A Patriot Act (USA, 2004)

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In recent years, I’ve watched numerous documentaries and read numerous books on this administration, to the point where they’re all starting to blend in. This film though, knocked me off my seat. Mark Crispin Miller gives an astounding monologue about what he calls the ‘Christo-fascist’ movement that is sweeping the country. That phrase may sound radical, but then ‘Christo-Radical’ movement would suffice just as well (these aren’t republicans, they’re theocrats). If you think I’m exaggerating, watch even ten minutes of the 700 Club sometime (remember Falwell and Robertson saying that pagans, feminists, gays, abortionists and the ACLU were responsible for 911? That was hardly an isolated incident). This is not a club; it’s a movement that is rooted in the kind of theocratic idealism of centuries ago, “when faith registered before reason” as Miller describes it. No, this is not the stuff of paranoia that we occasionally see in other documentaries. One need only keep abreast of the Tom DeLay circus, or the Frist/Schiavo scandal, or James Dobson recently describing liberal judges as black-robed KKK members, or the API’s daily headlines. Today’s… “Democrats Booted Out Of Church for Politics” (in Waynesville, North Carolina), and “Kansas Board Holds Evolution Hearings” (no, that’s not a headline from 1925!).

Like James Mann’s brilliant book “Rise of the Vulcans”, Miller shows us how Bush is merely the frost on the tip of the iceberg (though he does at least a half hour of analysis on Bush’s mindset, which is as funny as it is scary). Miller presents to us, ‘all the president’s men’: those who make up the Council of National Policy (such as Falwell, DeLay, Trent Lott, Ed Meese and Oliver North to name but a few). They’re not only associated with money and power, but in a Christian Reconstructionalist movement (also called Dominion Theology – do a Google on the Chalcedon Foundation) that, in John Ashcroft’s words, puts “God before kings”. If you thought Reagan believing in Armageddon was scary, be prepared for worse news (Bush has even been quoted as saying that God speaks through him, yet the media never even questions these things). This is scary, scary stuff, and to steal a famous quote, “if you’re not worried, you’re not informed”. Don’t believe me though; rent this for yourself and then research this stuff out. But by all means, don’t just stop there. Once you get informed – act!

My grade: 10

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Terrorstorm (USA, 2006)

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There’s an aggravating scene in this movie when Alex Jones confronts various conservatives in Crawford Texas regarding 9/11. The scene is aggravating because we can see how strongly those conservatives cling to their blind faith in Bush, even when confronted with questions that they cannot provide factual answers for. But I feel just as palpable an aggravation when I see so many people clinging so strongly to their faith in Alex Jones. As a truthseeker he is a vital source, but one can only guess how much of what he presents as ‘facts’ are true. Much of what he offers is based on speculation, and often with sources that are at best, dubious. Professor Steven Jones for example, who has ‘proof’ that the trade center buildings were destroyed with thermate, also has stated in the past that he has archeological ‘proof’ that Jesus Christ had visited Native Americans. Considering that, and the fact that there are actually far more scientists outside of FEMA, NIST, and the 9/11 Commission that disagree with Jones, one can only guess where the truth really lies. I also take issue with Alex Jones’ production values, which make this film seem like one of those ‘uncovered’ documentaries that use sensationalist techniques to build their case. Unfortunately, Jones’ caustic, ironic tone makes any hope of objectivity seem scant, thus making it difficult for many reasonable people to be swayed. In fact, the way that Jones’ rants on a megaphone in public streets, I’ve actually wondered if Jones himself isn’t a part of Bush’s New World Order! If the media wanted to portray Jones as a nutcase, they wouldn’t have to try very hard. Still, I admire Jones’ efforts and chutzpah, and I do recommend this documentary because of the questions it brings up. For a more factual and more intelligent look at the events of 9/11, I highly recommend “9/11: Press for Truth”. It asks the same tough questions but provides much firmer evidence.

