San Francisco Green Film Festival Reviews

by on September 24, 2019

“Push,” “The River And The Wall” and “16 Sunrises”

“Squat!  Squat! F**k the rich greedhead a**holes!” is definitely not a normal audience member reaction at the San Francisco Green Film Festival (hereafter SFGFF).  However, the 9th SFGFF’s Opening Night Film is bound to spark this reaction. The housing pricing crisis that’s the subject of the documentary “Push” particularly happens to be a personal sore point for current lower and middle class San Francisco renters

“Push”’s director Fredrik Gertten doesn’t exactly love the sight of the economically strong preying on the weak.  Dole Foods tried to shut down Gertten’s documentary “Bananas!*” because the film chronicled a court case alleging the fruit company protected its banana crop by  allowing its foreign workers to be exposed to DBCP, a pesticide already banned in the U.S.

The global housing crisis happens to be another example of the rich preying on the less well-off.  Why have housing prices rocketed to the point that in 59 out of 102 countries, the average person can only afford to buy a home if they save their annual salary for at least a decade?

To answer that question, Gertten follows UN Special Rapporteur On Adequate Housing Leilani Farha as she travels around the world meeting lower income people priced out of housing through insane rent hikes or the deliberate construction of luxury condominiums.  The Blackstone Group in particular has a housing business model built on buying up low income housing and seeing how much more rental money they can shake out of tenants. Government officials who treat Blackstone’s predations as a fait accompli do nothing to help curb Blackstone’s abuses.

It takes interviews with Saskia Sassen (global cities theorist), Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize-winning economist), and Roberto Saviano (author of the Camorra expose Gomorrah) to reveal that the classic investigative advice to “follow the money” becomes key to understanding the roots of the worldwide housing crisis.  Specifically, the interests that have propagated this crisis don’t see housing as a human right. To them, a single family home is a capitalist good.   Housing is either a better investment vehicle than stocks (the Asian investor attitude) or it’s a great way to launder ill-gotten gains (the Camorra approach).  Gertten unfortunately resists the temptation at this point to make jokes about the thin divide between corporate behavior and organized crime.

Farha, for her part, declines to go the condemning capitalism route.   She admits to being a fan of capitalism. Yet that fandom makes the Rapporteur look naive as she hopes to have a conversation with Jonathan Gray, the Blackstone Group’s Head of Global Real Estate.  Farha hopes that by talking to Gray about the human consequences of Blackstone’s actions, the conversation may shift Blackstone’s economic extractive behavior. That hope goes about as well as the cynical-minded suspects.

To the Rapporteur’s credit, she isn’t a naif who’s unaware of the uphill battle she faces.  The large gap between current human rights law and its ability to address the global housing crisis is glaringly obvious.  A scene where Farha makes a presentation on the housing problem to a UN meeting gets brutally captured by Gertten as a moment where way too many attendees treat the Rapporteur’s presentation as so much background noise.

Yet to sink into despair and hopelessness is not a feasible option.  Doing so means letting London’s notorious Grenfell Tower fire remain in public consciousness as a simple tragedy instead of a symbol of the failure of not treating housing as a human right.  Isn’t it reasonable to suspect upmarket residents of the neighboring Notting Hill district resented the presence of the public housing tower? Or that displaced Grenfell Tower residents’ resettlement offers took them out of the Notting Hill area and even London itself?

Despite the at-times heartbreaking stories captured on-screen, Gertten’s “Push” never sinks into utter despair.  The filmmaker sprinkles throughout the film encounters with people resisting the push of housing speculators and investors.  Florian Schmidt, a Berlin District Commissioner, embodies the Kreuzberg area’s spirit of rebellion by fighting efforts to price long-term businesses out of the area.  Tenants who’ve waged successful rent strikes share their knowledge and experience with other tenants facing insane rent hikes. Pension funds become an unexpected avenue for fighting housing speculation.  And of course, there is squatting. (As a caveat, it is not the place of this reviewer to openly condone illegal activity. However, it is also not this reviewer’s place to pretend housing speculation which creates blocks of deliberately unoccupied housing just to fatten the speculator’s assets is a relatively harmless practice.)

Farha herself ultimately shows that she can do more than just talk about access to decent affordable housing as a fundamental human right.  Her new organization The Shift offers the promise of worldwide connections between cities on effective methods of fighting the economic displacement of cities’ residents.

