Friday, March 21, 2014

True/False 2014: Brought to Light


One of the instructions given to screeners for True/False is to treat documentaries as "cinema." Does a given film play well as a movie? There are documentaries by the scores that fail at this very specific function, whether from a misguided view of documentary as journalism or from a simple inability to string together a coherent narrative that will hold an audience's attention for seventy five minutes. The ones that succeed at this, though, sometimes succeed big. Some footage is inherently cinematic, for want of a better word.

My own corollary to this is: "trust your b-roll." Film after film fails to make the leap to "cinema" from a simple desire to explain too much, whether with intrusive textual elements or an over-reliance on talking heads. It's a cliche to say that a storyteller should show rather than tell, but it's true. I mean, you can get away with a movie that's interviews and archive footage, but that is often dependent on who you're interviewing and what they're talking about. Last year, True/False showed The Gatekeepers, which is a stark example of what I mean by this: it's a film that's cinematically dull. It's almost all talking heads. It's who those talking heads are that makes it compelling (in that film, it was the last six heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service). That film became an Oscar nominee, though it lost the award to Searching for Sugar Man, a film that fails as a document but succeeds as feel-good entertainment. It's a double edged sword.

The Green Prince

The Green Prince (2014, directed by Nadav Schirman) is a talking heads movie. It's a classic construction of interviews and archive footage, and it can't really escape that however much it tries to paper over this fact with expressionist lighting and film noir film framings. Mind you, the shot compositions are entirely in keeping with the story it tells. This is a shadowplay. The actors lead a twilight life, in which the line between light and dark grows ever more indistinct. It's not above deploying symbols for effect. The first shot of its central figure, for instance, plays to every interview anyone has ever given under cover or darkness. He has good reason to stay in the dark. That he comes into the light is one of the film's central pleasures.

As with The Gatekeepers, this is a film whose interest depends on the identity of its interviewees. They are: Mosad Hassan Yousef and Ben Yitzhak. Mosad spied on Hammas for the Shin Bet. His code name was "The Green Prince." His father is Sheik Hassan Yousef, one of the most highly-placed policy-makers for Hammas, Mosad the most highly-placed Israeli asset. Yitzhak was Mosad's controller at Shin Bet. This is largely a first-person film, and Mosad directly recounts how he came to be imprisoned by the Israelis after brokering an arms deal, how his experience of Hamas in prison shook him to the core of his being, how he began spying for Shin Bet and how they leveraged his position into intelligence and how Mosad leveraged his position into protection for his family when the Israelis began cracking down on the Intifada. There are two relationships that are central to Mosad's narrative. The first is with his father, of course, and that's as complicated a relationship as you can imagine, given who both of them are. The other is with Yitzhak, who is tasked with massaging Mosad so that he'll continue to provide intelligence. This is a process that puts Yitzhak in between Mosad and the needs of Shin Bet and it ultimately ends his career as a spy. This is a triangle defined by shifting loyalties and unshared priorities. It's inherently unstable. By the end of the story, it flies apart.

At its core, The Green Prince is a family drama. The tug of war between Mosad's loyatlies to his father and to Yitzhak, to say nothing of his loyalties to the Palestinians or the Israelis, is the stuff of Greek tragedy, all of it balanced by Mosad's growing moral evolution. One large flaw in the film is the absence of Sheik Yousef's point of view, though I suppose it's an understandable absence. How does one interview a man regarded as a high-value terrorist for a film about his faithless son? As a result, Yousef is more Maguffin than character. We see the fallout of Mosad's betrayal from one side only, which tends to prejudice the narrative. The inevitability of what happens is all of a piece with a tragedy. It's not predictable, per se, so much as it's foreordained.

A larger flaw in the film is the shrinking of boundaries of its political context. The film starts with broad statements about the historical facts of the rise of Hamas, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the Intifada, but those concerns fade into the background as the film becomes more and more personal. While this is a flaw, it's also the key to the ever-mounting suspense as the narrative unfolds. This is a spy thriller, one that turns the screws tight in spite of the fact that the film's very nature gives away the ending. Mosad lives to sit in front of the filmmakers' camera and tell his story. In some ways, though, the way Mosad disentangles himself is a genuine surprise. I wonder if he's drawing a moral equivalence between the two sides of the conflict even if the filmmakers aren't. Hard to say.


