Reviews From DocStories 2021

by on November 2, 2021

From motion picture "Burning"

One of the annual highlights of SFFILM’s DocStories Festival (running November 4-7, 2021 at the Castro and Vogue Theaters) is the New York Times Op-Docs shorts program.  Several of the selections tie personal tales to larger socio-political issues.

Dara Kell and Veena Rao’s “A Ship From Guantanamo” might be called an artist’s portrait except for a couple of noticeable differences.  Its subject’s hands are never seen on screen.  Its subject’s voice is never heard on the soundtrack.  However, the words that form the soundtrack do belong to its subject.  And the gondolas and other ship models seen on screen are indeed the products of its subject’s hands.

These vessels are heavily detailed, and the camera allows the viewer to see the impressive touches (e.g. ship’s rigging) the film’s subject puts on these models.  But what’s even more impressive is the raw material used to create the model vessels.  These materials include prayer beads, small empty milk cartons, a small sponge, and even mop yarn.

Why has film subject Moath Al Awi been obligated to improvise with these materials?  It’s because he’s currently an inmate at Guantanamo Bay.  Al Awi has been indefinitely interned without charges since 2002.  So his modeling materials have been the product of scrounging from fellow inmates and even prison supplies.

Al Awi does not begrudge the meanness of his art supplies.  Once he gets started on a project, he can forget his imprisonment for a time while he completes his work.  Whether it’s imagining waves hitting his model ship or flying like the eagle mounted on one model’s prow, the work helps Al Awi survive his present.  His model making even helps him imagine a future where he’s released from Guantanamo and can publicly share the products of his improved modeling skills with others.

Until then, the artist must put up with such pettiness by Guantanamo authorities as denying further public exhibition of his impressive work.

“Jobs For All!” comes from filmmakers Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson.  This Swedish compilation of old film and video footage captures society’s emotional disconnects between the value of work and the all-too-frequent reality of work.

Early on, late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme burbles on about the point of work.  He lavishes praise on such values as the building of a sense of worth and a means of realizing one’s individuality.

Yet the work that’s made available in an industrialized society such as Sweden inhibits either of those values.  Assembly line worker Nore Johansson is just one of the people noting the repetitiveness of her work.  It’s hard to claim an individual is being shaped in a thought-stilling environment which doesn’t even approach a meditative state.

The class of so-called job creators Mitt Romney praised have little interest in giving workers a medium for building personal self-esteem.  Economist Richard Wolff sees a worker’s job as being directed towards generating products or services for the employer that will surpass the value of the wages and benefits paid to the employee.  Economic inequality generated by paying executives hundreds of times more than what the average employee makes is for CEOs such as Gabriel Urwitz “something we have to accept” rather than the product of choices promoting imbalance.

This film was obviously made before The Great Resignation started up in the United States.  Whether this labor shortage will force decision makers to reconsider how to refashion everyday jobs to be more in line with Palme’s principles regarding work is still open.

The “57 Days” of Mario Lumbreras and Laura Brasero’s film refers to the length of subject Julio Lumbreras’ stay in the Torrejon de Ardoz Hospital outside Madrid.  The cause of the older Lumbreras’ stay was a disease that didn’t respond to conventional antibiotics.  It would later turn out that Julio Lumbreras had become one of Spain’s early victims of COVID-19 infection.

Lumbreras’s son Mario and the other members of the family recorded the drama of Lumbreras pere’s hospitalization.  Using a combination of voice emails and smartphone photos and video, the flavor of the stresses, successes, and setbacks befalling the Lumbreras family is easily conveyed to the viewer.  Worry and frustrated helplessness creep into the tone of the messages left by the Lumbreras’ mother.  A small hope gets seized on by the Lumbrerases as a chance that Julio is still fighting to survive the disease.

