Manufactured Landscapes

14-28 June 2007

Ascend from the tunnel, and there are the scaffolds: that is New York. Block upon block, scaffolding pens the sidewalks and girds the wreckage. What they call development. Where towers do not rise anew, picturesque façades are left standing as gouged-out masks, or avid landlords are hanging new doors or security cameras to keep pace. Few neighbourhoods are left untouched. Store windows stand vacant. The city might seem to be shedding its skin, braving one of those spells of regeneration as shoots push up through dead crust and humus. Or it might if this fever weren’t so malignant.

Up 57th Street, cross Broadway, and there where Coliseum Books once thrived is a Bank of America. Facing this, filling the ground floor of the Fisk Building, is a Duane Reade, a Gap and a Chase bank. Interchangeable. Halfway up the next block my stomach recalls the oxtail with beans and rice from the West Indian canteen now replaced by a bin of wireless gadgets. Across the corner at Ninth Avenue, a gloriously bevelled brick pile, ivy mantling its face, waits for the hammer. Or will it just be gutted? As Tenth Avenue becomes Amsterdam heading toward Lincoln Center, it treads the shoulder of what was once San Juan Hill, rough waterfront shanties and tenements purged in the early ‘60s for the cultural acropolis and many institutional satellites. The slum that inspired Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, written while he lived on West 57th, would yield to the temple housing his new pulpit with the Philharmonic. Down the hill behind the Olympic Flame diner, a fresh clump of glassy canisters thrusts high above the riverfront; the upper floors are ringed with circular balconies, like fins, or blades sprung from 007’s hubcaps. Across the avenue young folk are enjoying a rare cool summer evening, relaxing in front of the Amsterdam Houses projects, in Nikes and tentlike solid red t-shirts and virgin white tank tops reaching the knees and cap brims pulled to four o’clock. A short plump girl with the Puerto Rican flag stretched across her top threads a stroller between basketballs and caroming children. Collapsed office workers trek slowly south. A white dancer from La Guardia high school, in black togs draping buns that crest over his hamstrings as if helium-filled, darts from the curb to hail a taxi heading uptown.

At 62nd Street I look right, Fordham University facing north and the flank of Lincoln Center facing south, and remember an afternoon years earlier, still a teen, on my way to start discovering the nouvelle vague in a series put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. A little rube from Jersey none too sure of my bearings on the Upper West Side, I exited the subway blinking, and rounded the corner onto 62nd. Travertine walls on my left, empty street on the right. Young guy walks up next to me, fast-like, starts talking and from behind I’m shoved off-balance and knocked sideways, tumbling to the cement and a knife pressed to the throat and a big angry face blotting out everything while a hand slithers inside my pocket and suddenly the three of them tear off back down toward Amsterdam, gone. Before anything can sink in except “I’m not bleeding”, the door of the shade-windowed double-decker bus parked ten feet away at the curb belches open and the driver steps out, quailing tourists perched behind him, and asks if he can help. Maybe 20, maybe 25 bucks the kids took. But not the ticket. And so to my first screening of Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud.

This time the ticket was at the window. The sun slants off the Hudson, washing 65th Street with copper, between the concrete walls of La Guardia and the broad terrace of Martin Luther King Jr. high school. Up the escalator to a wall of wooden panels, telling you “danger – keep out – hard hat area”. What was formerly an elevated promenade, stretching from the Walter Reade Theatre doors past the entrance of the Juilliard School to an overlook above Broadway at the far end decorated by a bland chrome sculpture, has been sealed off for construction. Moving with the times, Lincoln Center is remodelling, a venture of predictable complication and cost, but which promises material improvements for the Film Society. Mounted just inside the theatre doors is an architect’s plan of the projected Elinor Bunin-Munroe Film Center, named for a generous member of their board of directors, a scarab-shaped outline containing a pair of auditoriums rather than the Walter Reade’s single, if ample, screen, freshened appurtenances and the requisite café. All this is but part of the larger makeover, meant to convert the 65th Street corridor enclosed by Lincoln Center from a dim traffic chute into a lively midway. So the Walter Reade sits, for now, like the patient’s exposed head, the body swathed below the neck to shield the surgery.

