Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Non-lollipop Docs.

Crude Impact. (2006)  James Jandak Wood

Crude. (2009)  Joe Berlinger

I've been working on that essay I threatened to write a while back in which I promised to lay down an understanding of why I put so much more emphasis on film, particularly global film, as an art relaying truth more than any other medium. More powerful than music by itself (although in heavy competition with Arcade Fire or U2 live), more meaningful than the pure image of old-school painting, and easier to sort out than contemporary media -- particularly the Internet and the nightly news -- or politics and politicians in general --film aspires to conquer wrong belief patterns and change the way you look at the world and its presentation of reality. In our age of post-information, when knowledge is googled and wiki'd in the blink of an eye, when what you see is what you get, whether the reality is mere perspective or absolute, the greatest need in junk-space culture is deciphering truth with a small "t". This is one of the reasons film as a visual and informative medium, and the knowledge of the filmmakers themselves, carries a weight that I value as most relevant.

It's no surprise, then, that documentaries have become as striking and strong as anything in the world of Holly-Would. Docs for the new age are the artistic expression of an informed individual trying to relay a message they feel isn't brought to the public, for whatever the reasons. It's baffling how awesome some of these docs have become -- fun to watch, yes, but more importantly, the easiest point of entry into a solid perspective on a truth, perhaps even a good perspective on history and current culture. When knowledge and information build like bricks and mortar in the visual arena, and repeatedly pile up with reasoned logic, eventually a sound wall stands, one that's worth examining with unusual trust. It's at this point that one might be able to say, "I'm fairly certain that this is a Truth."

Such is the case with two extraordinary documentaries I felt I had to tear into after the mind blowing encounter I had with Collapse. I needed to hear more about the ideas presented there. The Michael Ruppert "conspiracy-fact" interviews in Collapse rang with sound logic in my ears -- even the more simple of the ideas, like: you can't replace a source in nature, and if the source is sucked dry, where do you go? Ruppert's state-of-conscious meanderings brought both fear and understanding, but also a sense that the forming itch that's always been at the back of my brain was finally encountering a reality about the world. His monologues, broken as they were, simply made sense, and I felt like Neo in The Matrix, finally accepting the world behind the visual scenes.

I had to search out more.

The multi-award winning Crude Impact functions rather like an overview of the whole peak-oil situation. It shares a history of oil, and the global impact of capitalizing on and consuming it beyond the world's means. It is scary in that once again, as with Ruppert, it shows us that there's a lot more to oil than the stuff that goes in your car(s). That would be enough to suck the world dry on its own. But add to that all the nylon in our clothing, plastic in every form, the lids on McDonald's paper cups, toothbrushes, toothpaste, the gallons of oil that every car tire is made from, all of the lining and paint in your car and in your home, and food production and distribution -- Crude Impact's first basic point is that we do not currently, and perhaps won't be able to, live without the stuff. And it ain't just about transportation.

The oil that was predicted to peak in the fifties finally did in the US in the seventies, and while the film doesn't specifically go into this, it's not hard to remember back to the mid-seventies (I would have been five, but even I can remember the long lines at the gas station). That was the peak Carter dealt with. The oil that's caused the recent crisis of rocketing prices at the gas station is now the global peak of oil. We originally solved our problems by draining other countries for our need. Global peak-oil is of utmost importance to a great many people, people who are a lot more intelligent and know a great deal more about this than I.

There have already been citizens killed by militias -- a peaceful African leader against Big Oil in his country was publically hanged when a US company leaned heavily in attempt to continue their plundering. Citizens in protest in these countries have had to deal with waste, devastation of their land, petrol in their drinking water and cancer in their children's body and bones. Crude Impact documents the details of the beginnings of a war, wherein richer nations are able to use all forms of legalese and lawyer speak in order to invade smaller, poorer countries, steal their riches and leave them in a state of confusion, with neighbors and family members dying left and right. The focus of the film is unbelievably powerful, leaving me to wonder why we've had so much news on the current oil spill in New Orleans but we don't hear even a smidgen of the stories of ruined lands and nations in our oil-lust wake.

Oh, yeah -- I nearly forgot -- New Orleans is actually in the U.S., so we should really, really care about the spill down there.

