Tag Archives: documentaries

Mossville: When Great Trees Fall

Mossville Louisiana was established by newly freed slaves, post-abolition. They designed it to be self-sustaining and community-minded. Many of the town’s recent residents are descendants of its founders. I saw recent rather than current because nobody lives there now.

A South African company (Sosol) came in and started buying up land. Those who didn’t get out immediately had to put up with construction, loss of basic services like electricity and sewage, and have weathered increased buy-out pressure from the company. The few remaining holdouts haven’t stopped the company from building its plants, but the residents are already decimated, poisoned by petrochemical plants and dying in droves, cancer not just visiting one or two but virtually all. Not that the company minds: when a resident dies, it’s that much easier for them to buy their land. Cheaper too.

It’s easy to want to solve this by relocating the sickly stragglers, but given their attachment to the land, the ancestral ties, their proud heritage, their unwillingness to abandon it is perhaps justified. My house was built by a stranger in a part of the country I don’t even like, but I still wouldn’t want to move. And the more someone tried to force me, the deeper I’d dig my heels. But for people like Stacey Ryan a.k.a. Mossville’s last man standing, he hardly has the strength left to put up a fight; he’s too often crippled in an emergency room to effectively advocate.

This documentary takes a cold hard look at environmental injustice and racism, and the embarrassing truth that a company with ties to apartheid has now come to the U.S. looking to do the same. Politicians are sacrificing communities belonging to the disenfranchised. They hope you won’t notice, or care. But please do.

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Earth

Just for example, around 2 billion years ago, igneous and metamorphic rocks formed a gorge, and then around 70 to 30 million years ago, through the action of plate tectonics, the whole region was uplifted, resulting in a high and relatively flat plateau. Five or six million years ago, a river began to carve its way downward (during heavy flooding, the water takes boulders along with it, which act as chisels along the bottom). Further erosion by tributary streams led to the canyon’s widening. In another couple million years, it might be a little deeper still, but mostly it will have continued to widen. That’s how the Earth naturally made a very big hole in the ground, 446 km long, up to 29 km wide and more than 1,800 meters deep. We call it the Grand Canyon. Earth is a fine architect given millions of years, but we humans are moving 156 million tonnes of rock and soil per day. People are moving mountains. They’re changing the shape of the Earth.

This documentary takes a look at the people doing it. Labourers who tunnel through the Earth from above and below provide some interesting insights from a personal perspective – “If all else fails, there’s always dynamite. We always win.” And though many profess to “feeling bad” about obliterating landscapes, it is short-term profit who is driving all that brutal machinery, not long-term critical thinking or morality or common sense.

Earth is an interesting movie with an uninspired title. It would benefit from better editing, both in terms of smooth transitions and tightening up some scenes that are unnecessarily long. I know some 5 year olds who are insatiable when it come to trucks and diggers, and every time I pass a construction site I see a number old old men watching the machinery do its work, but for me this movie ran overlong. Still, it’s a neat little package of stuff we don’t see nearly enough, certainly not all collected together. It makes for thoughtful viewing.

TIFF19: This Is Not A Movie

Director Yung Chang sets his sights on Robert Fisk, a ground-breaking and game-changing longtime foreign correspondent. Reporting primarily from the Middle East, the documentary visits his old stomping grounds – Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and revisits many of his old stories, some of which (many of which) are ongoing. Problems in the Middle East are a revolving door, and a journalist has to have fortitude and determination to keep reporting with the same urgency and integrity when the story seems unending.

Robert Fisk clearly has a lot of deeply held beliefs about a journalist’s integrity, and it is clear that his has been questioned many times over the years. He writes what he sees, whether or not it’s what readers back home want to hear. His angle isn’t always the popular one. He’s been called racist, he’s been called an anti-Semite. But to him, truth is truth, even if it’s uncomfortable.

He also talks about what it’s been like to be amidst armed conflict so many times – and certainly, he seems inured, wanting to stop and poke around even as local guides nervously caution him of the danger. Wars are notoriously “dodgy things to predict” he tells us, as he barrels straight in. But there are consequences to this bombardment. One’s sensitivity becomes anesthetized; emotions are suppressed in the name of objectivity.

He’s a bit of a dinosaur, no longer truly of this world, which has moved on a bit in his absence. He still clings to newsprint even if his own words are purely digital. He’s realistic about the story’s ceaselessness, but keeps a fresh eye because “I still want to see what’s next.” Even in the face of great human tragedy “I can’t draw myself away.”

In the age of social media and fake news, Fisk is perhaps the kind of dinosaur we need. A reminder of how important it is to seek and expose truth. His rule of thumb: be on the side of those who suffer. Challenge authority. Don’t look away.

TIFF19: The Cave

Director Feras Fayyad has proven himself a bold and brave film maker with the multi-award winning Last Men In Aleppo. Although the Syrian crisis is so far the absolute worst atrocity of the 21st century, very little gets out besides shaky cellphone footage since so much is under constant siege. The Cave instantly sets itself apart.

Shot between 2016-2018 in Ghouta, a Syrian city near Damascus which faces near-constant bombing, the film takes us underground, to a secret network of tunnels filled with hungry, dusty-faced survivors. Underground we also find The Cave, which is what the people call their underground hospital. The Cave is low on supplies, some days lacking power, but it is brimming with resilience. The doctors there, mostly women, rely on each other to provide the camaraderie and the fortitude necessary to keep going in the face of such unimaginable, unabating conditions.