Meanwhile the show must go on, and on it went with a sold-out house to open the 18th edition of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF), arriving as usual amid keen anticipation. As the Walter Reade’s rows filled in with a mostly young, smartly turned crowd salted by the odd pair of elderly nuns in white habits and black wimples, one usherette bashfully approached the writer and actor Wallace Shawn to ask for his autograph; another called from the rear, “Did anybody lose an American Express card?” Then came the introductions: the Film Society’s Marian Masone passed the mike to the festival’s director Bruni Burres, who brought Shawn onstage to intone periphrases about “the sort of people you would know”, alluding to those who might mistake silence, however outraged, for dissent. At last came Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose documentary Strange Culture shared the opening-night bill with Laurent Herbiet’s fictional feature Mon Colonel. For the past few years HRWIFF has made a point of launching with a selection focused on the US, the better to highlight our own fast-eroding rights even as our diplomats make theatre of censuring client states like Egypt for rights abuses. This tack was renewed with Strange Culture, Leeson’s telling of the case of Steve Kurtz, an artist, cultural activist and associate professor at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York, who was torn from peaceful civilian life on the day his wife died and pitched into the maw of the new American police state.

A founder of the well-regarded Critical Art Ensemble collective, Kurtz awoke on the morning of 11 May 2004, and perceived that his wife Hope had stopped breathing. He dialed 911, and the paramedics who entered their home beheld an array of Petri dishes and other laboratory equipment sitting in plain view on a table, materials for a work the Kurtzes were preparing for a group exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or Mass MoCA. The performative work, “Free Range Grain”, examines the incursion of genetically modified organisms into US food stocks, and encourages audiences to test samples of foodstuffs labeled organic, using active cultures with CAE members’ guidance, to determine whether they are, in fact, organic. Buffalo police stepped in to investigate the irregular facts of Hope’s death, and in paranoid ignorance notified the FBI of a prospective “bioterrorism” threat. The following day, Kurtz was detained and questioned, while personnel from a half dozen federal and local agencies cordoned and ransacked the Kurtzes’ home, searching vainly for biohazards – doesn’t that sort of remind you of the WMDs? – and impounding their computers, files, books and other research materials. Hope’s body was abducted to an FBI forensics lab in Quantico for weeks before being released. Two separate autopsies would ascribe her death to natural heart failure, despite no prior cardiac illness. A grand jury subpoenaed the Kurtzes’ friends and associates, before handing an indictment, not for bioterrorism but for two counts apiece of wire and mail fraud, to Kurtz as well as Dr Robert Ferrell, a geneticist based at the University of Pittsburgh, who advises the CAE on matters scientific.

Strange Culture

Leeson compiles her account from news footage, staged interviews, amateur DV shot by witnesses, panels of a punkish black-and-white cartoon strip about the case, and dramatisations of certain events that Kurtz is legally enjoined from discussing publicly. For this she reconvened members of her cast from Teknolust (2002), with Thomas Jay Ryan as Kurtz, Tilda Swinton as Hope, and Josh Kornbluth as Kurtz’s best friend Phil. In a borrowed apartment, or maybe Leeson’s own place in San Francisco, Swinton and Ryan kvetch tenderly over details and deadlines for the upcoming Mass MoCA installation, and movingly enact the morning of Hope’s death. In art school classrooms and alcoves, the laid-back Ryan is at one with his students, while Kornbluth does the nebbishy sidekick to the hilt. Far from trying to blend the dramatics seamlessly with her nonfiction footage, Leeson flaunts her devices, letting Swinton and Ryan ad lib out of character direct to camera, and putting Kurtz onscreen together with Ryan. Peter Coyote, free one afternoon, drops in to contribute an uproariously stilted reading of a statement by Ferrell; resembling nothing else in the film, Leeson makes it work. Participants like the Chicago artists Claire Pentecost and Gregg Bordowitz, teaching colleagues like Beatriz da Costa and Paul Vanouse, and the defense attorney Paul Cambria, who displays his own considerable instinct for drama, furnish vital expository links.

