The second annual Investigative Film Festival and Symposium (AKA Double Exposure) would have been hard pressed to top last years inaugural opening night film. Spotlight, which was screened at the I.F.F over one month before its theatrical release date, ended up winning Best Picture at this years Academy Awards. Although I doubt The Ivory Game will win a top prize at the upcoming AAs, the Opening Night film was compelling and competent (see my review below) and succeeded in embodying the principles on which this festival is based.
Festival co-creators and co-directors Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney return to present films and symposiums meant to whet the public’s appetite for superlative investigative journalism. As these organizers stated in their open letter, “Today, we are seeing visual storytellers and journalists venture deeper into each others’ traditional territory, as boundaries collapse, collide, and sometimes melt.” Over the course of three days, eight documentaries (including one U.S. premiere and six D.C. premieres) hammered home the need for a continual search for the truth and to unearth and challenge the abuse of those in power.
Once again, the festival is a project of the non-profit news organization 100Reporters that works with worldwide journalists to bring investigative reporting to an international audience. Principle sponsorship was provided The MacArthur Foundation and The Reva and David Logan Foundation. As last year, the films were all screened at the National Portrait Gallery. Last years symposium location Hotel Monaco served as such once again, while the Woolly Mammoth Theater and Newseum venues were replaced with the National Press Club. Again, all these D.C. Downtown locations were within easy walking distance for attendees.
This year, the I.F.F. opened its three-day run on a Thursday night (last year Opening Night was on a Wednesday). This was a smart move to allow patrons the opportunity to attend this important entertaining festival over the better part of a weekend. Perhaps next year it could start on a Friday evening to totally encompass a full weekend to allow maximum access to one of this nations most unique film festival.
BELOW ARE REVIEWS, IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, OF THE EIGHT FEATURES PRESENTED AT THIS YEARS 3-DAY FESTIVAL
(1) A Leak In Paradise (**1/2 out of 4 – 76 minutes)
The D.C. premiere of director David Leloups’ exposé on Swiss whistleblower Rudolf Elmer is yet another example of the extreme professional and personal risks one undertakes in order to expose corruption and greed. The subject is bank secrecy laws and tax havens of the rich. Elmer was the former senior banking executive for Bank Julius Baer in the Cayman Islands who broke the Cayman banking secrecy law when he turned over sensitive CDs detailing hundreds of offshore accounts to WikiLeak’s Julian Assange in 2008. This leak was the first of its kind on the Internet. The director follows two story lines as he chronicles the consequences both on Elmer’s life and the resulting effect on the global financial system which faced a crisis the world hasn’t seen since 1929. Regarding the former, the film relates how Elmer spent time in prison, was banned from the banking industry, was considered a fugitive from justice who is constantly being stalked by private investigators and who has no secure income. As for the latter, there are consequential links to the subprime crisis and its effect on the economy, the Madoff scandal as well as the tax evasion improprieties in Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The director provides a somewhat stodgy pedestrian narration and I would have liked more information on the tax evasion tactics outlined on those CDs. Overall, despite its scant running time, the film seemed a lot longer than it should have.
(2) Abacus: Small Enough To Jail (*** out of 4 – 90 minutes)
Director Steve James burst onto the doc scene in 1994 with his critically acclaimed inaugural Hoop Dreams. He has consistently directed superlative documentary films ever since, including 2014’s loving tribute to Roger Ebert, Life Itself. His latest, the D.C. Premiere and the closing night film at the festival, is an eyeopening look at how the 2008 subprime mortgage financial crisis nearly destroyed an established Chinese immigrant family-run business. Would it surprise you that the Sung family’s business, which was founded in 1984, was the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges during this dark period in our financial history? Not Lehman Brothers. Not Merrill Lynch. Not Bear Stearns. No – it was the Abacas Savings of Chinatown, New York – the 2,651 largest bank in the US. James follows the 5-year legal battle that began in 2012 involving the septuagenarian founder Thomas Sung as well as his daughters – several of whom are executives of the bank. One actually works in the DA Office which handed down the indictment which included 19 employees. It was discovered that a single employee, a loan officer, was taking bribes while pushing through mortgages. Although James implies that the family-run business was a scapegoat for the big boy institutions (he opens the film showing the family watching the iconic It’s A Wonderful Life foreshadowing the financial travails yet to come), the evidence presented is scant and left me desperately wanting more proof as to whether the charges were valid and just.
