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From AIPAC to the Dogs of Istanbul: the 2020 DOC NYC Film Festival

Launched 11 years ago, DOC NYC  is the preeminent documentary film festival in the USA, and perhaps the world. Hosted by the IFC Center in NY, it will last between November 11th and 19th. Like every other festival taking place in the city since the pandemic began, it is a Virtual Festival, with individual films available as VOD for $12. After reading my brief takes on seven of the films I had a chance to preview, you might even be enticed to get a festival-wide ticket for $199.

1. Acasa, My Home

Set in a network of lakes and islands not far from Bucharest, Romania, the documentary features a 9-member Roma family headed by Gica Enache who abandoned city life after the fashion of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, except without the typically puritanical streak of the New England Yankee.

The best way to describe the Enache’s household is as a mixture of beasts and humanity that would make a Borat film look realistic by comparison. All 9 of the Enaches live in what must be labeled as a shack, while a variety of pigs, pigeons, chickens, dogs, and cats wander in and out.

Despite the lack of urban amenities, the family seems happy with an Edenic life. They get by on the fish that are plentiful in the water close to their home. Those that they do not eat, Vali, the eldest son, peddles from door to door in the city. When the film begins, we see Vali swimming with a beatific glow on his face in one of the lakes, as his younger brothers row a boat close by. When he catches a goose and begins to toy with it, his younger brothers admonish him to let the bird free. Respect for mother nature runs deep in a family that depends on her for their survival.

Their knowledge of nature is so profound that the Bucharest conservationists rely on their knowledge of the grasslands and waters, even to the point of hiring Vali as a guide. However, plans run afoul after the authorities decide that the children are victims of neglect. The shack is filthy and the children have never spent a day in school. Despite his “back to nature” sensibility, the chain-smoking patriarch treats Vali as a hired hand, forcing him to be an unpaid fisherman. On top of the family dysfunctions, the conservationist power elite in Bucharest wants the Enaches out because they are suspected of starting accidental fires that have left large swaths of the grasslands leveled.

Forced to live in a Bucharest apartment funded by a welfare agency, the clan tries its best to adjust to civilization but eventually has to contend with the reality that it was not cut out for it. “Acasa, My Home” (acasã is Romanian for home) is a brilliant work by first-time filmmaker Radu Ciorniciuc. Highly recommended.

2. Dope is Death

Set in the South Bronx in 1970, the documentary recounts the efforts by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords to address the heroin epidemic of the time. Like Ali La Pointe in “Battle of Algiers”, they were determined to clamp down on crimes that sapped the strength of the community as part of an overall project of national liberation. At the time, revolutionary nationalism of both African-Americans and Puerto Ricans was at an all-time high.

Besides confronting the dope dealers, the Panthers and the Young Lords developed skills in acupuncture that supposedly helped relieve the pains of withdrawal. They saw acupuncture as a positive alternative to methadone, which was the universal medical treatment at the time and which critics considered to be just another kind of addictive drug.

On November 10, 1970, the Panthers and the Young Lords led an occupation of Lincoln Hospital, the only medical facility in the South Bronx. They sought to implement a People’s Program that would lead to a acupuncture clinic staffed by grass roots people who went through a training program. They also looked to professional medical people to provide the services they were not licensed to carry out. As it happened, it was leftist doctors who came to their aid.

While the film does not go into any great detail about the evolution, we learn that some of the key activists became urban guerrillas who carried out the Brinks armored car heist that led to a crackdown on the left. Among the people who were arrested and served long prison terms were Susan Rosenberg and Dr. Mutulu Shakur, the stepfather of Tupac Shakur and head of the acupuncture clinic. With interviews of some of the now elderly staff members of the clinic as well as news footage from the early 70s (including a very young Young Lord, Juan Gonzalez of “Democracy Now”), you get an idea of the mixture of ultraleftism and idealism that characterized the period. A new left will have to retain the idealism but eschew urban guerrilla tactics if it hopes to be part of the all too necessary task of putting an end to the rotten capitalist system.