You could drive a herd of swine through the cracks in the government’s case: no actual violation ever occurred, as all the suspect materials, including live bacterial cultures, were purchased legally online; racial bias warped the investigation (agents obsessed over a swatch of “Arabic writing” on the printed invite to the Mass MoCA show); no third party, like a manufacturer or vender of the lab instruments, or internet service provider through whom transactions were conducted, ever lodged any claim of fraud against Kurtz or Ferrell; Kurtz’s constitutionally assured rights were savaged by his improper detention and the reckless sweep of his home without probable cause; federal agents, affidavits later revealed, misled a judge to procure the search warrant. No matter. Bush/Cheney loyalists have found in Steve Kurtz’s personal anguish an ideal opportunity to sow fear among US academics and cultural institutions, terror being, of course, the chief hand the regime has left to play. The Zhdanovite element seizes the example to introduce penalties for using art, or scholarship, or just free inquiry, to air practices otherwise pursued invisibly. More banally, the Buffalo prosecutor William J. Hochul, Jr, who earlier cut his profile by imprisoning the so-called Lackawanna Six, has sunk his talons into what he must surely see as a main chance. (1) A counterterrorism sinecure under Giuliani would be well worth 20-year felony sentences for two vexing innocents.

The following afternoon knots of excited young women spilled down the steps as I rode the escalator up. They were coming from Vores iykkes fhender (Enemies of Happiness) by Danish director Eva Mulvad, this year’s recipient of the festival’s Nestor Almendros award. Stepping through the heavy glass theatre doors, a young man in a Lincoln Center security uniform said “Check your bag, please”, before noting that I carried no bag. This was actually the first time such offices had been applied in my years frequenting the festival, and I reflected that, at a Tribeca Film Festival screening I’d attended two years prior, where New York Police Department commissioner Raymond Kelly was also in the audience, there’d been the usual phalanx of walkie-talkie–wielding volunteers but no tangible security detail. The extra caution on HRWIFF’s second day was partly for Mulvad’s subject, Malalai Joya, who appeared at the Walter Reade to field questions with Bruni Burres and the audience. Having captured a seat in 2005 in Afghanistan’s first democratically elected parliament in 30 years, Joya was suspended from the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house, on 21 May in reprisal for a comment made privately to an interviewer comparing the governing body to a stable. At least donkeys, she opined, fulfil their duties reliably. No stranger to controversy, Joya has repeatedly denounced corruption, warlord rule and Afghan women’s oppression, surviving multiple assassination attempts for her efforts. The other enhanced-security concern at HRWIFF was Parvez Sharma, whose documentary A Jihad for Love, on homosexuality and Islam, was excerpted in a work-in-progress forum later that evening, alongside Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel’s Project Kashmir, a view of the intractable armed strife in Kashmir produced by an American Muslim and Hindu.

Sailing between these fraught shoals was a single matinee screening of Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, five days ahead of its US theatrical opening at Film Forum, with Baichwal and her husband and co-producer Nick DePencier on hand. (2) Manufactured Landscapes is a not-quite portrait of the Toronto-based photographer Edward Burtynsky on a 2005 tour through China, shooting a series that became the book Burtynsky-China and exhibition of the same title. Travelling light with one assistant-fixer and shadowed by Baichwal’s own teensy crew, Burtynsky is escorted by Party minders to slag heaps and shipyards, coal fields and construction sites, palatial towers and village-sized factories. In a career of some 25 years, he has honed a practice of typically large-scale, minutely detailed photos that fuse an attentiveness to what Gaston Bachelard called the poetics of space with concern for the environmental brunt of Western material prosperity, the modern “quality of life” to which all creation allegedly aspires. Aspects of Burtynsky’s aesthetic – the monumentalising perspective, stark frontality, perceptual foregrounding of the underlying pictorial réseau – share affinities with such better-known photographers as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and other students of the Düsseldorf geniuses Bernd and Hilla Becher. But Burtynsky’s concern with industry’s fallout is intimately coloured by his father’s premature death from carcinogenic exposure in a General Motors plant in St. Catharines, Ontario, and his own employment at the same factory in early adulthood.

