Thursday, April 12, 2012


Still working on the best-of-2011 list--making good progress--but am taking a break to blog the documentary film festival.  I saw three good tales of oppression today--not everyone's idea of a good day, but one thing I always love about Full Frame is that it enlarges my spirit and helps me place my experience in a larger context. 

I began my festival run with the North American premiere of "Raising Resistance" (6), an exploration of how the cultivation of transgenic soy in South America threatens the lives of small farmers and the poor.  Enormous tracts of land are cleared--more all the time--for large-scale, herbicide dependent production of soy, which is seen as a sensible measure for producing food sufficient to feed the world's growing population.  The problem is that relatively few people--in this case, immigrants to Paraguay from Brazil--profit from the export of the soy, and the herbicides used in its production devastate local crops and damage the health of the usually poor residents of the communities that have been taken over.  The film largely allows these folks to speak for themselves, and also depicts some of their increasingly large-scale protests--but it also shows some of the soy producers suggesting that the kinds of costs involved here are simply to be expected.  It's an important story to tell, though I didn't find much that was original in the telling.

The most absorbing film of the day was "A People Uncounted" (7.5), which addresses at length the plight of Romani people (colloqually called "gypsies," though in Europe that term is comparable to the "n" word here).  It is shocking how little attention has been paid to this history, especially when you learn that up to 90% of the Romani population perished in the Holocaust.  The film marshalls a vast amount of information from historians, cultural experts, and Romani Holocaust survivors (including one man who describes being tortured by Mengele as a child) to present a history that is heartbreaking, not least because of how it has been ignored.  Romani people immigrated to areas all over Europe during the Middle Ages from India and are still the largest and most oppressed minority in Europe.  No Romani victims testified at the Nuremburg trials; there are no major memorials to Romani Holocaust victims in Europe; and many of the Romani survivors interviewed here have only begun to speak out relatively recently.  One survivor agrees to speak about her experiences only if her identity is concealed because she is afraid of what will happen if her well-educated children are outed as Romani.  One gets the sense that people even after the Holocaust view the destruction of Romani people as hardly worth mentioning. Indeed, the film includes some pretty recent examples of European politicians associating Romani with crime and inviting retaliation in ways that echo Nazi rhetoric.  This film feels like an important step to bringing attention to this long-neglected community.

The opening night film was a biographical examination of "Jesse Owens" (6) produced for PBS, which is scheduled to air next month in the "American Experience" series.  Owens is a fascinating figure, and the film collects a lot of wonderful archival footage of his performance at Ohio State and at the 1936 Olympics and also from his later life.  Owens' significance in advancing the visibility of African Americans is unique because of his time in history,which allowed him only the option of being a professonal "good example" but not to advocate or push boundaries in any other way. The film does a good job of placing that history in context, though it is compelling only in a sort of quiet and in some ways unsatisfying way.  To our current eyes, the limits imposed on someone with such prodigious gifts during that time seem terribly tragic.

Friday's slate includes four films--an exploration of Israeli treatment of Palestinians; a study of Detroit's decline; an investigation of the widespread incidence of rape in the U.S. military; and an immersion into the Cairo revolution. 

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