Monday, January 10, 2011

Non-lollipop Docs.

Last week I wrote about five films currently playing that are worth checking out. At the week's end, I also found out that each of those made their way to the Producers Guild, a list which most likely paves the way for them to be Oscar nominated, still being determined and announced January 25.

While I enjoyed the mainstream offerings, I've also had a chance to see six of the fifteen eligible Oscar documentary finalists. Five of those fifteen will make their way to being nominated. And I've gotta say -- the few I've seen so far I've found utterly jaw-dropping, particularly the first two listed below, which scratch at different subjects but raise similar questions on the safety of government deregulation, and about the faceless, gigantic, out-of-control corporations encroaching on honest citizens:

Gasland. (2010) Josh Fox

Director Josh Fox, in first person narration, approaches the film not as a known documentarian, but as a concerned Pennsylvania resident with a house on a stream off the Delaware River. He's received a letter in the mail which could easily give him close to $100,000. All he's got to do is let America's natural gas industries begin drilling on his nineteen acres of land.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process by which this drilling is done, blasting a mix of water and some 596 mostly unknown chemicals 8,000 feet into the ground, cracking into layers of earth like a mini-earthquake. Using millions of gallons of water per well, 50,000 gas wells have been planned within a few hundred miles of Fox's home, and hundreds of complaints about residents' contaminated well water have been reported since the fracking began.

The threat to underground drinking water goes largely without notice due to a 2005 energy bill pushed through congress by Dick Cheney, which exempts the oil and natural gas industries from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water act and quite a few other acts. Companies like EnCana, Williams, Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation and Chesapeake presently use the fracking technology of Halliburton in 34 states. With his banjo and gas mask on a road trip across the US, Fox finds contaminated drinking water and toxic waste fumes in all these parts of the country, resulting in serious health issues for residents everywhere: headaches, ringing in the ears, disorientation and dizziness, swelling throughout the body, and in more severe cases irreversible brain damage.

I was throttled by quite a few scenes of people lighting their own tap water on fire in this film. That they can take a lighter, turn on their tap, hold the lighter to the running water and witness a minor explosion in their kitchen sink, with zero recognition from gas companies after numerous civilian complaints, is a visual more incriminating than any load of papers full of facts. We often hear that, "The book was better than the movie," but when we're lighting our streams or sinks on fire, when gas wells explode and condensates go fully ablaze, visuals can be ever so convincing.

This is an exploration of modern energy and companies that either struggle with or abuse the process of obtaining it, much the same way that Crude and Crude Impact brought to light our problems with oil, and Burning The Future: Coal In America did with electricity. Fox's film is informative, at times humorous, and in moments deathly serious. But most of all it is a wake up call to the unchecked crimes for which the government simply turns a blind eye.

Inside Job. (2010) Charles Ferguson

Speaking of the government turning a blind eye, here's the most recent investigative work from Charles Ferguson, who brought us the excellent No End In Sight a few years ago. Once again he takes a known story and plummets down the rabbit hole looking for greater depth, finding those on the scene of the crime willing to sit down and share their views, a few with serious reservation and at least one who asks to turn the cameras off.

Inside Job is the story of the financial meltdown of the fall of 2008, the fact that it was preventable but unavoidable due to the nature (read: greed) of those who let it happen. Further meltdowns remain unavoidable because change does not come easy where the political and the monetary flaunt smiles and shake hands -- and no matter what side rules in the two-party system (both sides take the blame in this doc), no one enforces laws already on the books and everyone considers regulation like it's the Antichrist.

The doc travels at warp speed in relaying all of its economic info but gives us plenty of definitions with graphs and visuals to keep up. There is a bottom line here, understandable to anyone who walks into Inside Job. It is this: you were raped, America, and economic tyrants will continue to molest you because they're not held accountable; they walk away scot-free. That may sound harsh if you haven't seen the film, but after you see it you may want to reserve a special place in hell for the shiny white-teethed Wall Street types you've just spent time with.

We don't often think of how the meltdown affected more than the U.S., but the entire world was hit hard by the actions of a few well greased banks with predatory lenders. Whereas Enron was an American thing that effected American people, for the most part, Inside Job shows the same mentality as that of Enron, but multiplied at a global level. As if it isn't bad enough that thousands (millions?) lost their homes due to profiteering, the ramifications of the wrong done here will affect the world's nations for years to come.

Last September, my friend Ken Morefield caught Inside Job in Toronto. He wrote a sort of pro and con review of the film, eloquent as he always is, Here.

The Oath. (2010) Laura Poitras

Why do young men of the middle east sign up for al-Qaeda? What is the thinking that goes on there? Laura Poitras's The Oath tackles this question by describing events from two men's recent history. One was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden; his brother-in-law, bin Laden's driver. The driver, who claims no ties to al-Qaeda other than driving a car for the wealthy terrorist, is caught and turned over to Guantanamo Bay before his military trial years later; the brother-in-law bodyguard is caught and questioned but ultimately let go. It is this man, Abu Jandal, that the documentary revolves around, from direct questioning from the unfliching Poitras to his rather conflicted interviews on Al Jazeera TV.

Jandal seems to know when the cameras are on, and which side has them on and what he thinks he needs to say. He uses his understanding of the endless angles of media, but acts like a spy that's been burnt. He's clearly scared of both sides now, at one point asking Poitras to turn the cameras off in fear that the arabs might see this documentary, but it seems he also hopes that the simple knowledge of his existence -- either side's camera still being on -- might save him.

I'm torn on this one. I feel strongly that my country has become an empire set out to rule the world, be it through the military or corporations and competition (the latter of which happens as much inside the borders as it does out). We never seem to deal fairly unless we're fairly dominant. Still, I will not and cannot support a thought process that leads to terrorism of a country's citizens, much as this particular film helps you understand the mindset that gets these kids there.

I've started a thread for The Oath, complete with a trailer in the first post Here. Should be interesting to see where it goes.

Waiting For Superman. (2010) Davis Guggenheim

Here's the one that tugged at the strings of my heart. I'd be lying if I said I didn't shed a tear or two. There's a lottery that takes place near the film's end that is just... devastating. This is a killer in-depth documentary on the climate of today's school system, teacher's unions, tenure, and student life in general. It is loaded with graphs and pie charts and numbers and stats. It's also loaded with five kids and their lives, and you fall in love with them and root as they push to better their situations.

I'm going to simply link to the Ebert review here. He's the pro, and he's got some great words on Waiting For Superman.

If you teach, or work with kids, or work in the inner city or in a school, or if you have any desire to learn more about an American school system you might no longer recognize, Waiting For Superman is the perfect film for you to see.

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