If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011)

The Earth Liberation Front was burning things down. I can understand their anger. It is astounding what damage has been done to the natural world, as we see in brief clips. They call logging companies “rapers,” and when they show aerial footage of clear cut areas, the term seems fitting: the land has been used, its resources taken without asking and, not only taken, but the land left is scarred by logging roads and tire tracks, stumps ground to a pulp.

The movie both is and isn’t about ELF. It focuses on Daniel McGowan, a young man on trial for arson committed against logging companies, tree farms, and universities doing genetic testing on plants. The group he was a part of, known as the Earth Liberation Front, is a radical environmental group that, once angered, moves from nonviolent protest to what is called “eco-terrorism.” Daniel not only faces arson charges but the threat of being labeled as a terrorist for the rest of his days.

Daniel himself is kind of boring. The film’s attempts to make house-arrest glamorous, or even slightly interesting to watch, just feels forced and drawn out. I understand the need to give the movement a face, but I wonder if they chose the right face: the documentary makers  got their hands on Jake Ferguson, who seemed to be the most enigmatic of the group. He was involved in and had knowledge of many unsolved crimes, and the FBI eventually got enough information to arrest him. He was flipped by the FBI and acted as an informant on other members. Yet this is featured in only a few minutes of the movie. I would have much rather seen more about him than about Daniel sitting on his computer at home and hearing about his average childhood.

The forays into ELF’s past and the history of the radical environmentalist movement outside ELF show fascinating footage of environmental disasters and hazards and movements against them. This is where the story is: demonstrations in Oregon against logging on protected land, followed by footage of police retaliation that is horrifying to witness, even by film. All of this escalates to an anger and helplessness that led ELF to respond with homemade bombs. But they never hurt anybody, they attest. How can it be terrorism if no one is killed? This is one of the core questions the film addresses: what should we consider terrorism? When you put 9/11 and lighting a ranger station on fire side by side to compare them, can you really call them the same thing?

After their last acts of arson were revealed to have unpleasant consequences, ELF members split over differences of philosophy and purpose. Daniel moved to New York and settled down into a normal life. For the next three years, while Daniel worked and dated and lived, law enforcement was bearing down on Ferguson.  The events that followed were akin to a plot-line from Damages, with secret informants, hidden recording devices, and staged “accidental” run-ins, leading to the eventual simultaneous arrest of five former ELF activists, including Daniel McGowan.

That brings us up to more boring segments of “artsy” shots of brick walls and crows outside of a court room. Though Daniel is interesting by association and the fact that he got caught, I don’t buy him as a representative of the movement. A self-proclaimed “city-kid,” he claims a deep love for trees that never really feels right. I mean, sure it’s sad to imagine what it’s like to be facing a prison sentence and a terrorism label, but I was un-enthralled by much of the story that surrounded him and wanted more insight into other characters at play.

 

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Babies (2010)

This is a lazy blog post. I suppose I should review this movie by commenting on the good things and bad things about the way it portrays the first year of four infants living in very different cultures. What kind of social commentary does it, and doesn’t it provide, I should ask.

But really, for me it was just funny. And cute.

I mean look at this!

And this!

And this!

For more of the same, just watch Babies.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

So there is this French guy.

And he loves to videotape everything. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.  After years of video-taping every moment of his life (The toilet! It flushes!) he stumbles upon a way to narrow down his focus: he begins taping street artists creating their work.

These artists don’t just do graffiti—they create almost flashy cultural commentary with prints and graphics on billboards and walls. Making art in this world sometimes involves Oceans 11-like planning and execution. It’s exciting, and dangerous, and not hard to figure out why Thierry soon became obsessed. They exist all over the world, know each other by the style their art takes.

Thierry gets “in” with many street artists, going with them at night to do their vigilante art, avoiding the cops, keeping a lookout, helping to create something millions of people would see and notice, or not notice. His ultimate goal, eventually, is to meet Banksy, a British street artist who was garnering fame all over the world for hanging one of his paintings in the London Tate without notice and creating art on the Berlin Wall. Thierry’s opportunity comes when Banksy visits LA and allows a very eager Theirry to tape his life—as long as he never shows Banksy’s face. Thus what we see of Banksy in the film is his hooded-sweatshirt-clad self and, in interviews, a blacked out face with digitally altered voice.

