At a film festival such as IDFA that is exclusively devoted to documentary film, a dedicated viewer (which, at a minimum of 4 films per day, qualifies me) cannot help but be constantly batted from feelings of outrage and anger to feelings of optimism and hope. Documentaries, unlike any other art form, really get under your skin with real lives, some of them quite desperate and terribly sad, that break down the tenuous barrier of us versus them. To really appreciate a documentary, it is important to step into the shoes of the film’s protagonists and that journey can be a harrowing or inspiring one.
Mostly you follow the serendipity of the program as it has been laid out: what films can I see with my press pass without a hard ticket and which films will I need to queue for (and possibly not get into, due to IDFA audiences’ fantatical attachments to seeing everything they can). So, one then opens up to the perils and the highlights of the journey: one film experience taking you to the depths of human misery and the following one lifting you up to a pinnacle of optimism that the human race might just survive after all.
This emotional rollercoaster is, in the end, exhausting, so there is no wonder that by midnight I will have felt like I have lived several lives in one day and the resonances of the images that I have been force fed will play out in dreams full of symbolism and metaphor.
Take, for example, the experience of seeing two excellent films back to back, as I did the other day. TRANSCENDENT MAN is an intriguing portrait of futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose thesis is that the “singularity”, basically the merging of human being and machines, will bring about a revolution to the solution of common human problems, including aging and even dying. Kurzweil’s future is full of optimism and hope as the problems that seem so insurmountable in our current biological evolution will take enormous leaps forward as we incorporate the immense power of computer technology into every aspect of our daily lives. While some of the theories espoused made me queasy about what “human qualities” would be left, the film appealed to the hopefulness that technology could really be our gateway to human communication, understanding and cooperation.
Not so fast was the theme of the film I saw immediately afterwards. THE SHOCK DOCTRINE by Michael Winterbottom, offers an interpretation of world events of the past 40 years as being part of an immense conspiracy on behalf of the military industrial complex to transform the world into a free economy zone where the United States and its allies perpetuate their top dog status for millenia to come. By detailing the CIA’s covert operations in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, propping up military dictatorships that introduced free capitalist models that wrecked the economies of scale in those countries, it became clear that global domination, achieved through sheer military might and technological advantage, continues to play a major role in world politics, including the current involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, will technology save us if we cannot first save ourselves?
The idea of technology as a curative for society’s ills is also demolished in several other films I’ve seen in the past 48 hours. TALHOTBLONDE tells the disturbing tale of a man’s online obsession with chat rooms and internet porn that eventually leads to the murder of a supposed rival. In 9 MONTHS 9 DAYS, a trio of Mexicans who were miraculously rescued on their fishing boat after being stranded on the open waters for over 9 months, become the pawns in a cynical game of promotion by unscrupulous media hounds who smell the dollars that can be made out of their distress. In films like BANANAS! and FOOD INC., the forces that control the world’s food supplies show a malevolence and disregard towards public safety that is pernicious in its meanness and inevitability.
But there is nothing quite as sweet as the triumph of the human spirit ovver odds that seem impossible. These kind of rousing stories are also on tap here, and they bring with them the notion that action based on moral conscience and courage can be a corrective to the forward march of pessimism and alienation. In THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA, a chronicle of the release of the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified study of how the US conducted the war in Vietnam, the moral courage of one man, Daniel Ellsberg, provides an inspiration for all of us armchair protestors. After having been a point person in the Pentagon for the build up of the war, Ellsberg describes a spiritual and moral awakening that provided the seeds of courage to oppose the Nixon government hierarchy at considerable personal risk.
Also demonstrating courage are the young Afghani women in the film GIRLS ON THE AIR. After being released from the constraints of Taliban rule, under which they were virtually prisoners in their own homes, these courageous young women pioneer a radio program that tells their stories and speaks out about the inherent male chauvinism of fundamentalist Islam. They demand not only fair treatment but a seat at the table in determining the future of their country, realizing that the political shift could bring back the Taliban, and their condemnation, at any time.
In THE MISCREANTS OF TALLIWOOD, a ragtag group of Pakistani filmmakers are determined to continue their efforts to make the kind of populist, action melodramas (spiced with sexual innuendo and racy soundtracks) in their native culture, despite the fundamentalist stance of the Taliban clerics. Driven by the need to feed their families but also by a hunger for freedom and the rights of the artists, these courageous men and women, who literally risk their lives by creating or performing in these films, illustrate an innate human need for self expression that is undaunted.
One cannot help but be moved and inspired by this kind of moral courage, and it is becomes clear (to me at least) that the potential for greatness and a new world order lie not in the promises of technology or the speeches of idealistic politicians, but within the hearts of those brave enough to risk personal calamity for a thought, a feeling, an expression of personal creativity. Their courage cannot help but inspire.