Progressive Cinema

Documentaries have always carried the connotation of truthful reality. Obviously this is insufficient to describe an art form that has expanded into such new arenas that the original term has almost lost its meaning. A controversy arose at the Academy Awards because the judges refused to consider Roger and Me a documentary, or a fiction film, for that matter, because it included re-enacted footage. Thus it failed to fall into any category and never got recognized, despite the fact that it went on to become the largest-grossing documentary in American history.

There could have been some politics involved in that decision, since most of Michael Moore’s films are scathing critiques of the failures of the capitalist system. Usually the label ‘documentary’ qualifies a film for failure at the box office, but they can often be some of the most interesting, educational and challenging of films. Today, documentaries range from raw footage with no narration to dramatic re-enactments with music and actors. The filmmaker can remain passive or participate in the action and possibly influence the drama. Some feel that as soon as life is recorded it’s one step from reality, and the editing process removes it even further. Thus, documentaries can even be less real and truthful than some acted films, but this doesn’t diminish their potential power to stimulate, educate and activate.

This year’s Toronto Film Festival included at least 53 documentaries, and many were of interest to progressive viewers.

Bowling for Columbine will probably go on to surpass Roger and Me in box-office revenue, but there were several other docs about American issues that deserve recognition. The Trials of Henry Kissinger, based on the writings of Christopher Hitchens, is a well-researched and powerfully effective indictment of Kissinger. Tight editing, rare footage and convincing factual dialog make this a top-notch political film.

Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story tells the tragic story of the unemployed plumber who commandeered an Army tank down the streets of San Diego, crushing everything in its path. Troubled by the government’s failure to answer his questions, influenced by the rampant drug scene in a failed defense industry suburb of San Diego, Shawn Nelson met his fateful end on TV screens across the country. Digging deeper than the sensationalist media, the filmmaker interviews friends and family, eventually drawing a more accurate picture of what might take someone across the line.

You may recall the book Fortunate Son, in which author James Hatfield accuses George W. of cocaine use and insider trading, among other things. The book was quickly withdrawn by the publisher after pressure from the Bush family and discovery of the author’s criminal past. Horns and Halos documents the curious developments from that point on, when another underground publisher decided to re-publish a revised version. The determination and progressive agenda of Soft Skull Press (check out their other titles) and the filmmakers make this a fascinating study of power and the media.

A couple of progressive documentary shorts stand out among the numerous that were screened. Remember the name Melvin van Peebles and his groundbreaking film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaasssss Song, back in the ’70s? Baadaasssss Cinema examines blaxploitation films and debates whether they were progressive and subversive, or decadent and exploitative. In the confident hands of filmmaker Isaac Julien, known for his filmic studies of Langston Hughes and Franz Fanon, and with interviews including Tarantino, bell hooks, and Tupac’s mother, Baadaasssss Cinema challenges the viewer to re-think this film genre.

Another short, An Injury to One, by Michigan filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, sheds light in an experimental manner on a piece of labor history – copper mining in Butte, Mont., focusing on Wobbly member Frank Little.

In Reno: Rebel Without a Pause, a potent, angry and hilarious performance film, Reno, a cross between Phyllis Diller and Rodney Dangerfield, but with serious political overtones, raves through a live comic performance in New York City shortly after the Sept. 11 tragedy. She lives only a few blocks from Ground Zero and brings to life the reactions of local people to the attack and its aftermath. Indignant and spewing hilarious accusations at the President and those who are taking advantage of the horrific loss of life, Reno manically and convincingly reminds us, through humor, what patriotism should really mean.

One of the most profound interview films at this Festival, Interview with Orson Welles, came from the Canadian Spotlight Director, Allan King. In a rare 1960 TV interview, Orson Welles speaks more wisdom about art and politics than you see in a week on current television. He reveals that his life work is totally motivated by politics and that art and politics are inseparable. He describes his ordeals with Hollywood moguls trying to get his films released, glowingly recreates his early days in New York with the Mercury Theater, and explains his choices to work in lesser productions to help fund his personal projects. Welles is captured at his most jovial and relaxed best, offering jewels of thought for the perceptive viewer.

Information about all the films shown at the Toronto International Film Festival is available at www.bell.ca.filmfest. Information on availability of DVDs or videos for most films can be found at www.imdb.com.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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