Review: Born Into Brothels

Born into Brothels is about children growing up in a red light district in Calcutta (now Kolkatta), India. What I wasn’t expecting is the extensive amount of outside intervention that is really the story of the film. Some would see this as an intolerable rebuke of the documentarian’s principal directive: to document. This is to say nothing of the always-controversial prospect of paternalism, for which the film could also be blamed.

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to make a documentary who’s primary goal was to show that regardless of geography, color, language, or wealth, people all over the world are essentially and primarily people. That we all, every one of us, has problems and faults that can be understood by all other people. For the first half of the film, I wondered if Born in to Brothel‘s goal wasn’t the same as that. For better or worse, in aggregate it’s about much more than that.

Arguably, the main character of the film isn’t the kids, or any specific kid, but the woman the children call “Zana Auntie.” Zana Auntie is never explicitly discussed in the course of the film, but by her accent and color I would hazard a guess that she’s British. What is clear is that she’s a photographer living in a red-light district in Calcutta who becomes close with some of the children there and decided to teach them about photography.

Through the first half of the film, one could mistake this for the film I always wanted to make. But the second half becomes much more about the goal of Zana Auntie to get the kids out of their neighborhood and what she sees as a dead-end life.

Here is where the specter of paternalism enters. Though the kids and their parents do from time to time appear genuinely interested in getting into a boarding school and away from their seedy neighborhood, it looks as if Zana Auntie’s really the only one pushing forward on this goal. Whether or not that, or anything, should be regarded and criticized as paternalism is not the topic of the film, but an interesting question in this context.

Without giving it all away, Zana Auntie faces an uphill climb to help these kids. Regardless of their sometimes troubled family lives, there are the added problem that poor everywhere face: an uphill climb to navigate the bureaucracy in their favor. This is made even worse because with mothers who are prostitutes nearly all schools want to avoid the kids. Criminal parents and what in America are called at-risk youths aren’t exactly the kind of pupils most headmasters seek.

Regardless of that whole story, the kids are indeed charming. They’re that mix of percosious and shy that makes most eight to twelve year olds either charming or a handful. Among them, the unquestionable star is Avijit.

Avijit’s father seems to be addicted to hash and generally appears to be a good-for-nothing, but Avijit assures us: “I still try to love him a little.” This and other similar lines cut through boundries and simply state what it means to be human. Perhaps it’s just me, but trying to “love him a little” is something I know well.

There’s no denying my affinity for the film. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s undoubtedly good. Like the picture’s the children take, some bits are unbelievably good and others are disappointingly flawed. On the whole, I can’t think of anything restraining me from recommending that you see Born Into Brothels as soon as you can.


Review: Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire is filmed in black of white. It’s worth noting that like all films we term “black and white,” its actually rendered in various shades of grey. And Tony Kaye’s documentary about abortion in America is careful to show that the issue’s history and moral questions are not black and white.

Lake of Fire is also an epic. At over two and a half hours and packed with the grizzly extremes of both basic positions on the issues, it’s probably not for everyone. Views of aborted fetuses, especially those of around three months, are hard to see. So too is it difficult to see some of the most cold-blooded and calculated doctor-killers to emerge from the context of the religious right. But at no time does Mr. Kaye’s long-in-development documentary judge either of these troubling extremes.

Kaye’s style is a form of extreme naturalism that, wisely I believe, eschews narration and other forms to impute meaning on the events that it unfurls before the audience. Where Kaye stands on the issue is completely and mercifully unclear. It thus goes without saying that those looking for a defense of their position on the issue will find the film grating.

Everyone from the most extreme perspectives on the right and left are seen. Noam Chomsky, the famous leftist, mostly stands to raise questions. The always-difficult Peter Singer is there assert that yes, a fetus is a person, but a lesser one because it has no expressed desire to live. (Regardless of the logic of the statement, when first heard Singer’s cold rationalism is jarring.)

From the right, there’s Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. And the coldness and certitude of the convicted doctor-killer Paul Hill can’t be missed. Perhaps most surprising to me was that Norma McCreevey–the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade–was there. And she’d become a card-carrying member of the pro-life movement. Maybe I was two young or inattentive when such a thing was news, but I was rather shocked.

