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The 2019 Socially Relevant Film Festival

Beginning next Friday on March 15th and lasting until March 21st, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York will be offering a welcome respite from the violent, comic-book, escapist, and misogynist films appearing in your local cineplex. I have been covering the festival each year since it began in 2015 and am happy to report that this year’s offerings remain at the high level founder Nora Armani has maintained over the past four years.

SR’s mission statement states that it “focuses on socially relevant film content, and human interest stories that raise awareness to social problems and offer positive solutions through the powerful medium of cinema. SR believes that through raised awareness, expanded knowledge about diverse cultures, and the human condition as a whole, it is possible to create a better world free of violence, hate, and crime.”

For as long as I have been covering the festival, each year provides a bounty of films that are a welcome relief from the trash I have been forced to review as a member of NYFCO in December. Despite the hype, the films nominated for honors at the Academy Awards ten days ago can’t hold a candle to this year’s SR festival (with the possible exception of “First Reformed”, a film very much in the spirit of SR).

I strongly urge people in the greater New Yorker area to watch the festival trailer, bookmark the festival’s website and to make plans to attend screenings at the Cinema Village. The capsule reviews below should give you a good idea of what is in store.

DOCUMENTARIES

Piripkura

The Piripkura are a nomadic tribe that lived in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil and like many such hunting-and-gathering societies fell victim to prospectors, ranchers, lumberjacks and other capitalist predators who viewed indigenous people as a nuisance standing in the way of “development”. Rita, a Piripkura woman who has left the forest to live in a settlement for indigenous peoples protected by FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation. Except for her, the only surviving Piripkuras are her brother Pakyî and her nephew Tamandua who have remained deep within the forest successfully avoiding the genocidal intruders who do not respect the government’s protection of tribal land just as India protected the Sentinelese islanders who killed the missionary who had entered the island illegally to preach the Gospel. On first blush, the Bible might not seem as inimical to indigenous people’s survival as a shotgun but colonialism tends to use them in tandem.

The first half of the film shows FUNAI official Jair Candor penetrating the forest in search of the two remaining Piripkura. If he can document their survival, their territory will remain protected. Suffice it to say that their discovery is a bittersweet experience. You smile because these diminutive and angelic men, naked as the day they were born, are still alive. You also shed a tear because, like Nishi in California, they are the sole survivors of a tribe that once numbered hundreds in their rainforest sanctuary.

This is a timely film because the new, fascist-like President of Brazil has declared his intention to turn the Amazon rainforest into toothpicks, lawn furniture, ethanol, sugar and the like even if it costs the lives of every indigenous person.

Danseur

If you, like me, enjoyed “Billy Elliot”, the narrative film about the young son of a coal-miner who is determined to become a ballet dancer despite the opposition of his father and the prejudices of a small mining town, “Danseur” is an even greater pleasure since the male dancers featured in the film are real people with real-life experiences dealing with the same issues. In addition, it is an opportunity to see these dancers as they go about their daily exercises, which are as rigorous as those followed by football players, and in performance. But most importantly, it gives you insights into questions of male identity that in an age of transgender people fighting for their rights seems more timely than ever. The irony, of course, is that male ballet dancers are physically more adept than 99 percent of American men.

Like Billy Elliot, the interviewees were transfixed by the sight of ballet dancers at an early age. So committed were they to become professionals that they put up with more than the usual amount of bullying such boys have to put up with in middle and high school. If anything, the subtitle of the film should be “Portraits in Courage”.

In a Huffington Post article titled “The Greatest Obstacle For Boys Who Do Ballet Is Often Their Own Fathers” producer-director Scott Gormley, whose own son took up ballet at the age of 8, offered these thoughts:

True happiness, we’re so often told, comes from doing what you love. That’s the advice we get from buttons, T-shirts, memes and the self-help industry. But in my son’s case, that advice should come with a big disclaimer: doing what you love may cause you to be a social outcast, called a “faggot,” physically assaulted by your peers or generally ostracized by family and friends.

The boys who choose ballet really know what they love and want to do for the rest of their lives, and they have to fight to get it. It is inspiring to witness. We should all be so lucky.

Musa Dagh – The Road Home

In April 2017, I reviewed a narrative film for CounterPunch titled “The Promise” that featured Oscar Isaac in the role of an Armenian trying to save himself and other Armenians from the Ottoman genocide. The final half-hour of “The Promise” recreates a historic event, the standoff between lightly armed Armenians at the top of Musa Dagh, the Armenian words for Moses Mountain, and Ottoman troops advancing up the mountain. On the verge of being overrun and murdered, the Armenians were rescued by French sailors who rowed them to safety aboard the Guichen, a French cruiser.

“Musa Dagh—The Road Home” follows a small group of Armenians who make a yearly pilgrimage to the villages at the summit of Musa Dagh, where they visit the homes of their forefathers now occupied by Turks who greet them warmly. We see the churches that despite having been converted into mosques the Armenians are still happy to see standing.