Getting a front row seat to this kind of art makes a great film, but, as we see, only with a good editor. To be privy to the secretive street art world, Thierry masquerades as a documentary filmmaker, when really, he’s just some guy with a camera and an obsession. When Banksy’s LA art show draws a massive crowd and media attention, and he fears too much spectacle (What did he expect having a painted elephant as a part of his gallery show?), he asks Thierry to deliver on his promise of a documentary, to show everyone what street art really was.

We only have to watch probably about 30 seconds of what Thierry edits his thousands of hours of film down to. It’s absolute torture. Banksy had to watch 90 minutes of it and I don’t know how he avoided either vomiting or dissolving into a seizure. He recognized then that Thierry was not as he claimed to be, and offered to work at editing the tapes while recommending Thierry dabble in street art a little on his own.

And my, Thierry does. He begins by creating street art, but then decides, after only six months, to have a gallery show of galactic proportions, like Banksy’s show times eleven. Now, with the camera out of his hands, he transfers his obsession to turning out massive amounts of art in order to open a show in weeks.

But Thierry “turning out” art is actually him telling his hired graphic designers and artists what to make. And they make it well, in a sort of art-factory. Four thousand people show up for the LA art opening, spend more than a million dollars on Thierry’s art, and spawn dissent and, probably, jealousy from the artists who once welcomed this strange mutton-chopped man into their secret world. We are led to question, as they are, what is art? Did the world fall for some sort of trick by finding meaning in Thierry’s mass-produced “art”? When interviewers ask Thierry questions about the meaning of the art and he can’t answer them with any depth or real meaning. He mumbles something unintelligible which ends with “And … I’m here!” as though that is enough.

It’s clear that Thierry is sort of faking it, just as he faked it as a documentary filmmaker, perhaps just as I fake it as a documentary reviewer who knows nothing about film. But at least I admit it.

God Grew Tired of Us (2006)

When civil war broke out in Sudan in 1987, families were scattered, people systematically murdered, and 27,000 boys between the ages of five and ten undertook a journey of survival across the desert to safer borders. They became known as The Lost Boys.

I read the book God Grew Tired of Us, written by Lost Boy John Bul Dau with Michael Sweeney, a while ago. The book is about the long walk from Southern Sudan to Ethiopia, from Ethiopia to Kenya. The movie enters the story after the journey, when the boys, now young men, are living in suspension in a refugee camp in Kenya. They are safe now from the perils of genocide in their own country, but their families have not turned up. They worry constantly about their mothers, sisters, fathers, and cousins while simply waiting. Their reality is full of violence and fear: the Sudanese government orders to kill all male children in the south, children are locked in their houses by soldiers and burned alive, and families are separated, unsure if the others are alive or dead. On the road, in the bush, the boys are starving, eating mud and trying to urinate to have something to drink. This was their childhood reality.

On the border of their country, the boys wait. For the war to be over, for their families to send word. They become “more than family” to each other. When we meet them, they’ve spent a decade waiting in the refugee camp and, for a select few, the waiting is over.

John Bul Dau, Panther, and Daniel—the most frequently interviewed men in the movie—have been chosen to come to America, where they hope to work, get more of an education, and realize some sort of a future after a past of devastation. The federal government makes this possible, finding them jobs and apartments and lending them money to fly over, expecting gradual repayment as the boys begin work.

Of course, America poses all sorts of new challenges. The camera captures the men experiencing their first plane ride, eating a pat of butter plain and saying it tastes like soap, learning how to lock the lavatory door in the plane, stepping on an escalator for the first time. Later, when introduced to their apartments, they learn how to turn on a lamp, where to put the trash, how to eat prepackaged food. They take it in stride, with humor and honesty.

The boys are beguiling. They tell their stories with beauty and openness that heightens the sense of horror one feels at imagining their childhood. They take you in, win you over, make you cheer for them.

There are many moments of victory and many of defeat. As I watched, I developed a sense of regret for their lives upheaval from their other Lost Boys in the refugee camp, something that confused me. In a way, America doesn’t fit them. I almost worry what it will do to them. So does John Bul, who hopes that he and other Lost Boys can hold each other accountable in upholding their Sudanese culture. “A person with no culture is like a man with no land,” he says, defending the boys eating their meals with their hands.Their confusion at American culture is convicting, a clear picture of American life from an outsider’s point of view. They wonder why they cannot ask people for directions, and why strangers do not welcome others into their homes as it was in Sudan. The Christmas holiday is especially confusing to John Bul Dau, who wonders, “What does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Is Santa Claus in the Bible?” He asks, but there is no one to clear it up for him.

