‘Indirect Actions’ and ‘The Advocates’: Two new films on social problems
A scene from "Indirect Actions."

LOS ANGELES—The 11th annual DTLA Film Festival has just concluded. According to the Festival’s website: “Our programming reflects downtown L.A.’s vibrant new urbanism, the unique ethnic and cultural diversity of its neighborhoods, its burgeoning independent film community, its singular blend of late 19th and 20th century architecture, and the seminal role it played in the early days of American cinema (epitomized by the world’s largest group of vintage movie palaces located in the Broadway Theater District).”

DTLAFF screened features, shorts, documentaries, etc., at two primary locations: Regal L.A. LIVE on W. Olympic Blvd., and the Dome Series at the Wisdome Immersive Art Park in DTLA’s Arts District on Palmetto St., or the Vortex Dome Theater at L.A. Center Studios. For more info on the DTLA Film Festival see here.

Indirect Actions: A futuristic form for a traditional struggle

Maranatha Hay’s almost two-hour documentary about the Standing Rock pipeline controversy is the longest film to date in the “dome film” process. Its website states that by “Using 360-degree cameras popularized by VR and AR productions, dome filmmakers create a unique, immersive experience by screening the films in specially built dome theaters (not unlike the old school planetariums that can be found in observatories around the country).”

At its best, with 360-degree imagery often encircling the viewer overhead, Indirect Actions brings moviegoers right into the action during the tail end of the historic 2016 protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota.

In this head-swiveling documentary, at the last minute Hay—reportedly an Emmy-award winner living near L.A. inspired by online and media reports (by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and others) about the Indigenous protests against DAPL, which passes through or near the Sioux Nation—joins an apparently all-Caucasian journalist group and drives with them to North Dakota in order to cover what may become a showdown between law enforcement authorities and military veterans joining the Indigenous protesters. In the process, the gung-ho Hay (who narrates the doc) and her fellow journos purport to uncover new information that she claims throws doubt on many of the claims the Natives and their allies are making.

I’ll use a similar method of looking at all sides of the issue in reviewing this film. On the one hand, some might commend Hay for documenting a case study in how social media radicalizes users. And Hay interviews a white rancher and policeman/sheriff to get their perspectives.

On the other hand, Hay appears to be a white person who shows up at the last minute of a series of Indigenous demonstrations and does not really demonstrate she’s especially familiar with tribal issues, customs, etc. As the saying goes, Hay and the crew “parachute” in and out of a complex unfolding issue. Onscreen they interview only one Native at length to get the tribal point of view, plus one Caucasian identified as a veteran who has traveled to Standing Rock in an act of solidarity.

As Hay is the narrator, what is essentially an Indigenous story is told from the perspective of a member of the dominant majority culture, thus controlling the narrative. This is an ongoing problem in ethnocentric Western films, especially those produced by Hollywood. Just consider this: Who is the protagonist in movies like the 1987 South Africa-set Cry Freedom? Not Denzel Washington as Black nationalist Steve Biko, who disappears early on in the movie, but the white character played by Kevin Kline. In 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird the lead character is portrayed by Caucasian Gregory Peck—not Brock Peters as the Black man he defends. Similarly, the Caucasian Brad Pitt stars in 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet—not like, you know, a Tibetan, because Third World people are just the exotic backdrop for the all-important doings of Westerners. And finally, just ponder this: Who is the most famous Hollywood character ever from deepest, darkest Africa? Well, it ain’t Nelson Mandela—it’s Tarzan, the English aristocrat. And so on.

Be that as it may, Hay and her team purport to uncover information at Standing Rock that questions if not discredits Native contentions, challenging some of their assertions which the film suggests are falsified. However, Hay and her team never present their alleged findings to the First People activists onscreen and they are never given an opportunity to respond to them. We’re just supposed to take, Hay, et al, at their word and on face value. The fact that there appear to be no independent corroborations of their “discoveries” is, from an investigative journalism point of view, troublesome.

Unlike Hay, I did not travel up to Standing Rock, but I did attend a lengthy rally against DAPL in L.A. and have seen other documentaries about that historic struggle made by Indigenous filmmakers at the Native Women in Film Film Festival. They include: End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock executive produced by Pearl Means, widow of American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, and Daniela Riojas’s Standing Rock: A New Nation, which opens with sweeping, soaring, striking aerial shots of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which Hay also filmed. Savannah Thunder is in Choctaw/Seminole director Tracy Rector’s Portraits from Standing Rock. Unlike Indirect these documentaries include a lot more interviews with Natives, such as activist Winona LaDuke, who was Ralph Nader’s Green Party vice-presidential running mate.

I don’t know if all of Hay’s allegations about geographical locations, etc., are true or not. Via email, she said: “The piece of land in question is unceded territory. At one time, this land did belong to the Sioux. Today it belongs to the Army Corps of Engineers.” I spent 23 years living in the Pacific Islands and I believe Polynesian activists would likely call this “stolen land.”

I asked Hay about what was probably the central concern of the Standing Rock protesters: That the pipeline carrying oil would at some point pass under the Missouri River. And, as Hay herself notes, the Sioux and many others were indeed anxious that an oil spill would contaminate this dominant regional resource for drinking, bathing, etc., water for millions.

