Take One Action film festival showcases best in political cinema
Budrus, Nero’s Guests and Sweet Crude among highlights of 2010
Take One Action! should have enough films in their 2010 programme to get the most politically slothful citizen socially activated. The film Budrus focuses on small actions leading to big results, with villagers in the little titular town taking things into their own hands with the help of outside activists, and changing the direction of a barrier being built through their picturesque and agriculturally fertile land. At the film’s centre is the gentle Community Organizer Ayed Morrar, helping to give the film a quiet but firm tone as he takes on the Israeli military by occupying with others the olive groves that prove vital to their lives and livelihoods. 'Nothing scares the army more than non-violent opposition,' someone says. Halfway through the film there is an interesting comment by Israeli activist Kobi Snitz, who says that what is unique about the demonstration, as opposed to peace movements, is the nature of direct action. It is one thing protesting peacefully in the abstract; something else to be physically involved in protecting a piece of land. So much so that one Israeli official reckons Israeli protestors presenting themselves as human shields fighting for Palestinian rights should be put on trial.
If Budrus centres on the mellow Morrar, Nero’s Guests gets its anger from the fiery rural affairs editor of the Hindu, P. Sainath. On being asked about coffee making in the US, he reacts with a tirade against the exploitation endemic within the coffee industry. Sainath is a rare thinker who manages to combine inflammatory despair with well-reasoned argument, and the film’s title comes from a story he tells in the documentary. When Nero needed more light at a huge party, he decided to use slaves for fuel. Sainath notes that this casts Nero as the awful dictator, but what about his guests? With 200,000 Indian farmers having taken their own life in the last ten years, and the Indian rich getting ever richer, are the latter not like Nero’s guests themselves?
The great thing about Nero’s Guests is the simple manner in which the tragedies are explored. Sainath comes out a hero of the downtrodden, but he isn’t presented as one, and would probably become irate if anyone tried to position him in such a role. Persona non Grata’s failing lies exactly here. A hagiographic documentary on his own father, Fabio Wuytack’s film falls lazily into a series of anecdotes about the haloed brilliance of Frans Wuytack, a Belgian of various professions including that of priest, who went to Venezeula in the mid-sixties and spoke for the poor. Exchanging his official residence for a house in the slums, Wuytack was clearly a man of immense human feeling, but the film, which shows him returning to Venezuela many years later, gives us little more than a tautological account of his goodness, while not enough about his actual achievements, and nothing about what made him the man he became. The spiritual element is a given, not explored. He is obviously loved by the people, but as each talking head eulogises Frans, we’re left wishing for a bit more of the soul of the man and not only his social spirit.
Other films include Sweet Crude, an excellent documentary that unfortunately has an overly insistent musical score constantly telling us how to respond, when there is more than enough injustice in the facts and the images to make this clear. A full orchestra couldn’t do more to hammer home some of the simple facts here: none more so than the statistic that where fifty years go someone living along the Niger Delta could expect to live well into their sixties; now they’re likely to be dead by forty. As Nigerian government after Nigerian government has given the oil companies deals that suit the corporations more than the people, the locals along the Niger Delta are left to die of quiet desperation and toxic waste. Despite the money being made in the country, roads are not being built, houses are little more than shacks, and few places have electricity. As an activist says, 'it is our right to control our resources'. This doesn’t stop major American TV networks presenting the increasingly politicised activists as terrorists, as some adopt kidnapping as a method to have their voice heard. This despite one American captive now free admitting that they were right to take him hostage: they should be heard, and need to take extreme action. One historian interviewed says that the Niger Delta is 'One of the most polluted landscapes on the face of the earth', while the voice-over informs us of the impact of acid rain on the no longer sandy white beaches. Originally director Sandy Cioffi went off to make a film about the building of a school in Nigeria, but was pulled off into various other directions and the film is better for it; and while it might not be the equal of Darwin’s Nightmare, about Lake Victoria, it would make an ideal double bill with Hubert Sauper’s fine film.
Climate Refugees wonders what will happen in the near future as more and more people move from their increasingly infertile land and search out pastures new. Where we are of course all aware of war refugees, climate change will equally be responsible for millions of people searching for new places to live. What the film is determined to show isn’t just the desperate living standards of rural workers losing their livelihoods to climate change, but also how this will impact on the wealthy West in at least two ways. Firstly, where will these refugees live in an already often cramped West? Secondly, with the land no longer arable, the West will run short of food. As someone says here, there was a moment where it looked as if the supermarkets were running out, and we 'were three meals short of anarchy'.
A word finally on The Garden; a documentary far more small scale than Sweet Crude and Climate Refugees, as it focuses on a fourteen acre community garden in South Central LA. The film follows the people who work the garden as they take on big business that is determined to use the land for development. A hymn to community spirit and a prayer for local production methods, the film might not end optimistically, but there is much human feeling and resilience along the way.
Generally these documentaries are not doing anything especially interesting in form, or asking us to think through a problem in a new manner. Perhaps it is true that just as there is the idea of compassion fatigue there can also be climate and social fatigue, a sense that so insurmountable are the problems, so evidently present in so many parts of the world, that what can we do about it? Take One Action! would ask that we do no more than what the festival title indicates. Find a cause, join Amnesty International, buy more ethically, save on power, take at least one small action. Compassion fatigue comes from worrying about everything and doing nothing, some would say, and the same is true of procrastinating over environmental and social issues also.