More Reviews From SFFILM Festival 2021

by on April 20, 2021

"Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma"

Legendary investigative journalist I.F. Stone famously said “All governments lie.”  Nanfu Wang’s flawed but still worthwhile documentary “In The Same Breath” shows why Stone’s pronouncement is unfortunately still true.  Her new film assesses the history of the Chinese and American governments’ early responses to the Coronavirus outbreak.  In different ways, both governments’ public lies and coverups contributed to the COVID death toll in both countries.

Nobody is credibly denying the Coronavirus originated in China.  But what is being disputed is the use of that information as license to engage in “socially acceptable” public racism against the Chinese in America.  The Orange Skull regularly whipped his cultists into racist frenzy by peddling that attitude.  It’s one of the flaws of Wang’s film that this point isn’t even mentioned or considered.

However, Wang’s film does succeed in showing the highly unclean hands of the Chinese government in addressing the Coronavirus crisis.   Despite the first report of the Coronavirus appearing in the December 1, 2019 issue of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, the Chinese government took no preventative action to stop the spread of the disease in the month and a half before the Wuhan lockdown became necessary.  However, during that same period, the government’s police forces arrested eight doctors on a private blog who openly felt the public should be warned about the SARS-like disease affecting people in the vicinity of the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

The Chinese government’s information control regarding its handling of the Coronavirus crisis will win the Western viewer’s grudging admiration for its malicious thoroughness.  News of the eight doctors’ arrests was buried in a bland news item in the midst of New Year’s Day coverage.  Government media outlets also repeated the falsehood that there was no evidence of human to human transmission of the coronavirus.  President Xi Jinping didn’t mention plans for a Wuhan lockdown at the Party Leadership Conference which occurred three days earlier.  Hospital staffers were ordered by the government to keep Coronavirus deaths a secret.  In fact, any conversation between a hospital staff member and any news media needed government clearance.  Stories celebrating a pregnant woman with COVID successfully giving birth or the patriotism of 40,000 medical workers coming to Wuhan to help control the outbreak got plenty of airplay.  And for independent journalists who challenged the government line, they could be suddenly made to disappear.

Wang’s response to this Chinese propaganda blitz can be summarized by the aphorism “When the government tells you where to look, pay attention to where they don’t want you to look.”  For the filmmaker, this meant screen captures of posts by people who complained about their lack of Coronavirus medical treatment.  These captures occurred sometimes literal seconds before censors scrubbed the post from social media.  It also meant finding independent cameramen to covertly shoot candid and unstaged footage.  Finally, it meant going through the mounds of footage to identify the real big picture the Chinese government was hiding.

What Wang unsurprisingly uncovers from her alternate sources of information is that the Chinese government’s handling of the Wuhan lockdown was far from the rosy picture of competence in crisis painted by government propaganda.  Hospitals after a time regularly refused to accept new Coronavirus patients brought by ambulances.  This left the unfortunately infected with the choice of either being returned home to die or being left outside a hospital with little chance of receiving treatment.

Also, there’s a strong likelihood that the Chinese government deliberately undercounted the actual Coronavirus death toll.  Why did the Chinese police prohibit filming of people coming to funeral homes to collect the ashes of relatives killed by COVID?  Maybe it’s because capturing the long lines of people coming for their deceased relatives’ remains would contradict the official line of having only 3,000 Coronavirus deaths in China.  A gravedigger at one such funeral home accidentally lets slip the suddenly urgent need to dig 25,000 – 30,000 graves.

Why would the Chinese government publicly lie about its Coronavirus situation?  A secret video of a Chinese police officer’s visit offers the unspoken answer.  China’s alleged many foreign enemies would use mentions of China’s problems with handling Coronavirus as political ammunition which could ultimately bring about China’s fall.  The Orange Skull’s public racism regarding the Coronavirus’ origins unfortunately reinforced the plausibility of this claim.  Yet “In The Same Breath” doesn’t make this linkage.

Wang’s segments on the Chinese government’s misinformation and mishandling of the Coronavirus problem show once again why she’s the Chinese government’s least favorite documentary filmmaker.  But it’s her attempts to show parallels between the American and Chinese government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis where she comes up a cropper.

The strongest moments in the America segments come from frontline health workers recounting the unpreparedness of their facilities to handle Coronavirus as well as the trauma of repeatedly watching patients die.  Nurse Diana Torres’ raising of concerns regarding her hospital’s preparedness for COVID-19 cases got brushed off by hospital authorities.  Wearing an N95 mask while on duty at a hospital got Nurse Dawn Kurland fired.