In some ways, the film reminded me of one or more that I have seen about Palestinians making pilgrimages to the villages they were driven from in 1948. Although “Musa Dagh – The Road Home” is a modest film, almost a vacation home movie, its theme is profoundly universal and badly needed in a period when ethnic cleansing is openly backed by authoritarian governments everywhere.

A Dignified Death

This is a film that captures the final days of Eelco, a Dutch citizen who has received permission for assisted suicide. Unstinting in its candor, it shows the lethal cocktail being injected into his arm and his mother at his side as he drifts off into unconsciousness and then death.

Eelco appears to be in his thirties and not the typical euthanasia subject, which might be somebody of advanced years dealing with an incurable disease that makes each day a living hell. Instead, Eelco has had his own living hell as someone suffering from a deep depression that neither therapy nor drugs can overcome.

In the USA today, euthanasia is only permitted in a handful of states—a function of religious power over elected officials. They back capital punishment while restricting abortion rights and denying euthanasia in the name of respecting life. Typically, Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch published “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia” in 2006, which argues that “[H]uman life is fundamentally and inherently valuable, and that the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”

What hypocrisy.

Isaac Pope: The Spirit of an American Century

At the time of its filming, Isaac Pope was 99 years old, living in a nursing home in Kinston, North Carolina, but surprisingly mobile and intellectually capable of reminiscing about what can be described as the life of an African-American Everyman.

Grandson of slaves, and a child of Garveyite sharecropping parents, he joined the army in the 1930s like many men, including my father, for gainful employment. Pope ended up in the all-Black 969th Artillery Battalion, the first black battalion to fight in World War II and in the Battle of the Bulge. The battalion was commanded by a Jewish captain whose daughter produced the film. The 969thBattalion was critical for the survival of the American GIs under siege at Bastogne, where my father earned a Bronze Star delivering food and water to the men of the 101stAirborne.

Upon returning to a peacetime USA, Pope became a stalwart of his community and a civil rights activist. This is a touching film that captures the oral history of a generation that has mostly disappeared. Like “Musa Dagh”, it is a modest work but one that has a powerful message.

NARRATIVE FILMS

Doing Money

In 2011, a 21-year old Romanian woman named Anna, who was working as a cleaner in London, was abducted off the street and forced into prostitution by other Romanians. They brought her to Ireland and sold her as a sex slave for about $38,000. After 9 harrowing months, she escaped her captors and came forward to testify against the Romanians and their British and Irish partners.

Belfast author Jason Johnson wrote a book titled “Slave” about her ordeal and of how her bravery and persistence led to changes in the laws of Northern Ireland. In an article about Johnson’s book, we learn of her travails:

She says it did not seem to matter to these men how skinny and malnourished she looked, how many cuts and bruises she had from the daily beatings she endured, or how unkempt she looked. The more she fought and insulted her ‘customers’, the more they demanded to be with her, leading her pimps to refer to her as “the money-maker”.

All of this is depicted graphically in a BBC film written and directed by women. While the film was almost certainly chosen for the festival prior to the Robert Kraft arrest, it certainly will help you understand how the sex slavery business operates. According to the International Labor Organization, sex trafficking generates annual profits of nearly $100 billion, making it the most profitable form of slavery ever seen. It is not surprising that Robert Kraft, the owner of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots and a close friend of Donald Trump, went to a massage parlor where women from China were enslaved just like Anna. Both Kraft and Trump are trying to avoid paying for their crimes. If there was any justice in the world, they’d end up in adjoining cells at a federal penitentiary.

Coming Home

Made in Russia by Daria Shumakova, this is the story of a six-year-old Armenian boy named Saro whose father Vacho has just returned from a tour of duty in the Nagorno-Karabakh War of the 1990s that pitted Armenians against Azeris over control of an enclave in southwestern Azerbaijan.

While his father has been off fighting in this typically senseless war in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, Saro has taken on many of Vacho’s tasks on the modest farm where he lives with his mother and grandfather. Only six years old, he is proud of his ability to do a man’s work, like feeding their chickens and fetching water from a pump miles away. The life of these rural Armenians is austere. Their home is heated by a wood-burning stove and each penny is carefully watched.

When Vacho returns, there is a standoff between father and son over who is now the man of the house. Saro insists on his right to drive a car and when that right is denied, he runs away. Whether or not director Daria Shumakova had the 2003 Russian film “The Return” in mind, the parallels are striking. That film depicted the reunion of a Russian soldier and his young sons after he has been off fighting in Chechnya for 12 years. He takes them to a remote island on a lake that turns into a test of their manhood. Suffice it to say that the Armenian soldier depicted in “Coming Home” is far more willing to relinquish his patriarchal status in a gesture that makes the film so close to the heart of the values of the Socially Relevant Film Festival.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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