Unless you live in a major city like New York with its arthouse movie theaters, most of the documentaries I review will be beyond your reach. Furthermore, even if you live in such a city, you might be tempted to see something like “Wonder Woman” rather than a documentary about climate change on Saturday night when you are looking for entertainment or even a escape from thinking about impending catastrophes. This is a loss to you as well as the people who make such films since they often have to practically mortgage their homes to finance the production. Perhaps I am speaking mostly for myself, but I find most documentaries ten times more engaging than the standard Cineplex fare for the simple reason that the people featured in such films are just like most CounterPunch readers—trying to survive in an increasingly desperate world.
Fortunately for you and the courageous men and women that make such films, there are a small number of distribution companies that make them available as DVD’s or VOD after their initial theatrical or festival run. It is safe to say that they—like CounterPunch—are not in it for the money. One of the pioneering companies is called Bullfrog Films that operates out of Oley, Pennsylvania and that got its name from a nearby pond that spawned a noisy chorus of bullfrogs. The Bullfrog founders confess that when they came up with the name 30 years ago, they did not foresee that even frogs would be threatened by environmental contaminants. For both personal and societal reasons, the company is dedicated to distributing films about ecology, energy, indigenous peoples and the like. In this review, I will be covering five documentaries that have just become part of their catalog.
Directed by Anne Makepeace, this film profiles two indigenous female judges who are trying under difficult circumstances to provide an exit path from crime for juvenile and young adult offenders in the Yurok and Quechan tribes in California.
The Yuroks are based in the northwest near the Klamath River with villages dating back to the 14th century. After white settlers overran their territory during the gold rush, disease and massacres reduced their population by 75%.
Abby Abinanti is the Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe and meets regularly with officials in the state criminal justice system to allow someone facing a prison term to enter a program within native territory that will rehabilitate them. For most prisoners, penal institutions are hardly the place to be rehabilitated and for native peoples, that is doubly so. Judge Abinanti’s ward, a twenty-something man named Taos Proctor, is a recovering meth addict and walking a tightrope as he enters a healing program. The slightest breeze could lead to a new round of drug addiction and the crimes necessary to pay for the habit while a steadying hand from the judge and Yurok leaders can help re-integrate him into an admittedly frayed social fabric.
Claudette White plays the same role in Quechan (also known as Yumas) territory, which despite the name has nothing to do with the Quechua people in Peru. Her efforts are directed at keeping her nephew Isaac Palone out of prison. Nearing his 18th birthday, he is in danger of being treated as an adult offender for crimes including assault and burglary that he carried out in a drunken stupor. Despite his commitment to his aunt to stay sober and finish high school, temptations beset him continuously.
Indigenous scholar Jack D. Forbes believes that the Quechans numbered 4,000 or more before white incursions, a number that decreased to 750 in 1910. As is the case with all native peoples in California, the costs of white colonialism were exceedingly high. It is no exaggeration to say that the drug addiction and alcoholism that afflicts native populations everywhere is a legacy of the genocidal onslaught that made America’s wealth possible. “Tribal Justice” is to be commended for showing how native peoples are trying to take control of their own destiny using the survival skills that will ultimately be necessary for the rest of us to live: respecting mother earth and respecting humanity.
Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock
This film has the distinction of not only being the first to document the Standing Rock struggle but also to be co-directed by a native American named Myron Dewey, who provided live streaming coverage during the occupation, including footage from a drone.
As a drone owner myself, I was stunned to see how he was victimized by the cops for supposedly “stalking” them, a misdemeanor charge that could have led to a 10-month prison term. They seized his drone illegally as part of an overall effort to silence the press. You might recall that Amy Goodman was charged with “rioting” at Standing Rock.
Suffice it to say that the protests at Standing Rock were a sign of the deep affinity between indigenous and environmental issues. The film makes clear that both the Democrats and the Republicans were complicit in allowing the pipeline construction to continue. In his inimical manner, Obama waffled by calling for an environmental study and Trump exploited that spinelessness to greenlight the construction immediately after taking office.
The takeaway from the film is that the struggle will continue as local committees against the pipeline and fracking in general have sprung up everywhere. It can be seen as VOD here with all proceeds going to the Indigenous Media Fund and the Pipeline Fighters Fund.
Cheshire is a tiny village on the Ohio River close to the border with West Virginia that undoubtedly would have voted for Donald Trump in 2016 if it hadn’t become a ghost town. In 1974, American Electrical Power erected a huge coal-burning power plant right next to Cheshire that made people sick from polluted air. After AEP was forced to comply with the Clean Air Act in the mid-90s, it made the air even more toxic as a result of a bungled engineering design.
