PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.1 (2005) 92-101
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Save the Country
The Cinematic Year in Review 2004
As the summer progressed, one of the most unusual cinematic events was the emergence of the political documentary as a real force in the marketplace. Of course, the enormous popular appeal of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was unprecedented; even within specialty markets, there was notice given to such films as Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation, Alison MacLean and Toby Pearse's Persons of Interest, and Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Born Into Brothels (all shown at this year's Human Rights Watch Festival and subsequently released theatrically). But going to this year's Human Rights Watch Festival, though there were moments of great poignance and unusual insight, there was also a feeling almost of fatigue. How many documentaries of children in dire circumstances in underdeveloped countries can one see? How many documentaries about the evils of corporate America are needed? These questions are rhetorical, and good films are always welcome, no matter what the subject. The Corporation turned out to be an entertaining screed, diagnosing the mentality of the corporation as pathological as if the corporation were a person; it ended with some small but bracing examples of ways in which people in different countries have fought corporate takeovers. Born Into Brothels was an extremely moving depiction of Zana Briski, a photojournalist, and her attempt to teach photography to the children of a red-light district in Calcutta; her hopes to use photography as a vehicle to help these children find possibilities for education and a way to move out of their environment seem daunting, but her determination and the children's enthusiasm provided glimmers of hope.
Many documentaries that were released during the summer of 2004 were polemics. Paul Alexander's Brothers In Arms is a straightforward account of John Kerry's service in Vietnam, through interviews with the actual members of his crew; Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp's Hijacking [End Page 92] Catastrophe is a well-documented investigation into the usage of the 9/11 attack to bolster the Bush administration plans for an expansion of aggressive military intervention. Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis's The Take is a documentary about the attempts by Argentine factory workers to take over and reinvigorate the shuttered factories, that have been closed by the economic demands of multinational corporations continuing to outsource manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor costs. All of these documentaries were certainly worthwhile, many of them carried a real emotional kick (certainly, Born Into Brothels and The Take were as emotionally involving as anything else seen this summer), but the full imaginative range of art wasn't quite there.
And so there was a deflation in expectation: it's almost as if we no longer expect to find movies which bring to bear the full resources that a great movie can have, that amalgam of literary and dramatic material with imagery and sound which made the movies the perfect encapsulation of the Gesamtkunstwerk. And so it was at this year's Montréal World Film Festival, which went into its 28th year heavily burdened with controversy. Sandy Mandelbaum on the Website Indiewire, and V. A. Musetto in The New York Post noted that, no matter the contention about funding and government reports swamping the festival, it remains the place where a wide range of films can be seen, and which would always show the latest films by noted auteurs (this year's crop included Ermanno Olmi, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman, Ettore Scola, Youssef Chahine, Raul Ruiz, Carlos Saura, and Chantal Akerman) as well as works by promising newcomers such as Jordan Roberts (Around the Bend), Hannah Davis...