The film presents a montage of news images showing American government officials such as Governor Mario Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci spreading misinformation about COVID-19’s dangers.  However, what isn’t made clear is how much of this official American misinformation was politically motivated face-saving and how much was based on limited information available at the time.

A sequence of MAGA supporters talking about not blindly trusting the government only demonstrates the truth of the saying about the time-telling capabilities of broken clocks.  These red hat-wearing cultists may distrust their government, but their so-called discernment doesn’t extend to questioning any misinformation dropping from the Orange Skull’s mouth.  Wang would have done far better to try to find people who’ve lost loved ones to COVID thanks to the dead person’s cult-like belief in the Orange Skull.

What’s ultimately most irritating about Wang’s discussion of the flawed American response to COVID-19 is its lost opportunity for more pointed criticism.  The Orange Skull repeatedly and publicly lied about the seriousness of the disease and government measures to mitigate its spread.  His administration’s “leave it to the states” approach for what was a national problem resulted in chaos.  Most damningly, the Orange Skull and his flunkies turned what could have been a common crisis to bring Americans together into a new source of partisan division, all to ensure the Orange Skull’s re-election.  There is much to deplore in the Chinese government’s response to the Coronavirus, such as the aforementioned arrests of journalists who revealed problems with the official measures taken.  But unlike the Orange Skull and his team of flunkies, at least the Chinese government never threw doubt on the science surrounding the disease.

“In The Same Breath” is worth watching to understand how badly the Chinese government screwed up in handling the Coronavirus crisis.  But the parts of the film dealing with the defective American response should be skipped over.  Instead, track down Adam Benzine’s investigative documentary “The Curve.”  It does a far better and far more detailed job of explaining the crucial mistakes made by the Orange Skull’s administration. (Note: This writer contributed to the Kickstarter that made Benzine’s film available on YouTube before the 2020 election.)

***

Mixing fun and inspiration in equal measure, Jeremy Workman’s documentary “Lily Topples The World” will have audience members repeatedly saying “OMG” and “wow.”  Film subject domino artist Lily Hevesh repeatedly demonstrates on screen why her incredibly elaborate and colorful domino builds made her a YouTube star.  In-between ravishing images of  the often jaw-dropping builds, Workman shows how Hevesh’s efforts to turn her unusual hobby into a life’s career offers an inspiring example of personal passion as a life’s north star.

***

Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina’s touching dramedy “I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking)” may seem comparatively short on inspiration.  Yet in following the zig-zagging fortunes of its single mother protagonist over the course of one very urgent day, the film turns its supposedly modest stakes into the stuff of life-altering drama.

$200 are the stakes in question.  That’s the amount single mother Danny (Kali) needs to raise within the next 24 hours to cover the security deposit for a new apartment.  Getting that money (and by implication, the apartment) matters to Danny because she and her daughter Wes have been homeless for an extended period of time.  However, Danny’s daughter doesn’t realize this, as her mother has convinced her they’re doing an extended camping trip.  Now Wes has gotten tired of camping and Danny has promised they’re finally going to a new house.  The mother’s plan depends on her raising the money from both her braiding services and doing app-based food deliveries.  But what can Danny do when both these revenue streams disastrously turn into revenue trickles?

The protagonist’s general refusal to tell others of her houselessness is not done out of pride.  It’s her way of compartmentalizing the chain of bad luck that’s upended her life and making her problems manageable.  Before the film started, Danny’s husband Sam passed away suddenly enough that his survivors were left financially unprepared.  Thanks to those financial difficulties, Danny and Wes lost their previous home.  Unemployment is rampant as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Hair braiding and tips from delivery provide Danny with her only sources of income.  The opportunity to mourn Sam’s passing has been put on the back burner given the aforementioned urgent problems.

But it can’t be denied societal stigma regarding houselessness provides a disincentive to Danny’s being open about her situation.  Our society still treats homeless people as social pariahs regardless of their backstory.  As Pocoima appears to be a majority black area, at least Danny and Wes are spared the single black mother with an under-age child side-eye they’d be likely to receive from many white people.

Pacoima, incidentally, is an actual location in California’s Los Angeles County.  It’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles itself, located out in the San Fernando Valley region.

“I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking)” in fact treats Pacoima as a character in the film.  It’s small enough that Danny can plausibly get where she needs to go on just roller skates.  Danny and Wes can do their extended “camping trip” because there are still large wild patches in the area.  Also, Pocoima is big enough that running into people you haven’t seen in a year or two is a regular occurrence.

Danny’s struggle to raise the last $200 for her apartment security deposit demonstrates a hard truth about living in poverty.  Being continually reminded in ways large and small of your paucity of life options does crush the soul over time.   Food delivery may be one of the few jobs available to someone like Danny.  But the viewer becomes painfully aware of her helplessness when a well-off customer maliciously shorts her on a tip.  Kali and Molina make their protagonist’s desperation so acute that the viewer feels her crushing disappointment and betrayal when an offer of shelter winds up having a price tag she’s not willing to pay.

