Friday, May 16, 2008

Three Documentaries: "Baghdad High," "This is Not a Robbery" and "Donkey In Lahore"

It's been two weeks since the Tribeca Film Festival ended, but I haven't finished writing all my reviews.
On the second Friday of the Festival, May 2nd, I saw three movies in one day, all documentaries. The first movie I saw was Baghdad High, previously released in England (and available there on the BBC iPlayer)as The Boys From Baghdad High. It was compelling, though it avoided taking political risks, partly due to the film-makers' ethical choices, and partly due, I'm guessing, to the film-makers' own political biases. The film follows four Baghdad high school seniors in the 2006-2007 academic year. They are: one Kurd, one Sunni/Shia (yes there is such a thing), one Shiia, and one Christian. They live in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and attend a multi-ethnic school. The boyswere chosen by the principal of the school because they could be trusted to use video cameras and not get into trouble, or to get others into trouble.
The lack of basic security in Iraq limited the ability of the film-makers in significant ways. On-line film reviews have already pointed out that the film does not delve deeply into politics, which is true, but the film can be excused to a degree by the dangerous situation the boys and their families would be placed in were they to reveal anything very controversial - and it's easy to say something controversial in a city that's in the midst of a civil war. However, the film-makers specifically sought out the experiences of "regular people" who were not political in order to portray something different from the "hard news" story of terrorism.

"It struck us that, when looking at the slate of Iraq films and documentaries, that all you ever hear is the opinion of warlords, generals, religious fanatics, and other 'leaders,' " says Mr. O'Mahoney, who worked as a peacekeeper in Bosnia during the 1990s, and as a freelance producer for HBO, the BBC, and the Discovery Channel. He now heads his own production company, StoryLabTV.
Journalists don't "peel too deep into that onion," Ms. Winter says. "The layers we can get to is the hard news, and the hard news points to a place where people are losing their mind."


