Recently racking up awards from the Berlin Film Festival to Toronto’s Hot Docs, Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s “Call Me Kuchu,” which follows a group of Ugandan LGBTI activists in Kampala (led by the recently murdered David Kato, the kuchus’ – Ugandan slang for queers – answer to Martin Luther King, Jr.), is one of those rare docs that manages to enlighten, uplift and enrage in equal doses. It’s a sweeping portrait not just of the heroic gays and lesbians who often literally put themselves in the line of fire each and every day just to demand basic human rights, but also of a disturbingly self-righteous Ugandan society, which bans homosexuality and openly advocates for the death penalty for HIV-positive men. I got a chance to speak with the film’s own fearless co-directors as they were preparing for “Call Me Kuchu” to close the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at NYC’s Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater on June 28th.
James Marsh is a humble low-key guy who often explores over-the-top boisterous characters. He’s also equal parts affable and driven, and a filmmaker whose work I’ve been raving about ever since Man On Wire rocked my world at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. Since then I’ve chatted with James about that documentary – that would go on to take the Oscar in 2009 – and more recently about his last foray into fiction filmmaking Red Riding: 1980, the second in a stellar three-part trilogy based on David Peace’s novels set during Britain’s seedy “Yorkshire Ripper” days.
So when I saw that the director would be at this year’s Miami International Film Festival to support his Sundance award-winning doc Project Nim, which delves into the infamous experiment in the 70s that set out to teach a human-raised chimpanzee to communicate using sign language, I decided to pick his quick-witted brain once again. Sitting in the glorious sunshine outside the fest’s headquarters at the Royal Palm Hotel in South Beach we chatted about everything from Big Brother to Bresson to Herzog to uncovering Original Sin.
This Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of the United States. PBS recently explored the Triangle Fire in a documentary looking not just at the fire itself, but the culture of labour rights 100 years ago, and the consequences of the fire in terms of workplace protections, unionisation, and public awareness of unsafe working conditions. As PBS points out, many New Yorkers adopted the victims of the fire as a cause celebre, with mass funerals attended by thousands of people from all social classes, and this did not occur in a vacuum.
146 men and women, many in their teens, died in the Triangle Fire. It had a profound impact on labour policy in the United States and was a jarring wakeup call for people who were unaware of the largely unregulated conditions in workplaces like factories, mills, and sweatshops. In the wake of the fire, there were immediate calls for reform, resulting in the subsequent passage of more aggressive labour laws. As Hilda L. Solis reminds readers, the lessons of the fire still resonate today.
I tend to prefer reviewing documentary features to fiction, not because of any affinity for reality over fantasy, but because a bad doc just tends to be less painful to sit through than a mediocre fiction film. But when it comes to the nonfiction genre itself I have one very big pet peeve – activist docs done by lazy directors, who forget to explain why we should even care in the first place, thinking that simply putting forth rational arguments negates the need for pulling emotional heartstrings. After all, Al Gore’s stale lecturing in An Inconvenient Truth didn’t move moviegoers to take action. For those that did, it’s the polar bears, stupid.
The Oscar-nominated Gasland could serve as a crash course in rallying the troops. Not only has director Josh Fox put a face to his film by touring the country with Gasland – a road trip exposé itself sparked when Fox and his neighbors were offered $100,000 each from a natural gas mining company to drill on their Pennsylvania properties – but he’s crafted a doc bursting with sweet goofiness and serene cinematography that counterbalances all the scientific mumbo jumbo required to get this serious story told about the dangerous environmental effects of natural-gas production process “fracking“. In other words, he’s winning crucial hearts even if he loses a few minds. Unlike his archenemy Dick Cheney (himself living proof of the powerlessness of rational argument) Fox has made debating dirty procedures like fracking fun. I spoke with the director by phone before the Academy Awards were handed out.
I first encountered Michael Madsen’s “Into Eternity” at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam this past November. What struck me most about the film – a visually and sonically stunning, existential leap into the very future of civilization via Finland’s nuclear waste storage facility Onkalo – was how little it resembled a documentary at all. Images from “Lord of the Rings” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” danced in my head as I tried to wrap my brain around the overwhelming concept of this enormous underground burial chamber that will continue to be under construction until the 22nd century, that is to be built to last for 100,000 years. Fortunately, I was able to sit down with the Danish director in the lobby of the infamous Hotel Chelsea before the flick opened at NYC’s Film Forum to discuss documentary versus fiction genres, the current cinematic climate in Denmark, and the necessity of myth in our modern-day rationalist society.