So calamitous was the epidemic of cancer and other illnesses in the village that AEP cut a deal with the residents. In exchange for a $20 million buyout that would provide everyone on average with cash equal to 3 times the value of their home, they would agree never to sue the company.
Except for some old folks, everybody moved from Cheshire and the houses were demolished. It would be interesting to see if director Eva Morgenstern, a Brooklynite, could track down some of the people she interviewed in their new digs and ask them what they think of Trump’s EPA director who likely would have backed AEP refusing to pay a dime. I strongly suspect that they would be part of the 67 percent of Americans who do not approve of the White House today. As they say, material reality tends to shape ideas. Even if they were able to relocate, the asthma, cancer and other illnesses inside their body would travel with them.
The documentary also looks at those who lived just beyond the city limits of Cheshire. They were not part of the buyout and paid the consequences, including the men who maintained the coal ash left behind in a gigantic landfill that AEP claimed was no threat to their health. Some of them are interviewed in the film, looking for all practical purposes like the people who attend Donald Trump rallies. My guess is that they would be happy to see Trump, his EPA director, and the top brass at AEP put in prison for the rest of their lives.
I had a keen interest in this documentary since the question of declining marine life is very close to my heart. My father, who was always a very remote figure, only opened up to me when he took me fishing at the pond in our tiny village on the weekend. After the pond was fished out, the trips came to an end.
Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, “Sacred Cod”, which is available on Hulu and YouTube, is about the decline of the fishing industry in a city that owed its existence to the cod. In a perfect storm, the fish became victims of unregulated fishing and an increase in the temperature of the Gulf of Maine due to global warming.
The film profiles a number of Gloucester cod fisherman who rail against government regulation like the typical Trump voter but probably understand that they are partly to blame. After government agencies put a ceiling on the number of cod that could be taken, the commercial consequences were devastating. For the fishermen, it was not just a loss of income. It was a loss of identity. Even though commercial fishing can be dangerous, it has the same thrill that my father and I felt when we caught a four-pound pickerel.
There are some signs of hope. After a 25-year ban on cod fishing in Canada, they are coming back and commercial fishing will begin again. Also, some fish are doing well in the Gulf of Maine like the dogfish (a small shark) and the skate. For the cod fisherman, only small adjustments need to be made to their boat in order to begin a profitable business once again as restaurants begin to feature fish that are not endangered.
Seeing this intelligent and necessary documentary reminded me that I had a copy of Mark Kurlansky’s “Cod: a Biograph of the Fish that Changed the World” on my bookshelf. It is high time I dusted it off and begin reading it. A Smithsonian Magazine review makes it sound irresistible:
Kurlansky surveys history from a cod point of view. The Pilgrims, it turns out, planned to thrive by catching cod in Cape Cod Bay, although they knew so little about fishing that they neglected to bring along much tackle. They did not know how to farm, either. Fortunately, they became proficient at pillaging their Indian neighbors’ food caches. Capt. John Smith got famous in Virginia, but he would get rich catching cod off New England. Cod fed Caribbean plantation slaves. Cod also fed the Union Army.
Darwin’s champion, T. H. Huxley, served on three British fishing commissions, arguing that herring (and by extension, cod) could never be fished out–nature, in the Victorian view, being indestructible. Cod do find lots to eat, swimming with their huge mouths open, ingesting whatever goes in. In 1994 a Dutch fisherman caught a cod with a set of dentures in its belly.
The Search for General Tso
This might have had an alternative title, “Sacred Chicken”, since it is a brilliant gastronomic history of one of the favorite selections on Chinese restaurant menus as well as a social history of the Chinese in the USA.
Featuring a wide-ranging group of experts on both cooking and Chinese history, the film reveals who General Tso was (a renowned commander in the late 1800s who was determined to preserve Chinese traditions against colonizing influences) as well as who invented the recipe.
It also explains why Chinese-Americans ended up running laundries and restaurants. (A hint: the racist Chinese Exclusion Act prevented them from becoming wage workers, especially in San Francisco where the racism ran so deep that even a leftist like Jack London would succumb.)
The film can be seen on YouTube.
Finally, I would recommend that university professors, administrators and students consider enrolling in a new streaming service called Docuseek that is a joint project of Bullfrog, Icarus (another very fine leftwing distributor) and several others. For a reasonable fee, a site license can provide classrooms with material that would be of enormous value to environmental studies, sociology, ethnic studies and the like. A film like “Sacred Cod”, for example, could provide a perfect entry point into a discussion of the tragedy of the commons, climate change, American history, and economics. A valuable resource for both the brain and the heart.