Friday, April 15, 2011


I highly recommend today's first film, "If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (9), a very thoughtful examination of the extremes of environmental activism. The film focuses on the story of Daniel McGowan, who is currently serving seven years in federal prison for his involvement in arsons and other property destruction while working with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Because his sentence included a terrorist enhancement, he is serving his time in an especially restrictive Communication Management Unit where he is limited to 15 minutes of phone calls per week and one four-hour visit per month through plate glass. Over the course of the film, we learn about McGowan's own evolution from more peaceful forms of activism to the more serious property destruction methods he engaged in, what motivated him and other members of the ELF, and what ultimately split that particular movement, which destroyed millions of dollars of property in a reported 1,200 incidents but never caused a single death. We also hear from members of the Eugene police force, a federal prosecutor involved in the case, and some of the business owners who were targeted, as well as from members of McGowan's family and other ELF members and environmental activists. The result is careful and wonderfully balanced, and the use of the dreaded "terrorist" term sits as a question underlying all that transpires. The director, Marshall Curry, studied religion, and commented that sometimes in religious studies he would find, after extended inquiry, that he was "still confused, but at a higher level." That was reportedly his experience in making the film, and he has succeeded in creating just such an experience for viewers.

In the short film, "Diary" (6), the co-director of the war film, "Restrepo," Tim Hetheringon, has assembled a montage of images from ten years as a war photographer, juxtaposed with his life in London and New York. He captures the jarring extremity of the images to which he exposes himself, mixing scenes of conflict in Chad, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan with scenes of the English countryside and a street parade in the U.S. or the sounds of voicemail from his wife. Often the transitions or the images themselves are off-kilter and disorienting, capturing the sense of waking up and wondering for a moment where you are. It's effective, as far as it goes, though it felt almost too personal to be illuminating.

Continuing the theme of what it means to bear witness to terrible suffering, Hetherington's film was paired with "An Encounter with Simone Weil" (6.5), a very personal documentary in which director Julia Haslett struggles with the life and writings of the French philosopher and, ultimately, with her own role as a documentary filmmaker. Although I don't think the film is wholly successful, I was very glad I saw it and actually would like to watch it again. Weil's central ideas--especially that "attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity"--are quite compelling and, as she lived them, quite challenging, and learning of her struggle and her journey was well worth the effort. In her short life (she died at the age of 34), she taught high school students and union members and wrote enough to fill fifteen volumes, fought in the Spanish Civil War, worked in a factory and as a farm laborer, and advocated for the poor and disenfranchised. All the while she struggled with the problem of human suffering, pushing herself to take on the suffering of others and living by the view that one should always do what costs the most. Haslett mines Weil's writings (full of wonderful gems), as well as archival photography, and interviews a few who knew her and also some who know and are inspired by her writings. Unfortunately, it felt to me that Haslett got in the way of her own film at times. For example, I sense that there is more to be gained from exploring Weil's religious life; a non-religious Jew, she eventually was attracted to Christianity, which she termed a "religion of slaves," of which she counted herself one, and had some mystical experiences. But Haslett finds Weil's religious life hard to connect with and leaves it largely unexplored. Also, she hires an actress to study Weil so that they can stage a dialogue and she can pose questions to Weil in a more immediate way--but these portions of the film don't end up being particularly illuminating. All in all though, Haslett's exploration, accompanied by a very effective score, is thoughtful and unsettling in the best ways.

The day ended with "Project Nim" (8), a wonderful new film by director James Marsh, who won an Oscar for "Man On Wire" a couple of years ago. As with that film, Marsh chooses a subject that includes a colorful cast of characters and allows him access to a lot of archival footage to tell an exceedingly complex story of human blindness. This time his subject is Nim, a chimpanzee who was seized from his mother at two weeks old in the early 1970s and sent, with apparently no plan at all, to live with a family as though he is a human. The intention was to teach him sign language and determine the extent of a chimp's ability to communicate with humans. The problem is that, at each stage of the proceedings, the humans involved, often (though not always) operating with the best of intentions, act with colossal blindness to Nim's experience. The scientist at the heart of the project is a narcissistic serial philanderer who mistakes callousness for objectivity; Nim's adopted human mother (a former lover of the scientist) is a hedonistic hippie who gives no thought to how bringing Nim into her home will affect her family, her marriage, and NIm; and his various trainers are left without any appreciable guidance from the scientist and have no say when the scientist abruptly pulls the plug on the project and sends Nim back into an environment that he will surely experience as a sort of incarceration. Marsh is a master at eliciting each individual's piece of the story and letting them tell it in their own words, and then assembling the elements insightfully and with a minimum of judgment. What emerges is often painful to watch, but is a fascinating portrait of humans' inhumanity to an animal that feels remarkably like humans' inhumanity to humans.

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