We first meet Burtynsky in Manufactured Landscapes in a wire cage raised high on a forklift, seen from below against a flat grey sky, his face obscured by his tripod-mounted camera. He is framing a symmetrical tableau of a long paved ribbon bisecting a massive factory compound of lemon-yellow buildings, tapering to a horizon sealed by another yellow wall and smoggy hills beyond. Hundreds of workers in matching yellow uniforms fill the street, ranked in orderly teams, enduring a daily performance evaluation; if not the self-criticism orgies of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the drill (“We can easily discover many shortcomings…”) is bad enough. Baichwal pans over their resigned faces, then zooms out from Burtynsky’s grand, symmetrical depiction of the scene, now hung alongside others on sober gallery walls, studied by flocks of hushed visitors. With tact and a measure of license, Baichwal adroitly positions herself as a two-way mirror between Burtynsky and his Chinese subjects, revealing the bearish, goateed, middle-aged artist behind the immaculate compositions, and bringing us closer to the human pulse behind the boom. We observe one factory worker assembling circuit breakers from mounds of dwarf components with astonishing speed and dexterity. Simply learning her name, Tan Yahfang, that she can assemble 400 such units daily, and that she has done so for six unrelieved years restores a potent human specificity to Burtynsky’s coolly rendered, often depopulated views.

For the most part Baichwal is as self-effacing as Burtynsky is soft-spoken, but flexes her hand at moments, making a graphic/sound match on cuts between a factory where steam irons are assembled and the junkheap where they all too soon arrive. Midway through, the director is pulled onstage when antsy officials at one coal distribution centre argue that the Canadians don’t have proper clearance to view what they must know to be an ecological nightmare. The cinematographer puts away the Super-16mm and, sound rolling, starts shooting the contretemps with a still camera. Baichwal, Burtynsky and his cute assistant listen patiently to the twaddle before pressing on; we leave the officials staring rapt at exquisite 4 x 5 Polaroids of their coal supply. The cinematographer in question is Peter Mettler, honoured with an eight-film tribute and companion monograph at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. (3) Here he suits Burtynsky’s brawny proportions ideally, shooting giant gantries and the Three Gorges Dam or close-ups of kerchiefed workers with equal finesse.

Everything’s Cool

The festival’s first Sunday extended the environmental concerns of Manufactured Landscapes with Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand’s Everything’s Cool, in every other way a dissimilar product. The filmmakers’ third collaboration and the first not to feature Helfand as an onscreen persona, Everything’s Cool summarises the contested public rhetorics surrounding climate change in US media and policy circles, providing a sketch of how the findings and projections of climate science have until recently been obfuscated by the fossil-fuel lobby in collusion with the Bush/Cheney regime. Against a gallery of tireless pundits and a network of nonpartisan-sounding think tanks financed by oil, coal and other energy interests to distort and discredit reputable science, Gold and Helfand portray a handful of individuals striving in different ways to be part of the solution. Their heroes are mainly experts, with one average Joe to provide comic relief and a handle for the blue-collar segment of their audience, and two jesters in the pack, interlopers who nonetheless serve usefully to complicate and add dissonance to the chorus of angels.

Everything’s Cool begins with a showy stunt. The filmmakers adorn a cargo truck’s panels with the semi-spelled-out words “global warming” under the legend “Two words you won’t hear on the campaign trail”, paired with colour photomurals of cracked desert earth and a row of houses flooded roof-high. They drive cross-country during the runup to the 2004 US general elections, egging passersby into spelling out the message for the camera. This yields the predictable round of nitwit, surly, glib declarations meant, not altogether unfairly, as representative of the American public’s depth of engagement with the issues. Fetching up in Boston, we meet Ross Gelbspan, a longtime Washington Post and Boston Globe correspondent who, alerted to the threats of climate change by Dr Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, became a determined reporter of global warming and vigorous debunker of the hydrocarbon lobby’s propaganda mill. Gold and Helfand then recapitulate a thesis from Elizabeth Kolbert’s widely noted series of articles in The New Yorker from spring 2005, and elaborated in her book Field Notes From a Catastrophe: that in the early 1980s prescient government scientists such as NASA’s James E. Hansen had issued unambiguous warnings about the potential for chaos that could result from unchecked increases in heat-trapping greenhouse emissions, warnings reviled and buried by conservatives who claimed, then as now, that imposing regulations on industry would trigger another Great Depression. The intervening quarter-century thus represents our squandered chance at preserving something like the climate we have always known. (4)

