WEEKEND EDITION MARCH 13-15, 2015
Films on the Lives of Ordinary People
After being asked to chair a panel discussion on storytelling at theSocially Relevant Film Festival 2015 in New York that runs from March 16 to 22 and previewing a dozen scheduled films, both narrative and documentary, I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.
Take for example Eraldo Pacheco, the Chilean sheepherder who leaves his home in the Patagonian region of Chile and travels to Idaho for a three-year contract tending a herd of a thousand sheep. Hard times have forced him to leave his parents, wife and young son behind while he tends to chores not different from those seen in “Brokeback Mountain”. Unlike “Brokeback Mountain”, “Gaucho del Norte” is not a love story but one much more about scraping out a living as a farmworker, the fate that awaits so many immigrants, documented or undocumented. Eraldo Pacheco is an ordinary man but one endowed with extraordinary insights about his fate as a migrant worker, a good sense of humor (he says at one point, “What can be more boring than looking at a sheep’s ass for a living?”), and mastery of a skill that goes back five thousand years. He will linger on in your consciousness long after you have forgotten about Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.
As it turns out, many of the films deal with being uprooted, either through economic or political circumstance. The two narrative films not only incorporate such a theme but also do so on a very high artistic level. One is “Come to My Voice,” a Kurdish film set in a rural village in eastern Turkey about the desperate search of a grandmother and granddaughter for a gun to exchange for the jailed father who was unjustly accused of possessing one. The other is a “We Will Live Somewhere Else”, made by a French director about a young Zairian man named Zola who makes a perilous journey to France to find work and a better future.
Directed by Hüseyin Karabey, a Turkish Kurd, “Come to My Voice” incorporates elements I have seen in the work of Jano Rosebiani, a Kurdish director originally from Iraq whose work I admire a great deal: nonprofessional actors, a folkloric sensibility and the use of village elders chatting about the ongoing action in Greek chorus fashion. Harassed by the Turkish military and peripheral to the country’s dubious economic miracle, the villagers rely on each other for solidarity even as the mayor and some local men collaborate with the Turks. The plot revolves around grandmother and granddaughter’s odyssey in search of a gun that is aided by three blind traveling bards who function as professional storytellers in the remote villages of their Kurdish countrymen. It may have been their social role that got me thinking about the whole question of storytelling in such films. The cinematography is spectacular with scene after scene of the mountains that these struggling and truly civilized people call home.
Despite being warned by his mother that there was nothing for him in France, Zola takes the meager savings he has accumulated for years and pays a “coyote” for a place on a tiny boat destined for France, about the same distance from Zaire as it is from New York. Naturally, as happens in real life, one obstacle after another confronts Zola en route to the title’s “somewhere else”. First, the boat is intercepted off the coast of Spain and he is put into a detention center. Once he manages to make it from there to France, the real troubles begin—as menacing as the high seas. He is brought before an immigrant-hating judge who shows him mercy after he makes a plea that hits all the Francophile notes. He then discovers that Paris’s streets are not lined with gold even after he has become temporarily “legal”. The French cops are racial profilers who stop anybody with a Black skin to have them show papers that they frequently do not own, including Zola. This film, like no other I have ever seen, makes you feel what it is like to be an undocumented worker, a harrowing drama that millions face everyday. Considering the growing nativism in France symbolized by the rise of Marine Le Pen, it is most gratifying to see that a young filmmaker has made one of her targets a most sympathetic figure in a remarkably accomplished first film.
Like Zola and Eraldo Pacheco, Doug Wenner is an economic refugee except in his case a refugee in his own country. Looking to be in his late-50s at least, this weather-beaten protagonist of “Black Harvest”, a documentary about the personal impact of the fracking boom in North Dakota, has left Montana in search of employment. Showing up virtually homeless in a broken-down Subaru and accompanied by his pet dog, he files applications with the local energy companies that are the leading edge of the economic “miracle” that is fueling international tensions from Venezuela to Russia. While the waters and land of a pristinely beautiful North Dakota are being poisoned, gas is now cheaper than ever—a Faustian bargain if ever there was one. Even after Wenner lines up a job, there is still insecurity since the tacky and overpriced new apartment complexes that have sprung up will not allow pets. He is facing the same choice that we saw in “Wendy and Lucy” when a young woman living out of her car realizes that she will remain homeless unless she gives up her beloved pet dog. Naturally, what makes “Black Harvest” all the more poignant is that it is based on the reality of a modern-day Tom Joad.
As practically the symbol of homelessness, the Palestinians are represented by two documentaries that like all I have seen from this oppressed nationality are first-rate. “Cinema Palestine” is a virtual who’s who of Palestinian film where directors and screenwriters talk about the challenges they face while excerpts from their work are woven into the interview. While they will never be invited to appear on the Charlie Rose Show, these are conversationalists par excellence with brilliant insights about their art and their national identity. One director, a female, reflects on the question that is often put to her: why are you always making political films? She finds the question both insolent and amusing. Artists are urged to make work about their reality. What else is Palestinian reality about except dispossession and struggle? The film was directed by Tim Schwab, a Canadian and by the sound of his last name probably a Jew—another sign of the kind of solidarity that so threatens the Zionist establishment today.
“We Cannot Go There Now, my Dear” is directed by Carol Mansour who structures her film like the one above as a series of interviews with Palestinians, in this instance men and women, both young and old, who have been forced to move to Lebanon from Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp near Damascus that has been under siege by the Syrian government for a number of years. Unlike the very poor who have been forced to remain in the camp, these Palestinians were well-off enough to make such a move. The worst part of being wrenched from Yarmouk is the loss of identity. While obviously not the same thing as being in Palestine itself, they had made Yarmouk a home. The film eschews making political points about the war in Syria and simply allows people to tell their story. As I stated at the beginning of this article, it is this element that is as essential to a film as oxygen is to breathing. This film is a storytelling success.
Probably nothing says more about the difference between this essential film festival and mainstream filmmaking than the inclusion of “Lighter than Orange”, a documentary that allows North Vietnamese soldiers, now in their sixties and seventies, to talk about the horrible effect that Agent Orange has had on their lives. To my knowledge, this is the first time a film has given our “enemy” a platform—perhaps a function of it not being made by Americans often too anxious to demonize the Vietnamese even if they were opposed to the war. The film was produced and directed by Matthias Leupold with cinematography by Armin Dierolf, two very talented Germans. In contrast to Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days of Vietnam”, a film nominated for an Oscar that depicts the North Vietnamese army as a kind of barbarian assault on civilized society—a modern-day Visigoth in effect—Leupold and Dierolf give the North Vietnamese an opportunity to explain what they did and why they did it. For the most part they are simple people from farming villages who speak about the need they had to “defend their country”.
After living in tunnels or under American jets dropping napalm for the better part of a decade, they learned what the real threat was to their life and their future hopes. Even after the country was liberated, they have had to suffer the consequences of exposure to Agent Orange that has left their children and grandchildren severely disabled. Given Vietnam’s underdevelopment overall, it is infuriating to think that they have to cope with neutralizing the vast amount of dioxin that lies beneath the soil, courtesy of Dow Chemical, war criminal for the ages.
Back in 1967 I became a revolutionary because of my outrage over what the USA was doing in Vietnam and have never gotten over it. Watching poor peasants trying to cope with children suffering from severe disabilities that our government caused makes me realize that I made the right choice back then even if the road I chose finally led nowhere. If you’ve never given that much thought to a war as remote to as many peoples’ experience as the Great Depression was to mine, I urge you to see this powerful documentary that will stir you into opposing American foreign policy. The Vietnam War might be over but let’s keep the Vietnam Syndrome—fear and hatred of another such war—alive and well.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.