Wednesday, March 06, 2013

True/False 2013, Day Four: Promises

The films I saw on day four of True/False this year were mostly political in one degree or another. Of the five, only one could be said to be apolitical. I suspect that True/False is thought of as a left-leaning festival, perhaps in the spirit of Stephen Colbert's famous pronouncement that "facts have a well-known liberal bias," but I don't think films are picked with that specifically in mind. Columbia is at the center of a very red state, after all.

Some subject matter attracts strong feelings. While it's uncommon for the films at True/False to attract demonstrators, it does happen once in a while. After Tiller, a big hit at Sundance, attracted the inevitable anti-choice demonstrators at True/False. I don't think anybody who lives here is surprised by that. Drive by Planned Parenthood on any given day and you'll see them there, too. They are persistent. For what it's worth, I didn't see After Tiller. I don't know whether or not the people handing out flyers at Pandora's Promise, a pro-nuclear power essay, could be categorized as demonstrators. They didn't have signs and they didn't shout at people, but they did want to make sure that their countervailing point of view was available to everyone entering the theater. I doubt these people share the same ideology as the protestors at After Tiller.

My last day of True/False this year was a frenzy to get as many films under my belt as I could. I think it's only physically possible to see five films on any given day of the festival, and I maxed that on Sunday. The first two films I saw were the aforementioned Pandora's Promise and Who Is Dayani Cristal?, two films that are similar to each other only in so far as they represent broken or unfulfilled promises.

Pandora's Promise (2013, directed by Robert Stone) starts off with the spectre of the Fukushima power plant disaster, arguably the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world, short of the bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I remember at the time seeing environmentalists declaring that this was an "extinction level" event, with the entire Pacific ocean north of the equator likely to be irradiated beyond recovery. This causes a good deal of angst to the the interviewees in this movie, all of them former anti-nuclear activists who have come around to an opposite point of view. Are they wrong to have changed their minds in the face of such a disaster? That's what the movie investigates.

Some years ago, I saw some of the publicity that France used to kickstart it's nuclear industry back in the 1970s. One of them declared that, "France has no oil, no coal, and no choice." In a broader way, that's the case that the filmmakers here are making. Climate change is a pending disaster worse than anything the nuclear industry is capable of creating. Coal, oil, hydroelectric, and even solar and wind power have all individually killed more people than nuclear power ever has. The radiation from nuclear accidents is not what it is advertised to be and doesn't rise higher than background radiation. Storage of nuclear waste is a non-issue because there's so little of it and it can be recycled by the newest generations of reactors. Pandora's Promise goes through all of these ideas one by one, both with talking-heads interviews and visits to the sites of notorious accidents, all while holding up a Geiger counter to demonstrate how much radiation is around. It's a crafty film, this way, because that image, more than any of the factotums reeled off by its experts hammers home its point. There's a beach in Brazil that's naturally more radioactive than Fukushima. There's a funny scene at a nuclear protest in Vermont where someone is handing out bananas to the protestors. Whether this person knows it or not, the potassium isotope in bananas are radioactive, more so than the water leaking from the plant being protested.

One wishes for citations. The World Health Organization report on Chernobyl is cited after a visit there, and that information is eye-opening. It counters the claims made by anti-nuclear activists that over a million people died because of the accident at Chernobyl. The WHO report documents less than fifty deaths. I'd love to see the peer reviewed study that counts the deaths from solar engergy, but there's not a citation in the film. Director Robert Stone, for his part, says that those kinds of citations will go on the film's web site, but they aren't there right now. This is a flaw in the film, because when it's providing verifiable facts--including those shots of the Geiger counter at locations around the world--the film is very convincing. The film elides the truthfulness of the rest, and I'm sympathetic, but given the nature of Stone's argument here, it needs to be airtight. Otherwise, he's not going to convince the opposition to change their minds. Stone is careful to address the issue of nuclear weapons, which is a pall hanging over any discussion of nuclear power. I did not know, as this film asserts, that the fuel from old Soviet warheads are being used to generate electricity in a kind of ultimate example of beating swords into plowshares. But you can't put that genie back in the bottle. You just have to make sure that no one ever wants to use these weapons.

Of course, if this film is right and if nuclear power IS the answer to climate change, then this is an important conversation to be having. Stone is good at presenting his argument in a way that makes them attractive. This is a good-looking film. It pairs photogenic locations with science fiction-y machines and a futuristic outlook that says there actually will be a future. That's appealing. There's some footage from Disney's old film, "Our Friend the Atom," here and this film strikes me as a kind of update.

Who is Dayani Cristal? (2012, directed by Marc Silver) is a detective story as sociological inquiry. The film's central mystery is the identity of a man found in the Sonora desert, apparently an undocumented immigrant, with a tattoo on his chest that reads "Dayani Cristal." The film follows two lines of inquiry: first, it follows the efforts to identify the body. Second, it examines what would drive this man to end up in the Arizona desert. The first part of this equation is straightforward, and involves forensic pathologist, contacting various consulates, and running advertisements in publications in likely points of origin. The second part of the film is murkier, tangled up as it is with globalized capitalism, American immigration policy, and human trafficking. This part of the film is part documentary--where it intersects most often with the detective story--and part poetic recreation of a journey north. This part of the film features its producer, Gael Garcia Bernal, playing the hypothetical role of the film's subject.

We know almost from the outset that the authorities eventually identify this man, because we are privy to his family and friends through the course of the film. This mystery is a Maguffin, but it serves to showcase the impersonal and downright cruel reception that migrants receive in Arizona. The man with the tattoo finds only forensic labs and a coffin. This is in stark contrast to the warmth of the journey north. I don't know if this is entirely true, but it feels true: the men traveling north form bonds. They're in it together and they navigate the same risks. The journey north for Bernal's everyman is a bet: can you cross Mexico from Honduras to the United States with your entire future in your pocket? For the man found in the desert, that turns out to be a bad bet.

There's obviously a political dimension to this. There are facts provided in the detective story that are damning: after the changes in immigration policies in the US over the last twenty years, crossings are down, arrests are down, but deaths remain the same. This film is an invitation to count that cost, and as part of its argument, it does everything it can to represent the man in the desert as a human being with a family, with children, with a community that keenly feels his absence. It's a film with an agenda, true, but it's a film with a keen sense of humanity behind that agenda.

I would be lying if I said that Bernal's onscreen presence wasn't a distraction. He's a movie star, after all, and looks it. He's a sore thumb amongst the other migrants with whom he shares the journey. I think the narrative hook of the movie is compromised a bit by the fact that everyone with whom the filmmakers speak already knows the outcome. Finding out who this man is, and who Dayani Cristal is, are a nice grace note at the end of the film, but that grace note is muted somewhat. It's an awkward convention of selecting footage for storytelling over selecting it for "truth." I almost wish that the journey was shot as outright fiction and separated from the documentary, because there's considerable art behind it. It's a carefully observed drama that finds a kind of universality in small things: a migrants prayer, a riverside preacher, a tattoo. This is a case where the formal conceit of the film ultimately harms it. Mind you, it's a good film, and a heartfelt one, but it's a little bit muddled.

No comments: