“A child is a child is a child is a child,” says the head of a Chicago adoption agency in Outside Looking In, noting with dismay how some of her colleagues charge different rates depending on a candidate’s race. Phil Bertelsen’s film, part of the documentary-production outfit Big Mouth’s “5 by 5” festival (September 18 through 24, Two Boots Pioneer), shows how even an infant’s life is fraught with ambiguities that time will not erase; the director, himself the adopted biracial son of loving white parents, has a quixotic yearning for cultural authenticity, at one point hying his (white) sister’s self-described “brownish-black” adopted son to Harlem for some failed ethnic bonding. The earnest docs in the series all illuminate the deep-rooted conflicts particular to American life. (The exception is Journey to the West, an infomercial-caliber look at traditional Chinese healing practices that never gets around to defining its woolly terms.)
In Kristen Johnson’s Innocent Until Proven Guilty, D.C. public defender James Forman Jr., son of civil rights activists, not only fights in court on behalf of young black men and women, but runs a school to help them aspire to a future beyond the looming shadow of prison. His morally focused outrage is commendable, but it’s the gaps in his faith that make him human. Big Mouth co-partner Julia Pimsleur’s autobiographical Brother Born Again wisely balances her heartbroken mystification at her Jewish-born brother Marc’s Christian life with his reticence on the topic of her bisexuality. “Everything you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me,” she notes, but can’t escape the mirroring irony. Weirdly, her flight to misty Hoonah, Alaska, where Marc lives and prays on a commune austerely known as the Farm, recalls nothing so much as the biplane’s arrival on the pagan island in The Wicker Man.
The most devastating entry is Laurie Collyer’s Nuyorican Dream, a portrait of the miseries that have befallen the Torres family since trading in a hand-to-mouth existence in Puerto Rico for a more joyless poverty in New York. Teacher Robert Torres, the eldest of five siblings, navigates the continuing setbacks with infinite patience and a postcolonial perspective; his itinerary includes mother Marta’s jam-packed basement apartment in Brooklyn to the Florida Dunkin’ Donuts where his beloved middle sister rings up orders and scores dope on her break. Another sister, strung out on crack, has three fatherless kids, one with a malfunctioning lung; his blunt-loving brother’s release from Rikers and eventual incarceration upstate bookend the family’s woes. It would all be nearly unbearable were it not for the occasional trace of hope: A fiction film couldn’t get away with naming one of Marta’s granddaughters “Heaven,” but that’s what documentaries are for.