At Tribeca Film Festival this year, four exceptional documentaries built their success on exploring personalities, situations and ideologies alien to the typically liberal documentary audience. For anyone who wants to make media that matters, these films provide models for exploring difference.
The top award-winner, Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, soon for public TV, is a powerful and inspiring cinéma vérité story of how political opportunity is carved out under the nose of an active dictator and his well-oiled party machinery in Zimbabwe. The first post-colonial ruler Robert Mugabe has ruled there for decades with a political cadre bought into his corruption and brutality. This is a film that brings you inside that dictatorship, amazingly with hope.
After a rigged election was contested by massive popular and international pressure, Mugabe was forced to agree to power-sharing and developing a constitution for the new country. But in the constitution-writing process, which involves nationwide canvassing, can the mild-mannered human rights lawyer Douglas Mwonzora and his ragtag group of well-meaning opposition organizers be any match for Mugabe’s man and his well-paid subordinates? You would be surprised. Very surprised.
Journalists have been persecuted routinely under Mugabe, and Nielsson is no exception. But over time she and her team had won enough trust to let them cover the process. Her portrayal of Mugabe’s guy,Paul Mangwana, is particularly intriguing. He’s not shy to boast about or exercise his clout, and his big flashy smile can be ominous. But he also knows that the Mugabe era is sunsetting, and wants to survive. Nielsson without comment or moralizing shows him as a supremely political actor who sees—sometimes more than others—the need to make a little space for the opposition. The cinéma vérité process also captures ground-level conditions of dictatorship in little and big ways, including for the many middle-aged women who play a prominent role in the public discussions.
Nielsson’s access was extraordinary, and apparently related to her ability to listen with engagement. Indeed, when asked about her access—unparalleled in this dictatorial state--she said that over the months, she became a kind of unofficial therapist to the process. “We would gather each night in our room to review the day,” she said. “We would end up talking with them about what we had seen. After the process was completed, Douglas Mwonzora said that he thought they had suffered from ‘reverse Stockholm syndrome.’”
Indian Point, Ivy Meeropol’s cleanly made, supremely thoughtful exploration of nuclear safety, leaves you with genuine alarm not only about New York’s nuclear power plant but the entire U.S. nuclear power industry. But she gives voice to the engineers dedicated to making the plant run and to the then-president of the company running the Indian Point plant. And thus she makes a far more powerful case for concern than she would with a one-sided work of advocacy. She convinces us to trust her as a guide, by providing rich character portraits of people with opposing perspectives.
She found central characters who couldn’t be more perfect for the task—a husband who’s a perpetually-skeptical environmental reporter married to a die-hard activist. (They go to the same event in different cars, and argue about it at breakfast.)
But the characters who fully demonstrate her integrity as a trusted guide are the plant engineers, especially one who has spent decades at work maintaining an increasingly aged facility. She follows him through daily checks, a small crisis, a drill, and into the bowels of the plant. He shows his passion for the plant (which he with utter sincerity calls his real home) and his work both in what he says and does. He explains his insider understanding of risk, and he frankly explains his willingness to accept trade-offs between environmental destruction and power generation. So Meeropol helps viewers avoid demonizing the people who work at the plant and are its champions.
The access was no accident. “If I couldn’t get inside the plant, I knew I wasn’t going to make the film,” she said. She nervously called the people featured in the film to the stage at the Tribeca premiere, where they spoke about their belief that she had treated them with integrity. The (now retired) company president explained why he agreed to give her extraordinary access: “You convinced us that you would be fair. And of course, if we hadn’t participated, then there would be none of our perspective.”
Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi‘s Among the Believers puts on center stage Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, who runs the infamous Red Mosque in Pakistan. There, he promotes the cause of ISIS and heads a school (featuring Koran memorization without any 3Rs) that trains thousands of young children for proselyzing and violent jihad. He invites the filmmakers to follow him and students around, and he proudly shows off star pupils, including one tyke who spouts violent rhetoric and then shyly smiles at the maulana’s approval.
The filmmakers don’t try to make him appealing, but they also give him his due as a businessman, an administrator, a polemicist, and a political leader with a lot of support for his work.
They give us contextualizing information that goes far to explain how the mosque and someone like him comes to have so much support. For instance, the mosque actually got its start with U.S. and Saudi government funds (to create opposition to the Soviets in Afghanistan). Aziz is son of the original imam, who was supported by the Americans and then, according to Aziz, was summarily murdered by a Pakistani on their orders. By the time the U.S.-backed Musharaf tried to shut down the extremist mosques, huge protests ensued. The mosque’s charity work is welcomed by desperate people abandoned by government.
The film puts Aziz’s work in context most powerfully by introducing us to several children, all of whom lack options. After leaving the mosque’s school, a 12-year-old girl briefly attends a Pakistani government school before her family abruptly pulls her out and marries her. A 12-year-old boy, a passionate true believer, refuses to quit in spite of his family’s disapproval.
There’s no attempt to exculpate or explain Aziz, but we do end up seeing the Red Mosque both as an alarming institution run by an alarming character but also as a product and agent of much wider processes. Labels and moralizing are too easy for what we learn in Among the Believers.
Abigail Disney’s film The Armor of Light takes us inside the Christian evangelical leadership, with a lobbyist wrestling with his conscience and constituency. The Rev. Rob Schenck, who works Capitol Hill on an anti-abortion platform, becomes convinced--thanks to his engagement with a grieving mother whose son was shot dead by an angry, scared white fellow motorist—that current gun policy is un-Christian, as being against the right to life. But evangelicals are firmly entrenched behind the National Rifle Association’s positions.
Disney got so close to Schenk that he brings her backstage to the political give-and-take of his daily life, and she puts us often uncomfortably close to him—both physically, in a room and in his face—and in his life. She gives him time to tell the story of his passionate conversion to right-to-life issues. She charts his interactions with the mother, Lucy McBath, who is also a fervent Christian. And then she takes us inside the rhetorical universe of the evangelical leadership on gun policy, as Schenk decides to shoulder the task of being the first person in the group to raise something that is clearly taken as heretical.
It’s immensely frustrating for Schenck to face the self-righteous outrage he encounters, as his erstwhile colleagues first understand him as an apostate. But for us, it’s not only a ride on his journey of faith. It’s also an incredibly intimate close-up look at the hard work of constituency politics among the faithful, who are important actors on the larger political scene.
These films all do the work that the documentary form can be so good at: Giving us the human experience of difference, and investing viewers in the actions and fate of characters who we may admire or be appalled by but whose humanity we cannot ignore. And this helps us understand conflicts, issues, and problems within the contexts that we cannot afford not to understand.