Much of the film was shot around the peak of the turmoil of the early Clinton years. Were I to fault the film, which is truly artful and tender in it’s handling of a difficult issue, it’s that footage from different eras tends to run together. It can be hard to tell what events and interview are from the 1993-1996 era and which were shot when the film was resurrected around 2005. It’s minor problem that does little damage on an issue known for dead-lock and stasis, but it can be a distraction.

On the whole, it’s a great film and a difficult one. If there’s a central thesis, it may be that no stance on this issue is unassailable, no position safe from reasonable and difficult questions. The issue is fraught with moral dilemmas for all people and all positions on the issue, and Lake of Fire makes that point abundantly clear. The film’s comfort with the ambiguity of the issue can be hard to take, but it’s also just what the issue requires.


Review: For the Bible Tells Me So

For the Bible Tells Me So, a recent documentary by Daniel Karslake is an interesting beast. Through at least the last twenty minutes, my eyes were wet and my nose was running. And though that’s surely a sign of something that’s emotionally resonant, I’m not without reservation in recommending it.

After the obligatory footage of traditional views of homosexuality, the film introduces a number of people. People who are easily understood as the ones we’ll soon find out are gay. There’s Gene Robinson, the man who has become the Anglican church’s first openly gay bishop. There’s Jake Reitan, who was raised in a Lutheran home. And Chrissy Gephardt–the daughter of Dick Gephardt, who was raised Catholic as per her mother’s parents wishes. And there’s Tonia Poteat whose parents are both ministers–if their faith was made clear I’ve forgotten it.

All of this goes through the typical patterns of denial, grief, acceptance, and love. And as I said earlier that did make me quite emotional even if it was a bit schmaltzy. And I enjoyed the lesson in liberal Bible scholarship that the film’s bank of scholars and theologians offer in a gentle and friendly way.

But at some points the film overextends this gentle friendly discussion of liberal Christianity and love and gets so preachy as to be off-putting. The first example is a clip–among the literally hundreds of clips from everywhere used in the film–from The West Wing. Despite being a fan of that show, Aaron Sorkin’s smug dialogue is hardly gentle. A fictional President Bartlett berating what has to be seen as a fictional Dr. Laura about the other wacky things the Bible says aside from Leviticus 18:22–the clip’s on YouTube–is not exactly a natural fit with the detached gentleness that gave me such high hopes for the film.

This sin would be completely forgiven, did the film not then do the same thing again. Dropped in the middle of the otherwise live-action film is friendly cartoon in the style reminiscent of of The Fairly OddParents and narrated by that deep, in-every-cartoon voice of Don LaFontaine. It’s purpose: to answer the question “Is homosexuality a choice?” (The clunker of a clip is also on YouTube.) Though the point may need to be made in the film–a proposition I would tend to doubt–the way it’s made disrupts the whole flow of the film.

Nor does it help that the narrator gives a stern talking-to to an ignorant straight boy named “Christian,” who is flanked by two hip-looking and knowledgeable gay people. The whole thing, aside from feeling deeply out of place, can be easily interpreted as condescending.

And that sin reduces to the film to the one thing it didn’t need to do: comfort those already on the “right” side of the issue. To say that those ignorant people–who don’t know that Sodom and Gomorrah, as the film ably points out, probably had nothing to do with homosexuality–are really uneducated and need to be smartened up and rehabilitated.

One of the films many intelligent talking heads made the point perhaps as well as I can. The Right Reverend Richard Holloway warns that we should be careful about being “prejudiced against the prejudiced.” And if the film–and these segments in particular–are guilty of one sin it’s that they have the distinct feeling of being just that.

There’s certainly value a film that encourages those on the right side of any fight to keep fighting. My hope for For the Bible Tells Me So–and it’s stated goal–was that it could do more than that, that it might sway people who condemn homosexuality to if not change, at least think critically about their views. Having watched the film, I think it could do that, but has handicapped itself unnecessarily. Surely those who agree with the film’s message of love and liberal Christianity will be moved, but I fear that those who disagree may bristle at a few of the film’s rather ham-handed and strident bits. Certainly For the Bible Tells Me So is a good and perhaps necessary film, but I fear it’s not a great one.


Review: Protagonist

protagonistthemovie.comProtagonist Poster

Having been rather satisfied with “Be Your Own Protagonist,” the movie Protagonist–which seems to be available from Netflix (whose Red Envelope Entertainment holds the rights) and nowhere else–almost necessarily piqued my interest. And though the summary sounded luke-warm, I decided that on the title alone I had to give it a shot.

