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Social-Issue Films at Silverdocs--Well Crafted, Well Targeted

Can On Coal Riverthe well-crafted social-issue film survive in an increasingly polarized production environment, tending toward the scrappy YouTube video on one end and the IMAX special on the other? I saw several excellent examples this year at the AFI/Discovery Documentary Film Festival-- On Coal River, Waiting for “Superman”, Budrus and The Tillman Story.  

On Coal River brings us into the lives of people living in the dust cloud around mountain-top removal, a terribly toxic and environmentally devastating form of coal mining favored by the viciously profits-über-alles Massey Energy Company. It features several activists in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, including (Goldman Prize winner) Judy Bonds and a concerned grandfather, Ed Wiley. They unite around the effort to move a school imperiled by an earthen dam holding back ever-increasing amounts of toxic waste from mountain-top removal.

The issue has been given some visibility by the death of 29 miners in a nearby Massey mine, and the spotlight that put on fig-leaf mining regulation. As well, the Obama-era EPA has found a spine on mountain-top removal permitting. Now come the documentaries. On Coal River is the first of several. The film, made over four years by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood, tells a gripping story with compelling characters, and its cinematography captures the beauty of the mountains and the wreckage left by the strip-mining done with machines the size of large apartment buildings. It makes the health costs of silica dust in the air and toxic chemicals in the water horrifyingly personal.

The filmmakers clearly designed the film as a tool for advocacy. Its debut evening at Silverdocs featured the Mountaintop Gospel Choir with Reverend Billy with a megaphone exhorting the crowd to stop mountain-top removal, a publicist with a clipboard to collect the names of supporters, and free fridge magnets.  The website is loaded with ways to get involved. The filmmakers were looking for buyers at the festival, and for political support to ban mountain-top removal at a special screening for Congressional staffers.  

Davis Guggenheim with musician John LegendWaiting for “Superman” is what Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) did when he ended up sending his kids to private school in Los Angeles, despite his public-school proclivities. He shows how woefully schools fail children, how acutely their parents and guardians are aware of that, how passionately families want good education, and how scarce it is. (The title says, with one of the characters, that we can’t wait for a superhero to save us; we need to save ourselves.) The film tracks the efforts of several children and their families, as the kids wait to see if they win the lottery to get into local charter schools.  Even though you know the odds are stacked against them, you still hope against hope that they will all get in. Spoiler alert: they don’t all make it. If you don’t cry in this film, then you have no heart.

At the same time, if you don’t ask questions, you’re not listening to your head. The film takes up school reform at a high level of generality, basically arguing that the adults need to stop bickering and do what’s best for the kids. Its major target is the teachers’ unions, which, he argues, hogtie innovation. His examples of good education all—apparently coincidentally—are charter schools that devote lots of resources to community needs or board the children. Without nuance (and there is none), this makes the film not only a pro-kid film but also an anti-labor film, and one that slights innovative and successful public schools. Once this film asks the big question—why can’t we put the kids’ needs first?—all the hard questions are still to be answered. But it’s a good question to start with.

Participant Production, the producer, is rolling out an action campaign to foster discussion, and we’ll be able to see whether heat or light wins out in the end.  “My dream is that this film triggers the conversation that lets us change our schools,” Guggenheim said on its debut in the gloriously classic AFI Silver Theater. The opening night discussion was a draw. He brought with him two of his protagonists: American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, and District of Columbia Superintendent Michelle Rhee (negotiating partners who have sparred for years).  Weingarten hoped the film wouldn’t encourage people to “scapegoat” teachers or their unions. “Teachers have fought against a dysfunctional system,” she said, and reminded the crowd that South Carolina had gutted unions but fired fewer teachers than previously. Rhee said she hoped it inspired change because “there’s nothing more important than that this injustice is not continued for kids.”  They both agreed teachers are the answers.

Man on fence dividing Israel and PalestineBudrus is the story you never hear from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: non-violence on the West Bank works. Julia Bacha as director, with Ronit Avni as producer (they made Encounter Point) track the story. They show how Ayed Morrar and his daughter Iltezam organized Hamas and Fatah members, men and women in their village to change where the barrier/fence/wall would be built, moving it away from their olive trees and village. Constructed primarily from footage garnered by activists on the front lines, interspersed with interviews done after the victory, the film is an editing achievement; the story supersedes the poverty of original sources. The film shows both that non-violence was a struggle to assert within the village, and that Israelis worked hard to subvert it and subdue the protests. The film, already hailed by human rights activists worldwide, is just beginning its commercial release. At the International Documentary Conference associated with Silverdocs, Bacha said that the production company, Just Vision, plans to release the film on as many platforms and screens as possible, as quickly as possible.  

Pat TillmanThe Tillman Story was another example of well-told documentary with the potential to fuel better public conversations. Amir Bar-Lev (Fighter, My Kid Could Paint That) takes viewers along on the Tillman family’s voyage of discovery after NFL star-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. They discover that the initial lie—the government first represented his death as a heroic combat death in a Taliban firefight—was only the beginning of deception, denial and betrayal by government officials, including their legislators. Bar-Lev, an immensely talented filmmaker, here plays it straight, using a familiar documentary format, but with the highest level of craftsmanship and narrative muscle. He keeps several timelines in play, without confusion. By the end, viewers identify powerfully with the distinctive and in some ways unorthodox Tillmans, and it’s enraging to be in their shoes as betrayed citizens. In Q&A after the screening, Bar-Lev talked about the family’s refusal to discuss key points, such as why Tillman enlisted; he respected their privacy. Further, he won their trust, to tell the story that they wanted—not a portrait of their loved one, but an exposé of the cover-up. Expect to see the film, an A&E Indie production, in theaters and on television.

These were only some of the intriguing social-issue documentaries in a festival that offered more rich viewing than time to watch.