But does that attempt to isolate the story from politics distort reality? At one point, one of the boys, Muhammed, asked his mother what she thought of the Americans and she responded that she had been hopeful before the war started, but that she is more ambivalent now. All the boys talk about the "terrorists" who are ruining their lives, and in a few sequences we see checkpoints; at one point a boy reveals that he thinks that the execution of Saddam Hussein is "the end of Iraq," while another's Shiia family celebrates. The electricity outages are a regular feature of the boys' daily lives, and often, we see them in fear of the violence: In one memorable sequence Hayder walks to his neighbor's house saying "I may be killed at any moment," and Ali worries that his girlfriend hasn't called him because something has happened to her. The film shows how much the war has disrupted the lives of these young men in a very personal way, and yet the film-makers' failure to provide an analysis of the violence leaves the Bush administration's representation (and the US news media's) of the situation unchallenged. One can glean from the film that the 2007 "surge" actually made things worse for the boys, but the bad conditions are not explained. While the boys couldn't do it, the film-makers could have found a way. They could have used written explanations providing statistics on civilian casualties; they could have given more information on the refugee crisis for broad context. The fact that they didn't frame the stories means that Baghdad High is much less challenging than the hard-hitting Arna's Children, during which three out of four of the subjects become directly involved in armed conflict, one as a suicide bomber. I'm not saying that the film-makers should have sought out a potential suicide bomber as a film-subject, but that the issue of young people involved in the armed conflict could have, and should have been addressed in the film in some way. The film-makers didn't supply any voice-over or interviews with other people in Iraq to frame the narrative because Iraq is not safe for journalists and these film-makers weren't in Iraq during the shooting. A more politically-minded set of film-makers would have made use of the work of people like Dahr Jamail and Patrick Cockburn who have been able to do interviews with people "on the street" about politics in Iraq. When I think about this film in the context of the work of independent journalists, I think there's something kind of problematic about these Westerners who were too afraid to go to Iraq themselves using these kids to collect the footage for a film that will advance the film-makers' careers. These boys were great subjects, and the film is well edited, but is Baghdad High another version of what Robert Fisk calls "hotel journalism" in which Western reporters rely on Iraqis to take the risks in getting the stories from the streets?
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The second film I saw on Friday was much more problematic: This is Not A Robbery. As you can see from the linked synopsis from the Tribeca Film Festival's own web-page, this film was a light-hearted look at the life of an octegenarian bank-robber. The young film-makers found out about "Red" Rountree by reading his obituary after he died in prison at the age of 92 and decided to make a film. The film was certainly well-made and entertaining, but at a certain point, I began to feel that it was superficial, and ultimately, mocking the subject. Here's the story of Red Rountree as revealed in the film. A man has a successful career, makes lots of money, is fun-loving and has a great marriage to a woman with a child from a previous marriage whom he adopts as his own son. The son dies in a car accident at age 23; his wife is an alcoholic and dies of cancer; he invests all his money in a risky scheme and loses everything. In the depths of depression after his wife's death, and his early eighties, he starts dating a crack and heroin-addicted stripper who uses him for his social security check. He does drugs with her and even marries her. When he realizes that she's not going to stop doing drugs, he leaves her and starts robbing banks. The twenty-something hipster film-makers found this whole story hilarious. Sure, Rountree's own comments are funny. He was a funny man; his reason for robbing banks? "I hate banks!" When asked how he could be a Christian and rob banks during one of the interviews show in the film his response was "there's nothing in the bible about.." The interviewer interrupted him with the commandment: "Thou shall not steal." His response was "but it's fun stealing." There is an element of fun and adventure to the whole story and to Red. However, I think a better film would have maintained a balance between appreciating Red's humor and having real empathy for him and seeing a larger meaning in his story than simple entertainment.
His story was a tragedy that was largely caused by social problems that the film doesn't acknowledge. There's no discussion of why Rountree was sentenced to prison, where he died, instead of put in some kind of secure home for the elderly. There's no discussion of the lack of services available to impoverished elderly people. Rountree's second wife, Juanita (who had also died by the time the film was made) was also a subject revelry in the film. Red's family saw her as a devilish seductress and when we finally see her, it's after a string of invective describing her, then a dramatic piece of "film noir" music and we see her, darkly lit, with a cigarette - it's edited for a punch-line. After all, there's nothing funnier than a drug-addicted stripper with two kids who marries an 80 year-old because he treats her better than her own father did. I lost all my forgiveness for these unabashedly self-promoting film-makers when during the Q&A they explained their use of animation for certain scenes in the film by saying that among other things they wanted to see "the old guy smoking mother-fucking crack!" That's a new low, even for hipsters from L.A.
No wonder Red's family didn't have much to say after the first screening.
next!

* * *
The real ethical low-point of the film festival was Donkey in Labore, which was, like some reality TV, totally fascinating and entertaining, but at the expense of the real people in the film. The Film-maker, Faramarz K-Rahber, was friends with Brian, a goth puppeteer in Australia who came back from a trip to a puppet festival in Pakistan talking about marrying a Pakistani girl named Amber, who is ten years his junior. K-Rahber, a film-maker, decided that this would be a great opportunity to make a film. Claiming that his camera didn't put any pressure on the couple, he said that "from now on, I am here as a film-maker and not your friend" and declined to intervene in any way (except by shooting the film). That means that during the next five years, as the couple got engaged and tried to be together, he interviewed both Brian and Amber because he spoke both their languages fluently, yet he refused to mediate or help the two of them translate.
He also didn't take the position that many more collaborative docuemtnary film-makers do, and show them the video footage of each other. In other words, he concealed knowledge that he held that would have helped the couple, which is a tactic frequently used in reality television. While Amber and Brian might have had the same problems in their relationship if they weren't being filmed, it's also likely that just being on film in this way encouraged both of them to continue their unlikely relationship. In addition, the fact that the film-maker had knowledge that could have helped his subjects had he shared it made sharing the info the responsible thing to do. He had access because he was Brian's friend, and because he spoke Amber's language. Had he acknowledged the influence that he had as a friend and as person with a camera, a more ethical approach would have been to intervene in a positive way, instead of just as a voyeur,and to document his own participation. Instead, he used the ruse of objectivity as a screen for his increasingly exploitative relationship to the couple.
The most egregious non-intervention came during the years-long ordeal over Amber's Australian visa application. After the first step in their wedding ceremony, A Muslim ritual, Amber and Brian were separated for many years. Brian could not make a go of a business in Pakistan, and decided to try to bring Amber to Austrailia, but communication problems with Amber's family lengthened the process considerably. Amber, in Pakistan, was so anxious that she became physically ill, and even fainted during one of K-Rahber's interviews. At the same time, we see Brian as he gets increasingly concerned that Amber's family is blocking the marriage, while Amber's family believes that Brian is going to abandon Amber after the first stage of the wedding, that he is a typical Western male who discards his wife. Brian becomes so frustrated that he threatens to divorce Amber in an overseas call to her brother-in-law, who is his only intermediary - because of course, the film-maker who knew exactly what was going on refused to intervene. At the brother-in-law's urging, Brian and Amber have an online chat to resolve the problem during which Brian writes