Alighting in the Vermont woods, we find author Bill McKibben, who further elaborates Gelbspan’s Cassandra motif – why can’t everyone grasp the urgency? – and proves the remotest of Gold and Helfand’s informants. More affable, by disposition and job mandate, is Heidi Cullen, a climatologist armed with a Columbia University PhD whom fate has chosen as the first climate change authority to land a regular spot on American television. Angular and self-deprecating, Cullen sprints around Weather Channel headquarters in Atlanta, between confabs with high-strung editors, glazed anchors and a judicious executive who eases her through tough script edits by pointing out “It’s the kind of fact only a climatologist would love”. Then there is Rick S. Piltz, the doughty career insider who turned whistleblower when he divulged the regime’s interference with climate change findings amassed for reports published by the interagency government panel, now known as the Climate Change Science Program, whose research he supervised. (5) Spiking the cast are Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, polished marketing types versed in poll data and focus groups, and co-authors of the 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism”, an impudent goad to dialogue and, it turns out, preview for their shortly forthcoming book of the same title.

Segments following these characters at intervals over a period between early 2003 and late 2006 are punctuated by Greenland ice core samples whispering our future, a droll glance at the media stir over The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004), and a jaunt to a coastal Inupiaq village in Shishmaref, Alaska, whose residents vote to resettle further inland before any more homes slide into the surf as permafrost melts beneath their feet and the Beaufort Sea shoreline erodes precipitously. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita come along and knock down whole mountains of indifference to the effects of climate change. The strands are fastened by Gold’s well-modulated voiceover narration and charming animated spots created by Jeremiah Dickey and Emily Hubley, peopled by quivery curlicue-outline figures who join elastic arms across a dark gash down the middle of the screen, the chasm separating public perception from actual risk. Above all, there is character development, consistent with one of the prevailing orthodoxies in American documentary practice today. Each of Gold and Helfand’s characters dutifully plies their narrative arc. Gelbspan goes into and out of retirement, Cullen gets her own weekly half-hour Weather Channel program thanks to soaring post-Katrina attention, Piltz follows his whistleblowing by establishing his own policy nonprofit, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger convene fresh focus groups. McKibben is last seen on a march from Middlebury, where he teaches, to Burlington, Vermont’s capital, to stop global warming. Watching the sun-splashed footage, one is cheered but also reminded of how unlike the rest of the US Vermont is.

At HRWIFF activists are often found in the seats as well as onscreen, as viewers saw during the discussion after Everything’s Cool. Seated onstage, Helfand and co-producer Adam Wolfensohn ran through some preliminaries about the utility of humour in relaying chewy policy or scientific material before Burres called the first question from the audience: “Yes, on the aisle, in the ‘Save Darfur’ t-shirt”. This young white man blurted not a question for the filmmakers but a brief vilification of the co-producer’s father James Wolfensohn, seated three rows astern, for his former directorship of the World Bank from 1995 to 2005, which he vaguely blamed for its environmental unrighteousness. Besides futility, the accuser’s eruption displayed poor form considering Helfand’s shout-out, minutes earlier, to all the dads in the house for Father’s Day. Wolfensohn fils immediately discounted the man, retorting “I’m afraid that’s an uninformed view”, but when Save Darfur tried pressing his point and Wolfensohn shot back “Let’s continue that outside”, I momentarily feared the canapé stands in the lobby might capsize.

While film festivals generally have abounded in New York, as elsewhere, tending toward ever greater specialisation, so far no local entity has claimed an environmental niche along the lines of Toronto’s exemplary Planet In Focus and its few dozen counterparts internationally; an annual film series hosted by Solar One, a solar-power facility on the East River in Manhattan, remains fledgling. (6) In such an absence worse things could happen than for HRWIFF to adopt the mantle of eco-tribune, seeing how environmental harm circumscribes and aggravates every other human rights issue. At all events, the environmental track rolled on over the festival’s second weekend with Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen, a paradigmatic story of America since Reagan.

The Unforeseen

At the centre of the film is Barton Springs, a natural oasis nested within Zilker Park, southwest of downtown Austin, the craggy lip of an aquifer that provides some 45,000 Austinites with their sole direct source of fresh water. Through this prism, Dunn retraces the story of Gary Bradley, an ambitious real estate developer of rural Texan roots whose massive Circle C Ranch, built on the southwest city limits, breached the wall of local tradition against further encroachment of subdivisions built by larger corporate interests like Austin’s Stratus Properties and the New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan. Bradley weathered the Savings and Loan crisis made public by the first president Bush, but after eventually filing for bankruptcy and standing trial for millions owed to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and other claimants, he came to regret, or at least question, the impact of tens of thousands of new suburban units upon the water quality of Barton Springs – before-and-after underwater footage shot inside the springs in 1996 and 2004 plainly shows increased turbidity – and moreover, the damage to the Edwards Aquifer sustaining the greater Austin area, of which Barton Springs is but one segment.