For the casual viewer, the dynamic of watching Julio Lumbreras’ struggle is reversed.  Hearing that he’s one of Spain’s first COVID cases, worries whether the film’s subject will still be alive at the end of his hospital stay starts penetrating such viewers’ consciousness.  But learning that he’s survived in a coma longer than other people who’ve died from the disease raises hopes that Julio Lumbreras will ultimately survive.  If “57 Days” is a suspense film, it’s one where science happens to be unselfconsciously married to luck and determination.

Sean Wang, in his semi-personal documentary “H.A.G.S. (Have A Great Summer),” calls up the classmates who signed his 8th grade yearbook.  His aim is to see what’s happened to them in the ensuing years.

The former schoolmates’ answers feel both familiar and alien.  Some of them have gone the traditional path of already being married and having kids.  Others, such as the filmmaker, are still drifting through life.  Hearing these former teens use conversational acronyms whose meanings only people in their peer group will understand underscores an older viewer’s sense of a generational gap.  Simple animation in the form of writing on the screen or playful alteration of old photos takes the seriousness out of the filmmaker’s exercise.

What takes Wang’s film out of the realm of standard high school nostalgia is the viewer’s learning that he and such classmates as Fahad Manzur came from a class where a significant number of students were the children of immigrants.  Being born in America may have given these students a supposed cultural leg in becoming part of this country.  But as the stories of Wang’s classmates trickle out, said advantage might not have been the golden ticket their immigrant elders had hoped for.

Ben Proudfoot’s film “Almost Famous: The Queen Of Basketball” tells the story of Lusia Harris, a Black woman who temporarily found her niche in life playing basketball.  It’s a celebration of Harris’ incredible playing skills as well as a cautionary tale about the costs of institutionalized sexism.

Harris’ going into basketball in high school and college seemed inevitable.  She was 6’3” and loved such basketball greats as Oscar Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  However, she didn’t know how to play the game and the NBA at the time was a male-only league.  Fortunately, Harris’ skills were self-taught and there was a women’s section available in college basketball.

Proudfoot’s tracing of Harris’ career shows just how gifted she was as a basketball player.  Despite being the only Black player on Mississippi’s Delta State University basketball team, Harris’ scoring ability helped her team defeat the rival team at Immaculata multiple times.  At the Women’s Basketball match held at the Montreal Olympics, Harris made history by scoring the first basket and helping the U.S. team win silver.

That victory would unfortunately mark the end of Harris’ basketball career.  Despite a desire to play further, the lack of something like the WNBA meant her career was over.  The New Orleans Jazz team offered Harris a chance to try out against male players.  However, her doubts about her natural skills being the equal of or better than a male player’s skill meant she wouldn’t be basketball’s Jackie Robinson.

Harris in the present day does have some regrets about not taking a shot at the New Orleans Jazz team.  A successful professional basketball career would have translated into wealth from endorsements.  Her abandoning playing led to the emergence of her bipolar personality.  Harris’ sobering fate will make viewers wonder how many other talented women never realized their potential thanks to institutionalized sexism.

Erika Cohn’s heartfelt “What You’ll Remember” is a video letter from a mother and father to their four children.  It’s a heartfelt reminiscence of the struggles they all faced together as well as an acknowledgment of the children’s ignorance over what had happened.

The Herrera/Lima family might be called members of the San Francisco Bay Area working poor.  At least one of the adults is employed.  However, what the parents earn in income falls far short of what’s normally needed to rent a family sized apartment in the Bay Area.  Disaster strikes when the family is evicted from the apartment they’re currently residing in and no replacement (aside from overcrowded homeless shelters) is on the horizon.

Yet this film is not a story about the misery of being an unhoused family.  No footage of parental arguments or stressing out over being hungry will be found in the film’s running time.  Cohn’s not engaging in creative denialism because the narration by the mother and father acknowledges those problems occurred.

Rather, Cohn’s film movingly celebrates how Herrera and Lima hung on emotionally to keep their children’s spirits up.  The parents turned their houselessness into “car camping,” taking advantage of the area’s parks to have places where the kids could play and rest.  It helped that the father understood what sort of fears could befall his children while they were houseless.  He himself had been homeless as a child.