Gertten’s film makes clear that despite the David vs. Goliath nature of this struggle, this fight between non-wealthy residents and those interested only in profiting from extracting wealth from housing is a struggle worth waging.  City living’s benefits extend beyond the centralization of people and resources. A city provides the medium for chance social encounters that might lead to new friendships, for example. Endangering such social and cultural variety for the sake of creating a destructive economic monoculture makes fighting back by whatever means possible a necessity.

***

The Orange Skull and his mindless hordes of MAGA-ts may call a U.S.-Mexico border wall lovely as much as they want.  If they expect to persuade border wall skeptics and opponents to support their dream project, it’s incumbent on them to show plausible plans for constructing such a structure.  Rhetorical handwaving and racist sentiment will not suffice. Unfortunately for President P***yA**B***h and his red-hatted sheeple, Ben Masters’ documentary “The River And The Wall” shows rhetorical handwaving and racist sentiment are truly all they’ve got.

Masters’ debunking is all the more remarkable given his commitment to considering the controversial issue in a bipartisan manner.  A montage early in the film shows that in the past both Republican and Democratic presidents and candidates openly supported building a border wall.  When the filmmaker interviews people with on the ground knowledge of the area where a border wall could plausibly be constructed, he talks to people on both sides of the political aisle.  So Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and Republican Representative Will Hurd offer their say because they’re familiar with the El Paso area. Texas ranchers and Mexican fishermen also get in a few words.  And the people accompanying Masters bring a variety of personal expertise to comment on the long term effects of a border wall’s presence.

But the film’s principal method of challenging this racist dream in concrete and steel is by chronicling the 1200 mile journey taken by Masters and his friends.  1200 miles happens to be the distance from El Paso, Texas to the Gulf Of Mexico if one were to follow the Rio Grande. This big river also serves as a portion of the official U.S.-Mexico border.  To make this journey Masters and his party will use mountain bikes, horses, and canoes.

Accompanying Masters on this nearly two-month long journey are Rio Grande river guide Austin Alvarado, ornithologist Heather Mackey, award-winning wildlife filmmaker Filipe Deandrade, and Texas Parks and Wildlife representative Jay Kleberg.  The journey will be particularly personal for Alvarado and Deandrade as they’re children of undocumented immigrants.

Skeptics who wonder why the journey captured in Masters’ film could not be done quicker are missing the point.  The purpose isn’t to zip through the countryside bordering both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s about taking time to appreciate the landscape where a border wall could probably be built…and what exactly would be lost by building such a structure.  In the words of “The Good Place,” the answer to the “what would be lost” question is “a forking lot.”

The answer to where a border wall could be reasonably built can be summarized in one word:  inland. A wall situated practically at the entire U.S. side of the Rio Grande makes little sense.  The film’s footage shows how the terrain is too uneven and the river’s course too crooked in spots to make a wall practical.  Also, only 3% of Texas land is open to the public. Getting the private land needed for the wall via eminent domain will create lots of angry and vocal Texas landowners.

Now add into the mix the negative knock on effects for humans of a wall’s presence.  The Rio Grande provides the desert’s only good water. Walling that access away would mean border ranchers such as Steve Lamantia would not be able to keep their ranch going.  American farmers who work near the Rio Grande would no longer have access to the alluvial soil made possible by the river. Also, making the border wall the new American border means ceding roughly a million acres of current Texas land back to Mexico.  The Mexicans may consider such ceding a minor compensation for the Orange Skull’s many insults against their people and nation. The Americans who’ve lost their property to the border wall may understandably feel less sanguine.

Finally, there’s the social disruption that a border wall’s presence would create.  Unlike the type of bigots who stand by the Orange Skull, those Americans who live near the border don’t consider Mexico a land of the Other.  Instead the Mexicans on the other side of the border can be analogized to the neighbors across the street. A border wall would mean separating spiritual neighbors.

The animal kingdom would not fare much better with the wall’s presence.  Birds and butterflies will have their migratory patterns thrown badly off course by the wall’s denying them access to the Rio Grande.  Animals used to roaming back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico or drinking from the Rio Grande will find their roaming territory seriously reduced by the wall.

The film’s footage of high-walled canyons, river rapids, and an incredible variety of wildlife shows what’s threatened by the border wall’s existence.  Such images are breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. The viewer is likely to feel building a wall in the midst of what’s supposed to land untouched by human activity is a crime against nature.

The big irony of the Orange Skull’s manic obsession with building a border wall comes from noticing that such a wall is both the most expensive option for securing America’s borders…and the least effective solution.  As Hurd notes, more effective security options can be had by giving the Border Patrol the technology and people power needed to do their job effectively. However, the Orange Skull’s sanctioning of putting kids in cages has effectively stoked public unwillingness to support helping the CBP.

