Mill Valley Film Festival — “Race to Nowhere,” “Room and a Half,” “Soundtrack for a Revolution”

by Peter Wong on October 8, 2009

Vicki Abeles’ documentary “Race To Nowhere” makes one fear that the American educational system has created a generation of dull parrots. Yet despite Abeles’ plague on all your houses tone, her film’s outrage feels noticeably anemic.

Ironically, the film’s facts and analyses of the negative consequences of America’s hypercompetitive educational system had anger-inducing potential. American education’s ruthless social Darwinism has led to widespread cheating and other dishonorable methods of getting “good grades.” More damningly, emphasizing standards testing has discouraged students from developing the mental flexibility needed to deal with unexpected problems.

These potentially explosive problems get undercut by Abeles’ failure to create a sense of urgency. Expert criticism of the academic achievement-homework assignment link is nice. But the film doesn’t push the viewer to fight for changing America’s educational system, preferably by yesterday.

Instead, the film offers tons of talking heads providing various degrees of illumination on the problem(s). While far too many of the students Abeles presents blur together after a while, Danville 9th grader Kelly provides a memorable moment with her display of the type of deep brow worry lines found on a woman at least three times her age.

Abeles’ film also fails to challenge status quo assumptions. If homework is discarded as a yardstick for measuring student comprehension of the class material, what would provide a better substitute for assessing comprehension?

The director also displays an annoying degree of intellectual sloth. Given the baleful influence of the “Nation At Risk” report, more discussion and criticism of the report’s claim of mass mediocrity among students would have been helpful. The film praises the Japanese school testing system without accounting for that country’s testing system.

“Race To Nowhere” may not be effective documentary journalism. But it may spark conversations regarding a system that’s slowly creating a generation of future George W. Bushes.

A memoir can be the prism through which the white light of history is diffused into the colorful spectrum created by sociopolitical forces and the memoir writer’s personal perspective. Andrey Khrzhanovsky based his fictional “Room And A Half” on the memoir of Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky. The Jewish bard had lived through the deprivations of the Stalinist era before being eventually exiled. Khrzanovsky opted to supplement the straight dramatization of Brodsky’s life with vintage film footage, imaginary encounters, and even occasional animation. So why is the final product only fitfully interesting?

“Room And A Half” primarily fails to create a sense that its random reminiscences and dramatizations add up to some cumulative emotional truth. When the film shifts to another memory, there is no sense of thematic or even clever linkages evoked for the viewer.

Khrzanovsky’s bigger failings come with his imaginings of such moments as Brodsky’s return from exile to Russia. Those moments feel more of an intellectual exercise than a heartfelt moment.

The parts of the film focussing on Brodsky’s childhood provide many of the film’s best sequences. The awfulness of living in communal housing created via plywood walls and doors is relieved by the strength of the Brodskys’ familial bonds. That sense of unity against shared misery made bearable the sight of a cockroach swarm surrounding a drain or the dubious taste of fungus drink. But getting laid in one’s bedroom was problematic given that a curtain separated one from the living room/bedroom/dining room in which the parents were watching TV.

To his credit, the director manages a haunting image or two. Seeing a flock of musical instruments flying through the sky symbolizes the exile of culture from Russia. But far too often, the director fails to fly far beyond Brodsky’s source material.

“Soundtrack For A Revolution” drains the embalming fluid afflicting other treatments of the Civil Rights Movement and pours in the blood, sweat, and tears that made this movement a history-changer. Co-directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman achieve this effect by telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement through the movement’s songs. They also bring that cultural legacy into the 21st century by offering modern re-interpretations of those songs by such artists as John Legend and Joss Stone.

The film shows the emotional appeal that kept segregation alive. That organized race separation created a social system which sanctioned open disrespect for those of a different skin color. In an extreme case, segregation absurdly extended to the graveyard, even though the corpses no longer cared about racial divisions.

Using interviews with movement veterans and vintage footage, the film creates a sense of the civil rights struggle as a conglomeration of human frailty and a noble sense of purpose. The white Freedom Summer volunteers naively didn’t realize that Mississippi was pretty much a police state. Protesting children defeated racist police chief “Bull” Conner’s plan to prevent lunch counter desegregation.

The documentary shows that the movement’s songs were more than morale boosters. They were reminders of the choices Civil Rights Movement volunteers made to fight for a cause worth getting beaten and even shot for. Black spirituals provided the roots for these songs. But thanks to moving performances by the likes of Mary Mary and Richie Havens, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” deservedly live again for a new generation.

If you can catch only one Mill Valley Film Festival film, choose this one.

(Screening at the CineArts@Sequoia, Mill Valley: “Race To Nowhere” on October 10 at 3:30 PM, “Soundtrack For A Revolution” on October 10 at 7 PM. Screening at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael: “Room And A Half” on October 11 at 6 PM and October 12 at 4 PM, “Soundtrack For A Revolution” on October 18 at 2:45 PM, and “Race To Nowhere” on October 18 at 5:45 PM.

“Concert For A Revolution,” on October 10 at 9:30 PM features The Blind Boys Of Alabama among others performing songs from the Civil Rights Movement. To order advance tickets, go to

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