Docuweek in Salem, OR
Bill Long 10/1/07
Five for the Price of One
The refreshing news this week is that the Salem Cinema is devoting itself to presenting a bunch of new documentaries that are just far enough "out there" to catch your attention and make you ponder life in some new, sad and even quirky ways. I think the best way to watch these "mini-pieces" (about 20-35 minutes in length) is to get an overall "impression" of what they are trying to do and then summarize their message in one or two lines. That is what I will do in this essay. But you may want to note one or two--and look for them when you can.
1. Eerie Hopelessness
The film that gave me the creeps big time was the first--Angel's Fire. It won first place at the recent International Documentary Association's competition, and it portrays the hopeless lives of young children in South America forced into making bricks and other menial tasks. The children are old before they reach puberty, and their ragged clothes, pock-marked skin, and hopeless faces tell a story of degradation, abandonment and oppression. This kind of movie belies any expression of hopefulness, any "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps"-philosophy of American optimism which we have all been bathed in. You see the fear, and you freeze with the people in their fear.
2. Serendipity Kills
I almost wept at the second story, Gene Boy Came Home, the story of a Native American from the Onadak Indian Reservation in Canada. He left home at age 15 to work in NYC building skyscrapers because they let Indians do that dangerous work back then--without harnesses, without security high above the city streets. Then, he went off to Viet Nam, after joining the Marines, and he saw sights that he wasn't trained to see and experienced things that no human being should experience. He contemplated suicide afterwards, but decided for the sake of his 2 year-old daughter to live. Finally, full of his infirmities, he returned to the safe and friendly confines of the Reservation, where he could influence the young and feel at peace with himself... But his life wasn't an easy one or, you could tell, a particularly gratifying one. We often say that seredipity brings wonderful things into life, but I would say after watching this film that serendipity cuts both ways, and this time it sliced Gene pretty deeply. We are all similarly sliced by watching the film.
3. Sari's Mother
The power of Sari's Mother only becomes evident as the film unfolds. At first we only know that Sari suffers from some kind of disease, and that his very resourceful mother has to inject him, care for him and otherwise tend him in his weakness. But as the film wears on we get an uneasy sense that we have seen this land before--and indeed, it is the story of a boy who received a blood transfusion with AIDS-tainted blood in Iraq. Then we see the American GIs, then we see the helicopters flying overhead, then we see the boys playing "Humvee" with little bombs being placed under them and the "Humvees" exploding. All of a sudden, we are placed in the morally ambiguous position of watching a desperate but very articulate and perceptive woman without any recourse to help for her problem. Her boy becomes weaker and weaker. We watch uncomfortably as we realize that we are spending billions on a war that makes the lives of Sari and his mother impossible.
4. Steps to Heaven
We go from an Arabic film to a Jewish one but instead of a global or international issue, we have an individual situation presented. Again, however, we don't understand the film until several minutes have elapsed. We follow an aged man as he painfully uses his walker, wheezing as he goes, where we are not sure. But then it dawns on us. The "towel" he has draped over the walker is a prayer shawl; the little object he has sticking out of his hair is a sort of miniature skull cap. He is struggling with every breath in him to make it to the prayer group of his community of faith. All of a sudden, I was "heard" Psalm 84:1-2 in a completely new way:
"How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God."
Here was a man who, with labored breath, was doing all he could to make it to a meeting of his brothers in faith. He knew he was home when he arrived at the prayer meeting.
5. Salim Baba
We conclude with the most banal or commonplace of the films. It is neither haunting or heartening; it neither tugs the heart strings or makes us ponder life deeply. It is set in India, and it presents the story of a man who had a "cinema cart," i.e., a rolling cart with hanging drapes, under which people would perch themselves so that they could see a film created by the son of the owner "rolling the film" at the front of the cart. This is "motion pictures" in its most primitive form, but in the teeming city of Calcutta this kind of entertainment never fails to draw a crowd. The "point" of the film, if there is one, is the way that the father has passed on the "lore" of the cinema cart to his son, after the father has received it from his father and his father from his grandfather. Some sons join dad in the law firm or in the dental office; here the son follows the father in rolling the films. The pride of father in the work of his son shows no linguistic or national barriers.
So we have little pictures or vignettes of life presented for our entertainment and instruction tonight. Each focuses on the little things of life that make or break life for people. We sit and have the privilege of ruminating on others' lives; may the rumination also lead to our own more energetic, focused and committed living.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long