Even if Danny’s succumbing to her good friend Brooklyn’s temptation was the wrong decision, why the protagonist makes this choice is understandable.  The above-mentioned betrayal is still sharp in her mind.  Danny thinks she has no other options for raising money except to wait for another food delivery order.  Brooklyn at least is a true friend that she can turn to on an especially hard day.  Danny’s best friend may have unrealistic expectations about new boyfriend Chad, but at least she has enough common sense to point out why Danny’s not completely out of options to raise the money she needs.

The film’s sole fantasy sequence shows why this option is not one Danny is readily willing to embrace.  Isolated underwater in this scene, Danny finally acknowledges the stress and frustration that she has been keeping bottled up throughout the film.  The film’s title becomes an ironic comment on the untruthfulness of her situation.

Complaints that Kali and Molina have failed to provide a sufficient backstory for their film’s heroine don’t hold water.  Mulling on past regrets becomes a luxury Danny can’t afford in her current situation.  The primal nature of the need for new shelter means she needs to keep focused on the present.  Wes is counting on her, after all.

The filmmakers ultimately show that glimmers of hope are not cure-alls for Danny’s very large problems.  But at least it’s better than having no hope and feeling that dire situations will never change.

***

The mid-length film “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama” from directors Topaz Jones, Jason Sondock, and Simon Davis provides more insight into one Black community in its short running time than might be found in a year of CNN news coverage and five years of Faux News “coverage.”  It’s a heady mix of autobiography, humor, political commentary, and hip-hop music.

The seed for Jones et al.’s film comes from a set of alphabet cards known as the Black ABCs.  Back in 1970, two Chicago teachers with the help of the Society for Visual Education created a set of alphabet flashcards for African American students.  The aim was to give such students educational material that would truly reflect their community.  These flashcards were the result.  All of the cards featured pictures of actual Black children and linked the letters of the alphabet to Black community phenomena via such entries as “A is for Afro” and “S is for Soul Sister.”

Hip-hop artist Jones discovered the card set and became fascinated by them.  But the passage of decades and the resulting sociopolitical and Black community changes meant this set needed to be updated for today’s Blacks.  Jones et al.’s first entry of “A Is For Amphetamines” loudly announces this revamp will not cater to kids only.  In addition, the welcome absence of “P Is For Police” or “W Is For Whites” entries underscores that this film is a cinematic update for the Black community, not for feeding white narcissism.

Several of the entries in “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama” definitely don’t display shyness in talking about politics.  “C Is For Code Switching” shows how a guy casually listening to hip-hop has to do a makeover of his look to lessen the possibility of being hassled while walking among white people.  “E Is For Education” features Jones’ history teacher Rodney Jackson, who discusses the political nature of history in his referring to plantations by the more accurate term “slave labor camps.”  Lawyer/activist Keith White appears in “O Is For Organize” to talk about the importance of providing mentoring and advocacy services to the community.

Yet the more surprising moments from Jones et al.’s film come from segments dealing with issues whose relevance to the Black community will be news to outside viewers.  “G Is For Garden” features an interview with Frances Perez of New York City’s Woke Food Co-op.  She reframes the fresh food desert problem in poor Black communities by the more descriptive term “food apartheid.”  “I Is For Intellectual Property” has lyricist Black Thought of The Roots talking about Blacks’ need to maintain control of anything they create from art to hairstyles for as long as possible.  What may seem esoteric advice takes on painful relevance when a viewer thinks about America’s unfortunately long history of cultural appropriation from Blacks.  “V Is For Vulnerable” brings in Kaity Rodriguez, a former Miss New Jersey turned psychotherapist.  She discusses helping Black clients shed their reluctance to discuss personal family issues.

“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama” leavens its more serious segments with bits of levity and even slice of life moments.  “T Is For Time” plays with the problem of the kid who needs to get home before dark to avoid parental punishment.  “S Is For Sourbelt” delivers an ode to the joys of a lazy day and the pleasures of slowly chewing the titular candy.  “R Is For Rich” has Jones’ relative Emma Janice Jones recounting the tragicomic story of how her grandfather’s dreams of making a killing in the cotton market got washed away.

The other letters in Jones et al.’s update of the Black ABCs may not be on the same level as the segments mentioned here.  But the film as a whole does make for a fun exercise in cultural education.

 

(“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama” won a Golden Gate Award for Best Mid-length Film.  “Lily Topples The World” shared an Audience Award for Best Documentary.)

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