E-Team (2014, directed by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kaufmann) sometimes plays as a thriller, too. Its opening scene finds its pair of human rights investigators speaking to the victims of bombings in Syria as another bombing campaign commences. There's a sense of the film as a thriller during this and subsequent scenes. This is a film that doesn't rely on interviews. It goes out into the field and shows the audience what the E-Team actually does and the very real dangers they court by doing this. We don't often think of films as "death-defying" these days, but this is a film that definitely qualifies for that description.

The eponymous E-Team is the task force the human rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch, sends into areas where it suspects war crimes are being committed. The focus of this film is on four people: Ole Solevang and Anna Neistat are a team, both personally and professionally. They've been sent to Syria to investigate the atrocities rumored to be committed by General Assad's forces in the ongoing civil war. Ole and Anna are then tasked with presenting their findings to the world in a press conference in Moscow as a means of getting the attention of Russia itself, Assad's biggest supporter on the world stage. Fred Abrahams, the founder of the E-Team, whose history with investigating war crimes dates from the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. Fred is currently investigating the aftermath of the Libyan revolution with Peter Bouckaert, an arms expert whose knowledge is key to decoding the aftermath of crimes, many of which leave no traces but bullet holes and dead bodies. In between "missions," we see the team members leading ordinary lives--particularly Anna and Ole, who live a comfortable, mundane life in Paris with Anna's 12 year old son. Their lives seem so ordered and comfortable that one wouldn't imagine the horrors they confront in the course of their work. The movie is clear-eyed about this, though. There are horrors aplenty in this movie. Certainly, the testimony of the survivors of a cluster-bombing in Syria are harrowing, as is the field of unexploded ordinance left over from the Libyan conflict.

This is a film that trusts its b-roll. There's a real sense of daredevil filmmaking as the filmmakers follow Anna and Ole on foot through a clandestine crossing of the Turkey/Syria border or through the bombed out ruins of a rebel city. The sound of aircraft is deeply alarming as Anna and Ole move through Syria. The threat of death is ever-present. One of the film's credits notes that cinematographer James Foley disappeared in Syria subsequent to the filming of E-Team, so none of this is actually theoretical. There's often a very real sense of dread in this movie that a reliance on some of the lazier tricks of documentary filmmaking might blunt. This throws the personalities of its protagonists into stark relief. Anna and Ole seem more pragmatic than idealistic, though the idealism is there. There's a scene early in the film when Anna pulls a veil out of her closet and notes that she finds its anonymity comforting rather than repressive when she's in Muslim countries. Fred goes on elaborate shopping excursions in airports before flying off to uncertain fates. Peter claims that he does his job because he "loves fucking with bad people." None of them deliver a polemic, though the footage of Anna's Russian press conference is illuminating when it comes to the way politics works in the world. The Russians think Human Rights Watch is a stooge for Americans and say so bluntly, to her face.

The division of storylines in this film hurts it. Most of the Libyan storyline is framed in the past tense. True, it's images are haunting, particularly the bullet-ridden scene of a massacre and the aforementioned field of bombs waiting for some other collection of bad men to come along and collect them, but the film starts with Syria, with the cinematic equivalent of a killer opening scene, then reneges on it in order to backtrack. The film retreats even further from its lede when it fills in Fred's back story as one of the people confronting the crimes of Slobodan Milošević. This last is thematically useful given the way the film ends. These scenes carry a real sense of futility, as do the subsequent events in Syria as Assad deploys chemical weapons. These are people who are tilting at windmills. More, they seem both aware of this and resigned to it. Change can be glacially slow until, suddenly, it isn't, after all.

The ultimate futility of their activities informs the very end of the film, though. During the course of the film, Anna becomes pregnant and the film chooses to end with Anna's labor and birth. In the very last scene, though, Anna gets a call in her recovery room with a new crisis. It's a funny scene. For a film about war crimes and the people who investigate them, this is a surprisingly hopeful film.

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