3. Influence

“Influence” is structured around a long interview with Sir Timothy Bell, the disgraced former CEO of Bell Pottinger, the British PR firm that served the needs of rightwing governments from its inception. The best way to see Bell Pottinger, a firm I never heard of before watching the film, is as a counterpart to Hill and Knowlton that led the propaganda campaign leading up to the first Gulf War.

Chain-smoking throughout the interview and cynical to the bone, Bell is asked if he had any regrets about doing wrong. He replied that he was a businessman, not a priest.

Bell got started as a top salesman for Saatchi and Saatchi, the British advertising company that was notorious for its edgy commercials, both for commodities and public service. In one famous ad, you see a photo of a “Pregnant Man” meant to promote the use of contraceptives. When Margaret Thatcher decided to run for office, she hired Bell to supervise the production of Tory campaign ads, including one titled “Labor is Not Working” that incorporated the kind of cheap demagogy people like Lee Atwater an Roger Ailes used in the USA.

With the huge success of the Margaret Thatcher ad, Bell went on to form his own company and take on clients like apartheid South Africa and Pinochet’s successor in Chile. In other words, we are talking about Scumbags, Inc. Finally, Bell got his comeuppance when his company was implicated in a propaganda campaign for the Gupta family in South Africa that was conniving with Jacob Zuma to fleece the country’s treasury. His firm was delisted by the governing board for PR and advertising firms and then abandoned by clients, even those scuzzy enough to hire Bell and Pottinger in the first place. This is a terrific film that will give you a good idea of how the Big Lie operates in England.

4. The Jump

In 1970, a Soviet fishing vessel and the Vigilant, a Coast Guard cutter, drew close to each other in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard to allow the officers to discuss problems related to the overfishing of flounder. As the Russian officers met on the Vigilant with their American counterparts, the crews used sign language and a few simple words to communicate with each other. Cigarettes, Time Magazines, and other goodies were welcomely greeted by the Russians and especially by a Lithuanian radio operator named Simas Kudirka, who became a sailor in the hope of seeing the world. His grandfather had been a sailor and he grew up filled with dreams about visiting foreign countries on shore leave. Unfortunately, Soviet sailors were not allowed much in the way of shore leave, so Kudirka felt like a prisoner most of the time.

On that day, he felt he could not stand being unfree any longer and jumped from his ship to the Vigilant across 12 feet of water. When the Russians learned that he had jumped ship, they asked permission to retrieve Kudirka, which the Americans willingly approved. After boarding the Vigilant, they pursued him from deck to deck until he was apprehended and dragged back to his own vessel. This harrowing chase is recalled by the 90-year old Kudirka at the start of the film. One of the chief virtues of this documentary is having a spry and engaging subject like Kudirka who defies easy reductionist myths of the Cold War, from either side.

Back in the USSR, he was charged with treason and sent to a remote region near Siberia to begin a 10-year sentence. After four years, Lithuanians in the USA dug into his story to find out ways to rescue him from a terrible fate. Eventually, they learned that he was born in the USA when his mother was here for a year or so, thus making him the kind of birthright citizen that Trump sought to eliminate. With Lithuania a symbol of Eastern European anti-Communism, the film takes a most interesting turn toward the end when Kudirka finds himself strolling about Times Square wondering if his flight to freedom was all that worth it. I find myself asking the same kinds of questions when I am there myself.

4. Kings of Capitol Hill

This is a history of AIPAC narrated by disaffected former directors, who hate Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the current executive director Howard Kohr in equal measure. As you might expect, the film’s politics are strictly J Street but still tolerable given the information being delivered. As one of the main pillars of the Israel Lobby, AIPAC deserves such a film that invites us to pick up the rock and look at the creepy-crawlies beneath. It is good companion piece to “Defamation”, a critique of the Anti-Defamation League done by a radical Israeli filmmaker that can be rented for $7 on Vimeo.

