More Underdogs at Hotdocs! Weibo’s War, Guantanamo Trap, Draquila: Italy Trembles, Hot Coffee, Bury the Hatchet, Melissa-Mom and Me

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

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Toronto’s Hotdocs, which continues through the weekend, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world. Today I’m going to talk about some more movies about the largely unknown underdogs, in their struggles with huge governments, big business, or with themselves.

Weibo’s War

Dir: David York

Weibo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Weibo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie shows some of Weibo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies

including run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; the seemingly pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Weibo’s war did give a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure, his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism.

Guantanamo Trap

Dir: Thomas Selim Wallner

With the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden, some people are saying that the awful decade between 9/11 until now is finally over. The “War on Terror” has been “won” by the west, and we can turn the page on the whole tragedy and its devastating effect on the American public, and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis killed by the US and their allies.

But, inspite of bin Laden’s death, in spite of Obama’s election promises, the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is still open, with many untried captives still inside. What really happened at Guantanamo, who’s to blame and who got punished?

This film traces four people involved in this awful period: a military lawyer, Diane Beaver, who helped write the notorious memo that declared waterboarding was not torture; Muniz, a religious Turkish-German Muslim man, who was whisked away from Pakistan due to some miscommunication and tortured in Guantanamo; Matthew, a military judge-advocate, also working at Guantanamo (alongside Diane), who leaked a memo with a list of prisoners’ names and countries; and Gonzalo, an activist- lawyer in Spain who wants to prosecute the people really responsible for miscarriages of justice.

This is a very moving and shocking film with previously unseen footage — not just still photos — and first- hand testimony of what went on in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In an awful Catch 22, it seems the people at the top got away scott-free, the whistleblowers were jailed, the low-level torture advocates were scapegoated but allowed to retire to happy, new careers, and the unwitting victims left without apology or explanation. This Canadian film is an excellent, human look at a difficult and controversial topic.

Draquila – Italy Trembles

Dir: Sabina Guzzanti

In 2009, the small Italian city of Aquilla was struck by a dangerous earthquake which damaged the rennaisance buildings in the town centre, killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. The diorector, a comedian and filmmaker uses this disaster to expose the tangled web of corruption, oppression, and scandal at the root of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi’s empire and its ties to big business, the construction industry Milan, his media empire, the military, police and government, and the Mafia.

Something familiar only to Italians known as “Civil Protection” — a recent government law that allows forcible confinement, exclusive contracts, and strange pay-offs in the name of protection in the case of disasters or threats — has ballooned into a strange and twisted entity that releases unfettered access to government funds, while it gags local government, blocks media coverage, and puts the police in charge. Far from being a temporary measure, it’s occuring daily across Italy, for anything considered to be a “big event” including church parades, housing relocation, and swimming contests.

Comic and political filmmaker Sabina Guzzanti spends most of the movie trying to get into the relocation camps of the earthquake victims, but getting stymied at almost every stop by police and contractors who are loathe to allow public access to anything that might expose corruption or wrongdoing.

And through it all the stoic victims are pushed around like pawns in some international PR game.

Draquila (a reference to all the blood suckers who, laughing immediately after the disaster, gleefully pounced on the disaster as a chance to earn big government contracts) is an enlightening, entertaining and humorous look at the uniquely shady world of Italian politics under Berlusconi.

Hot Coffee

Dir: Susan Saladoff

When a woman who was awarded millions in a lawsuit after she was burnt by hot coffee at a McDonald’s drive through, her story hit the headlines. It became a staple joke for comedians and talk shows, an episode of Seinfeld, and the focus of citizens’ groups objecting to “Frivolous Lawsuits”. But this movie takes a closer look at these seemingly ridiculous awards.