To the parents’ credit, they made sure their children understood during their houselessness period that they would be there to take care of them.  Their bigger lesson to them is that a lack of four walls, a floor, and a ceiling didn’t necessarily mean their children would lack a home.  Maybe Cohn’s film might spur thoughtful local viewers to help work towards fixing a system that makes rental housing unaffordable for people such as the Herrera/Lima family.

Rona Segal’s infuriating “Mission: Hebron” might not arouse viewers to vandalize the nearest Israeli embassy’s walls with “Settlers out of Hebron” graffiti.  But it may do for Israeli occupation of Hebron and other Palestinian lands what “Hearts And Minds” did for America’s presence in Vietnam.

The film’s subjects are Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who served in Hebron.  The soldiers include a Sniper Sergeant, a 1st Sergeant, and even someone who joined the IDF out of Zionist fervor.  None of them display any overt animus towards the Palestinians.  Instead, in their recollections of their service, they speak as if they’re performing a boring job whose pleasures and successes depend on their own initiative.

Yet any proletarian “stuck in a crappy job” sympathies the viewer may have for these Israeli soldiers quickly evaporates once they describe something other than doing six hours of static guard duty.  The criteria for the frisks and random searches the IDF soldiers do of Palestinians in person or at checkpoints would make racist NYPD cops cream in their pants.  That’s because the thoroughness and arbitrary duration of the search isn’t about finding anything.  One interviewee admits 99% of the time nothing illicit is found.  The point is to regularly intimidate the Palestinians into keeping their heads down.

Unsurprisingly, these practices link well with the primary IDF mission in Hebron.  IDF volunteer Yonata Stearman describes it as protecting the Jews living in Hebron.  But the reality of their mission more closely resembles the U.S. Army protecting American settlers taking away land from Native Americans.

A film clip early in Segal’s short features an Israeli speaker talking about the right of Jews to live anywhere in Israel including the “city of patriarchs” aka Hebron.  Yet seeing the behavior of those Jews exercising this “right” makes clear the Israeli settler movement is merely the newest iteration of the very old story of “white people stealing stuff with impunity from non-white people.”  The so-called divine promise to claim this majority-Palestinian land for the settlers rationalizes essentially socially approved goniff behavior.

The sense of arrogant entitlement displayed by the Israeli settlers seen in the film make the group as a whole resemble the largest concentration of Karens and Chads one can find in the Middle East.  A settler woman practically gets into a Palestinian woman’s face to call her a slut.  Two settler children liken Palestinians to dogs and cheerfully sing about slaughtering Arabs.  A Jewish businessman named Baruch Marzal even offers IDF soldiers coupons for pizza if they shoot a Palestinian.

It beggars the bounds of plausibility to claim that there is no collusion between the Israeli settlers in Hebron and the IDF.  No military commander has been reprimanded for allowing an Israeli settlement’s Civilian Security Coordinator to exercise command authority over IDF troops.  Nor does it seem a coincidence that portions of the center of Hebron closed to Palestinians by the IDF for “security reasons” just happen to suddenly become the site for new Jewish settlements.

Given the array of resources the state of Israel has made available at the beck and call of the settler movement, it is absolutely reasonable for viewers offended by the sights of Segal’s short to support BDS efforts against this Middle Eastern country determined to create its spin on the Jim Crow-era South.  At least BDS campaigns lack the physical malice of Purim-celebrating settlers hoping to injure Palestinians with flying shards of broken glass.

***

Matthew Heineman’s emotionally intense documentary “The First Wave” captures New York City in Spring 2020 during the first wave of COVID-19 infections.  Life-saving eventually extends beyond those struck down by the coronavirus to Black people endangered by death-dealing police.  Through it all, Heineman’s camera movingly witnesses the emotional struggles of both those trying to save lives and those trying to stay alive for their loved ones.  Pre-scandal governor Mario Cuomo oddly becomes a voice of reason and calm.