(3) All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and The Spirit of I. F. Stone (***1/2 out of 4 – 91 minutes)
When covering the topic of investigative reporting, what better timely way than to include this tribute to independent journalist I.F. Stone by first-time director Fred Peabody. Stone, who published the weekly investigative newsletter I.F. Stone’s Weekly from 1953-1971 and who died in 1989, dedicated his life to uncovering lies and untruths propagated by the government and by the mass media. Operating way before the coming of the Internet, he could easily be labeled as his era’s first political blogger. An example of one of his most famous reports was the discovery that the trigger to start the Vietnam War in 1964, The Gulf of Tonkin incident, was misrepresented by then President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – a fact the mainstream media missed for years. I liked the fact that Peabody takes a totally nonpartisan view of his subject; and, using archival footage over the past 6 decades as well as numerous talking heads (including Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader), the director successfully conveys the importance of the existence of a truly free press. I would have liked a deeper profile of Stone as the film is more a tribute as it reflects on his influence on present-day journalists such as Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi – all of which are mentioned in the documentary. In this age of fake news and a ever-growing mistrust of the media, you will undoubtedly leave the film with a greater appreciation of the integrity and due-diligence of these tireless journalists. The documentary had its U.S. premiere at the festival and began a limited theatrical run beginning last November.
(4) Betting on Zero (***1/2 out of 4 – 96 minutes)
Yet another look at the inner workings of Wall Street is this eye-opening documentary by director Ted Braun (2007s Darfur Now) which had its D.C. Premiere at the fest. Hedge funder Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital believes the nutritional supplement company Herbalife, which was aimed primarily at working class Latino communities, was offering them riches based on what appeared to be nothing more than an elaborate pyramid scheme. He spent three years of his life in his quest to bring down the supplement giant – all the while betting on their bankruptcy by taking a short position and betting a billion dollars that Herbalife’s stock value was zero. 2015’s The Big Short dramatized the activity of short selling which is the sale of a security that is not owned by the seller or that the seller has borrowed. In the meantime, Herbalife execs contended that the short selling was motivated purely for profit in the belief that their stock price would decline so that Ackman would make a profit by it being bought back at a lower price. Braun adds another layer of intrigue by introducing Ackman’s arch rival, billionaire Carl Icahn of Icahn Enterprises, who swoops in and tries to boost the floundering Herbalife’s stock value. So as not to present a story of pure greed about a couple of richer-than-rich characters, the director interweaves the devastation of lives of those poor soul who devoted their life-savings by believing the get-rich-quick sales spewed by Herbalife’s CEO Michael O. Johnson. Johnson, who ran Disney’s international operation under Michael Eisner, is shown leading a Herbalife convention and comes across almost more as a cult leader than as a CEO. Ackman infuses his compelling doc with composer Pete Anthony’s equally ominous soundtrack, which serves to emphasize the subterfuge that will ultimately have you debating which side, if any, is operating with a true moral compass. Betting on Zero will be given a limited theatrical distribution on March 10 while the film will be available via video-on-demand and online platforms such as iTunes and Google Play on April 7.
(5) Fire At Sea (Fuocoammare) (**** out of 4 – 108 minutes)
The Italian island of Lampedusa, the largest (8 square miles) of the Pelagie Islands about 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea, is depicted as a land of stark contrast. On the one hand it is a sparsely populated idyllic fishing village. Director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi turns his camera onto the mundane quiet everyday activities of several of its residents such as a housewife, a DJ, a family at dinner, a 12-year-old boy in search of materials to make a slingshot. On the other hand, it is a first stop for hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping from their abominable and intolerable living conditions in Africa and the Middle East in overcrowded dilapidated vessels. The director informs us at the start that 400,000 refugees over 20 years have been successful, while over 150,000 have died trying. The locals, despite being geographically separated from the refugees, are well aware of their almost daily arrival by radio announcements of their plight and tragedy. The survivors are relegated to a detention camp whose milieu is as different from the rest of the island as day is to night. The only human link between these two alternate universes is an island resident doctor who constantly determines which of the refugees are well enough to remain in the camp, which need hospitalization, which need to be placed in a morgue. Rosi set up residency for a year on the island to be certain his trained eye correctly captured the humanitarian efforts this crises presented as he intermixes island resident rescue efforts and life in the shelters with the everyday existence of the island inhabitants. Reminiscent of the style of the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film, which had its D.C. premiere at The Investigative Film Festival, is devoid of narration and soundtrack – which only adds to the starkness and desperation of the refugees whose plight is consistently hammered home by the visuals. A film that will stay with you long after the lights come up, the movie won the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Bear and has been nominated for an Academy Award Best Documentary.
