Mixed Media: Hot Docs
I, Dolours (82 minutes)
directed by Maurice Sweeney
A haunting film based on a series of interviews with IRA radical Dolours Price, convicted for a bombing of the Old Bailey and involved in the disappearances of suspected informants. Born into a staunch Republican family and radicalized by the brutal repression of the People’s Democracy movement in the late 1960s, Price’s commitment to the nationalist cause is fierce and unbending. The interviews with her were done on condition that they would be released only posthumously.
In I, Dolours director Sweeney pushes the documentary form – the film is strict about using only Price’s own words but brings them to life through the creative use of cinematic re-enactments and historical footage. It’s all there – the Republican tradition, the repression visited by the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the hunger strikes, the smuggling of weapons, and handover of suspected informants on lonely roads. Price ends up a sad and embittered opponent of the Good Friday Agreement – but one leaves the film wondering whether her tragic story isn’t in the end a testimony in favour of it.
The Cleaners (88 minutes)
directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck
In darkened rooms in the shabby highrises of downtown Manila the digital janitors of the internet push ‘delete’ and ‘ignore’ buttons as they censor internet platforms. It’s a highly subjective and fast-paced business as they work through around 2,500 images an hour. The local companies, contracted by internet giants like Google and Facebook, that employ ‘cleaners’ have guidelines – but there are a lot of judgement calls. The cleaners are allowed three ‘mistakes’ a week before their employment is at risk.
Removed are scenes of violence deemed gratuitous (you can show Saddam’s execution but not his corpse), anything thought to encourage terrorism or even political destabilization; and, of course, that most contentious of all battlefields: the human body and its sexual practices. In the Philippines such regular employment, while both stressful and tedious, is much sought after. One cleaner is so affected by this grim diet that he takes his own life. The film raises more questions than it is able to address.
The Blue Wall (76 minutes)
directed by Richard Rowley
It’s an all too familiar story, this time from Chicago – the murder of a black youth by a trigger-happy cop. But Rowley tells it almost perfectly, tracing the way solid investigative journalism, committed lawyers and outraged community pressure, eventually explode the police cover story. What gets revealed is a chain of corruption going from the local police precinct to the mayor’s office.
Rowley and his colleagues allow the police and their advocates to condemn themselves with their own words, leaving them justifying not only the lies but the 16 bullets used to cut down an unarmed 17-year-old black kid. The filmmakers go out of their way to make sure that the story is not about either the victim or the perpetrator but how a system of racist policing operates hand-in-glove with a boosterist municipal government, in this case presided over by Chicago mayor and Obama confidante, Rahm Emanuel. A gripping story, brilliantly revealed.
Anote’s Ark (77 minutes)
directed by Matthieu Rutz
This doc combines lush footage of the blues and greens of life in the South Pacific with sad and sobering interviews of environmental refugees forced from home to pick kiwis in New Zealand’s farms. The island nation of Kiribati is on the frontline of the fight against climate degradation. The 33 islands are so low-lying and narrow that storm surges have already begun to regularly submerge parts of this Micronesian archipelago, home to some 100,000 Pacific Islanders. It is estimated that the islands will no longer exist by century’s end, probably well before.
The film, the first by the Swiss-Québécois director Matthieu Rutz (a one-person crew), follows former Kiribatin President Anote Tong from climate conferences to the Vatican as he tries to rally the world’s conscience to pay attention to the plight of his people. Anote shows remarkable warmth and humanitarian resilience as he endeavours to convince the international political class that it is not just one small island, but species survival that is ultimately at stake in our climate crisis.
The Trial (139 minutes)
directed by Maria Augusta Ramos
A veteran and accomplished filmmaker, Ramos takes on the mechanics and political drama of the soft coup against President Dilma Rousseff that so bitterly divided Brazil. The film combines unusual access to Rousseff’s defence team, with footage of courtroom and national assembly drama and mobilization in the street, to provide a riveting account. The Trial has a tight intimacy, using observational techniques to introduce the series of characters at the heart of the political manoeuvring to overthrow Brazil’s first female president.
If you are untutored in Brazilian politics it may take a while to grasp what’s going on, but once you do The Trial grabs you like a runaway freight train. Hallway conversations combine with public speeches as tension builds over the months towards a final climax. With the world paying attention to the Olympic Games hosted by Brazil, the struggle for the future of the country’s democratic institutions goes almost unnoticed in the capital Brasilia. The Trial’s graphic portrayal shows what camera and mic can do when they stick to thoughtful observation and skillful editing.
Bisbee 17 (118 minutes)
directed by Robert Greene
A quirky film with all too serious undertones. Greene sets his doc in a semi-ghost town on the much contested Arizona-Mexico border. Bisbee was a major copper-mining centre until the 1970s when the company left town. Today Bisbee survives as an interesting relic that attracts tourists, partially through a re-enactment of a notorious 1917 roundup of striking miners by patriotic, law-and-order vigilantes. The miners – mostly Hispanic, eastern European and members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – were loaded into cattle cars, taken out to the New Mexico desert and told never to return on pain of death.
The town is still divided on the rights and wrongs of these events, which it re-enacts each year, stirring old passions on either side. Bisbee 17 is a fascinating example of how a community keeps its labour history alive and overcomes a whitewashed account of what amounted to ethnic cleansing. In current times of Trump roundups and deportations it seems particularly apt.
All films reviewed by Richard Swift