Thursday, October 31, 2002
Photo: Blood Brothers: The Himba tribe of southwest Africa fights a dam in Ochre and Water (left); Jamaica''s economic woes are explored in Life and Debt (right).
"Every three seconds, another house in North America is sided with vinyl--my father did the math."
So begins Blue Vinyl, a sharp-witted environmental documentary that proves films about deadly serious issues can be highly entertaining, that humor is a compelling delivery system for information, and that individuals can take on giant corporations and win.
This outstanding piece of political art is one of the highlights of the Monterey Bay Film Festival, which shows nine films in rotation this Friday at 7:30pm and Saturday at 2pm and 7:30pm at CSUMB''s World Theater.
Blue Vinyl, scheduled for Friday evening, follows filmmaker Judith Helfard''s five-year quest to learn the truth about polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, America''s most popular plastic.
Helfand embarks on her journey when her parents decide to replace the rotted wood on their modest Long Island home with vinyl siding. Worried about the possible side effects of the toxic material, Helfand (who underwent a radical hysterectomy at age 25 because of cervical cancer related to her mother''s ingestion of the anti-miscarriage drug DES during pregnancy) tucks a piece of blue vinyl under her arm and sets out on the trail of PVC--and the poisonous dioxins released during its production and disposal.
First stop is Lake Charles, Louisiana, the "vinyl capital of America." Helfand visits the plant that churns out one-third of America''s PVC; she interviews officials from the Vinyl Institute, who are so freaked out by the prospect of having to defend their product on-screen that they show up with their own film crew to film the filmmakers; she joins a "bucket brigade" of local citizens monitoring the town''s air quality; and she meets activist attorney Billy Baggett, a man who''s devoted his life to fighting the PVC industry and defending former plant workers who have lost limbs, voice boxes and worse after years of exposure to the deadly chemicals.
From Louisiana, Helfand is off to Venice, Italy, where she interviews the eccentric scientist who first connected vinyl to cancer, and meets 150 widows suing officials at a local PVC factory for manslaughter in their husbands'' deaths.
Throughout her fact-finding journey, Helfand''s casual demeanor and pointedly disingenuous tone of voice bring a complex issue home to the most disconnected, uninformed viewer. Scenes of her walking through Mardi Gras revelries in New Orleans and drifting down a Venetian canal in a gondola, all the while clutching her precious piece of evidentiary vinyl, are priceless. Helfand''s parents, standing in for Everyman, U.S.A., provide constant comic relief as well as the voice of America''s consumer. As her mother tells the camera early on, vinyl siding is cheap, durable and looks nice on the house; can her daughter find anything better?
Ultimately, Helfand does, and her solution is both practical and witty.
Helfand and cinematographer Daniel Gold call their film a "toxic comedy," and it is certainly that. But its value goes beyond filmmaking--Helfand and Gold, who co-founded the activist film production company Working Films, have taken Blue Vinyl on the road to help galvanize a grassroots movement to fight PVC production. Although the film''s subject is sobering, its message is hopeful, in a very down-to-earth way. As Helfand says at the film''s end, "Consumers have the power to transform a market and make a hazardous product obsolete; maybe the next great product revolution could start with our house."
Another not-to-be-missed film is Two Towns of Jasper, directed by Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, scheduled for a Saturday evening screening (where Williams will speak).
Jasper is the small Texas town where, in June 1998, African American James Byrd was dragged three miles to his death behind a truck commandeered by three local white men. Two separate film crews--one black and one white--followed the residents of Jasper for a year as the suspects were tried for their participation in this grisly racial murder. Each crew filmed its own community, presumably so that the interviewees would feel comfortable revealing their thoughts, fears and prejudices.
Given the horrific nature of the killing, it would have been easy for the filmmakers to adopt a strident, angry tone. What''s remarkable about this film is its almost gentle quality, the absence of the omniscient narrator. The people of Jasper speak for themselves, and they quickly dispel any easy assumptions about small-town Texas folks. The directors are fair to their subjects, allowing them to speak their piece without commentary or invasive editing, and the film is much stronger for it.
