Sunday, October 15, 2017

3rd Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 11th - 15th, 2017)

I show documentaries in my classes as often as I assign readings, and I’ve long told my students that they can learn as much from a good documentary as they can from a good book. This year’s GlobeDocs Film Festival, sponsored by the Boston Globe in conjunction with HUBweek, offered abundant evidence of just how educationally rewarding well-crafted documentaries can be. Over the past weekend, I watched seven excellent films, all at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, with topics ranging from the worldwide refugee crisis to restorative justice to male ballet dancers to airboating in the Everglades.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s latest film, Human Flow, provides a widescreen and consummately global perspective on the current struggles of international migrants to overcome forced displacement and settle in new lands. Covering refugees from 23 countries over one year, the movie’s scale is unmatched in addressing this subject. Ai Weiwei’s camera steadily and intrepidly follows masses of migrants as they trek together down muddy roads, up steep trails through mountainous terrains, across rivers that they wade while carrying luggage and children in their arms, and over oceans in solitary boats overflowing with passengers.

The first half of Human Flow focuses more on these vast streams of bodies and faces than individual stories, though the film’s latter half does shift to consider particular narrative strands as well. Several of the people whose stories make their way into the film still linger powerfully in my memory: a man who fled Myanmar with other refugees and laments being referred to as “boat people” when they’re all human beings whose futures were destroyed by the brutality of the military junta in their homeland; a group of young women in Gaza who express to the camera their dream of traveling the world and then returning home; and a traumatized man from Syria who weeps over the makeshift graves of his five family members who drowned at sea while trying to sail to a new life in a better place.

The final segments of the film include highly composed aerial drone footage of sprawling temporary refugee camps and neatly organized migrant neighborhoods. The drone cameras pan across these migrant spaces calmly and gradually, and one even descends straight down from far overhead to land gently in a circle of people who have gathered around it. These images suggest at once the enormity of the refugee crisis and the seeming smallness of the 65 million individual lives currently affected, the largest number of refugees since World War II. A former astronaut from Aleppo, Mohammad Fares, through his own perspective on our planet from high above, summarizes the film’s humanist global message: “We all have to share.”

Circle Up, directed by Julie Mallozzi, is among the most profound and moving films I’ve ever seen on the theme of forgiveness. Set in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, the film tells the story of Janet Connors, whose son Joel was stabbed to death in his apartment at age 19. Connors has since become a vocal advocate and practitioner of restorative justice, seeking to help find meaningful forms of redemption for those who have committed violent crimes, including the men who killed her own son, rather than just calling for retribution and incarcerating them through the court system. She facilitates community “circles” to promote victim-offender dialogues as a form of individual and communal healing; these circles of talking and listening about each other’s tragedies are inherited from Native American peoples, whose practices are also closely explored in the film.

The documentary gathers much of its power from Connors’ relationship with one of the men responsible for her son’s homicide. The man is identified in the documentary only as “AJ,” and his face is never fully revealed on camera. Filmed from behind in partial profile and partial shadow, he recounts the experience of meeting Connors when she arranged to visit him in prison, mainly so that she could share with him her own side of the tragic loss of her son. At the time of the visit, he recalls, he was still too young to feel much in response to what she shared. As required by law, their entire exchange was transcribed on paper, a document to which AJ returned several years later when he was placed in solitary confinement. Her words finally break through to him, and he writes her a detailed letter, initiating a genuine plea for forgiveness that changes the course of his life. After his release from prison, the two visit Joel’s gravesite together as part of their reconciliation, an image that I doubt will ever fully leave my mind.

I also feel fortunate to have seen documentary portraits of two extraordinary artists whose work I was totally unfamiliar with before watching the films: the Brazilian ballet dancer Marcelo Gomes, and the late, celebrated Getty Images photojournalist Chris Hondros. Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, finely directed by David Barba and James Pellerito, presents Gomes as an effortlessly likable and professionally enduring personality. Despite the intense physical demands of his 20-year international career in ballet, beginning with his studies at Florida’s famed Harid Conservatory to his present status as a principal performer with the American Ballet Theatre, Gomes has persistently maintained a great sense of humor while keeping his eye firmly fixed on the level horizon of his dreams.