Dunn’s narrative of the shamefaced wrongdoer is spun from a long, detailed, remarkably sympathetic interview with Bradley, woven with other major players like the genial and wise political journalist William Greider; the late Ann Richards, former liberal Democratic governor of Texas unseated by Dubya; and co-executive producer Robert Redford, who tells of learning to swim in Barton Springs on childhood visits with nana, and gently fulminates against destroying irreplaceable natural resources for short-term financial gain. And there is an encounter with Dick Brown, a lobbyist for real estate and industry who has enjoyed unique power in the Texas statehouse, speaking here with the camera framed mainly in close-up on his hands, adorned by a plain gold wedding ring, patiently assembling and painting a plastic model bomber. Brown does not, however, “remain off-camera”, as described in some early reviews; just before the half-hour mark he is clearly seen, white-haired, lined and ruddy, his eyes heavy-lidded under greying brows, absorbed with the toy ordnance in his fingers. The puzzling question is why, in what Dunn presents as one discrete interview, does Brown appear in no less than four different shirts?

The interviews, all cleanly shot by Richard Linklater’s frequent cinematographer Lee Daniel, are supplemented by a lode of archival footage painstakingly researched from local TV libraries, original interstitials in avant-lite fashion, a surplus of sweeping aerials and many hard drives’ worth of digitals. Perhaps mindful of audiences’ enthusiasm for the info-graphics in The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, 2003), to date the highest-grossing Canadian documentary release, Dunn’s crew packs The Unforeseen with cartographic animations, smoothly rotating zooms out from a digitally rendered detail to a satellite-eye view of Austin, or vice versa. Such devices are announced in the solemn main title sequence and employed copiously throughout. In the film’s early minutes Dunn is also fond of split-screen montage cribbed from De Palma; while watching, say, Ann Richards interviewed at recto juxtaposed with a sepia still photo of her younger self at verso, one may be swept by quite unbidden flashes from Carrie (1976) or Blow Out (1981).

Early in the film the interstitial material, betraying the hand of the other co-executive producer and Austin resident Terrence Malick, is whisked into a pastiche of Malick’s pet motif of lost American edens. One montage depicts a yellowed movie-house marquee, hung with red plastic letters reading “paradise”; a black-and-white shot of a damsel seen from behind, crouched on a broad flat rock before an expanse of silvery waters; the same blonde, a lankier cousin of the girl on the swing from The Thin Red Line (1998), now facing the camera in a skimpy yet chaste bikini; jump-cut images of her wading in surf; her legs dissolving into a still tableau of a lush green daylong valley. This full-throated idealisation of the old, groovy, small-is-beautiful Austin is soon interrupted by one of Dunn’s split-screen compositions contrasting chain-link fencing blocking the springs with archival footage of a bummed-out, nubile teenage Eve and Adam in their Speedos, all set for a dip but confronted instead by a line of pedestrians, doubtless en route to the new shopping mall.

Of the various influences at work upon The Unforeseen, none is more pervasive or determining than Redford’s Sundance brand. The film’s first image, a paratextual element preceding the opening aerial shot of Austin’s skyline, is an animated logo reading “Sundance Channel original”. Redford, whose engagement with environmental issues dates from the early 1970s, consumes nearly as much interview time as Bradley. In a sequence reminiscent of studio-era vertical integration, the documentary was substantially financed by, premiered at, and will have its initial US cable telecast through interlocking units of Sundance. All this, it goes without saying, is laudably intended and, should the film have some demonstrable benefit for the preservation of Austin’s or other communities’ water resources, will redound to the makers’ credit. Yet this is perhaps the place to register unease at what can fairly be called a Sundance tropism affecting not only The Unforeseen but the venue itself, with ten out of twenty of the feature selections in this edition of HRWIFF previously presented this January in Park City. The new works-in-progress program noted above, co-hosted by the Sundance Documentary Fund, is admittedly a distinct case since HRWIFF had collaborated with its earlier incarnation, the Soros Documentary Fund of the Open Society Institute, before the fund’s annexation to Sundance. But as New York audiences already enjoy Sundance-certified fare through annual samplings at both the Museum of Modern Art and the BAM Cinématek, in Brooklyn, and of course around the clock on premium cable, one wonders how large a tousled blond footprint our local media habitat can sustain. While HRWIFF has included many Sundance titles in past editions, their current preponderance seems to crack ajar the question of the festival’s identity. As it approaches its third decade, will it persist as an independent pillar of Gotham’s documentary and left film culture, forging its own course and advancing its own goals, or as one more celebrant in the spacious tabernacle?