There''s racism in Jasper, sure, but as one young man puts it, "no more here than anywhere else." The town is 46 percent black and has a black mayor--yet the cemetery is still racially divided, a fact many town residents are not aware of until they have to bury family members. Blacks and whites come together to pray for healing in their local church, but the three suspects are covered in Klan and neo-Nazi tattoos, including one with a gruesome lynching etched on his arm.
Biographical info on Byrd himself is absent from the film, an interesting directorial choice that focuses attention on the town and its race relations rather than this particular incident. The murder is described as almost accidental, a night on the town gone badly awry. "They were out drinking, looking for girls," one white resident insists. "I don''t think they planned it. They were all hyped up, like a pack of dogs."
Family members of the victim, and of the suspects, are featured. Why some of them agreed to be filmed is anyone''s guess, but it''s testimony to the directors'' sympathetic approach to the town as a whole. The suspects'' families are allowed to show their own pain and confusion; one suspect''s father insists that his son wasn''t driving the truck, and so was less guilty than the others. "But daddies will grab at anything," he mutters sadly.
The film spends a good deal of time with one young Jasper man who is a fascinating study in the complex sociology of white supremacism. Displaying his Aryan Brotherhood tattoos for the camera, he speaks softly about how "they have their church, and we have ours; my grandfather taught me, just say hi to them and bye to them--don''t associate with them." It would be easy to portray him as a raving lunatic, but again, the directors hold back, showing, instead, his slow and careful evolution as the trial progresses.
Two Towns of Jasper, despite its title, shows that dividing a town neatly along racial lines doesn''t always reveal the truth about it. Barriers are less clearly drawn in real life than in the movies--except in a really fine one, like this.
The power of the absent narrator, so deftly wielded in Two Towns of Jasper, would have helped rescue Life and Debt from the mire of self-righteousness that swamps and ultimately weakens a message deserving of far better treatment.
Shown on Saturday afternoon, this 2001 film by Stephanie Black chronicles the economic destruction of Jamaica by the forces of globalization, starting with IMF and World Bank loans in the 1970s and ending with (what else?) McDonald''s on every corner, while shoeless children starve in the ghettos of Kingston.
The filmmakers tackle the collapse of Jamaica''s domestic dairy and produce industry in the face of international trade policies imposed by the U.S.-led world community. In example after example, from a sweatshop in the so-called Kingston Free Zone to a village onion field left fallow because it''s no longer a financially viable proposition, the filmmaker shows how the right to have access to Nike shoes and the latest Eminem CD--a right championed by the supporters of globalization--sweeps entire cultures and livelihoods aside, leading countries like Jamaica relentlessly down the path to crippling dependence on the First World and an insidious form of economic slavery.
It''s a familiar but tragic tale, involving many different political, social and economic strands that are difficult to unravel. Indeed, there''s so much raw information packed into this 86-minute documentary that it''s hard to keep track of the crises displayed on the screen. The absence of dates, place names, and other helpful details lift some of the stories out of all context, into a mythical realm of proto-propaganda where they float about as colorful buoys on which to hang one''s anti-WTO anger, but without the specificity needed to suggest any real solution.
Perhaps that was the director''s intent, and if so, she succeeded. Documentaries may be used for many purposes, including rabble-rousing and motivating those already on your side to greater anger against the enemy. No one says a film has to be fair.
That said, there are many fine aspects to Life and Debt. Extensive interviews with the late former Prime Minister Michael Manley reveal the intelligence and progressive thinking of the man who could have led Jamaica to greatness, if he hadn''t lost the 1980 national elections after being targeted by the CIA. The stories of Jamaica''s milk and banana industries, in particular, are told with compelling simplicity and vivid imagery.
Appearing at regular intervals throughout the film is a group of dreadlocked Rastafarians sitting around a campfire late at night, offering their own analyses of Jamaica''s economic woes, banging on drums all the while. If only the director had fired her simpering narrator and thrown away the offensive script by Jamaica Kincaid (who should be ashamed). These Rastas would have done the job much better.