(And I do. But I find the media's coverage, when we never hear the other stories, completely odd.)

While Crude Impact is more of an overview of a corporate capitalist and seemingly evil situation that happens all over the world and all the time, last year's Crude, directed by Joe Berlinger, targets a specific event in Ecuador, in oil's war against the Amazon. It digs into every crack, every detail it can bring out regarding a lawsuit of over 30,000 Ecuadorians vs. Texaco, now Chevron.

Sometimes you just need one example, one dramatic case of the hardship and strife vs. the Faceless powers and their numerous lawyers to more effectively drive the reality home. This is where Crude forcefully demonstrates why it took home so many film awards last year.

The story centers on the loss of land in the Amazon and how it has affected the Secoya and Cofán people, an indigenous people native to northeast Ecuador, to the point where they have filed a lawsuit, their only and final defense. The lawsuit was originally delayed in the U.S., through lawyer wrangling red tape, until it was moved to Ecuador nine years later. The case continues to this day -- somehow, and this is the hardest part for me to get, the Ecuadorians won billions in the lawsuit, but the case was reversed and the money never turned in. The case has now gone on for something like 15 years.

The Secoya speak of a time before the white man came, a time of crystal clear waters, life-blood to the people and their land. They talk of life in a jungle that was loaded with animals, a sort of paradise that was their home. Over years of abuse and decay, not only are their homes in total ruin, but they are suffering from various unknown diseases, much in the form of cancer that has eaten away at even their children.

A billion gallons of toxic water has been dumped into the rivers they used for fishing. The waters are contaminated and must be boiled before even applying to the skin. The land is ravaged with pits that are the crude that was left behind. Some villagers even live in homes built directly on top of an oil pit.

The tribe faces extinction, poisoned by a home that once sustained them. In an age of frivolous lawsuits, it would seem certain this should be addressed in court. Faceless Chevron brings out its spokespeople, doctors, scientists, lawyers, security, politicians and share-holders who counter that the problem is 0% their fault. They look like "experts" who lay claim to any of the fine print of all law books; they look like finger-pointers who constantly shift blame at anyone other than themselves.

Most of the time all these "experts" just come off looking like pale-faced, dead-eyed liars.

And even with all these faces, you never see a real face of Chevron. You've got to wonder who these people are or where they rest at night. You've got to wonder if Ruppert's apocalypse is wrapped up in the anti-Christ position of capitalist pigs.

Both films are informative in ways you have to see to understand. How can my words further demonstrate the pictures of a torn up rain forest? How can I further demonstrate with words the babies plagued with boils? If you'd like to see two films that will make you seriously stop and think, perhaps even propel you off the couch and into action -- the docs on oil are a good place to start.

When We Were Kings. (1996)  Leon Gast

In film news outside of oil, I had the great experience of taking in a few other brain-filled documentaries. When We Were Kings, the 1997 Oscar Winner on the Zaire championship boxing match between George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali, is the perfect follow-up to Michael Mann's Ali, in which Will Smith gives an incredible performance as the legend himself. While Ali needs some extra editing (I have a problem with Mann's films in this way in general), it does function as the perfect lead-in to When We Were Kings, providing insightful background to a doc that has historical significance. Both films remind me that Ali was a wonderful childhood hero, one that I don't flinch from as an adult.

Secrecy. (2008)  Peter Galison and Robb Moss

Finally, Secrecy, from 2008, while not the most outrageous of the lot is still a slow-burner that gets the brain in motion and sits and sticks in your craw. The doc considers all the pros and cons of government intelligence and the need for secrecy dating all the way back to WWII and the creation of the CIA during the Cold War, but it doesn't take an immediate stand on one side or the other -- whether the secrets the press puts in print are fair play, or whether treason is sometimes committed in the art of investigative journalism. The film would have functioned better had it actually taken a stand, it could have added a tad of tension where it definitely needed some in places. As is, it's well done and informative, but flat, like an old-school PBS doc where monotone thinkers go on ad nauseam and opine about their beliefs on the topic. It's not that I don't recommend it as a good doc, because I do -- it's just not very exciting filmmaking, but might be great material for a college class.

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