Dr. Amani is the hospital chief, a doctor of pediatrics who agonizes over her young patients. A little girl dying of cancer cannot be evacuated by Red Cross because of paperwork. Babies born in this subterranean unit fail to thrive and children arrive scrawny, malnourished – the medicine they need is food, but both medicine and food are scarce in a city so war-torn that neither can get in or out. Still, she takes a moment to connect with each child, and makes an effort to tell each little girl that they are born so they can live to be “something important” (a doctor, perhaps?), even though Dr. Amani still somehow faces constant sexism in her own work. Because no matter how grateful patients should be that there are any doctors left, any doctors willing to risk heartbreak, risk their lives to keep treating people every time a bomb falls or chemicals are released in the air, some of those patients will still use some of their last breaths on earth to berate her, telling her women should stay in the home. And still she saves them.

It’s a much more beautiful documentary than it has any right to be, both visually and thematically. Filmed in the rubble, in the darkness and debris and constant, choking dust, Fayyad manages some artful cinematography. But most remarkable is the dedication of these doctors who encourage each other and boost each other’s spirits in the face of harrowing hardship every single day.

Evelyn

If you love documentaries, you may already know Orlando von Einsiedel’s work from conflict zones, where he throws himself into dangerous situations; he won an Oscar for The White Helmets.

He seems more nervous about this one though. It’s about the death of his brother, Evelyn. The suicide of his brother, in fact. It happened a number of years ago but his family rarely talks about it. They’ve hardly said his name in a decade.

The 3 remaining siblings, Orlando, Gwennie, and Robin go on a walk together through Scotland’s Cairngorn National Park with their mother, giving them the chance to reflect on their grief and share the feelings they’ve been bottling up for a long time. Evelyn’s absence has fractured his family in so many ways, and their grief has prevented them from reassembling themselves.

And then they do it again through the Lake District of Cumbria with their father. In fact, they are often joined by family members and close friends, who help them broach the memories that have been too painful for them to revisit. The youngest brother, Robin, confesses that he’s “struggling just to hold it all together” and you sort of want to reassure him that in fact, it’s okay to fall apart. It’s clear their brother’s suicide was a major trauma for them. He’d been depressed for a number of years and made previous attempts, which had the family walking on eggshells. His diagnosis as schizophrenic threw them into a tailspin and perhaps they’ve never really recovered.

Mental illness is a difficult thing to talk about. Suicide is a terribly difficult thing to talk about. There’s clearly still a stigma there that this family feels, perhaps for their own peace of mind, that it’s better to repress the memories.

The great thing about this movie is, belated or not, this family has created a safe space for itself to unleash their loss. It’s been a long time coming. But that doesn’t make it easy. Revealing yourself, your inner heart, your deepest wounds – that’s not meant to be easy. Nor is it a cure all. But it’s a start. Courage, folks.

***If you’ve been thinking about suicide, please reach out. In Canada you can call 1.833.456.4566, 24/7 In the USA you can call 1.800.273.8255 In the UK you can call 116 123 In Germany you can call 030-44 01 06 07

Feel free to add additional phone numbers in the comments.

If you’ve lost someone to suicide, big hugs. I’m sorry.

TIFF19: No Crying At The Dinner Table

Director Carol Nguyen interviews her own Vietnamese-Canadian family, mining them for secrets.

Mostly they share their losses, their grief. The short film explores the cultural and generational differences in how her father, mother, and sister have experienced loss, from physical expressions of sympathy to regret and shame and forgiveness. It’s incredibly personal and soberly realized. What Nguyen accomplished in just 16 minutes is a veritable portrait of grief, and a moving, and living, family history. Her precisely-composed shots reflect the range of emotions, from raw to repressed, and her unobtrusive camera allows us a spot at the dinner table, preferably close to the tissues.

I love how we get to experience the difference between old country new country for this immigrant family, but the truth is, all families are different. Nguyen’s mother shares that she only kissed her own mother once, when she was very ill. Just once. She’s fairly matter of fact in the recounting, but her eyes betray some anguish.

I come from a very physically affectionate family, though I wouldn’t have described us as such until I met Sean’s family. We don’t necessary feel the urge to hug and kiss all the time, but I think our casual touches are actually a testament to our closeness. We might stroke each other in jest, or pinch each other with affection. Rarely does a family gathering go by without someone’s hair getting brushed, or braided. Or perhaps feet rubbed or nails painted. And we might sit very close together, even touching, even lying on top of each other if someone needs the cuddle, or sitting atop each other, if someone’s being a pain. Sean is not naturally a physically affectionate person. I call him a robot all the time, and he assures me that he has feelings, and I pretend to believe him. We just didn’t grow up the same way. It’s fine. We’ve just had to get used to each other. But now he’s the one always reaching for my hand, and he gives me a backrub almost every night before bed (of course, he mislabels this as foreplay, but that’s another story for another short film whose review I’ve highjacked). With coaching, I’ve even gotten him to admit to his mother that he loves her right before hanging up the phone. That’s huge for him. And occasionally he and his father have exchanged a hug rather than a handshake.

And that’s kind of another great revelation hidden inside this film’s 16 minutes. People do change, even just one generation to the next. We learn. We do better. Trauma changes us, but life goes on, and maybe next time, we do it differently. That’s a beautiful thing.

American Factory

As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win.  The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed.  China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect american-factory-1this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.

While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.

One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.

Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.

Something has to give there.  In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality.  Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.