I’m glad I did. Much as my favorite graffito recommends, the documentary paints its four personages as protagonists in epic Greek dramas. Jessica Yu’s film offers, in my mind, an easy comparison with onBeing. With the chief visual component of both being subjects telling their story to the camera, the comparison is easy and apt.

Protagonist, aside from being longer than the web-project that is onBeing, is much more explicit and methodical. It opens with a dramatic voice saying, in Greek, “Tell it still. There is pleasure in hardship heard about.” Throughout, as the stories told by the film’s subjects unfold, so to does a classic tragedy played by wooden puppets.

If one managed to miss the implication of that play, Ms. Yu clearly delineates each phase of her classic drama. Here, indeed, is my one displeasure with the film. The effort to tell these contemporary tales as Greek drama can sometimes fell clumsy and heavy-handed. An attempt to mold and bend them a little to make them conform to the external structure to which they don’t strictly comply.

But they fit relatively well, and usually effortlessly. And the stories, though none rare or unlikely enough to win their own full length documentary, are all dynamic and interesting. Mark Salzman’s discovery of and rabid fondness for kung-fu as a way to end his stint as a weak and bullied teenager. Hans-Joachim Klien’s embrace of radical violence after he saw police beat a woman. Mark Pierpont’s embrace of his Christian ministry after finding that through religion he could triumph over homosexuality. Joe Loya embrace of a life of crime after finding that retaliatory violence against his abusive father felt good.

These are all interesting story, and all told by people well aware of the grand arc of their lives. Though it’s possible they’ve retrofit their story’s into Yu’s desired arc, they feel so natural and straightforward in their telling that I find the possibility unlikely.

The stories, as your would rightly expect, all have clear resolutions. Clear moment’s when the men’s absolute embrace of a certain mode of living is recognized as unwise and then rejected. Well established end points that seem to say clearly that their stint as classical protagonists ended. Surely, every life traces such an arc. I feel comfortable seeing that as Yu’s message, and I’m chastened to not have thought of it first.


Review: The Agronomist

The Agronomist is a 2004 film about the life of an agronomist. As you may infer from that sentence, it didn’t win large audiences. But to say it’s about an agronomist is to minimize the truth. Jean Dominique called himself an agronomist, as was his training, but this underestimates his work, his charisma, and his struggle.

A more useful explanation of the man would be that he was a Haitian journalist and activist. His story is so intimately intertwined with his country’s troubled history that the director, Jonathan Demme, understandably found it all but impossible to tell one without the other.

I’ve struggled with my ignorance about Haiti before, in my review of Aristide and the Endless Revolution, and I admit to having done little about it. Even as I regularly demand that the world–or at least the 10 people who pay attention to me–work hard to combat the easy ignorance that pervades modern life, I confess I’m rather careless myself.

But ignorance doesn’t make The Agronomist any harder to grasp. The history of the consecutive dictatorships of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier are, at least in the telling of Dominique and Demme, mercifully easy to understand. They were run-of-the-mill bullying third-world strong men. It’s an easy archetype to grasp.

And so it is against these force that the young agronomist–who never had land of his own to cultivate–began to became a journalist and a crusader. And when given the chance to purchase the radio station at which he learned the ropes, Jean Dominique jumped at the chance.

His rise to national prominence is much more presumed than presented. Being the most innovative and informative program in a country where anything other than repeating official decrees is seen as dangerous, Dominique gained prominence feeling assured by Jimmy Carter’s human-rights presidency.

Demonstrating the confounding impact of the United States on countries few of its citizens pay attention to, Reagan’s ascension allowed “Baby Doc” to violently force Jean Dominique off the air and into exile in New York. His return, after the Duvalier regime fell, is celebrated by at least sixty thousand. The violent ouster of the newly-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 also forces Dominique back into exile while his radio station is forcibly demolished.

Jean Dominique in seen, in the posthumous documentary, as the soul of Haiti. And it’s easy to understand the desire to paint such a picture: he’s charismatic, he’s charming, he’s passionate about the people. Unacquainted as I remain with Haitian history, I can not say how well that portrait meshes with reality.

