Reviews From SF DocFest 20

by on June 8, 2021

"Dear Mr. Brody"

Christopher Mark Doyon, aka hacktivist Commander X, doesn’t appear to believe in the cyberspace equivalent of “loose lips sink ships”…or does he?  Rather than dwelling in the cyber-shadows, he has been quite happy to dub himself for the media as Anonymous’ cyber-warlord.  Whether what Commander X says to the camera in Gary Lang’s film “The Face of Anonymous” is the unvarnished whole truth is a different matter entirely.

Lang’s film can best be described as the life story of Doyon (with judicious edits by Doyon and reality checks provided by such people as activist Gregg Housh and journalist Barrett Brown).  It’s a tale that goes from a 1985 Boston anti-apartheid protest to a 2019 application for asylum in Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende.  Along the way, there is a bizarre Tom Cruise video being hushed up by Scientology’s leadership, Mastercard being unamused at having their (non-business) site shut down, and the early days of the Arab Spring.

While Doyon doesn’t come off as narcissistic, there are hints of grandiosity when he talks about his long cyber-activism history.  The potential power of the computer was allegedly something he realized while he was a child staying with his grandmother.  Doyon’s dues with Anonymous were allegedly paid by the 10-12 hour days he devoted to the group.  The success of Anonymous’ support in helping Kickstart the Arab Spring allegedly put him in what might be called a Stewart Brand mood compared to other Anonymous members.  Doyon was all “we are as gods and might as well get good at it” while many of Anonymous’ members were reluctant to risk themselves.

The peeks inside Anonymous that are given by people such as Doyon and Brown answer some long-standing questions about the secretive hacktivist group.  The reason why Anonymous’ symbolic Guy Fawkes mask was chosen disappointingly turns out to be a matter of pragmatism rather than a romantic nod to Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s famed graphic series “V For Vendetta.”  The technical support Anonymous gave to keep the Arab Spring rolling involved a couple of factors that turned out to be unique to Tunisia and Egypt.

Ex-CIA Director Leon Panetta appears in “The Face Of Anonymous” as a “cybersecurity expert.”  Yet he comes off as a bit patronizing.  His comments about hackers such as Anonymous not realizing the power of what they could do infantilizes the members of Anonymous or at least tries to discredit their ingenuity.

Certainly the operations Doyon talks about in the film display a lot more thought than someone like Panetta would credit.  The deliberate crashing of the Santa Cruz County official website could have been done at a moment in the week when maximum chaos would have been generated.  Operation Golden Eagle, Doyon’s plan to seek asylum in Mexico, involved crossing the width of the United States…where he’s currently considered a fugitive from justice.

It is after mulling on the film and the statements made by Doyon, Housh, and Brown that the viewer may realize they’ve been treated to a clever bit of verbal misdirection.  In their talks about FBI raids and mentions of a Low Orbit Ion Cannon, the interviewees deftly dodge providing details about the power relationship between Doyon and the other Anonymous members.  Did Doyon throw out suggestions for Anonymous operations, which the other members then voted on?  The “I invented practical time travel” post admittedly sounds as if it’s out of Crazytown.  But did that post mean Doyon was somebody to be humored, or did he still have sway in the group?  Whatever view Doyon provides of Anonymous’ workings, it’s not wide enough to answer those questions.

Yet given the changing cyber landscape, does Anonymous still matter?  Consider that state powers such as North Korea and Russia and Saudi Arabia have cyber armies handling everything from attacks on other nations to squelching internal dissent.  (It beggars the imagination to believe that the U.S. or the E.U. currently remains flat-footed in the realm of cyber-warfare.)  By comparison to these nations, Anonymous might at best be considered a non-team.

Also, the recent rise of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other anti-democratic or totalitarian forces around the world would seem a matter of concern for Anonymous’ members.  However, Anonymous’ hacktivists have apparently done nothing to compromise such fascist forces’ cyber-capabilities.

Towards the end of the original “V For Vendetta” comic, Evie is given the opportunity to finally see the actual face of V.  She ultimately declines to do so.  Similarly, “The Face Of Anonymous” suggests Doyon might not be the titular face.  But he’ll do as an entertaining stand-in for the hacktivist group’s current place in the world.

***

Once a phenomenon generally limited to hole-in-the-wall bars, drag performance has become popularized enough to be seen at a suburban strip mall buffet.  Angela Washko’s documentary “Workhorse Queen” suggests that cultural sea change offers decidedly mixed results.

