People, presidents and kings star in new documentaries

The Real to Reel Program at the Toronto International Film Festival is the area where most of the progressive offerings can be found. Documentaries dealing with history and politics come from all corners of the globe and end up at this amazingly rich and diversified film festival. The rarely seen African side of President Barack Obama’s family is explored in the Education of Auma Obama. Obama’s older half-sister is featured in this tour of their shared father’s small village and the townsfolk’s excitement following the American election campaign of their native son. Old family movies, visits with relatives and the discovery that Auma is a strong post-colonialist feminist influenced by her progressive activist father who died in a tragic car accident in 1982, makes this a fascinating revelation of Obama’s other side.

Race plays a major factor in Tall Man, following the death in police custody of Cameron Doomadgee in a small Australian seaport town. The film documents the investigation of officer Christopher Hurley and the townspeople’s refusal to accept the official explanation of what happened. A fellow black inmate saw white police officer Hurley beat Doomadgee to death, and the brilliantly constructed film probes the growing anger in the village about the lack of justice, as well as the blatant racism, within the establishment. Further tragedy befalls the family as the poignant drama unfolds in real life.

Another poignant film follows the attempt by Iraqi citizen, patient and humane Husham, to gain funding for a small orphanage to house part of the huge growing number of homeless children in post-war Iraq. In my Mother’s Arms shows the trauma caused by war, the loss of parents and the resultant poverty. Husham fosters 32 orphans in a small two-room house and searches desperately to keep the only hope for these children going. Each child is damaged psychologically, some physically, as we watch them cope with their new realities forced upon them by an unnecessary war and an uncaring world power.

But there is hope in the Middle East, as we witnessed in the joyous Arab Spring sparked by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The excitement of watching live broadcasts from Tahrir Square in Cairo reaffirmed the faith in humankind as people peacefully fought their way out of a seemingly endless road of oppression. Footage from all the cameras on the sight combined to present the clearest picture of a place on earth that just a short time ago was a dot on the globe. Well now, some of the most intimate and revealing footage is edited into a three-part documentary featuring three different Egyptian directors, titled Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician. The title should not imply that the politician is something other than good or bad. In this case, we’re talking about Hosni Mubarak, the fallen from grace leader who in this film is displayed as a person out of touch with the realities in his own country. Intimate footage of his personal life and interviews with fellow politicians paint a clearer picture of why he had to be forced to step down. The tri-partite doc soars in the first section though, as it follows the most dedicated activists forming in Tahrir Square despite the threat of violent opposition. Cameras appear to be attached to the subjects as they scurry in and out of the most massive and effective protest movements in history. We’ve seen a lot of films on this subject but this one is about as close as you can get to being there and learning about the true feelings and actions of the real heroes of social change.

And then there’s the political history that most everyone knows nothing about – except of course the people of Bulgaria. Did you know that for a short while in the 40s, this country was run by a 6-year-old boy?! Only for the follies of monarchies. But wait – did you know this young boy had to flee his country because a large group of dissident communists thought they could do a better job running the country? And wait – did you know this young boy grew up and came back 50 years later, started his own party, ran for the office of president – and won?!! It’s the first time in history a king became a non-royal leader of a country. But the story ends sadly, at least for lovers of monarchies. Former king, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was a close friend of Spanish dictator Franco while in exile, was voted out of office almost as quickly as he was elected in. Apparently he had an insatiable desire to reclaim not only his lost power, but also his royal wealth and property, and the people were already suffering badly enough since the fall of the communist “regime.”

Yes, it’s all true. Check it out in Boy who was King by Bulgarian filmmaker Andrey Paounov, who has a great sense of humor – and irony.

Photo: Still from Tahrir 2011.


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.