The story is both interesting and important. That alone makes it a good documentary. That it’s subject is so expressive and dynamic before the camera makes it a well-told story as well. Surely there are better and more comprehensive examinations of Haiti in the world, but until I find one, I’ll tell you that The Agronomist is a best introduction to Haitian history I’ve seen.

american society, politics, review, world

Review: Aristide and the Endless Revolution

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice elected President of Haiti by margins that would be considered exceptional in a country like America. In 1990, he was elected with a 67% majority. In 2000, he was elected by a stunning 91% majority. In neither of these elections was there reasonable grounds for challenging the results. And yet during his service of both terms, he was removed from power, arguably by US-supported militants.

Until today, I was absolutely ignorant of any of these facts. This is a testaments to, or perhaps an indictment of, a number of factors not limited to: my relatively young interest in politics, my never having made an effort to learn about Haiti, the US government’s desire that it not be portrayed as the agent ousting Aristide (whether or not it truly was), and the media’s willingness to ignore such topics.

I doubt that all of those factors share blame equally, but it does give you some idea of the ignorance I had when sitting down to watch Aristide and the Endless Revolution, directed by Nicolas Rossier and distributed by the little known First Run Features.

The film’s analysis of Aristide’s ouster in 2004 leaves few stones unturned, interviewing people from the rather well-known leftist Noam Chomsky to representatives from the Department of State, which denies any role (beyond providing for his safe passage out of the country) in Aristride’s 2004 resignation.

The documentary tries to cut down the middle on the issue, letting partisans on both sides have time on screen. In the end, they do give more credence to Aristride’s defenders. This is not necessarily to say that it is being untruthful. Indeed, merely presenting both sides of an issue tends to create more muck and less knowledge. Having said that, I will not speak for the truth of the story, not knowing enough about the topic to have a true position on the issue.

But this ignorance that prevents me from taking a position is, in itself, important. This ignorance, both personal and within the electorate, poses a large problem for those interested in defending a country like Haiti from outside and potentially unjust, perhaps even illegal, intervention. Without interested and informed opponents in any great number, it is completely possible that the Bush administrations (both of them) were able to topple the populist Mr. Aristide in favor of an opponent more willing to work to protect the financial stakes of American corporations operating in the troubled country. Someone willing to allow the poor conditions of Haitian workers (only 30% of the population) to continue, to allow them to make a mere 38 cents a day rather than the dollar that Aristide advocated.

It is this troubling problem of ignorance that Aristide and the Endless Revolution points out and questions. And though it tries to enlighten the viewer, and even does an admirable job for an 84 minute documentary, it will never provide all that is needed for one to be well-informed. Is that an irrevocable problem? No, but this is only a place to start, even if a good one.

politics, review

Review: An Unreasonable Man

Before we begin, you should know that I have long harbored some affection for Ralph Nader. In 2004, when I was just starting to get seriously interested in politics, I saw him speak. Nader seemed to me to be the best candidate for President. He cared about and talked about issues that the other two well-known candidates weren’t. For further illustration of my enamorment (the best made-up word yet actually, that appears to be a word), notice the rhetoric of the two major parties being equally bad in this letter. That’s exactly like Nader.

To explain its title, the documentary begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

In these two sentences, the film’s thesis is clear: Mr. Nader is both unreasonable and, more importantly, progressive. As the filmmakers tell the story, Ralph Nader is not unlike Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith come to life: an idealistic reformer unwilling to yield to the status quo.

On the possibility that Mr. Nader was a misguided reformer, the film is ominously silent. There are no memorable opponents to his landmark reforms of the 1960s and 1970s shown on the screen. The only opponents the filmmakers do show seem rather absurd anyway.

The most memorable opponent, and also most likely to lead us to like Mr. Nader, is the misguided men of GM. During the years that Nader crusaded for safety reforms for cars, they had him tailed by both private eyes and seducers. And not only did they not get any dirt they could use in a smear campaign, they were also embarrassed publicly and forced to pay damages of almost half a million dollars.

Throughout, the film shows Mr. Nader to be a hardworking man doing what he thinks is best, and with a group of young and reverent helpers. The notable exception is the great deal of screen time given to two men convinced that Mr. Nader’s run for President in 2000 and 2004 was not only the cause of the Democratic candidates’ defeat, but also the insane plans of an egomaniac.

In the end I have the feeling that this movie may be disliked by some. The conclusion that at least I took away from the film was that there is a very really possibility that Ralph Nader is, as Bill Murray said during his 2000 campaign, “the best American I know.”

Whether or not you agree with that statement, or are at least willing to let the film try to sway you to that conclusion, will probably determine how you feel about the film. I, for one, think everyone should give it a chance.