In the only smarm-free passage in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney holds his crying toddler on his lap in the car and allows himself to disappear into the boy’s implacable wail—suggesting that guilelessness doesn’t spare children from the pain of the world, but rather allows them to give it unmediated airing. In several of the entries showcased at MOMA’s “Documentary Fortnight” series, gimlet-eyed babes function as filmic shorthand for the raw truth.
Nic Hofmeyr’s A Miner’s Tale follows Joaquim, an HIV-infected laborer from Mozambique who returns from South Africa with gifts for his wife and the news of his illness. The crushing child-is-father-to-the-man encounter finds Joaquim’s teenage son shedding tears when his father reaches for him, but refusing to meet his eyes. In This Is Not Living, Alia Arasoughly films eight Palestinian women living under siege. Amid the din of mortar blasts, sirens, and honking gridlock, their caged monotony is broken by funeral processions after the subhuman slaughter of their checkpoint-stoning sons. They recount attempts to shield their children—one mother tells the kids the shots are from a wedding, only to have her deception revealed when a shell explodes through their bedroom wall.
Two adolescent-centered cultural interventions find young Nicaraguan prisoners taking a videography class, and U.S. kids in a dead-end Compton high school staging its first play in 25 years. In filming La Isla de los Niños Perdidos, Florence Jaugey mimics prison time, following the would-be Scorseses in their rounds through the filthy holding tank where many face sentences of 30 years for crimes of survival in the chaotic Managua hustle. OT: Our Town recalls Stand and Deliver, without the Hollywood gloss. At Manuel Dominguez High, where boys go NBA out of 12th grade, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy follows two teachers mounting a production of Thornton Wilder’s miniaturist epic—its setting morphing from white New Hampshire to black and Mexican L.A. After deciding to avoid being “too ghetto,” the kids add personal touches—one wears his dad’s traditional Mexican wedding suit. Skillful editing heightens the suspense around whether the play will happen at all. It does, even if Paul Newman wouldn’t recognize it.
One of the most jarring tangos with childhood is found in Anand Patwardhan’s sensational War and Peace (the longtime activist director will be honored at the festival along with Chantal Akerman). Assembled pre-9-11, the film is a puzzle-piece treatise on India and Pakistan’s nuclear escalation. Patwardhan weaves nationalist speeches with villager interviews from India’s Pokaran test site, and cuts peace marches with footage of his own trip to Hiroshima. Dogged at home by the Indian Censor Board, which demanded excision of all footage of leaders as well as a Dalit neo-Buddhist’s incendiary screed decrying Hinduism’s armed gods, Patwardhan blasts the Bharathiya Janata Party and U.S. nuclear hypocrisy.
The film reveals various ways that children are invoked for the purposes of statist propaganda. A government official tells a poor audience that when he visited the U.S. before the country’s nuclear tests, children would ask, “Where is India?” but after the blasts, these same children met him with the greeting “Pokaran India! Nuclear India!” Patwardhan records a Pakistani grammar-school debate in which students defend nuclear buildup. When the filmmaker speaks with the girls, the most charismatic advocate reverses her position, adding, “I ask forgiveness.”
On the fest’s lighter side is the MTV-style pump-cutting Red Light Go, a look at now communal, now army-of-one bike messenger culture in New York. Focusing on rush-hour alley-cat races (yes, your suspicions were right on), it’s about as close as a job can get to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.