Sunday, April 15, 2012


Friday's films represented quite a range of approaches to social criticism.  In "The Law In These Parts" (7), an Israeli director attempts to deconstruct the system of military law that has been functioning for more than forty years in the occupied territories by interviewing--you could say interrogating, though there is no torture involved--men who have been responsible for constructing and administering that system.  Against an intermittent backdrop of news footage showing important events in the territories (leveling existing structures to build Israeli settlements; moving Palestinians through checkpoints; the Israeli response to the Intifada; military tribunal proceedings; pictures of and short interviews with Palestinians imprisoned for everything from throwing rocks to offering food to suspected insurgents), the director questions the men (all former judges, prosecutors, or legal advisors) about how the system works, the justification for it, their level of awareness of interrogation techniques being used on Palestinians, by what theory the system set up in the occupied territories constitutes the rule of law, and whether they would submit to such a system themselves.  It's a hard slog, but a worthwhile one for anyone interested in what is going on in the region, in the importance of the rule of law, and in the corrosive effects of ethical compromise.

"Detropia" (6.5) is a beautifully shot meditation on the decline of Detroit.  It attempts only minimal analysis of the reasons for Detroit's decline--the city has lost half its residents since its high of about 1.8 million--but rather sets out to depict that decline from various vantage points:  a young blogger wonders about what a once-beautiful but now crumbling building was like in its heyday; the Detroit mayor gets advice from city planners; community members talk over each other at a chaotic public meeting to address some of the mayor's proposals; union members in of the few remaining Detroit manufacturing plants react to a management proposal that would significantly cut their pay; the owner of a bar in a once-thriving area tries to hang on to his business though it is the only one for miles around.  One interesting that emerges is a sense of how geographically vast the city is and how disconnected its residents are.  For someone like myself who has spent a fair amount of time in Detroit, it is a poignant elegy, though not a particularly satisfying or insightful one, and certainly a suggestion of trends that other American cities are experiencing, though perhaps not to this degree.

The best film of the day (and one of the best at the festival so far) is "The Invisible War" (9.5).  The work of director Kirby Dick (who also helmed "Outrage," about anti-gay politicians who are evidently gay), the film seeks to expose the institutional corruption that has made sexual assault within the U.S. military a rampant problem for decades, even while military leaders have claimed "zero tolerance."  All of the statistics in the film are from the government itself, but the filmmakers had to hire a statistician to sort through them because they are reported in a deliberately opaque manner--and what we learn is that an astounding 20% of females in the military have reported assault, and 80% of victims don't report the crimes against them--and it's no wonder because those who do end up being assaulted again by the system.  Almost all of them end up being either involuntarily discharged (often after having their trauma diagnosed as a personality disorder or having been charged with conduct unbecoming an officer or adultery, though it is usually the assailants who are married) while their assailants suffer no more than a slap on the wrist; fewer than 10% are ever criminally charged and almost never with a felony.  One of the most obvious problems is that these incidents are all handled through military justice system (so-called), which creates a quite-obvious conflict of interest for those charged with responding to complaints.  Indeed, in an estimated 25% of cases, the assailant is the person to whom the victim is supposed to report and, in another 30% of cases, the victim is supposed to report to a friend of the assailant.  What I really admire about this film is how smart it is; the filmmakers proceeded with an awareness of how intractible these problems are and anticipated the military's response.  They interviewed hundreds of victims and, though they focus on a few stories, those stories are presented in a way that makes clear that these few represent hundreds of thousands of others.  Lots of insiders speak as well, and there is lots of footage of military brass claiming to have taken care of the problem (just as has happened since this film was released).  Some of the most moving footage is of male family members of the victims, who decided to speak on camera at the risk of their own military careers.  All in all, it's a brilliant expose' of institutional oppression and a calculated move to dismantle it.  It appears the film may get a theatrical release and I strongly encourage everyone to see it. 

The final Friday film was "Tahrir: Liberation Square" (6), a ground-view depiction of the Egyptian revolution.  The camerawork is impressive and captures a lot of interesting footage of the crowd dynamics, the chanting (which is at times buoyant and even comical), the movement of energy, how individual actions became group actions, and feverish conversations among the participants.  The director doesn't explain or frame any of it, but simply takes you there--though of course he has culled through a lot of footage to give you this look.  The film isn't exactly illuminating but it is a helpful birds-eye view of what revolution looks like. 

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