It turns out — and she shows unbelievably brutal photos to prove it — that the elderly woman was horribly injured by the coffee spill; that she initially asked only asked McDonald’s for reimbursement for her medical expenses (McDonald’s offered only a token $800); and that far from being frivolous, it was an incident that followed repeated corporate indifference to similar incidents that had occurred hundreds of times before and kept secret by the companies.

This movie poses that the whole concept of of the term frivolous lawsuits was coined by PR firms working for huge corporations like McDonald’s in order to cut their own losses and limit future pay-offs. She shows similar cases in the US — including malpractice suits, “forced mediation” and the fact no criminal charges were laid after an employee of a US security firm in Iraq was gang raped; and the case of a judge who was in favour of punitive awards in lawsuits, but was forced to fend off accusations and trials brought down on him by right-wing groups, when he should have been on the bench.

The way this movie handles concepts such as “tort reform” (i.e. opposition to lawsuits), and the parties actually pushing for it, reveals the necessity in the US for lawsuits. The filmmaker says corporate donations target liberal judges, lawsuits are being quashed by large corporations, that lawsuits are the only way for individuals to pay for medical damages, and that forced mediation always takes the side of the big companies not individuals.

But for Canadians and others outside of the US, Hot Coffee is as baffling and arcane as the Italian politics in Draquilla. We don’t have elections for judges, no corporate donations to political campaigns, no US-style extended elections beyond a few weeks, no TV ads for local politicians. In Canada trials are generally by judges not by juries; mediation usually refers to their successfully use in union/ management disputes, in lieu of strikes; and our largely public, one-payer health system, that provides lifetime medical care, cuts out many malpractice lawsuits.

Most of all, there are just far fewer lawyers, per capita, in Canada, and Canadians just aren’t as litigious as Americans. I can see the value now of lawsuits, but I’d be bothered if Canadians ever reached the level of US litigation and courtroom interference in the average person’s lives. And it might have been more believable if it hadn’t been so one sided in its relentlessly positive view lawsuits as a purely progressive force, without any look at the abuse that lawyers themselves may play in this phenomenon.

Finally, two more Hotdocs films that deal with issues on a smaller, individual level.

Bury the Hatchet

Dir: Aaron Walker

The annual Mardi Gras in New Orleans has a public, tourist side to it, but also has a deeply ingrained local side full of traditions and customs. This movie takes a look at the “tribes” — competitive teams of Black New Orleans residents — who, with beads and feathers, music and dance, dress in native costumes they design and wear in the parade.

The custom, said to have started with the shelter natives gave escaped slaves, is performed in their honour, with colourful homages to the Indians using mock chants, names and headdresses.

This intensely beautiful, brightly coloured film interviews the elderly men in their various competing clubs, as they recount, using period foootage and pictures, the sometimes violent history of this largely unknown practice. The soundtrack, composed of jazz, blues, R&B and reggae, are as entrancing as the images, in this slow moving, but very visual and aural slice of New Orleans cultural life from the 60’s, through Katrina, until the present.

Melissa-Mom and Me

Dir: Limor Pinhasov

Yael — then known as Jenny — and Melissa, lead a drug-filled, light hearted life as two friends who worked as strippers in a Tokyo nightclub. Yael became a professional photographer in Tel Aviv, while Melissa eventually made her was back to Carolina, to start a very different life. Yael decides to join her here to rekindle their friendship (she still has many videos and photos she had taken of them in Tokyo) and to get her advice on having kids.

This is quite a moving story.

Melissa-mom of the title is indeed a mother — she had left her kids when she went to work as a stripper in Tokyo — and they are now much older and grown up without their own mother. In a dramatically filmed series of revelations, meetings, confrontations, and reconciliations, Melissa’s hidden family secrets are gradually revealed both to her friend Yael, and to the audience. It deals with sin, reponsibility, duty, guilt, friendship, love and family, in an entirely understandable way.

All of these movies are worth watching (depending on your interests). Most of the movies get replayed this weekend, so be sure to come out to see some more great documentaries.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check online at hotdocs.ca

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.

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