My grade: 5

Sex, Drugs & Democracy (USA, 1994)

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I’ve always known that Holland was one of the best countries in the world, but here’s a fascinating look at all the reasons why. This entertaining documentary shows all the fun stuff like legalized brothels and ‘coffeehouses’ (places where hashish is sold and consumed openly), as well as cool stuff like nude beaches (women are actually allowed to go topless on any beach in the country), female priests, and ‘banana bars’ (don’t ask!). But the underlying point is the tremendous amount of tolerance that people there have for other people’s rights, and for accepting the distribution of wealth in the way of high taxation for the rich. Despite the legalization of numerous ‘vices’, Holland has the lowest rates in sex-related diseases, abortion and teen pregnancy (sex education is mandatory in all schools, and all schools BTW, are free and equal in terms of quality of education). And it has among the lowest rates in terms of drug abuse, despite the fact that ‘soft drugs’ are legal, and methadone and clean needles are given to anyone who asks. Poverty is virtually non-existent, as is racism and homophobia (ACT UP actually had to leave Holland because there was nothing to act up against!). And the Woman’s Party is insuring the strongest policies against inequality and violence against women. Add legalized abortion and euthanasia, and strong environmental policies (one-fifth of Greenpeace’s world membership resides in Holland), and you’ve basically got a model society. All of these policies would mean nothing though in any other country because as Holland acknowledges, the most important thing is that everyone is brought up to respect other people’s rights and to believe in the common good of the people over one’s own moral or religious beliefs (and in some cases, personal selfishness). It is a country that really does exist for all of the people, and even in its practice of leniency of vices, it ironically insures a safer world. For the one thing Holland is dedicated to being against is intolerance and violence. It is an amazing phenomenon to see a society functioning so well, especially when one considers a city like Amsterdam, which is among the highest population per capita in the world, and where up to 50% of the population are from other countries with vastly different cultural backgrounds. I’m sure it is not a perfect society. The film sort of overshadows any negative aspects. But it is as perfect a society that we could ever hope to see. And the film really does make one re-evaluate what freedom, liberty, justice for all and democracy really mean. And how far the USA has so profoundly regressed from those utopian elements on which it was founded.

My grade: 8

Winter Soldier (USA, 1972)

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This is virtually ninety-plus minutes of testimonials of ‘war crimes’ by Vietnam vets at a conference in 1971, and while all of the atrocities – there’s no other word for them – were the kinds of things I’d seen before, the sheer numbers were what got to me. Not the numbers of tortured and dead; that number I don’t suppose I’ll ever digest. It’s the numbers of decent Americans like you or me who through exaggerated training of ‘manhood’, became savages. One can better understand what it must have been like to come home to our normal world of shopping malls, fast food, and sitcoms, and try to stuff back the memories and repressed emotions that made one kill children for fun and hack off body parts for a reward of a six-pack. Actually, I still can’t understand it. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know at one point one stops becoming human, but at least I did find some hope in seeing these hundreds of men who found their humanity again after the war. Don’t think that this is a film that tries to make Americans look bad, for virtually every culture in the world has had its share of atrocities. The atrocities are the symptom; war is the disease. From that perspective, I wish the film had gone further in having someone articulate the ignorance that these guys had in even going into this war. They really only understood why they were sent to fight when they returned, and it’s that ignorance that is the virus that our government – that all governments and extremists – like to spread. The most upsetting image I saw in this film was a snapshot of an American soldier smiling over the exposed body of one of his kill. The chill down the back of my neck hit me before my mind brought up what it reminded me of. The smile on that soldier’s face was the exact same smile that one of the soldiers Abu Ghraib had as he stood over a pile of naked bodies and crooked his thumbs up in a sign of victorious glee. The horror is that it just never stops.