As hard as Life and Debt hits us over the head, Ochre and Water glides gently into the heart. Showing Friday evening with Blue Vinyl, Ochre and Water dramatizes the conflict between modernity and tradition by focusing on one story: the Himba tribe, nomadic herders living along the Angola-Namibian border whose way of life is threatened by a proposed dam that will flood their grazing lands and ancestral graves.
Ochre and Water is beautifully filmed, and could be enjoyed just on that level if the story itself were not so compelling.
South African filmmaker Craig Matthews spent seven years with the Himba, insinuating himself into their lives so successfully that one young woman finally turns to the screen and asks, with open flirtatiousness, whether he plans to marry one of their girls and stay forever.
Matthews is clearly enamored of the Himba and spends a lot of film time documenting their daily life and customs, including several funeral ceremonies.
At times his film seems like an anthropological study, for the Himba live, by western standards, quite "primitive" lives: mud huts, bare-chested women, no machines or modern conveniences. But Matthews quickly undercuts the "animals in a zoo" viewpoint when he films the tribal elders first going to a company meeting in the Namibian capital of Windhoek and then flying to Stockholm and London to press their case against the developers threatening their land. The erudite, articulate arguments put forward by the Himba chief, who travels everywhere in his traditional dress, appear as the voice of reason in a world gone mad for "progress."
The film ends with uncertainty. Following a visit by the Namibian president to the Himba people, the dam is put on hold. But for how long? For the Himba, the damming of the Epupa Falls means that an area the size of London will disappear to provide hydroelectric power for the people of Namibia. But, as the filmmaker tells us, 80 million people around the world have been displaced to make room for similar projects. How has that, and will that, impact world cultural history? As one Himba leader asks at a meeting with men hired to do a feasibility study on the dam, "Are independence and freedom only meant for people wearing modern dress?"
Showing Saturday afternoon with Life and Debt is In the Light of Reverence, a film that continues the festival''s focus on tradition vs. modernity, but one that takes the conflict into the realm of religion: What constitutes a religion? Can it be tied to a mountain or a field, or must it be inside a church building to be considered legitimate and worthy of protection? What happens when one people''s religious needs conflict with other people''s equally valid spiritual desires, or their basic need to make a living?
In the Light of Reverence explores this topic by looking at three Native American tribes and their struggles to protect their sacred lands from encroachment by the outside (read: white) world of developers, miners, New Age seekers, ski enthusiasts and even rock-climbers.
We learn of the Lakota tribe''s efforts to keep tourists off the pristine Devil''s Tower in the Black Hills of Wyoming during the month of June, when they conduct their rituals; we meet the Hopi of Northern Arizona, who are trying to protect a ring of ancient shrines near the Grand Canyon despite the fact that the tribe signed away its rights to a coal mining company in 1966; and we meet the Wintu of Mt. Shasta, whose healing ceremonies at a sacred spring are threatened by plans for a ski resort.
All three stories are told sparingly but with conviction, and they give the lie to those who believe that indigenous people''s troubles with The Great White Chief are over. Although the narration is somewhat tendentious--the Native American argument is always right, the white man is always wrong--the filmmakers do show enough of both sides for viewers to come to their own conclusion.
And that conclusion is, or should be: These are tough cases. It''s easy enough for us to say that the mining operation destroying the Hopi''s petroglyphs should stop immediately, but what about the New Age practitioners who like to gather at the Wintu''s sacred spring and meditate in the nude, which the Wintu find offensive? Aren''t both groups'' rituals worthy of respect?
This film is terrific more because of the three stories it tells and the points it illuminates than because of its direction or cinematography. Plus it''s cool to see the U.S Forest Service come off as the good guys for a change.
The Monterey Bay Film Festival runs Fri. at 7:30pm, Sat. at 2pm and 7:30pm in the World Theater at CSUMB. $13 general/$30 film festival pass. Call 582-4580.