Hot Docs 2009: Part III

The following films are reviewed here.

  • Defamation
  • Greetings from Mackenzie, B.C.
  • Black Wave:  The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez
  • The One Man Village
  • Those Who Remain

Defamation, directed by Yoav Shamir

Yoav Shamir’s thesis in Defamation is that now may be the time for Israel to focus on hope and the future, rather than on hatred and the past.  This is a controversial outlook, but Shamir is an Israeli who sits on the left of the political spectrum and finds the constant rehashing of past events troubling.

He is a Jew living in Jerusalem who has never experienced anti-Semitism, but reads constantly in newspapers of such events around the world.

Hoping to see some of this first hand, he comes to the USA and calls on the Anti Defamation League.  Abraham Foxman, director of the ADL, welcomes him warily, but we quickly learn that many of the recent events they have logged are not in the same league as Middle East hostilities or the history of Europe.  Are the stats inflated for political purposes?  We are left to decide.  Foxman is certainly well-connected and moves in the highest political circles.

Shamir also follows a group of high school students who are preparing for a visit to Poland.  The paranoia in the background presented to this class (we are hated everywhere, you will not be safe, you will travel with secret service protection) is breathtaking, and borders on indoctrination.  When Shamir was young, only a few hundred students a year made this trip.  Today, tens of thousands.  Yes, it connects Israeli youth with their history, but in what context?

An odd conversation between a few students and three old Polish men sitting on a bench sums it up.  The men, speaking Polish, ask what they are there for, what language are they speaking.  The students walk away and one mutters that they were being called animals, and seem unable to believe Shamir when he corrects them.

Eventually, the frothy high school girls are overcome by the reality of Auschwitz and they break down.  Do they cry for themselves, for their own prior lack of involvement in history, or for humanity?  Is this simply another form of conditioning to reinforce government policy?

At this point, I have to wonder to what extent we as the audience are being manipulated by Shamir’s program just as he portrays the manipulation of these students, and by extension, Israeli society as a whole.

For another outlook, Shamir introduces Norman Finkelstein whose feelings about “The Israel Lobby” become more and more strident as the interview progresses.  What starts as serious questions about Israeli policy and the treatment of Palestinians grows into a rant clearly born of Finkelstein’s frustration with his marginalization by Jewish society.  He argues that Israel does itself a disservice by wrapping any criticism of its actions in the holocaust making a  distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  Criticism of the state does not constitute criticism of Jews.

Defamation is intended to stir debate.  How can a society for whom the Holocaust is such a central event refocus on its future and peace without losing respect for the past, its survivors and its victims?

Despite my reservations, this is a strong film worth seeing.  It won the Special Jury Prize at the Tribeca festival in New York, and will open the Tel Aviv festival on May 7.

Greetings from Mackenzie, B.C., directed by Andrew McIntosh

McIntosh hails from Mackenzie, a town built on forestry, a town disappearing as demand for lumber falls and mills close.  This short is, in a way, a wave goodbye.

Most of the town is unemployed and its future is uncertain.  Lumbermen nail their hard hats to a tree to say “I was here”.  That tree is cut down, and they start on another.

In the Q&A, McIntosh said that the folks in Mackenzie would like to have seen a bit more upbeat treatment of their town.  Although the last mill closed in summer 2008, just this week there is an announcement that one of the mills is about to reopen. 

Black Wave:  The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, directed by Robert Cornellier

Twenty years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska dumping the biggest oil spill in history.  Had it been off, say, Seattle, the oil would have covered much of the west coast of the USA, but it was out of the way in the north where Exxon could control the media message.

Exxon held a public meeting telling a room full of outraged citizens from Cordova, a town with a thriving fishing industry, that Exxon would “make them whole”.  Cordova is still waiting. 

The original lawsuit generated mountains of paper.  It revealed that Exxon had placed a man with a known drinking problem in charge of the vessel, and that he had gone miles off course onto a known reef.  Cleanup attempts were feeble thanks to years of cutbacks in funding and staff to handle emergency situations, and the cleanup workers now suffer from long-term health problems thanks to chemicals and procedures they were told were safe.

