Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Saturday was a particularly rich film festival day. One of the best films I saw was "The House I Live In" (10), which won the grand jury prize for documentary at Sundance. It's an astoundingly comprehensive look at the so-called "war on drugs," including the perspectives of police officers, corrections officers, journalists, historians, a federal judge, drug dealers, and people charged with or convicted of drug offenses.  What emerges is a solid case that the resources spent on investigating and prosecuting drug offenses and housing those convicted disproportionately affects minorities and the poor and has resulted in no appreciable progress in reducing the use of illegal drugs.  Some of the most insightful speakers include such unlikely sources as a prison guard who loves his job but astutely questions drug sentencing policies and a Lincoln scholar who connects societal attitude changes regarding certain substances (heroin, cocaine, marijuana) to xenophobia directed at various immigrant groups.  David Simon, the genius behind "The Wire," weighs in cogently as well. Impressively marshalling huge quantities of information into a compelling and cohesive narrative, director Eugene Jarecki has produced a definitive and helpful analysis of a national problem that has the potential to raise the level of the national conversation about drug policy.

Next up was "Ethel" (8), a biography of Robert Kennedy's wife directed by the youngest of their eleven children, Rory, who Ethel was carrying at the time of Bobby's assassination.  Not surprisingly, it's not a hard-hitting expose'; if there are skeletons here, Ethel's daughter isn't going to show them to you.  Rather, Rory's intimacy with her mother and siblings and her access to family photos and stories going back to her mother's youth liven this account and give it an immediacy that couldn't have been achieved from a different vantage point--and Ethel is such a compelling subject wonders why no one has attempted this comprehensive a history before.  One has the sense that it is because she herself didn't see the point of it; she comes across as a remarkably genuine and self-effacing person, lacking any trace of either self-importance or self-pity.  It's also a really helpful vantage point for viewing Bobby's place in history.  Although I tend to start out with a bit of cynicism when it comes to stories about the Kennedys, this one not only won me over but inspired me. 
The subject of "Love Free of Die" (6.5), Bishop Gene Robinson, is even more compelling, but the film isn't particularly.  Robinson is the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, and this film uses with the Lambeth Conference of Episcopal bishops in 2008, to which he was disinvited, as a starting-off point for exploring his significance.  He is an absolutely lovely person, clear-eyed, gracious, and courageous, and the film is worth watching just to see him in action.  But it doesn't frame very well the conversation going on within the Episcopal Church (and other churches) about acceptance of GLBTQ people.  I don't necessarily agree with critics that what is missing is an examination of the scriptures that many Christians find to be a definitive basis for excluding GLBTQ folks from full acceptance, but this film seems to start from the perspective that they are all assholes without providing much of a clear-eyed perspective beyond that.  As happy as I am for Robinson to get some exposure, I think there is a better film to be made on this subject.

"How to Survive a Plague" (7.5) is a more impressive piece of work, even while it demands more from the viewer.  First-time director David France has been covering AIDS since the early '80s and undertook here to tell the largely unknown story of how mostly gay AIDS activists responded to persistent government indifference to finding treatment and a cure for AIDS with a combination of protests and civil disobedience and extremely focused, constructive action.  Aware that activists were videotaping key moments of the struggle from its earliest days (using a whole array of now-antiquated equipment, mind you), France and his team took on the mammoth task of finding and assembling hundreds of hours of that footage into a history that really deserves to be more widely known, not least because of its instructional value for current-day activists.  The film shows how an alarmed and determined group of young people refused to accept the recalcitrance of agencies like the NIH, the CDC, and the FDA, as well as drug companies, and educated themselves regarding what drugs offered the most hopeful possibilities and what options there were for getting those options tested and approved in a reasonable time frame. Beginning with the early days depicted in Larry Kramer's desperate play, "The Normal Heart," France goes on to show the focused activism that led to the development of protease inhibitors that made survival possible, though certainly years later than would have happened if the government had acted more swiftly.  It's an amazing and important piece of history.

I saw four more very good films on the last day of the festival, which I'll post about soon!

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