The boys never stop looking for their families, never stop sending all the money they can to their friends. Perhaps the greatest moment of the movie is the reunion of John Bul Dau and his mother. She skips with joy through the New York airport, crying out repeatedly in joy—an eerie, high-pitched scream—not caring who stares at her display in confusion and disbelief because her Lost Boy has finally been found again. It’s hard to describe that kind of beauty–you have to watch it for yourself.

One Nation Under God (1993)

“No, I don’t think homosexuals have a mental disorder.”

“Yes, let me say that I do think homosexuality is a psychological … problem.”

A group of kids dressed in typical 90’s garb (did I see a fanny pack?) are asked by the interviewer, “Do you consider homosexuals to be sick?” The response: chorus of half-hearted yes’s and no’s.

And so the film opens with the homosexuality debate as it was about twenty years ago. Yet this documentary is not a broad survey of the public opinion toward homosexuality and homosexuals in America. It instead focuses its lens on those that believe homosexuality is a sickness, a choice, a sin, and/or a disorder, those that believe they’ve found the cure, and those affected by the movement.

Enter Exodus Ministries in the 1970s, an Evangelical organization aimed at curing homosexuality through prayer and counseling. Near the opening of the movie, two founders of Exodus give a speech. At first, I assumed it was an explanation of how great their ministry is. But they surprised me: these two, while traveling around preaching the possibility of “praying away the gay,” fell in love. It was a shock to me, as I’m sure it was, back in 1973, when they came out at a church where they were supposed to be selling this possible sexuality change.

The film gives a broad history of psychological theories about homosexuality, religious views, and a series of somewhat humorous and at other times, heartbreaking, anecdotes told by those closely involved with Exodus or organizations like it. Here are some I found interesting.

First,  we travel back to the 1950s. Psychologists in black and white film decry homosexuality as a disease. Silhouetted gays and lesbians admit how unhappy and sick they are. Various historical “cures,” such as aversion therapy and “orgasmic reorientation”—which involved a man masturbating and at climax, looking at the image of a woman—reflect the anti-gay attitudes that even the medical profession held. These are secular cures. The religious ones involve repentance of sin and counseling to get back on the path of righteousness.

Fast forward to the 90’s and Exodus ministries. Women find ways to stifle their more “masculine” abilities. For example, in an effort to choose to be more feminine, an “Ex-gay” woman, who knows how to change her own radiator hose, drives all over town to find a man to do it,because she has been taught that such a masculine action makes her “butch.”

Later, the women of Exodus partake in a free makeover session. The organizer says that it is so that these women can see how attractive and pretty they are when they’re feminine. Maybe they’ve never thought of themselves this way! And now men won’t “back away from them” and actually “want them.” And what would be a similar therapy for gay or effeminate men, a way for them to see what they are missing? “They should play softball,” she says.

Cut to a scene of the Gay and Lesbian Softball League. “Being gay is being gay and playing softball is playing softball,” says one of them. “They have nothing to do with each other.”

The two ex-exodus founders who fell in love are interviewed throughout the movie. They are still together, had a marriage-like ceremony, and speak of their past with forgiveness and clarity. The proverbial “other” spoken of  is embodied in these two rather normal, domestic men who have built a life together. They contest that trying to change homosexuals does not and will not work, as they cannot choose to be gay any more than they choose to be white, or male.

Near the end of the film, the people quoted at the beginning are asked a different question: Do you think that heterosexual people can change to become homosexual if they wanted? Those who spoke out strongest against homosexuals now stammer and shrug off the question, as if it were the most bizarre idea they’d ever heard of. Point made.

 

Life in a Day (2011)

I started watching “Life in a Day” right before watching the Super Bowl. It’s the kind of film in which I could be featured, watching the Super Bowl and knitting, and it would seem like a beautiful life.

National Geographic  gave cameras to people in 192 countries and asked them to film their lives on July 24, 2010. Just record real life and let the images speak for themselves. It’s a simple, popular concept: people displaying life as it is. It’s artsy, it’s emotional, and it works.

They received over 4,500 hours of film. I can’t imagine the task of watching almost 190 DAYS WORTH of film editing it all down to fit in an hour and a half.

But they accomplished it, and what remains is beautiful. Everything, under an expensive lens and gorgeous editing, becomes intriguing and remarkable, from the first pee in the morning to cracking an egg onto a hot frying pan, from nursing a child in the dark to riding an elevator in the pre-dawn darkness.

The movie begins in the early morning and features rituals, familiar and unfamiliar, that take place throughout the day. They answer simple questions, like what do you love? What do you fear? They document sleep, food, work, love, children, violence, disease. Or, in a word, humanity.