Hot House

Falling in the month of the fortieth anniversary of the June War, or Six-Day War, that left the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights under Israeli control, HRWIFF marked the occasion not with any overt fanfare but with a single documentary that, in its focus on Palestinian prisoners, stands resonantly for the Palestinian occupation as a whole. Hot House, by the seasoned Romanian-born Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan, provides a sharply observed ethnography of the elaborate and minutely articulated Palestinian culture sustained within the walls of Israeli prisons, in symbiosis with the “free” population in the territories. Summoning as much visual panache as the fluorescent bath inside a Negev maximum-security jail will allow, Dotan introduces us to a large cast of ingratiating and, for the most part, highly educated prisoners who self-sort into their respective parties virtually upon arrival. The film quickly points out that the prison factions of Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, et al. aren’t counterparts to these groups on the ground outside, they are one unified whole. The democratic elections of 2006, we’re reminded in the opening minutes, placed 14 Hamas leaders in the Palestinian parliament, notwithstanding their incarceration. Though its topic is hardly novel – the status of Palestinian prisoners has been one of the defining issues over the course of the occupation – Hot House benefits from an unusual degree of access to sites and conditions seldom depicted at length, and, as with so many HRWIFF entries, from a newsy immediacy. Ten days after the festival’s close the Israeli cabinet, freshly willing to throw a sop to Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah administration after the Hamas seizure of the Gaza Strip in June, announced the release of 250 of its estimated 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, although it was unclear, at this writing, how many of those released would be “security” prisoners, by contrast with non-political captives.

After two full weeks, HRWIFF’s closing night arrived as something of an anticlimax. While the city outside choked on humidity and sloshed through a downpour, inside the Walter Reade a single screening of Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s The Devil Came on Horseback, a primer on the Darfur genocide as told by a white former US Marine, was paired with Election Day, Katy Chevigny’s souvenir of the 2004 US general election. Election Day, screened twice at HRWIFF before its closing-night slot, not only records the mess of 2 November 2004 unfolding before its cameras, but also reflects it in its form. Chevigny dispatched a dozen small crews to various locales around the middle and eastern US, hoping the assembled coverage of ordinary people voting, or trying to vote, might knit into a comprehensive factual portrait of the kinds of interference and manipulation inaugurated with the stolen 2000 election. The close of polling sites at day’s end and overnight tally of results provides a “countdown” frame similar to Chevigny’s excellent previous film Deadline (2004), yet the effect here is surprisingly limp. When the results are so horribly familiar to all of us, the hectic cross-cutting between vignettes – now at Queen Bee’s soul food shack in Florida, now on the Wisconsin organic farm, now on the Sioux reservation in South Dakota – generates less suspense than exhaustion. To some degree, any nonfiction work examining American electoral fraud is bound to feel ancillary to the Seattle-based activist Beverly Harris’ demonstration on live TV of the ease with which electronic voting mechanisms can be hacked. But to a larger degree the film becomes a chase down a series of blind alleys because it can show us only beleaguered poll workers, shocked international voting monitors and anxious or thwarted citizens, not the actual hand of the regime tampering with the process or rigging the outcome. (7) In lieu of access to, say, J. Kenneth Blackwell, the ex-Secretary of State and co-chair of the Bush/Cheney campaign in Ohio, Chevigny’s team presents one Republican yahoo stalking his Chicago district and trying to stuff a drawerful of socks between the cogs – harassing volunteers, pretending that manual-punch ballots don’t work, spitting venom everywhere. Maybe he thought it would make good publicity.