Exxon presents the issue as one of short-term damage, but over half of the species formerly in Prince William Sound have never recovered from the spill.  Toxic oil remains everywhere.

The original judgement against Exxon was set at $5-billion, but they appealed, and appealed, and appealed.  On their fifth try, the Supreme Court reduced the judgement to a tenth its original value, an amount insufficient to even cover the original losses and cost of proceedings.  That half-billion represents a few days of Exxon’s annual profits, and they are still in court trying to avoid paying interest on the award.

Could this have happened without the laissez-fair attitude of the last two decades and the narrow outlook of the Bush Supreme Court?  We will probably never know.

Black Wave was produced for CBC Radio Canada where it screened earlier this year, but the film really deserves to be seen in the USA.

Black Wave Website

The One Man Village, directed by Simon El Habre

During Lebanon’s civil war, much was destroyed including the small village of Aïn al-Halazoun.  Only one house remained intact, and the 45 families moved away.  That one house was owned by the grandfather of Seeman El Habre, the director’s uncle.

Nobody knows exactly who shelled which house.  It might have been the warring Lebanese factions or the Israelis.  The village sits on a hillside ringed by other high points, and it was a perfect target.  The houses may be ruins, but their owners,who live in nearby towns or in Beirut, come back twice a year to tend their property and harvest olives, a tradition that will likely die out with their generation.

Five years ago, Seeman bought his grandfather’s house and moved to live with a cat, dogs, a few horses and especially his cows.  He loved cows as a boy and the chance to have his own was a dream come true.  Years ago, he was separated from his first love by the war, and now he prefers to live alone.

El Habre has a strong sense of place, no surprise for a family property.  His visual compositions are striking for their beauty, but these are not postcard shots.  Something almost always happens, and a beautiful still composition becomes part of the story.  Over two years, El Habre shot his material hoping to make a documentary showing the complete yearly cycle.  The daily ritual of milking the cows at dawn becomes a touchstone, but we never see it the same way twice.  The visual punctuation is subtle moving through the days and seasons gently. 

We end at Easter and a family dinner celebration and, for a moment, see and feel what the village must have been like before the war.  The silence and isolation, so common through much of the story, take on a new meaning after the family leaves.

This is Simon El Habre’s first feature-length documentary.  Aside from the photography I have already mentioned, there is a wonderful use of music, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes distant, like an echo of the past.

At the Q&A, El Habre was asked whether his uncle is thinking of getting married.  This question, it turns out, comes up at every screening all over the world.

The website for The One Man Village includes a link to a trailer for a short taste of this wonderful film.

The One Man Village won the Best International Feature Documentary award.

Those Who Remain [Los Que Se Quedan], directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo & Carlos Hagerman

Those Who Remain is another film about loss, but the scene now is Mexico and the moving force is economic.  The country, particularly rural areas, have become so dependent on income by family members working, usually illegally, in the USA, that going north is almost a standard affair for 18 year olds.  They can raise money for a better house for their families, and support those who stay behind in going to school.  (School is free, but taking someone off a farm costs money in lost labour.)

The common thread here is families without fathers, without brothers.  Because border crossings are difficult and dangerous for illegals, families are split for long periods.  Parents lose children.  Wives lose husbands.  There is a fierce pride in those who stay in Mexico either because they are too old, or because they choose not to relocate, but also a pervasive sadness.

While Those Who Remain was in production, one woman whose husband was already in the USA and who was a key figure in her community aburptly made the decision to leave with some of her children (one stayed behind with an aunt).  They are now living in the USA.  Rather than following their journey, the film take us only to their departure, and it is we who remain behind.

This film was underwritter by Bacomer, a major Mexican bank.  Originally they had wanted to produce a series of 20-second TV commercials about the problems of migration, but were convinced to underwrite a feature documentary.

I could not help comparing this film with The One Man Village that immediately preceded it in my viewing.  There are many beautiful scenery shots, but they felt more like postcards than love letters.  Probably seen on its own, I would not have noticed. 

The real story here is the people, their warmth and a country so dependent on long-term separation.

Los Que Se Quedan website