Founded in 1967, AIPAC was a small-scale liberal Zionist lobby headed by Tom Dine, a Democratic Party liberal opposed to the war in Vietnam, just like the other figures interviewed in the film. Their Israel was the imaginary country of plucky, socialist pioneers exemplifying true Jewish values. The film examines the turn to the Republican Party and the evangelical right during Reagan’s presidency that they hadn’t anticipated. By that time, the board had become composed of millionaire Jews with the same mindset as Sheldon Adelson. Probably, the interviewees had never allowed themselves to think in the same terms as Norman Finkelstein and Lenni Brenner. Toward the end of the film, we meet a couple of young Jews who evolved from AIPAC supporters to activists chaining themselves to the doors of its most recent conference location. Netanyahu has made it clear that he has no use for such Jews and even prefers the ideological company of men like ultraright bible-thumper John Hagee, who is profiled in the film. Guess who was a keynote speaker at one of his conferences. Tulsi Gabbard.

6. The Last Out

If you’ve seen “Hoop Dreams”, this documentary will be a companion-piece. The sport is baseball rather than basketball and the victims of a vicious recruitment process are Cubans, not African-Americans.

Sports agent Gus Dominguez lures Cuban baseball players to defect to Costa Rica where they will be housed in a training center and prepped for free agency in the American professional baseball market. They get free lodging, food and an allowance in the hopes of striking it rich but seldom do. The film profiles three players who do end up in the USA but as truck drivers and construction workers, not ball players.

Gus Dominguez is an old hand at this as revealed in a 2011 ESPN report:

ATLANTA — A federal appeals court on Monday handed a partial victory to a professional sports agent who was sentenced to prison for smuggling five Cuban baseball players into Florida.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Gustavo “Gus” Dominguez’s conviction on charges of transporting and harboring aliens. But the three-judge panel’s decision let stand his convictions on smuggling charges.

Dominguez was sentenced to five years in prison after he was convicted in April 2007 of paying for the players to be smuggled by boat from Cuba in 2004. He was released early from his term in January and his attorney Ben Kuehne said Monday he was thrilled with the court’s decision even though Dominguez is already free.

“The Last Out” shares the same sense of disillusionment as “The Jump”. For Cubans and Lithuanians, the USA was a paradise worth prison and death at sea to reach. After the past few years, perhaps it will be recognized more as Paradise Lost.

7. Stray

As impressed as I was with the six films listed above, my sentimental favorite was this companion piece to “Kedi”, the great Turkish documentary about street cats in Istanbul. “Stray” is about the street dogs, who were given the right to have the run of the city in the early 1900s when the removal of dogs to a barren island caused the death of more than 80,000. The horror over this attempt to “modernize” the city forced the Young Turks to pass legislation to prevent this from ever occurring again.

Unlike the cats of Istanbul, the dogs are tolerated rather than embraced. They fend for themselves, especially Zeytin (olive), a tan-colored medium-sized female mutt with a vague resemblance to a Labrador retriever that director Elizabeth Lo filmed over a two-year period. Her perseverance and her sensitivity are the mark of a great filmmaker. Unlike “Kedi”, we do not hear from ordinary Turks who pay tribute to the cats throughout the film. Except for background chatter heard over street noise, there is no other human dialogue but from a group of young, homeless Turkmen from Aleppo who love Zeytin almost as much as they love sniffing glue. There’s a sense that middle-class Turks might have as much use for the dogs as they do for the teen-aged addicts. In one scene, after Zeytin takes a dump in a city park, a couple of young, well-dressed women curse her out. She ignores them completely and goes on in her merry way.

With respect to commentary, I should add that Lo includes Diogenes’s words of wisdom about dogs. Like this one: “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.” I’d almost rephrase that as dogs and revolutionaries, but the jury is still out on that.

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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