35 wants her daughters to go to Skateistan to avoid her fate of being forcibly married at age 14. 


            The Skateistan staff also prove equally fascinating subjects.  Student Support Officer Fatima finds girls for Skateistan and works to overcome the reluctance of a girl’s parents to permit the child’s attendance at the school.  Her saying God expects all believers to actively seek knowledge does wonders in persuading a hesitant parent. Math teacher Razia finds her young charges far more aware of the dangers of Kabul life than she had believed.  LIfe skills teacher Treema declines to show her face onscreen.   


            Dysinger’s film makes clear that even with the refuge provided by Skateistan, the girls’ education can still be dangerous.  The students are subjected to a daily patdown to ensure none of them are suicide bombers. Fears of kidnapping of a girl student and the subsequent family dishonor haunt the teachers and students every day.


            Yet all these hazards feel like small impediments compared to what a Skateistan education does for these girls.  Hearing these students express dreams of becoming a pilot, an eye doctor, or a journalist are examples of minds widened by exposure to bigger possibilities in life.  It could be said Skateistan taught these girls to have the courage to have these dreams and say them aloud without self-consciousness.


            Dysinger’s film saves the background information about Skateistan’s origins for late in the film.  Such a creative decision may appear to give Oliver Percovich, the Australian skater who founded Skateistan, lack of his proper due.  Yet the delay in discussing the school’s history and vital statistics (e.g. founded 2008, served over 7,000 boys and girls) helps the viewer focus on the film’s real heart, the salutary effects of a Skateistan education on its girl students. 


            Government action, such as an Afghan government policy banning marriage at 14 for girls, is more effective in the long run than private charitable activity.  However, the Afghan government’s visible problems in establishing political legitimacy make a place like Skateistan a necessary stopgap. It’s unlikely Skateistan’s girl students will have reason to complain..


(“China’s Artful Dissident” screens at 7:15 PM on October 23, 2019 at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center (145 9th Street, SF).  “Decade OI Fire” screens at 4:45 PM on October 25, 2019 at the Stanford Medical School Alway Building (300 Pasteur Drive, Room Alway M106, Palo Alto).  “Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl)” screens at 1:20 PM on October 27, 2019 at the Mitchell Park Community Center (3700 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto).  For information about the screening locations and to order advance tickets, go to www.unaff.org .)

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