As Hay emailed me: “Regarding the plans to build under the Missouri River, the path of the Northern Border Pipeline created an energy corridor and energy companies often take advantage of these prior easements. I do not know how long they intended to go under that exact piece of land, but it did have to cross the Missouri River at some point.” Well, that’s Exhibit A, the top specific reason why the “Natives were restless” and for the convocation of the tribes and their allies at North Dakota—to save the water from a possible oil spill. Hay added: “During his first week in office, Donald Trump signed an executive order that approved the Dakota Access Pipeline. Construction under the Missouri River began immediately thereafter. ”

Indirect is best when Hay lets her camera do the talking and the images do speak graphically, instead of Hay’s narration. The all-encompassing, expansive tableaux of the Oceti Sakowin encampment that places the ticket buyer there amidst the tipis, tribal flags, etc., is quite impressive. According to Hay, “We used several different 360 cameras. These cameras shoot in every direction, all at once and that is how we achieved the immersive effect.”

But this “dome film” process is less interesting in tighter spaces. Who needs 360-degree vistas inside cars or cramped motel rooms? It reminded me of the wasteful use of 70 mm technology in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a widescreen technique squandered mostly on the interiors of a stagecoach and cabin. Billed as “The World’s First Immersive Documentary Feature”—with intermission and all—so much of Indirect’s imagery is tiresomely repetitious, it could be cut in half. One can also see a vertical line slicing the pictures in some shots as if different camera angles are being stitched together.

However, two shorts screened before the “main attraction” of Indirect Actions provided breathtaking glimpses into what else this new film format can offer. Lena Herzog (Werner’s wife) expressed visually and aurally through this technique the disappearance of various languages threatened with extinction. Jacob Collier’s Make Me Cry uses the new dome process to excellent effect, as a sole musician is turned into a sort of literal one-man band.

According to screenwriter Ryan Moore, “We’ll be showing Indirect Actions around the world in FullDome Film Festivals, as well as a multi-city tour of the project across the U.S. in the spring/summer of 2020.”

For further information see here. For info on the Dome Series see here.

The Advocates: Gimme shelter

French director Rémi Kessler’s The Advocates is a heartwarming documentary taking an insider look at a compelling crisis that is mushrooming across L.A. far beyond the confines of Skid Row: Homelessness. The 87-minute nonfiction film focuses on a trio of L.A. organizers for whom the political is personal, as they work primarily for private organizations to assist the ever-expanding number of people living on the street. Sometimes there is public-private cooperation; people like these three activists are derisively referred to as “do-gooders.”

The most interesting one is Claudia Perez, who after years of substance, as well as sexual abuse, and being homeless herself, not only turned her life around but founded LA on Cloud9. In Advocates we see volunteers of this private organization distribute food, clothing, hygienic articles, etc., to the homeless, and even provide some care for their pets. Sometimes overwhelmed by the depths of the housing shortage, Claudia is frustrated, but she’s a force of nature when she’s out there helping the down and out. By the end of the film, Claudia is hired by a government agency as a social worker, and she continues her mission during her day job and in her free time.

A scene from “The Advocates.”

Similarly driven, Rudy Salinas is depicted onscreen as persistently, conscientiously concentrating on getting people off of the streets and into their own homes as program director at a nonprofit, non-governmental organization, Housing Works. He anguishes over his clients, shepherding them around L.A.’s mean streets in his car, fighting to find them shelter, get them off of substances, etc. Salinas is motivated and inspired by the more altruistic aspects of his deeply held Catholic faith.

With its behind-the-scenes vibe, the film also shows some of the homeless people on whose behalf the organizers are advocating. There are scenes of L.A. City Council meetings and measures regarding the housing emergency, which the film’s organizers criticize for not being properly funded and not doing and going far enough. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti is glimpsed at an event when one of those ballot measures is passed but is not interviewed onscreen per se. Hizzoner’s Homelessness Policy Director Alisa Orduna is, however, interviewed, as are County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and City Councilman David Ryu.

Academic and other expert talking heads are also interviewed, providing insights into the cause of this festering humanitarian catastrophe that former California Governor Ronald Reagan accelerated in the 1980s when he became president and dumped tens of thousands of institutionalized mentally ill people on the street. If memory serves correctly, it’s UCLA Professor of Law Emeritus Gary Blasi who points out that while this policy may have saved the government money in the short term, in the long term it’s far more expensive to try providing for masses of people encamped on urban sidewalks. Paul Tepper, executive director of Western Center on Law & Poverty, points out the economics of high rents (and you can add real estate costs) and stagnant, low wages, as a source of the calamity. “Do the math,” he asserts.

Kessler has previously made movie history documentaries, among others. The Advocates is certainly well-meaning and does shed a lot of light on the human toll of our “urban refugees.” But the film does not have a form or style as compelling as its subject matter. Other documentarians find the means to grab viewers by the lapel and hold their attention while spinning their stories. Michael Moore famously deploys his proletarian persona as his films’ onscreen narrator. Some nonfiction films, such as 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, deploy highly creative, cinematic techniques to keep audiences enthralled.

The problem is how do you get those who are not already sympathetic to this cause to watch films like The Advocates, so you’re not just preaching to the choir? How can you get that Trump supporter who might say Rudy Salinas’s Central-American, substance-abusing client should go back where he came from and that U.S. resources, public and private, should not be wasted on “outsiders?” How can you screen documentaries like this for those who believe “charity begins at home?”

I admire the film’s “do-gooders,” but if we really want to solve the homeless epidemic, I suggest that homeless people, who number in the tens of thousands in L.A., should band together and march en masse with housing and other allies on City Hall—and in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel Air, etc.—and demand their human rights. Which, among them, is the right for all to have a roof over their heads. To paraphrase that old Sixties slogan: “Bring the war home!”

For more on The Advocates see here. The trailer can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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