Ed Popil serves as the focus of Washko’s film.  By day, he worked as director for a Dial America call center.  By night, Popil transformed into the drag persona of frustrated housewife Mrs. Kasha Davis for Rochester, NY’s small drag scene.  After 18 years on the day job, the big leap was taken by Popil: turning drag into a career.  Acceptance as a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” happened to be a key part of his plans.  When Popil finally got the nod after seven years of rejection, it seemed he was on his way.  However, being a mid-40s contestant began to feel like a handicap when quite a few competing contestants were younger than him.

It’s doubtful that, aside from the Jesus bigots and their ilk, anyone misses the days of socially acceptable homophobia.  Popil certainly doesn’t miss the day his father reacted to his coming out by spitting in his face before telling him to get out of the family house.  Finding drag supplies via one click shopping has some advantages over taking time to scrounge for supplies, such as widening the possibilities in creating a drag persona.

But Washko shows new problems have been created by RuPaul’s contest popularizing drag.  More talented drag performers than ever have started appearing, yet given the limited number of slots available for RuPaul’s competition only a tiny fraction of these performers will ever make it onto the show.  Fans of the RuPaul show don’t necessarily have an expanded appetite for drag performance.  During the Queens of the Stone Age tour, Australian drag queens complained about audience members who ignored home grown talent in favor of drag performers who’ve appeared to some degree on the RuPaul show.

It’s not smooth sailing either for those drag performers lucky enough to be chosen for “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”  The communal environment of Popil’s Rochester drag scene, for example, got supplanted by the behind the scenes cutthroat environment of the RuPaul show’s format.  Whatever their fortunes on the show, contestants are under constant pressure to find fresh looks afterwards for their fans.  Most damagingly, dishing on the RuPaul show isn’t something these ex-contestants can share with fellow drag queens who never made it.

Popil’s fortunes in the RuPaul competition heartbreakingly turns out to be far less than he had hoped for.  When the post-competition gigs start drying up, the Mrs. Kasha Davis slogan of “It’s always time for a cocktail” slowly goes from a cute joke to a raging problem that threatens his long-term marriage to husband Steven Lovins.  (Whether by choice or directorial decision, Popil and Lovins’ children do not appear in the film.)

The redemption arc of “Workhorse Queen” goes along the path the optimistic viewer might expect.  Popil finds a creative stage outlet to exorcise his personal demons.  He regularly gives back to the Rochester community by such efforts as his kids’ show “Imagination Station.”  Beginning drag performer Dewey Rice now has a mentor for his persona of Wednesday Westwood in the form of Popil.

If “Workhorse Queen” isn’t ultimately the winning film a viewer might desire, it at least runs a decent race.

***

Viewers who think writing poetry is a form of intellectual self-pleasure need to be exposed to the work of Alejandro Murguia.  The first Latino Poet Laureate of San Francisco uses poetry as a vehicle for attacking or reconsidering the status quo.  A grounding in history gives Murguia a foundation for identifying the sociopolitical  problems he wishes to challenge with his words.

“Keeper Of The Fire,” from directors David L. Brown, Raymond Telles, and Louis Dematteis, provides a good start in recounting the life of this activist poet.  The title describes the role a poet plays in a community.  The communal songs the poet is attuned to nourish the community’s hope and creativity.

Poetry and political activism does not sound as disjointed a union as the casual viewer may think.  Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca are two in a long historical chain of poets who’ve fought for political change.  Murguia himself probably earned the U.S. federal government’s side-eye for openly supporting Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement and even organizing Sandinista solidarity committees.  Even today, the film’s subject still fights the good fight against such local menaces as the Monster in the Mission and tech gentrification of San Francisco.

The key to the link between poetry and political activism, says Murguia, is in poetry’s ability to open the personal imagination.  Opening the imagination leads to envisioning a better world than the one the current socioeconomic system tries to sell as immutable.

The film offers snippets from such Murguia works as “Silicon City” and “Boy On A Wooden Horse.”  Read in Murguia’s smooth resonant voice, the listener feels as if they’re in the presence of truth being uttered.

That feeling of being exposed to honest verbal artistry comes from Murguia’s spiritual influences.  The poet draws from his personal experiences as well as those of others.  A self awareness of his identity and perspective as a Chicano also helps, as does his hatred of overwhelming social injustice.

“Keeper Of The Fire” also touches on some colorful aspects of Murguia’s past.  His relationships with the City Lights crowd and the famed Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal get strong mentions.  But Brown, Telles, and Dematteis’ film plays down its subject’s literary celebrity to focus on showing Murguia’s affinity for La Mission and the various ways that affinity is manifested.