***

Watching Eva Orner’s infuriating documentary “Burning,” a concerned viewer can’t avoid feeling what must have been the frustration of Superman’s birth father Jor-El at failing to convince the powers that be on Krypton to save citizens’ lives before the planet exploded.

Orner’s film is a documentary about the effects of climate change.  But rather than speak primarily in terms of future trends, it shoves the viewer’s face in the recent consequences of industrial society’s currently blase attitude towards remediating climate change.  It strongly rejects the attitude that Australia’s “Black Summer” is something of little concern because it happened in a different country.  Instead, “Burning” shows how the events of that summer of massive bushfires foreshadow what may happen to the rest of Earth given current socio-political trends.

Unusually long periods of drought plus acres of dying vegetation plus continually rising weather temperatures should have been a tipoff to reasonable people that a nationwide catastrophe was in the making.  Indeed, former fire commissioner Greg Mullins knew from the experience of seeing massive fires (particularly the 2009 Victoria fire) that a disaster was in the offing.  Even award-winning climate scientist Tim Flannery sounded the alarm.

The problem was that way too many Australians kept their eyes on the wrong patterns.  Yes, large bushfires have happened annually in Australia since 1971…but their intensity has multiplied in recent years.  Exporting energy via fossil fuel may have been a backbone of the Australian economy for decades.  But weaning the Australian economy off fossil fuels doesn’t have to mean abandoning the energy exporting business.

In a sickening echo of events in the US, Orner’s film shows how Australia’s media deliberately misinformed the country’s public about the challenges presented by climate change.  The Rupert Murdoch media empire in the form of Sky News among others deserves part of the blame.  But hearing various media talking heads from other outlets share in dismissing or misinterpreting Mullins’ and Flannery’s warnings does them no honor either.

The energy companies who prioritized the continual mining of coal and other fossil fuel sources over Earth’s future do not receive enough blame in “Burning.”  However, porcine gladhander and coal companies sock puppet Prime Minister Scott Morrison manages to be a passable substitute.  In Morrison’s refusal to address the consequences of climate change or even let the phrase publicly pass his lips, he condemned his country to an inadequately resourced struggle against the waves of bushfires during Black Summer.  Morrison’s behavior is particularly galling given his science-based actions taken in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

If a viewer thought California’s wildfires were bad, Orner captures how much worse the consequences of Black Summer were for Australians.  Pregnant women who inhaled bushfire smoke gave birth to prematurely born and physically stunted children coming out of grey crumbly placentas.  Micheal Harrington, who survived the fires, has PTSD flashbacks on hazy days.  Australians seeking shelter from the fires had to deal with the extreme heat, a lack of water, no power, no radios, or even the reassuring sound of fire engines.  The detailed reminiscences provided by ordinary Australians to Orner’s camera makes the disaster come alive.

“Burning” does offer hope in the form of such subjects as Mullins, Flannery, and 16-year-old Student Climate Strike activist Daisy Jeffrey.  However, the hope they offer is not a return to a pre-industrial Eden.  It’s more along the lines of the Foundation in Isaac Asimov’s famed series of the same name.  Extreme climate change cannot be prevented altogether now.  But the more harmful effects of such change can be mitigated.  If that seems like too enormous a goal to meet, an old riddle posed by Mullins provides some further hope.  The riddle is “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer is “One bite at a time.”

(“The First Wave” screens at 3:30 PM on November 6, 2021 at the Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street, SF).

“New York Times Op Docs” screens at 11:30 AM on November 6, 2021.  “Burning” screens at 1:00 PM on November 7, 2021.  Both of these screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro Street, SF).

ADDENDUM: “What You’ll Remember” will not be shown in the Doc Stories program.  For those interested in checking out the film, click here.

All these programs will also stream online at SFFILM.org for a limited time after their in-person screenings.  For tickets and other information about the films, go here.)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment