Despite the increased bastardization of what is called "documentary" film in recent years—from "reality" shows to MTV profiles of club kids—the form has always been deeply rooted in the social-political. Of course, trying to tell you what is "truth" or "real" is an epistemological mess, but at a time when most television, purporting to deliver real news, real wars or real people, has huge credibility problems, social-political documentaries are the alternative that offers in-depth and illuminating perspectives. This month’s new docs feature important angles on the battle for presentation of the war in Iraq as well as needed historical perspective about resistance movements at home.
Control Room (opens May 21st, Film Forum)
This US/Egyptian co-production is a long-anticipated look at the often-maligned Qatar-based satellite news network, Al Jazeera. Shot at the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom, when American news was by and large whitewashing the consequences of war, Al Jazeera was transmitting images of civilian casualties. Of course, it was accused of anti-Americanism (as well as criticized by some Arab regimes), and since then Al Jazeera’s journalists have been killed by US munitions and detained by US military—even though they are the most popular source for news in the Arab world. For much of America, as well as the grunts fighting in Iraq, the name has become synonymous with "unfair" coverage (at the same time that, ironically, Fox News claims to be "fair and balanced"). Control Room, most likely to the surprise of many, shows in classic verité style that many of Al Jazeera’s journalists grapple with the same issues of "fairness" and "objectivity" that most journalism school graduates claim. As it turns out though, how these concepts are defined depends on what country you’re in and who your audience is.
(Directed by Jehane Noujaim, co-director of Startup.com.)
Weather Underground (released on DVD on May 25th from Docurama.com)
If you didn’t catch this Oscar-nominated film in theaters last year, or even if you did, you can now pick up the DVD and ponder the story of middle-class college kids making, and setting off, bombs. As unthinkable as this might seem now, political resistance was at such a stage in the late 1960s that young hipsters determined the only way to bring attention to the slaughter in Southeast Asia and the issues of racial and class inequity at home was through extreme measures. In Weather Underground we see many of those kids now grown up and honest about mistakes and dilemmas of their tactics. One of the most resonant aspects of Weather Underground, though, is a historical view into a pre-Reagan 1970s society when progressive and radical politics seemed like a part of the cultural day-to-day mix, even in the mainstream. Nevertheless, the Weathermen, much to the relief of those in government who "legitimize" force, are as much a part of American history as the Minutemen.
S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (opens May 19th, Film Forum)
This chilling, strangely serene film takes us to S-21 the main "Security Bureau" in Cambodia where in the mid-to-late 1970s some 17,000 people were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge after being tortured, photographed, and forced into detailed confessions. The filmmakers manage to bring a handful of former Guards back to the site who are questioned by one of only three survivors of the prison. In surprising and surreal scenes, the guards reenact how they treated prisoners and where and how they killed them. It is a study not only in what authority and power will make people do when everyone fears for their lives, but also in how the victims essentially can find no answers from the perpetrators as to why such enormity took place. All the victims get from their former torturers is a dull stare and a weak "I’m ashamed"—as if their morality has been fully deadened and sealed off for fear of insanity.
Slaves of the Sword: Ariel Sharon with The Junction (May 13-19, Anthology Film Archives)
This double feature sheds always-needed light on the ongoing Middle East conflict. Slaves of the Sword chronicles Ariel Sharon’s ascent from failed General to a brutish Prime Minister and weaves together interviews from supporters and detractors, historic footage of the Yom Kippur war, the slaughter at Sabra and Shatila, as well as Sharon’s campaign ads and political speeches. What emerges is evidence that Sharon was always on the political warpath: a devotee journalist in 1972 warned, "Those who didn’t want him as Chief of Staff will get him as Minister of Defense. Those who didn’t want him as Minister of Defense will get him as Prime Minister." The Junction focuses on the second Intifada, a period of violence in which some 2,800 Palestinians and 900 Israelis have so far been killed and which, many believe, was sparked by Sharon’s actions. "The Junction" refers to an intersection in the Gaza strip where on one side is a Jewish settlement isolated in Palestinian land after the Oslo agreements and on the other is a Palestinian refugee camp-turned town of 20,000. The film tells the story of the first Israeli soldier and the first Palestinian from the camp to die at the junction, deaths that sparked the period of violence we still see today and which exemplify the seemingly endless cycle of trauma, aggression, and counter-aggression in the Occupied Territories.
With All Deliberate Speed (opens May 14th, Cinema Village)
Peter Gilbert, who brought us the successful theatrical documentary Hoop Dreams, directs this film about Brown vs. Board of Education that premieres only days before the 50th anniversary of this momentous Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools. The film tells the story of a grassroots campaign that was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement and includes everyone from the students to the Supreme Court judges who helped shape the dramatic moment. Sadly, the film also shows that the eradication of "separate but equal" has not had the ideal effect on the public school system. A mixture of geography, race, and class still creates a system that is separate and unequal. This is the debut film in a partnership with Discovery Communications to produce and promote feature theatrical documentaries.