From Congo to North Dakota, films examine the human condition

Several films screened at the recent 2014 Tribeca Film Festival deal with the search for peace and justice, or for truth and understanding. They offer much valuable food for thought.

Virunga starts with a brief history of the Congo, and describes the tragic battles that have led to the current standoff between M23 rebels and government forces. Both sides seem to have been corrupted by greed, each hoping to benefit from outside corporations drilling for oil in Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest national park, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the last natural habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla.

Director Orlando von Einsiedel offers breathtaking shots of the natural habitat and the threatened lives of the world’s last mountain gorillas. Park workers risk their lives daily to maintain the park and keep the animals alive and safe from the country’s civil war. A brave young woman journalist is shown filming oil company representatives incognito, revealing their blatant racism and corporate greed. As the story unfolds, a mother gorilla is killed and the rebels advance to the doorsteps of the park, and it’s a wonder that the filmmakers managed to capture such amazing footage and still survive this real life challenge.

Far off, others are facing a dilemma of a different kind. The hundreds of puppeteers, performers, and magicians of the Kathputli colony in Delhi, India, are facing forced relocation after centuries in the same dwellings outside the gentrifying city. In Tomorrow We Disappear, we see these poor street artists fighting to save the survival of their culture, history and unique form of performing arts. When their land is sold to high-rise developers, they attempt to organize among themselves to prevent this attempt to remove them from their land. This is a mesmerizing documentary revealing a culture unknown to most of the world, and a powerful story of how grassroot organizing really grows from the ground.

Three fascinating documentaries looked at American men in different walks of life.

Art and Craft digs deep into the personal life of a schizophrenic man who has developed an uncanny skill of accurately copying most any masterpiece of art. Mark Landis has anonymously (until this movie) become one of the greatest art forgers in the world. But in his case, he prefers donating his paintings freely to unsuspecting art museums across the country. The film questions the basic concepts of crime and mental illness. It plays as a mystery, as investigators get closer to finding out who this mastermind is, and why he would be doing this for no profit. In the process we learn of his life, the early influence of his parents, the way he learned his skills, and how he deals with his mental illness leading a solitary life. It’s a touching human study.

In The Overnighters we get to know deeply Pastor Jay Reinke who consoles and houses unemployed working men at his church near the rich oil fields in Williston, North Dakota. The men are coming by the thousands from across America looking for the elusive and quickly diminishing reality called “a job.” Some are running from desperate pasts, leaving wives and girlfriends, dealing with alcohol and substance abuse to name a few. But the compassionate town pastor excludes no one, while he tests the limits of his fellow parishioners and conservative townsfolk. The local newspaper exposes the criminal pasts of a couple of the “overnighters” and puts intense pressure on the Biblical plans and morals of the pastor, who sees all humans as “lambs of God.” But what really makes this morality play a masterpiece is the sensitive and penetrating filmmaking of director Jesse Moss (William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe) who gets a shock or two from the pastor as the story takes unexpected twists and turns, leaving the viewer stunned.

The renowned magician James “The Amazing” Randi is the closest thing to the Great Houdini. He’s been performing jaw-dropping illusions, escapes, and sleight of hand for over 50 years. His appearances on the Tonight Show and many other popular venues brought him fame as he focused on exposing the truth behind sham faith healers, fortune tellers and psychics. His own personal life is examined and exposed in An Honest Liar, a thrilling adventure into the world of deception, myth making, and illusions.

Randi has debunked many phonies and scam artists who as simply magicians have scammed even the scientific world with their deception. A well respected secular humanist, Randi has also been on a “crusade” to reveal the truth behind religious charlatans. But the biggest secret of his own life is that he is gay and could never reveal this truth. His young partner is an artist from Venezuela, and they have led an idyllic life in a coastal city in Florida – until his partner is arrested for illegal residency. Randi finds himself fighting one of the greatest and most personal battles of his life – saving his loved one from deportation. A touching moment in the film is when he painfully says into the camera that this footage shouldn’t be used. But it eventually is, and the truth sets us all free. Randi’s quote is a warning to all of us: “No matter how smart or well educated you are – you CAN be deceived.”

Finally, a very dark but touching human comedy, Just Before I Go, surprised the audience with its perceptive adult humor and highly comic approach to suicide. Actress Courteney Cox displays a keen sense of humor and an assured hand in her first film as director. Ted is a troubled pet store worker who feels life has become unnecessary, but before ending it all he decides to go back to his hometown to right a few wrongs. He moves in with his brother’s highly dysfunctional family, and immediately discovers there are people who have much more serious problems than he does. In the process of reconciling his own life’s pains, he discovers other people’s pains, and learns valuable lessons. The empathetic treatment of the many characters and the deep human understanding of people in trouble would seem out of place with the risqué, dark humor throughout the film. But balancing these seeming opposites is what made this film one of the most rewarding at the festival. It leaves the viewer with a zest for life and a reason to continue trying to make it a better place for others.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.