"you know there's something wrong with my brain, don't you? It's called borderline personality disorder."

So, not only did K-Rahber take advantage of a friend, but he took advantage of a (severely) mentally-ill friend - not for the sake of art, but for the sake of his own career, and for the sake of our entertainment. If you read the link above, you'll find that one of the characteristics of BDP is extreme instability in personal relationships, intense separation anxiety, and frequent, impulsive changes in self-identity. Perhaps this might explain why Brian found it so easy to go on a trip to Pakistan, decide to get married, and convert to Islam. Perhaps that's why Brian had such difficulty dealing with a cross-country love affair.
And what about Amber? Being in a relationship with someone suffering from this disease could bring a lot of difficulty into someone's life. As the website linked above describes it:
People with BPD often have highly unstable patterns of social relationships. While they can develop intense but stormy attachments, their attitudes towards family, friends, and loved ones may suddenly shift from idealization (great admiration and love) to devaluation (intense anger and dislike). Thus, they may form an immediate attachment and idealize the other person, but when a slight separation or conflict occurs, they switch unexpectedly to the other extreme and angrily accuse the other person of not caring for them at all.

I doubt that Amber knew what Borderline Personality Disorder was, but I'm sure K-Rahber did, since he was "friends" with Brian. It was simply irresponsible of him not to try to inform Amber of his friend's emotional instability, especially since Amber was about fifteen when this entire saga began.
The people sitting in the theater near me were all appalled by the end of the Q&A. Although Greencine Daily describes this movie as a "screwball comedy" we don't know what will happen in the end, and what I saw in the theater was a man's exploitation of his friend and his abetting in the total disruption of a young woman's life. Neither one of the subjects committed suicide during the years they spent in anxiety, but it could have happened quite easily. What if Brian had gone ahead and divorced Amber? While attitudes about divorce are changing in Pakistan, the consequences for her future might be severe.
What did happen by the end of the film was that Amber moved to Brisbane with Brian and they are currently attempting to make the marriage work, but who knows how it will turn out? I really felt for Amber when I saw her sobbing as she said goodbye to her entire family and went off to live with a man who was essentially a stranger to her. If things go really wrong, K-Rahber's decision to put his career before his friendship will be partly to blame.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Being a native of the land, I can say that director, hiding behind the excuse of impartiality,( while knowing both cultures quite well,) let this whole story unfold (in negative way) ,.... what would one do for a story....sigh..

Simbarashe said...

Actually, the original BBC version of this documentary has complete voice over narratives. HBO (in the US) opted to show the film without the voice overs. In watching both versions (they are cut relatively the same way) they come off quite different; the BBC version is fairly impartial because it feels a lot more educational. The HBO version (the one that screened at Tribeca) is driven entirely by the dialogue and soundtrack of strings. I point this out because I get the feeling that biased views are built upon which version is seen, which, I suppose at the end of the day lends itself entirely to the power of editing.

Rebecca said...

Hey anon,
thanks for the insider info. The whole thing was distressing. Reality TV's a bad influence on documentary film.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you only know Amber was a little bit drama-crazed too. Why don't you ask her? facebook(.)com(/)ambishoshweet