Speaking truth to power is taking a beating lately. Paul Wellstone has died, the press is dismissing war opposition as rent-a-radical puppeteering, and the best forum for senatorial dissent seems to be Saturday Night Live. As if summoned, several documentaries this week explore the meanings and means of justice in a violent, oil-rigged, and quickening world.
In Joel Katz’s Bravo-style essay Strange Fruit, the sequined Billie Holiday, swaying on a 1957 Paris stage, unleashes the grievous moans of the titular lament—adding the pathos of a further marginalized female observer to composer Abel Meerpol’s humanist outrage. Mining the song’s associative richness, Katz’s film works as jazz genealogy, Meerpol bio, Jewish-leftist puzzle piece, performance homage, and exegetic history of lynching. Strategically revealed details weave a matrix of radicalized classrooms, HUAC hearings, Southern marches, back-road terror, and socialist groundswell. In one moving scene, New York high schoolers analyze the lyrics—parsing “blood on the leaves” as the visible effects of hate, and “blood at the root” as the ongoing nourishment of prejudice.
Also at Film Forum, Marco Amenta’s One Girl Against the Mafia is the story of Rita Atria, a 17-year-old Sicilian girl from a crime family who, after the murder of her father and brother, cooperates with authorities. Unfortunately, her tragedies are only exacerbated. Amenta uses a voice-over reading of Rita’s journal, which recalls the prescience and naïveté of Anne Frank. The visuals can seem desperate—Sicilian landscapes through a scrim of turning pages—but a storytelling guitarist’s running elegy gives Rita’s bold actions a sadly epic scope.
This year’s Margaret Mead fest also focuses on vagaries of justice. Whitney Dow and Marco Williams’s Two Towns of Jasper follows 1999’s James Byrd murder trials. The Byrd family and the women at the local salon make public record of their marginalization. And white Jasper—the defendants’ families, the “Bubba in Training” breakfast club, and an electrician with White Power tats—rushes to defend itself. What emerges is an intense and puzzling look at the struggle to form camera-ready theories on race and difference in a post-reality-TV era.
Similar themes define the closing night film, Annie Goldson’s Georgie Girl, about the rise of Georgie Beyer, the New Zealand Maori transsexual cabaret performer and TV actress who went on to become a Labor member of Parliament. Village folk chirp, “Georgina’s a go-getter . . . a good chap.” But one notes Beyer’s toned-down political image and gnawing loneliness. For more compromised outsiderhood, punk chronicler Lech Kowalski’s The Boot Factory follows a collective of Polish Oi-ers who sustain their slamming (and sometimes smacking) lifestyle by making footwear in the low-rise industrial wasteland outside of Krakow.
Wa’N Wina (Sincerely Yours), documentary filmmaker Dumisani Phakathi’s return to his AIDS-riven South African township, meanders a bit until he finds teenage mother Phumla, a cynical schoolgirl with a ready laugh. Phumla confides that she would like to cut off her breasts and be a boy. Pointing to her beer bottle, she says, “This is the real man.” John Marshall’s spotty A Kalahari Family features another outspoken woman, Niai Shortface, who, after appearing in The Gods Must Be Crazy, was scorned by jealous villagers. She plays the mbira and sings, “What kind of sickness is this?/Why must I be pretty?” Along the same lines, Sherine Salama’s A Wedding in Ramallah tracks an arranged marriage and the ensuing waiting game as political exile Bassam secures a visa for his feisty but stifled wife, Mariam, to join him in Cleveland, where she eventually finds herself totally alone.
The most abstract portrait of power abuse is also one of the most affecting films in the series, Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One probes the 1917 murder of Frank Little, a journeyman IWW union organizer in Butte during the reign of the Anaconda Mining Company. The director’s voice-over is starkly lyrical, and his stylized images—lingering shots of rusted-out mine machinery, big blank skies, the city’s poisoned quarry-water, flocks of doomed geese—form the backdrop to text, mostly the lyrics of worker songs that appear in time to Low’s ringing instrumental renderings. The space between images is sense-heightening, and the ideas they bear seem precariously posed. Wilkerson details the horrific working conditions, the hell of the shafts, reminding us that “company history/becomes official history.” When the killers came to lynch the union man, they came to his boarding house and said, “We are officers and we want Little.” But the pause that follows reveals what’s still true: They want it all.