Most film festivals share a fairly generic, if admirable, goal: to showcase the best fare that falls under their banner/mission statement—be that indie, queer, experimental, diasporic African, and so on. DocuWeeks’ mission is simply to bring American audiences the best international documentaries—and to program films that, collectively, take the world’s political pulse. This year, the no-dud lineup covers the water crisis in Haiti, the U.S. government’s ongoing mistreatment of the Native population, and a host of other global and national concerns.
With the battle between organized religion and proponents of gay marriage being one of the most volatile sociopolitical issues in America, director Macky Alston’s Love Free or Die is one of the timeliest films in the lineup. Centered on Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican bishop, and his struggles with the church, the film both tells Robinson’s personal story and opens that narrative up for a look at societal and religious homophobia. It’s a straightforward documentary in terms of craftsmanship—lots of old family photos to fill in backstory, talking heads (from family members to religious figures) to dole out the politics. “It’s no longer fashionable to beat up on women, so [the church will] go to the next easy target,” says Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female Anglican bishop. “Gays, lesbians. . . . Who knows what it’s going to be 10 years from now? But it’ll be something else.”
Writer-director Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Garden in the Sea is hypnotic. It takes on ecological conservation, looking at the construction of an underwater garden off the coast of Espiritu Santo Island, off the Mexican peninsula of Baja California. Hired by conservationists to conceive of an art project that also protects and preserves the restored island, Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias’s vision is inspired, and footage shot underwater, capturing vibrant schools of fish and swaying plant life, is gorgeous.
In Words of Witness, we meet 22-year-old reporter Heba Afify, who has only been working professionally for three months when the Arab Spring breaks out in Egypt. Director Mai Iskander’s camera is there to capture everything from Heba’s battles with her mother for more independence (her father is her biggest champion), to Heba committing rookie mistakes, to terrifying moments of her being crushed by a teeming mob of protesters. “I wouldn’t say we know exactly what democracy means,” says Heba at one point, “but the agony and suffering that come from a lack of democracy is reason enough for people to want it, even if they haven’t experienced it before.”
Like Love Free or Die, director Jennifer Jessum’s Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White illustrates complex issues through the story of an individual. White—a revered medicine man on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota—is falsely accused of child molestation, and even when mountains of evidence attest to his innocence, the court system refuses to release him. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the film puts White’s legal battle in the context of historical and ongoing racism against Native Americans that has resulted in legacies of poverty, alcoholism, and the highest suicide rate in the country. It’s engrossing but infuriating viewing, and when a white government worker says point-blank, “The federal judicial system and all its accoutrements are on the backs of the Indians,” it’s impossible to argue otherwise.
If there is a flaw in these films, it’s shared by most of them: a failure of imagination when it comes to experimenting with form or using the full range of cinematic possibilities to tell the tale. Whether it’s a reverence for subject matter that cows filmmakers into too-linear, inside-the-box thinking, or just a lack of filmmaking knowledge, the films are largely point-and-shoot, with lots of stock footage, photos, and more talking heads doing most of the lifting. That can be surprisingly effective, as in Danielle Gardner’s intense Out of the Clear Blue Sky, about the devastating effects of 9/11 on the firm Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices on the top five floors of the North Tower of the WTC were destroyed in the attacks, killing 658 out of their 960 employees.
Jane Weiner does play around with form and expectation in Ricky on Leacock, her biography of documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock, in which she mixes her own footage and that from Leacock’s archives to present a timeline-jumping conversation with her subject.
But after sitting through many of the films, as strong and captivating as they largely are, you start to long for more storytellers who are really willing and able to use all the tools at their filmmaking disposal to tell the tale that so captivated them in the first place.
Also recommended: La Source; Of Two Minds; Without a Net.