While Masters’ film notes the harsh and negative impacts of a border wall, the director prefers to keep his film’s tone optimistic.  Alvarado’s and Deandrade’s personal stories show how American society benefits from the undocumented making good and productive use of America’s opportunities.  The existence of a U.S.-Canada shared wilderness area raises viewer thoughts about the feasibility of having a similar wilderness area shared by the U.S. and Mexico.  Most importantly, the footage of Masters and his friends trying to get their bikes through heavy mud patches or adapting to riding horses reminds the viewer that this film is at its core a chronicle of a fantastic personal adventure.

***

S.F. Green Film Festival Closing Night Film “16 Sunrises” turns out to be a film whose frames are packed with the stuff of dreams.  That may be an odd thing to say about a film set mostly in a cramped refuge from the dark silence of outer space. Yet in alternating between capturing the details of life aboard the International Space Station and seeing Earth spinning by below the station, a viewer is immersed in a sense of the vastness of the universe without being drowned by that knowledge.

 

Pierre-Emmanuel Le Goff’s film follows French European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet on the 50th expedition to the International Space Station.   For six months Pesquet and other station crew members will work and live together in admittedly tight spaces in zero gee. Lacking his saxophone thanks to weight considerations, the French musician-astronaut keeps himself personally stimulated by reading the collected works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Unlike other documentaries about living in space, there is very little offscreen narration.  One such narrative bit comes from the director musing about what one can say to somebody about to head off into space.  The other narrative bits come from recordings of Saint-Exupery himself, who reads lines from several of his books.

Having de Saint-Exupery quotes heard on the film soundtrack is not an unusual idea.  American viewers who know the author mainly from his famous children’s fantasy “The Little Prince” will be in for a surprise.  Saint Ex (as he was nicknamed) wrote poetically about his adventures as a pioneer in postal aviation. Le Goff sees Pesquet as being a pioneer in the skies like Saint Ex.  The quotes from the writer that appear in the film appropriately match some of Pesquet’s feelings of living in the space station.

The film’s mix of mundane and wondrous details in its images ground Pesquet’s expedition as something a person can aspire to.  A statue of an astronaut holding his arms out to encompass the sky looks like a primal human dream made flesh. The frequent use of a Sriracha sauce bottle to give the freeze-dried food eaten by the astronauts flavor feels oddly homey.  Pesquet’s easily pulling out a machine that would have weighed hundreds of pounds on Earth sets off both instinctual terror and wonderment. There’s also something charming about the French astronaut answering questions from Earth about whether he has nightmares on the station or whether someone installed a Christmas tree.

But the main visual draw of Le Goff’s film is the footage of Earth as seen from the International Space Station.  Without the artificial reference points of national boundaries, the viewer is able to regard the planet we humans live on as a whole.  Cities lit up at night by electricity resemble human neurons. A large brown stretch of land that could be a mountain range gets partially concealed by a huge grouping of clouds that resembles a herd of animals.  There’s even footage of one of the sixteen sunrises the space station’s personnel see every day.

“16 Sunrises”’ admiration for the wonders of space isn’t limited to terrestrial exaltation.  There’s a bravura sequence late in the film where the camera looks outward at nearby planets and satellites in our Solar System.  The Moon’s surface has a strikingly lifeless grey color. Jupiter’s atmosphere on the other hand, is filled with swirling storms that suggest either a reflected oil slick or an atmosphere painted by Vincent Van Gogh.

While “16 Sunrises” admires our Solar System’s beauty, it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of getting to the space station to admire such celestial beauty.  “Docking maneuvers” feels inadequate in describing the complex steps of making sure the 50th expedition’s spacecraft correctly connects with the docking ring. “Turning on a dime” only begins to describe floating in zero gee without regularly colliding with one’s fellow crew members.

Le Goff’s film leaves the viewer with the best sense of humility.  This isn’t the type of humility used to quell any questioning of an unequal power relationship.  Instead, the vastness of the universe hinted at in “16 Sunrises” makes the chaos the Orange Skull casually inflicts on the rest of the world feel incredibly petty by comparison.

(“Push” screens at 7:30 PM on September 24, 2019 at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro Street, SF).  “The River And The Wall” screens at 6:00 PM on September 27, 2019 at the Little Roxie Theatre (3125 – 16th Street, SF).  “16 Sunrises” screens at 8:00 PM on September 29, 2019 at the Roxie Theatre (3117 – 16th Street, SF). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to http://greenfilmfest.com .)

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