My grade: 9

Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge (USA, 2005)

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This is a first-rate documentary series that manages to be simultaneously frightening, amazing, depressing AND optimistic. While watching this I kept feeling angry that we don’t see stories on the nightly news about what people in developing countries have to endure in terms of illness. With the myriad of diseases that surround them, their lives seem like a game of Russian Roulette with five bullets in the chamber. But what reeeeally gets me angry is the fact that the heroes depicted in this series – men and women who have dedicated their lives to helping and healing these people – are not getting THEIR stories told in the nightly news. They are an incredible inspiration! We’re always complaining about how depressing the news is and how hopeless everything is. If people could see material like what is shown in this series daily, they would feel great hope because all of these problems are easily solvable with financial support from individuals and governments. It would cost only a fraction of our budget- less than 2% – to eradicate most of these illnesses, and as this documentary clearly shows, these viruses are now spreading to every country in the world including the USA. We can feel great hope that there are so many good people who are doing good things in the world. It’s not all serial killers and rapists and terrorists and gangs and corrupt politicians out there. Introduce yourself to the REAL world! Rent all three discs and then buy copies of the DVD for your friends. And read Jeffrey Sachs’ book “The End of Poverty”. It CAN be a reality!

My grade: 10

Robinson in Space (UK, 1997)

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This cerebral made-for-Brit-TV documentary is a travelogue of England as seen through the eyes of one who is sort of touring with the ghost of Robinson Crusoe, following the cities and villages that Daniel Defoe had either lived in or set his stories in. It’s cinematography is stupendous, not just in terms of its use of light (which becomes more and more surreal as we get heavier into industrial territory), but in its sense of composition. The camera rarely pans. It sits statically on whatever its subject is, allowing only what comes into the camera’s view to give us a sense of context with the surroundings. In some shots it’s people who pass by, in others, it’s cars that whiz by, and in others still, it’s tankers or enormous cranes that sluggishly churn across the frame as if they’re being driven by doddering old ghosts on Prozac. Keiller also uses a natural soundtrack to give us context and fix us in the reality. Early in the film, England almost seems like a giant aviary; the air is filled with the tweeting and warbling of birds. Little by little, their twitter is overrun by the drone of cars and trucks and the screeching and metallic whizzing of heavy machinery. It’s hard to say what the saddest sights are: the factories spewing a haze of ashen smoke into an already dingy sky, the proliferation of Americanized strip malls, the olde English villages dotted with Pizza Huts, or the seemingly infinite highways that have invaded the serene rolling countryside. No, what’s worst is what this film shows us most eloquently: the layers of history that have at best, become a sideshow of British culture, and at worst, are rotting away in a forlorn state that’s imposed by the indifference of the culture as a whole. There’s a surprising shot later in the film where we see the queen’s convoy as it rolls along a super-highway. She’s old enough to remember olde England. What does she think now? I wonder… does she look out the window? Does anybody?

My grade: 10

Road Scholar (USA, 1993)

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I’ve seen lots of documentaries of people touring America, but what makes this one special is that Codrescu is an immigrant and a poet, and he also has a wit that’s acerbic yet simultaneously self-effacing. His narrative is often hilarious but one can feel his true sense of awe and vulnerability in facing a nation as huge and diverse as the United States. A reviewer here attacks Codrescu for going out of his way to find the most eccentric elements of this country, but that’s the whole point of making a documentary about America. It takes an outsider, especially one from a country where conformity is enforced politically, to give us a true appreciation of what a grand, quirky, kitschy, innovative, imaginative, visionary nation we are. We are a nation of materialists, free thinkers, and spiritualists, but despite the differences in our values and backgrounds, we have one thing in common: the fact that we are lucky to live in a country where we have the freedom to be different. Codrescu could have chosen to just walk along the streets of some suburban community, or a mall, or maybe even Walmart but I can guarantee you, he would have still found any number of eccentrics. We may not personally relate to reclusive religious communities, gun-wielding centerfolds, or people who run drive-in wedding chapels, but we can be in awe of the imagination and drive that Americans have in reaching beyond the confines of ‘normalcy’. If Codrescu had been able to make a documentary without showing the ‘fringes’ of our society, it not only would have been dull, it would have been a disservice to the spirit of America. I for one, will never forget the ‘Holy Rollers’ (members of a gospel church in a roller-skating rink), the Native Americans still living in an ancient pueblo, the ‘crystal’ lady, the ‘alien’ lady, or the couple trying to make art out of discarded shoes. I see an image of each of these people in each star of the flag, and it is that America that I truly love. My only complaint about the movie is that Codrescu didn’t make it to the southern region of the US, but hopefully, one day he’ll get to complete the trip.

My grade: 8