While the documentary focuses mostly on Gomes’ artistic and professional development over time, his personal life and family life are also considered in the film. He was among the first major male ballet dancers to come out as gay publicly when he was featured on the cover of The Advocate magazine; having been raised by a pair of gay uncles, he mentions at one point in the movie that coming out as a teenager was no problem for him at all, due to their example and caring influence. His relationship with his father is also explored because at the time the film was made, his father had still never traveled to see Gomes perform in an American Ballet Theatre production in New York. His father was supportive of Marcelo’s decision to pursue ballet from a young age, so having the opportunity for his father to watch him dance on a New York stage is a wish that Gomes still hopes to fulfill before he retires from his ballet career.

Photographer Chris Hondros, one of the most prominent photojournalists of the past two decades, covered wars in Liberia, Iraq, and Libya, and his images became some of the foundational touchstones of those conflicts for the general public through news media outlets. One of his colleagues mentions that Hondros “was there for every major world event” in recent years. He was killed at age 41 in 2011, during coverage of a violent combat situation in Libya. One of his closest friends since childhood, the non-fiction author and filmmaker Greg Campbell, has directed Hondros as a deeply engrossing film that’s also a much-deserved memorial to Chris.

Several interviewees in the documentary mention that Hondros’ pursuit of high-risk scenarios abroad seemed to be authentically rooted in human empathy. He found ways to re-connect with his subjects long after he had photographed them. For instance, he sought out the young Liberian fighter at the center of what would go on to be perhaps Hondros’ best-known image, urged the man to return to school, and gave him the funding to help him do so, which the man later says completely turned his life around in a positive direction. The dangers of Hondros’ career were manifold, but he continued to capture those images and cultivate those relationships. When his mother Inge Hondros is interviewed in the film, she recounts how Christopher’s father tried to dissuade him in his youth from pursuing a career in photography, and she flat-out told Chris’ dad, “Zip it.” That gave Hondros the chance to follow his true calling.

Finally, I was quite surprised to enjoy Gladesmen: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys as much as I did. I wasn’t sure before watching the film if the topic of airboating in the Florida Everglades would hold my interest, but director David Abel and his producing partner Andy Laub have created a beautifully made and timely film that’s filled with entertaining characters and important environmental issues. The backdrop of isolated south Florida marshland, with its wide blue skies and spectacular sunsets, is itself reason enough to see the film. But the people who inhabit it are equally intriguing from start to finish because they’re fighting to maintain their distinctive way of life. Congress recently passed legislation that will begin to phase out private airboating in the Everglades; anyone who wasn’t at least 16-years-old in 1989 will no longer be permitted to operate an airboat privately. The National Park Service sought to pass these laws for environmental purposes. They claim that airboat trails through sawgrass are re-routing the natural water flow in ways that harm the environment, and they also want to eradicate hunting in the Everglades. Some gladesmen earn their income from hunting for frogs, alligators, and other animals in the marshlands.

Lifelong residents of the area, like the film’s key figure, Donnie Onstad, argue that the gladesmen’s children and grandchildren should have a right to the same idyllic upbringing and family rituals that he grew up with himself. Most of the airboaters interviewed in the film mention how remote the territory is, and they say that airboating is really the only way to access many locations. Others remark, rightfully, that airboating is therefore a long-standing form of communing peacefully with their natural environment, and a way of being at one with it. But the most sobering comments in the film come from Professor Harold Wanless, chair of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, who says without question that, due to climate change and sea-level rise, coastal areas of southern Florida will be overtaken by the ocean within the next century, perhaps even sooner. For that reason, and many others witnessed in these documentaries, I felt that the films in the GlobeDocs festival speak urgently both to our present moment and to our future.