The evening before the festival ended, I walked north from Lincoln Center. Across Amsterdam Avenue, the Red Cross headquarters was cloaked in black nets and steel rods. To its right a long single-story row of storefronts sat emptied, windows boarded. In the distance up ahead, one of the new spires jutted high and scalpel-bright above the skyline. At 71st Street I averted my eyes from the space, a few doors from the corner, where Applause Books used to be, now a nail-grooming emporium. The next corner, at 72nd and Broadway, took me by surprise: a scar, some two acres wide, where buildings stood seemingly solid the month before. Continuing up West End Avenue several blocks, I came at length to a phone booth, not a metal chassis on a stick but an actual booth you can step inside of, close the folding door against the din and weather, and place a call. Very likely the last one on the island.

I walked back over to Broadway and south again, but before reaching the subway I was stopped by the sight of a cinema. Red neon Art Deco letters spelling “Metro” were still burning. The marquee shading the sidewalk read “STORE FOR RENT 30 000 SQ FT WILL DIVIDE”. The pink sandstone frontage had a wide black stripe down the middle, graced by a large terra-cotta medallion. Within the disc were two carved thespian figures, a pale maiden gazing skyward, bearing the comedy mask, and facing away from her, a bronzed youth holding the tragedy mask, bent in grief. I crossed the street, then realised the new, still unoccupied high-rise next door to the cinema was the gleaming blade I’d seen from 30 blocks south. It stood twice as tall as every other surrounding building.

A uniformed man guarding the empty property stared as I approached the theatre. Retracting gates sealed the entrance. Ragged flyers were taped one over another in the Now Playing box: head shots, Photoshop, guitar lessons, learn French, baby sitter available, computer problems fast reliable help. Behind the lucite box-office window wrinkled black garbage bags were draped from the ceiling as a makeshift tarp, every inch coated with fine plaster dust. The plastic softly rippled with air that seeped through the slot where you would pass your bills and they would hand you the ticket. Looking in the window I saw reflected an older man across the street behind me, too heavily dressed for the swelter. Hair matted and clothes frayed, weaving as he shuffled. Homeless. Then he was gone.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival website: http://hrw.org/iff/

Endnotes

  1. The “Lackawanna Six” – Sahim Alwan, Mukhtar al-Bakri, Faisal Galab, Yahya Goba, Shafal Mosed and Yaseinn Taher – were alleged to have provided material support to al-Qaeda by attending the Qaeda-affiliated Farooq training camp in Afghanistan in 2001. They were not accused of planning or committing any acts of terrorism. According to defense counsel, all six defendants pled guilty to the material support charges in order to avoid branding by the Bush regime as “enemy combatants”. See Michael Powell, “No Choice But Guilty: Lackawanna Case Highlights Legal Tilt”, The Washington Post 29 July 2003, p. A1.
  2. This discussion of Manufactured Landscapes is slightly revised from a review that first appeared in Gay City News vol. 6, no. 25 (21 June 2007), p. 48.
  3. See Jerry White (ed.), Of This Place and Elsewhere: The Films and Photography of Peter Mettler, Toronto International Film Festival Group, Toronto, 2006). See also George Kaltsounakis’ entry on Mettler for the online Canadian Film Encyclopedia.
  4. Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Climate of Man”, pts. I-III, The New Yorker 25 April 2005, pp. 56-71; 2 May 2005, pp. 64-73; and 9 May 2005, pp. 52-63. See also Kolbert, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, Bloomsbury, New York, 2006.
  5. See Andrew C. Revkin, “Bush Aide Edited Climate Reports”, New York Times 8 June 2005, p. A1.
  6. As this report was being drafted, the Film Society of Lincoln Center debuted their own environmental slot, called Green Screens, taking its title from the Green Screen Environmental Film Festival hosted by San Francisco State University’s Documentary Film Institute, and launched with Leonardo DiCaprio’s somnolent The 11th Hour (Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, 2007).
  7. “Tampering” and “rigging” are, appallingly, not exaggeration but understatement. See Mark Crispin Miller, Fooled Again, Basic Books, New York, 2005); Spencer Overton, Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, Norton, New York, 2006; and Robert J. Fitrakis, Steven Rosenfeld and Harvey Wasserman, What Happened in Ohio?, The New Press, New York, 2006.

About The Author

Ioannis Mookas writes regularly on film for Gay City News.

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