Despite being captivated by the movie, it made me melancholy. There is something kind of bleak in all of the beauty, and after thinking about it, I believe it is this: it made me achingly aware of my own insignificance. So many people love and fear the same things I do. To imagine the billions of people in the world, afraid of death like I am, or in love like I am, makes my own fears and loves seem less unique.

The movie ends with night falling  on the eve of July 24. A girl, filming herself sitting in her car, expresses basically the same sentiment I just did. “I don’t want to just disappear,” she says.

After thinking it over more, I found a way to make myself feel better. The only way to not disappear, to matter among billions,  is to matter to a few.

Waiting for Superman (2010)

This is the first documentary I watched, recommended to me by my brother. It was an eye-opener, and motivated this documentary obsession and subsequent blogging you are privy to.

Waiting for Superman takes on the flawed public education system. A blemish on America’s skin, a problem every president for years has vowed to fix.

Yet this film, at its heart, is about the kids affected by a flawed system. We meet five children struggling through their public schools and are presented with a map of the path laid out for them. These kids have so much hope (Daisy wants to be a doctor and veterinarian, Anthony, who can’t be more than ten, wants a better life for his own kids) , but if statistics ring true, they will possibly never be proficient in math or reading, not graduate, and not go to college.

The film informs about the problems with the public school system and the attempts at solving them.  Before this movie, I knew nothing about teachers unions. That through their union contracts, teachers receive tenure after only two years of teaching. After that, they virtually cannot be fired, despite not teaching at all, or not teaching well. Principals and school boards who long for their kids to learn can’t do anything about horrible teachers in their classrooms.

Geoffrey Canada, an enigmatic educator, from whose interviews the movie title is born, believes there is a solution. Charter  schools free public schools with carefully selected teachers and small class sizes, give kids a chance, sometimes a guarantee, of success. No child slips through the cracks or enters high school with a third grade reading level. They graduate with the education necessary to get into college. It seems like a big promise to say that every child in charter school will succeed, but the statistics show that charter school works: we just need more of them.

It all comes down to luck. Charter school law requires a lottery be held when there are more applicants than there are spaces in charter schools. And spaces, we see, are very limited. The number of spaces left tick down at the bottom of the screen as we watch the faces of the five kids and their parents, their futures decided by bingo balls and drawing names from a hat.

While watching this movie, I was led to look at my own education, and see my background in stark relief to the children in the film. I grew up in the suburbs, where schools have much less of the problems plaguing city schools. My family could afford to send me to a private school until high school, when I chose to transfer to the local public school. It was never a question of whether or not I would graduate and go to college—I took it for granted. I grew up with privilege, the thought of going to a “drop-out” factory or needing to get into a charter school to get a good education never crossed my mind, as it already has the minds of these kids.

This film does an incredible job of taking a huge issue like public education and humanizing it by letting the viewers get to know just five of the children affected by it. When I saw the amount of spaces greatly outnumbered by the number of applicants, your hope for the featured child dwindles. By learning their histories and their families, knowing their ambitions and seeing that public education works against them to get there, this film makes the viewer care. And isn’t that the point?

Docubloggery

Greetings very few readers. I’ve been wanting to start a blog for a while now, but was waiting for a good angle to come to me. I didn’t want a diary-like blog which I’ve done before, recording life happenings, usually while undertaking some grand adventure like international travel or a new job.

Sitting at home this past month, unemployed and useless, I’ve finally found it: my angle.

While wasting copious amounts of time on Netflix Instant streaming, I discovered something.

Documentaries.

Perhaps for you, this word induces a yawn. If so, stop reading and go back to watching Jersey Shore (trust me, I’ve been there).

If not, read on.

In the past few days, I’ve found over forty documentaries on Netflix I am interested in watching. Most address social, historical, cultural, or religious topics. Some just seemed interesting. I found that from the first three I watched, I gained so much new insight that I wanted to take notes.

And nowadays, who wants to take notes only for themselves? It seems only natural to post my intelligent and informed reviews online for my poor friends and acquaintances to read.

All the documentaries I view will be on Netflix, thus also available to you if you subscribe to this convenient vehicle of slothful time-wasting. Netflix, I mean, not my blog. But you should subscribe to the blog too.

I will mention things I found interesting and things I learned. The tone will be conversational and curious.

I tend to, while reading a book or watching a movie I find insightful, agree with everything it says at the time. Feel free to disagree with me, but watch the movie first.

With that, welcome to Docubloggery.