February 2, 2007

Park City Dispatch. 10.

Brian Darr on Protagonist, Hear and Now, White Light/Black Rain and Bajo Juárez, the city devouring its daughters.

Sundance 07 Everyone should have a documentary film made about them. That's the advice that Iron and Silk author Mark Salzman shared with the audience at the Q&A following Jessica Yu's Protagonist, probably the most structurally ambitious of the 13 documentary features I saw at Sundance this January. Posed with the problem of making a documentary with the great tragedician Euripides as an inspiration, Yu put out a call for people ready to tell their stories of a cathartic awakening that they had been traveling for too long down the wrong path. She found four men, each with a vastly different set of specific life experiences, but tied together by their gifts of eloquence and self-understanding. Despite the use of a set of haunting puppets designed by Janie Geiser as a unifying device, it's difficult to anticipate where the stories of an "ex-gay" minister, a far-left radical terrorist, a bank robber and a martial arts enthusiast (Salzman) are going to go or how they will cohere into a film greater than the sum of its shots. Which makes Yu's achievement all the more satisfying when a thesis emerges: that each of us, no matter how beset by the gods or by our fate, is the protagonist of our own life story.

Hear and Now Protagonist, while not really an "issue documentary," is exemplary of a trend toward democratizing that subgenre by devoting the screen to the voices of everyday people affected by a social problem, rather than to academics or other experts. It's easy to admire this trend, especially after viewing a film like Irene Taylor Brodsky's Hear and Now, which focuses its camera on the filmmaker's deaf-from-birth parents adjusting to life with their new cochlear implants which simulate hearing, while any voices of "experts" on this procedure are from the medical establishment and come off as strikingly clueless about what the surgery is like to go through and live with. Brodsky is so good at aligning a hearing audience's sympathies with her subjects, while at the same time encouraging us to question their decision to undergo such a procedure at their stage of life, that I'm a little surprised she didn't have the confidence to screen a fully-captioned version of the film so that deaf moviegoers (who certainly exist in Utah and at Sundance; I saw several people signing a conversation in the lobby of the Egyptian Theatre after a subtitled foreign-language film) could participate in the dialogue around her film as well.

White Light/Black Rain Steven Okazaki made White Light/Black Rain [site] to give voice to the survivors of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they had been left out of so many documentaries on what may be the seminal event of the 20th century. Many of them still visibly scarred by their bodies' reactions to the radiation they were exposed to as children, these survivors have not only been marginalized in the histories of World War II and the atomic age, but have also been stigmatized in Japan as "pika-don" (flash-boom) people unfit to intermingle in the larger society due to an irrational fear of contagion. Hearing in their own words the ordeals they went through to survive the aftermath of the twin bombings is an emotionally overwhelming experience. The continuing controversy over whether the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be thought of as innocent victims, geopolitical guinea pigs, or civilian casualties necessary to end the war, is never directly addressed. But the message these survivors most desperately want to convey comes through loud and clear: never let it happen again. It is with far more sadness than irony that I note that the day after I saw the film in Salt Lake City, I learned that the Doomsday Clock had just advanced by two minutes to 11:55.

Bajo Juárez, the city devouring its daughters Sometimes an important issue is by no means served by an approach that puts aside an investigation of the forest for that of its individual trees. This is a trap that Bajo Juárez, the city devouring its daughters falls into, I'm afraid. It's an unquestionably tragic story: Ciudad Juárez, the largest city found on the opposite side of the river we call the Rio Grande (in Mexico it is called the Río Bravo del Norte), has since 1993 seen the murder or disappearance of hundreds of young women, many of them workers in the large maquiladoras set up in the wake of the NAFTA agreement. Bajo Juárez is made up of interviews with the mothers of these devoured daughters and of some of the poor young men scapegoated by a seemingly indifferent law enforcement structure. It also follows the mothers and their allies as they try to get the attention of President Vicente Fox in Mexico City.

But testimonials by the city's fear-stricken residents and fiery clips of a speech by Jane Fonda do not go far enough in helping the uninitiated understand the origins and implications of these crimes. Co-directors Alejandra Sánchez and José Antonio Cordero have some fascinating perspectives to share about the connection between the femicides and the passage of NAFTA in 1993, the complicity of the media, and more, but they only shared them in the Q&A after the film. For whatever reason (fear for their own safety, perhaps?), they decided to leave a comprehensive presentation of facts and theories out of their film, with the result that it remains unsatisfying for those of us not already familiar with the tragic circumstances. I couldn't help but feel that the victims deserve a better film.

Coverage of the coverage: The Park City Index.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 2, 2007 8:58 AM


Great choices, Brian. You make me regret even deeper that HBO forbade the SF International Asian-American from screening White Light/Black Rain at this year's festival. I wonder when it will show up.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at February 3, 2007 9:27 AM

I understand that it is to air on that channel in August, Michael.

One thing I forgot to mention about White Light/Black Rain: it makes better use of its Mogwai soundtrack than Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait does!

Posted by: Brian at February 3, 2007 3:16 PM