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A World Not Ours
The extended impact of the fourth annual DOC NYC, held November 14 – 21, is being felt as features are succeeding to wider distribution, in theaters, on PBS, and on such video-on-demand platforms Netflix and iTunes. Here’s recommendations of two memorable international documentaries to catch that are now thoughtfully bringing international issues to more American eyes:
Director Mahdi Fleifel is haunted by David Ben Gurion’s claim, as Israel’s first prime minister, about displaced Palestinians (to quote him more accurately than the film does): “They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations' time." As the third generation who has not forgotten, and marked the 60 years since the Nakba – The Disaster – of 1948 by picking up cameras, he intimately and frankly documents over time the lives of his family and friends in Ein el-Helweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. For all the media attention on the Palestinians on the West Bank, particularly in films such as seen in the Other Israel Film Festival, this is a significant portrait of the frustrations and isolation in this limbo where they have no political or economic rights.
Delving insightfully into the gaps between memory and reality, he explores his childhood impressions of summer play visiting his grandfather, who has lived there since the expulsion from his home at age 16. By the time youthful soccer games gave way to 2006 World Cup enthusiasm, the square kilometer that the United Nations Relief Agency organized in the same pattern as their original villages, had gotten further subdivided by growing families to teem with over 70,000 people. Now the octogenarian patriarch can’t stand the encroaching noise and crashing balls.
Fleifel is both a sympathetic insider and a clear-eyed outsider, whose identity card expired when he was four, but eventually gets him past checkpoints for annual visits. His father got a job in the Emirates in 1985 and elsewhere as a salesman while for many years filming home movies of their wide travels until they were able to settle in Denmark in 1988 – a place unknown to everyone in the camp. Ironically, his Danish high school class visited Israel so that he is the only family member who witnessed that their original farm in Saffouriehlooks like an archeological ruin.
Selections of archival footage and his narration provide useful context of political events outside the camp, from 1948 through the hopes of peace negotiations, and the fallout in the 1990’s from the Lebanese civil war that took the life of one uncle, hailed as a hero, and shattered the mental health of another left raising pigeons. But the unique heart of the film focuses on the impact of the larger politics on his best friend. Adopting the name Abu Iyad during his intelligence work for Arafat’s Fatah, he is dependent on their reduced subsistence allowance after the clashes with Hamas, fed up with the Palestinian Authority’s corruption, and desperate enough for an opportunity to a better life that even illegal status in economically depressed Greece looks good. Winner of DOC NYC’s Viewpoints Grand Jury Prize, this revealing documentary is getting a theatrical release before premiering on PBS’s P.O.V. series August 18, 2014.
God Loves Uganda
Director Roger Ross Williams reveals the context behind the rising tide of extreme homophobic legislation and homosexual persecution that has roused global condemnation, and taken a terrible, even fatal, toll on individuals in Uganda, as seen in interviews with gay activists here, and in Call Me Kuchu released last year. Resentful mainstream Christian ministers in the U.S. and Africa who have been actively ostracized by the ascendant evangelicals are the narrative guides. But what makes this documentary so eye-opening are the sweet smiles and fervent dedication of the wholesome, earnest Midwestern missionaries who are intimately followed as they are recruited, trained, and sent forth to enthusiastically proselytize from the International House of Prayer, a megachurch in Kansas City, Missouri.
They are inspired by centuries of colonial clichés about the dark continent of pagan souls ripe for the solace of Jesus effectively updated to American culture war priorities for an extensive fundraising operation. (Even more controversially, in Mission Congo, an hour-long film in the festival, directors Lara Zizic and David Turner investigated another religious charity, Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing, for fraudulent misrepresentation of assistance in Congo.) While the participants here talk extensively about their heartfelt motivations, including how these years of commitment help them overcome what they see as their own failings, it is positively atavistic to see smiling young white folks today still providing only English hymns to African kids in grass shacks with no education, electricity, or modern health care, let alone catastrophic to see the damage from the far more blatant rabble-rousing against gays. PBS’s Independent Lens began showing the documentary in May, and it is now available on iTunes and Netflix.
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