Posted by Jill Boniske aka Arty Chick on June 28, 2014
As Arty Chick, I am a great lover of the documentary genre and this year’s AFI DOCS in Washington, DC sated my docu-hunger quite well. As with any festival, there were standouts and there were films that raised interesting topics, but did not meet my expectations in terms of filmmaking/storytelling. And an even larger problem was that the festival was spread between Silver Spring, MD and downtown DC, making the logistics a bit of a conundrum for an out-of-towner like me. The sheer number of films I wanted to see was simply impossible, but I can honestly say, I gave it my all.
Here’s what I thought of the first two days.
The opening night film Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey set the bar pretty high. The story of Hal Holbrook’s 60 year one-man show featuring the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain was both heart-warming and eye-opening. (see Mainstream Chick’s full review.)
Day One of the the festival for me was a slate of films with a common theme of government overreach. The first was one of my favorite docs of the festival, 1971. It is the story of how nine people broke into an FBI field office in Pennsylvania and stole ALL their files. What they uncovered showed that our government was aggressively spying on ordinary citizens, infiltrating everything from student organizations to women’s lib groups, sending anonymous letters to people (including one in which they suggested to Martin Luther King that he commit suicide), and generally doing whatever they wanted in the name of national security. The documents led a Washington Post reporter to the discovery of COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) and were directly responsible for the creation of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This was 40 years before Manning or Snowden, and the revelations put J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI under government supervision for the first time ever. The perpetrators of the break-in were never caught, though the FBI did arrest a lot of the wrong people trying to find them, and since the statute of limitations ran out decades ago, the film reveals their identities and explores their motives. A lot of the story is told using recreations, which I usually don’t think work very well, but here they are kind of essential, and the judicious mixing of them with archival footage and photos works. It is a very well-told and fascinating tale and extremely timely, too. (See trailer below)
The second doc of the day was The Newburgh Sting. It is a contemporary tale of the FBI’s malfeasance, and shows that a whole lot of the good that was done back in 1971 was erased with the Patriot Act. It is the story of an FBI informant named Shahed Hussain who targeted a group of impoverished young black men and basically set them up as Muslim terrorists. And since the agent/informant was undercover, this doc has no need for recreations because he was taping most of their encounters. The story broke in 2009, that a massive terrorist plot was foiled involving four violent Muslims who had been recruited at a mosque in Newburgh, New York. They were planning to blow up a synagogue and Jewish Center in the Bronx and to shoot down a military plane. But that was not the whole story. As this documentary shows, none of it was really the idea of any of the young men involved, some of whom were probably not even Muslim. They weren’t choir boys, but what the tapes show are four poor young men for whom the promise of a big paycheck trumped their own good sense. They believed it was just for show. One of the tapes even shows one man saying, “We’re not going to hurt anyone, right?” Beyond the crime that was not committed, it is a scary tale of media not looking further than the FBI press release and courts that overlook due process when “national security” and “terrorism” are invoked. The film is filled with interviews from friends and family of the men who do a great job of humanizing and contextualizing the events. My favorite line was from the outspoken Aunt of one of the men who described the prosecution: “This is political like a motherfucker!” Truer words were never spoken. This provocative and well-made documentary will be airing on HBO starting July 21. I only hope a lot of people watch it and write their representatives about this kind of entrapment and waste of intelligence manpower and money. And FYI: Shahed Hussain is still out there working. (See trailer below)
The last flick of the day was The Internet’s Own Boy. I remember when Aaron Swarz died and the outpouring of sadness mixed with outrage that his suicide elicited. I did not know much about him, except that a lot of the heavyweights in the Internet world thought very highly of him. This film explained why he mattered so much to them. The documentary is both a biography of an amazing young hacktivist who died too soon at the age of 26, a look at some of the big issues that are driving the Internet world, and another cautionary tale of government overreach. And it disects the event that lead to Swarz’s death, his arrest by the FBI for hacking MIT’s servers and downloading thousands of academic articles from the digital library JSTOR. The FBI prosecutor decided to make an example of him and rather than drop the charges, as JSTOR finally did, they added felony on top of felony, which could have meant 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine. It is hard to imagine that the prosecutor really believed this would be a deterrent, but for two years he harassed Swarz and his friends and family. Swarz comes off as a nice, brilliant young man who really was doing all he could to use the Internet for good. He was one of the creators of Reddit, Creative Commons, and a host of other sites and programs we use all the time, and he fought tirelessly against SOPA and was instrumental in its defeat. In his last years, he was turning his immense talents more and more to progressive activism. It is a sad film, because you can only imagine what he would have accomplished had he lived. It is in theaters now. (See trailer below)
Day Two was a very different mix, mostly about big characters. It began with a curmudgon in Israel, moved on to a paleontologist/dinosaur tale and ended with a clever forger.
One of my least favorite films of the festival was Apollonian Story. It really should have been a short and I never felt like I liked or cared about the central character. It is all about an interesting subject, a curmudgeon who has been building a house inside a seaside cliff on the Israeli coast for four decades. Unfortunately you never see the whole house or really find out what makes him tick. His son shows up and all you see of him and his dad is a lot of squabbling. In the hands of another filmmaker, perhaps it would have been more interesting.
The second film of the day is about an enormous subject, a dinosaur named Sue. (If you’ve been to Chicago’s Field Museum, you know who I am talking about.) Dinosaur 13 is the story of the discovery of the largest intact Tyrannosaurus rex ever found, and the legal battles that ensued for the paleontologists who rescued her from a remote hillside in South Dakota. The film begins in 1990 when one of a group of scientists makes an accidental discovery and the team lovingly excavates their amazing find. They plan to create a museum in their tiny town to display it, but the federal government has other ideas. It turns out that even though they paid the man on whose land they found Sue, he was not allowed to sell her because the land was a government leasehold. So the FBI shows up with the national guard and seizes the bones and all their field notes. Then a custody battle ensues that eventually sends one of the scientists to prison and Sue goes on the auction block, ending up in Chicago. It is yet another film about government overreach. It is very well made and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It has a release date of August 15th. Well worth a viewing. (See trailer below)
The big winner of the day though was Art and Craft. This hilarious and fascinating film is all about Mark Landis, a serial philanthropist/master forger. Landis spent decades forging paintings and then donating them to museums all over the United States before someone realized. For 30 years he posed as a grieving executor of a family member’s will, someone’s brother or son or priest, and met with curators from some of the country’s most prestigious arts institutions to carry out the last wishes of his mother or sister or parishioner. But one day, someone figured it out. The beauty of the “crime” is that since he did not sell anything, what he did was not illegal. To call Landis a “character” is an immense understatement. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic a few decades ago, but seems to be able to function fine, notwithstanding his compulsion to give as a way to connect with the world. Alongside his story is that of the man who found him out and longs to bring him to heel, but what can he do except warn other curators about accepting donations of painting by somewhat obscure artists from a man who uses various aliases? He gets his chance to confront Landis at a museum curated exhibition of his work. This is a must see documentary. I cannot imagine anyone not being entertained by this odd little man who lives to give.
The Newburgh Sting Trailer
The Internet’s Own Boy Trailer
Dinosaur 13 Trailer
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