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Politics at DOC NYC: A Look Back

Citizen Koch

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 and on PBS that raised some hackles as they turned a spotlight on a varied range of grassroots political activists across the American landscape:

Citizen Koch

Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin open with a barrage of timely claims to explore the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision against restrictions on political spending of corporations and organizations by following the money from the prominent conservative Koch family.  Unfortunately, this close case study of the 2012 recall vote against Wisconsin governor Republican Scott Walker doesn’t carry the weight for an effective case study on this hot topic and is not a revealing investigation.
The documentary is effective as just an intimate profile of how a selection of long-time union members (Democrats and Republicans) got energized into hard-working activism by the governor pushing through rollbacks of public employee rights, who are followed through the campaign.  But the information on the organized, well-funded opposition is disappointingly superficial and doesn’t rise much above well-known media coverage.  The most useful background is the charting of the interlocked corporate and family ties of Charles and David Koch.  However, the constant railings against their money as among the millions of dollars raised by the governor from “outside interests” loses considerable credibility two-thirds through when a map shows the several factories and plants that the Koch company owns in the state.  Not that any other data is provided how they function as corporate citizens, whether pro (number of employees, philanthropy, or taxes paid) or con (environmental or labor records), beyond the simplified condemnation of corporations considered as people.  This is a missed opportunity to treat these complex issues seriously.  Variance Films is releasing the documentary in theaters June 2014.

Town Hall

town hallWhere Citizen Koch oh so proudly waves a claim that PBS withdrew financial support because David Koch is said to be a major donor, a fascinating look at the rise of the power of the Tea Party is currently running on the PBS World Channel’s America ReFramed series.Pennsylvania is not just the Keystone State in nickname, but was a battleground for hearts and minds from the 2010 congressional races through the 2012 presidential campaign for its 20 electoral votes.  Directors Jamila Wignot and Sierra Pettengill closely follow two new activists who are inspired to throw themselves into achieving conservative change.  John has retired in urban Reading that was spiraling down even before the recession.  Suburban Katy is channeling stay-at-home restlessness—and momentary media attention after a pointed challenging of a local politician at a town hall session.
As the directors described at the festival premiere, they were flies on the wall in the activists’ houses, cars, and meetings, and alongside them on long days of electioneering and voter turnout (and, quite alarmingly, intimidating suppression of minorities), an insightful and sensitive portrait emerges of absolutely committed individuals and the well-funded milieu that both isolates and sustains them.  Their exclusive sources of information about politics and the progress of the campaigns are striking -- they only watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio (continuously).  While they see themselves as grassroots activists, they are directed and supplied by national political action committees.  (The housewife becomes a paid campaign worker).  Through it all, the directors never lose their empathy for the Tea Partiers, allowing them every opportunity to show how they came to their narrow view of a changing world that makes them so very uncomfortable

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

At the other end of the political spectrum, way at the other end, out of the spotlight of national affairs, and much, much longer in local politics, is the preeminent Chinese-American community organizer of Detroit’s black community.  As she introduced the still-feisty 98-year-old at the festival premiere of her admiring portrait, director Grace Lee described meeting her oldest coincidental namesake through her light-hearted The Grace Lee Project (2005).  She continued to visit in the years since, talk-talk-talking, and pushing for personal, reminisces that would illuminate a life countering the stereotype of compliant Asian women.  A Depression era childhood above her father’s New York store, to Barnard at age 16, where a class in Hegel changed her outlook to achieve a PhD in 1940.  By the next year, she was helping to organize an anti-discrimination march on Washington, D.C., and (somehow) became convinced “You can change the world!”
GracePicnicShe moved to Chicago and onto leftist publications aimed at the booming factories that drew southern blacks in the Great Migration to Detroit -- including James Boggs, who became her life-long partner.  (He died in 1993).  While the director wheedled her permission to get her FBI file, it’s not clear how they were able to continue their political activities through the McCarthy years.  (“I didn’t think of myself as un-American.”).  Fellow activists, such as Fox News nemesis Bill Ayers, praise her decades of dedication to grassroots community organizing, and photographs show her with just about every civil and labor rights leader.  (The Boggs don’t seem to have had a life outside The Movement).

Maybe that’s why she’s so interview-resistant, always answering a question with a question or challenging the premise of the question to forcefully insist on the rightness of her philosophical positions as self-evident.  (Ironically, she reminded me of Bible classes.)  The director helped the charmed audience match Boggs’ intellectual knowledge with a clever series of animated concepts “in 30 seconds”.  May she live long enough to bask in the appreciation when this warm, if a bit frustrating, biography premieres on PBS’s P.O.V. series June 30, 2014.

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