It’s here again, the 7th annual True/False Festival of documentary filmmaking, which is surely the highlight of life in Columbia, Missouri. It may be the one event that draws people from out of town and out of state who are NOT Mizzou alumni coming to watch a football game. Every year I think about how I should try to convince my out-of-town friends to come next time, but then I never remember to do so; so if you’re reading this blog entry, consider yourself invited for 2011.
The first two films I saw in the festival included scenes of chickens being slaughtered – first in Cambodia, and then in Iraq. Coincidence? I have now sat through nine films so far, and there haven’t been any more chicken slaughters. Tomorrow I’m going to see four more films, and I’ll let you know what happens.
Enemies of the People, dir. Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin, 93 min.
One common theme among documentary films is heroism. Filmmakers choose a heroic subject – or are themselves heroic – and reveal to us over an hour and a half or two hours what this person has done that is extraordinary. The first such film I saw was Enemies of the People, which documented the one-man peace-and-reconciliation program that Thet Sambath has undertaken in Cambodia. Sambath, a Cambodian journalist, has devoted some 10 years of his life to finding the killers from Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. His own father died in the Killing Fields; his mother was then forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier, and his brother was taken away by them and never seen again. Sambath befriended these men, gained their trust by treating them with respect, and elicited their stories in their own words. He poured all his weekends and all his resources into this project; at one point he said, “my wife has no money for food this week because it’s all going into the project.”
Sambath became friends with Nuon Chea, the top surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge; Pol Pot was known as “Brother Number One,” and Nuon Chea as “Brother Number Two.” From this man, as well as from Communist party members at the bottom of the chain of authority, the audience gets confessions, expressions of remorse, and apologies. It is very moving.
Rob Lemkin is a British journalist who went to Cambodia to cover the U.N. trial of Nuon Chea; he discovered Sambath and his project, and became involved in it himself. The crowd on Thursday night gave Sambath a standing ovation for the important work he’s been conducting. Enemies of the People is the True/Life Fund Film for this year’s True/False Film Festival, meaning that the festival collects money from festival-goers to donate to the subject of the film.
My Country, My Country, dir. Laura Poitras, 90 min.
The next film on my festival agenda was My Country, My Country, the 2007 film directed by Laura Poitras, winner of this year’s True Vision Award from the True/False gang. Her new film, The Oath, I got to see on Saturday night, but on Friday I got to go to the much more intimate screening of the first film in her trilogy about “America after 9/11.” My Country, My Country is set in Baghdad and chronicles the life of Dr. Riyadh and his family in the time leading up to the January 2005 Iraqi elections (two years after the U.S. invasion). As Poitras describes it, the film is about “civilians paying the price for the United States occupation.” But Dr. Riyadh is not just an ordinary person; he’s a medical doctor who volunteers at a free clinic, and he was on the ballot in those elections.
Laura Poitras herself is also a hero in my eyes. She was an embedded reporter in Iraq, but spent a lot of time “unembedded,” outside the American “Green Zone” following the story of Dr. Riyadh. She lived at the Riyadh’s home, and became close to the family – Mrs. Riyadh and their six children – and was able to film intimate family life.
I loved this film. It’s too bad there was only one screening at the festival, because more people should have seen it, but the festival’s focus is on showing new documentaries. Each year, the festival shows one older film by the winner of the True Vision Award in addition to that person’s new work.
The Oath, dir. Laura Poitras, 95 min.
Unlike My Country, My Country, the second film in Poitras’ trilogy, The Oath, does not feature a hero, but rather one of America’s enemies. Abu Jandal is the former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, now living in Yemen with his family and driving a taxi. He recruited his brother in-law to join Al Qaeda, and his brother in-law spent seven years in Guatanamo Bay prison, after Abu Jandal named him in FBI interrogation conducted at the Yemeni prison where Abu Jandal was imprisoned for two years on suspicion of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole.
Poitras said she set out to make a film about Guantanamo, but this film is shot primarily in Yemen. It is an exceptional film – as Poitras said in the Q&A, we are living in complicated times, and we need to have more complex conversations. In The Oath, Poitras really does a remarkable job of recording this man’s vast knowledge of the Al Qaeda operation as well as his thoughts on terrorism – which he rejects. He says he does not believe in taking innocent life, and did not participate in any terrorist operations, though he clearly sympathizes with their political views. In Yemen’s prison system, Abu Jandal participated in a program called The Dialogue Project, which was intended to reprogram Islamic jihadist. Using dialogue and talking about the Koran, workers in The Dialogue Project convince these men – apparently successfully – that violent political acts committed in the name of religion are, in fact, NOT condoned under Islam. I was surprised to learn that Yemen has such a program. In fact, the program helps these men find jobs after prison, and they gave Abu Jandal the money he needed to buy a taxi.
The film also followed the trial of Abu Jandal’s brother in-law, who won a landmark Supreme Court case, and who was eventually returned to Yemen. He refused to be interviewed for the film, and we never meet him, but we do meet his heroic attorney, and it is good to see the efforts of some Americans to preserve justice in a period in history when there’s so much injustice. Now I’m eager for Laura Poitras’ next film; if it's as good at My Country, My Country and The Oath, we're going to learn a lot from it.