(6) Solitary (*** out of 4 – 82 minutes)
Director Kristi Jacobson takes a sobering look at solitary confinement inside one of the nations most notorious “supermax” prisons: Red Onion State Prison in southern Virginia’s rural Appalachia. There are 44 such prisons which were constructed to maintain its entire incarcerated population in solitary confinement. A total of 100,000 prisons are held in this capacity throughout these facilities where prisoners, most of whom have violated general population rules, are held for months and, in some cases, years, at the whim of prison officials absent reviews by courts or any other outside oversight. A Step-Down program is usually the determining factor as to when the inmate can return to the general population. The director interviews both prisoners, who are in solitary for 23 hours daily in an 8 X 10 foot cell, and those who guard them, providing an intimate examination into the physical and psychological manifestations such confinement has produced. Jacobson spent over a year shooting the documentary which drives home the point that such segregation leads more to madness than rehabilitation. A little more backstory of some of the interviewees would have been a welcome addition rather than the static presentations of interviews over the course of the 82 minutes. However, at its conclusion, one clearly will debate whether it is an effective punitive or rehabilitative answer or just a way to punish extreme offenders. The HBO-produced documentary premiered last September and is currently available on-demand.
(7) Sour Grapes (*** ½ out of 4 – 85 minutes)
The crime of fraud is usually nothing nothing to smile about. However, when little sympathy can be drawn for the victims, then the subject of fraud can become a somewhat humorous affair. 2014’s brilliant Art and Craft focused on Mark Landis, one of the most prolific art forger in U.S. history. He donated his handiwork to museums across the country with no questions asked by the recipients. The irony: he was never arrested because he received zero remuneration for his donations. The end result was total embarrassment of those museum officials which displayed his works on their walls. Directors Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas’ D.C premiere of Sour Grapes deals with another kind of fraud perpetuated by one Rudy Kurniawan (labeled “a Gen X Great Gatsby” by one investigator), an Indonesian whose mastery of producing counterfeit wine ultimately swindled many rich wine so-called “connoisseurs”. Kurnaiwan was actually re-bottling and re-labeling right in his Southern California residence. Although he ended up being caught and rightly prosecuted in 2013 when he tried to sell his counterfeit ultra-fine wine at auction (one such bottled was labeled with a vintage year that didn’t exist), the story’s parallel to Landis’ escapades cannot be ignored. The embarrassment of the duped elitist target group, many of whom spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on what they believed to be bottles of vintage vino, will bring a lot of smiles but little compassion from those in the audience. The caper, which is presented as a detective story in a light breezy manner with an excellent accompanying score by Marseille’s Lionel Corsini (aka DJ Oil), is currently available on Netflix.
(8) The Ivory Game (*** out of 4 – 116 minutes)
There have been several outstanding documentaries recently dealing with animal abuses, most nobly 2009’s The Cove about the Japanese dolphin slaughter and 2013’s Blackfish about the treatment of killer whales at performance parks. The former won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, while the latter didn’t but should have. The D.C. Premiere and the festival’s opening night film by directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani is not quite in the same league as these outstanding works. However, the exposé here, concerning the possible near future extinction of the largest mammal on earth, the African elephant, due to ivory poaching, is no less important and eye-opening. The filmmakers spent 16 months investigating this activity which has resulted in over 150,000 elephants killed for their tusks in the last five years, which, in turn, are sold over the black market where a single kilogram of ivory can sell for as much as $3000. In the past 100 years the population has dwindled 97%. At that rate, extinction would be a reality in 15 years. The doc is presented as an international thriller complete with a dramatic score that at times seem contrived, as the directors traveled to Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam to expose the extent of the slaughter and the trading of ivory. Most successful is the story of Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese investigative reporter who tries to reveal the insidiousness of the ivory trafficking, and Georgina Kamanga, head of intelligence for National Parks and Wildlife in Zambia whose passion fuels her efforts to end the poaching and save the elephants. However, despite the fact that the filmmakers spread themselves too thin and offer little explanations behind some of the intrigue, there is no doubt that this dour subject demands immediate attention and action. The Ivory Game is currently streaming on Netflix.
Jay Berg lives in Baltimore, MD. His blog “Jay Berg’s Cinema Diary” can be read at http://jayberg.blogspot.com/. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.