If this film doesn’t succeed in displaying the same amount of passion and commitment Murguia displays in his poems and fiction, at least it respects the poet for the good trouble he continues to stir for La Mission’s residents.

***

This year’s SF DocFest Vanguard awardee Keith Maitland brings to the festival the amazing true story “Dear Mr. Brody.”  Depending on how a viewer looks at the events of the film, Maitland’s new work is about a search for love, a psychological tragedy, or a moving reconnection with the past.

On January 10, 1970, 21-year-old margarine millionaire Michael Brody, Jr. announced he would give away his entire $25 million fortune to anyone in need who asked him.  (Depending on how you calculate it, that translates into anywhere from over $161 million to over $172 million in 2021 dollars.)  His announced aim was to use his resources to spread love throughout the world.  To show his sincerity, the hippie millionaire gave out his personal and business contact information all over the media.  LIterally tens of thousands of people tried taking up Brody’s offer.  There were long lines of people at Brody’s office and home.  His mailboxes became filled with tens of thousands of letters, with one even coming from as far away as Japan.

As Maitland’s film continues, a viewer’s initial feelings of bemusement at Brody’s generosity soon yield to unsettled concern.  Why did twelve large boxes’ worth of supplicants’ letters to Brody remain unopened decades later?  What happened to those people in genuine need who never heard from Brody?  And did the millionaire actually have the resources to make good on his giveaways?

In retrospect, Brody’s public offer and its consequences had elements of the old 1950s CBS dramatic series “The Millionaire” in its DNA.  In that anthology series, multi-millionaire John Beresford Tipton indulges his hobby of studying human behavior by giving a selected person $1 million and seeing what that person does with their sudden windfall.  While it’s possible Brody could have seen an episode of the series as a child, whether he actually did so is pure speculation.  But certainly some of Brody’s middle-aged or older contemporaries would have remembered the old show in thinking of the hippie millionaire’s offer.

Maitland does not reference “The Millionaire” in his film, although he does have a nod to Scrooge McDuck.  However, speculation turns out to be the central problem in discussing Brody’s motivation for his offer.  Was he really as altruistic as he seemed?  Or was it a nihilistic rejection of his well-off situation?  Neither Brody’s ex-wife Renee nor ex-bodyguard say anything that can provide illumination on the matter.  This unanswered question of motivation could explain why two competing efforts to tell Brody’s story on film never came to fruition.  (Ironically, Edward R. Pressman, the producer of one of those earlier efforts, happens to be a co-producer on Maitland’s film.)

In a nice bit of meta-explanation, a research assistant for Pressman mentions on camera that the best way to tell Brody’s story is to tell the stories of some of the people who sought Brody’s help.  Maitland’s decision to take this tack turns the film from a study in freakish personal human behavior into a touching portrait of the various faces of human need.

“Dear Mr. Brody” accomplishes this goal by tracking down some of the people who corresponded with Brody.   The resulting reunions give a glimpse of how much a letter writer’s life has changed.  In one touching moment, a woman living a currently comfortable existence quietly cries when her letter reminds her of the desperate circumstances that prompted her to write to Brody.  The other result of the reunion of letter and writer’s heirs is reminding the heirs of the personality of a long-departed relative.  Three sisters, for example, try to avoid breaking down while reading aloud a letter of several pages their late mother sent to Brody.

It’s oddly humbling seeing object animation of the sheer variety of letters the millionaire received.  Cynics might be right about some of the letters’ presentations being calculated to stand out from other letters.  Yet far more of the letters have an air of quiet honesty mixed in with their pleas.  Some letters are written in crayon.  Others have little drawings on the outside envelope.  Still others include small gifts such as beads or a nicely drawn picture of Renee Brody.  One even has its pages attached together by a safety pin.

Having actors read and perform the letters out loud shows how Brody’s offer did succeed in generating a bit more love in the world.  A woman who lives in a literal log cabin with several children and an illiterate husband writes to Brody for help while asking that her name be kept out of the papers.  A little girl is so lonely she sees Brody as a stranger willing to lend a sympathetic ear.  One particular woman memorably muses on Brody’s personal unhappiness and its link to his publicized offer.

By the end of the film, the highly publicized Brody ironically remains a personal enigma.  Yet he clearly becomes a vehicle for exploring the underbelly of life in supposedly prosperous 1970 America.  And the real legacy of his offer is getting addressed in a touching manner.

(All the films discussed here are available for streaming at any time through June 20 via the SF DocFest website.  “The Face Of Anonymous,” “Dear Mr. Brody,” and “Workhorse Queen” also screen live at the Roxie Theater at one-time only screenings between June 9-16.)

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