The 2021 Socially Relevant Film Festival

Starting next Monday and ending on Sunday March 21st, the Socially Relevant Film Festival will present dozens of films through a virtual theater. Like last year, the pandemic has had an impact not only on this festival but all theaters in New York that cater to leading edge independent work. The big commercial theaters like AMC have opened under conditions of social distancing but the best leading-edge houses like Film Forum are streaming only. On the plus side, people everywhere will be able to see SR Festival films for $7 each, with a festival ticket available for $75. If you need any motivation to see one or all the films and have also found yourself appreciating films I recommended on CounterPunch, let me repeat my testimonial to the SR Film Festival in 2015. I would only add the words “unending economic crisis and pandemic”:

I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.

The four documentaries s under review below constitute just a tiny minority of the festival offerings. As is universally the case, I found all of them compelling. Except for the last, they deal with issues close to my heart and I suspect that they will be close to yours as well.

The Boys Who Said NO! (Monday, March 15, 4:00 PM)

Directed by Judith Ehrlich, who made the superlative “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” in 2009, the film is a history of the anti-draft movement that began in 1964 and lasted until 1972. While focused on the civil disobedience wing of the antiwar movement, it also serves as a terrific overview of the war and a reminder of why people my age were willing to go to prison for up to five years for burning a draft card or joining a “subversive” organization and risk careers because of a COINTELPRO. Hoover’s FBI provocations even caught me in its web.

One by one, a myriad of anti-draft veterans, mostly in their seventies now, recall how angry and frustrated they were with a war that went on relentlessly, its human cost impossible to comprehend. The bombing campaign in Vietnam had a tonnage that was greater than all past American wars put together. Additionally, it poisoned the water and soil of Vietnam with Agent Orange that not only left Vietnamese children deformed but also created a cancer epidemic among American GI’s. They had the misfortune of either spraying the herbicide or being close to the bushes that concealed it. After suing the government, they ended up with a settlement that cost Dow Chemical, et al, next to nothing. For those interested in finding out more about this atrocity, have a look at my review of “The People VS Agent Orange”.

Among the more prominent of the anti-draft activists who tell their story are David Harris, Joan Baez and Cleveland Sellers. David Harris, now 75, was an all-American boy who went to Stanford where he soon became active in the civil rights movement. The civil disobedience dynamic of the movement clearly led him to apply the same tactics in the anti-war movement with the blessing of Martin Luther King Jr., no less. Before long, Harris met and fell in love with Joan Baez who he married in a highly publicized ceremony. Just after she became pregnant, he began serving a 5-year sentence for resisting the  draft. Cleveland Sellers was a leader of SNCC who, like Harris, chose civil disobedience since that was SNCC’s strategy until it transformed into a Black Power group. Like Harris, he earned a 5-year prison term. One of the film’s important dimensions is highlighting the anti-draft sentiment in the Black community that finally persuaded Muhammad Ali to join the club.

As a Trotskyist during those tumultuous years, my ideology tended to almost see the anti-draft movement as a distraction from the task of mobilizing the working class. We didn’t use the term “petty-bourgeois individualism”, but I’ll bet that many comrades secretly felt that way. This remarkable film convinces me how dogmatic I was back then. As the film makes clear, the act of burning a draft car was done by an individual but just about every anti-draft protest was marked by a mass parade culminating in a rally in front of a draft board or a government building. Without these idealistic activists, the antiwar movement would have had less of an impact. I recommend this film to people my age who were activists back then and to young people today hoping to understand how the war turned our lives upside down.

“My Blood is Red”, (Tuesday, March 16, 2:30 PM)

Up until now, my knowledge of Brazilian indigenous peoples was limited to those like the Yanomami and the other forest dwellers who were featured in the film “Lives on the Edge” that I reviewed in February. In “Lives on the Edge”, the very question of survival was addressed since the 5,000 or so indigenous people living in Vale do Javari near the border with Peru were suffering epidemics of hepatitis and malaria, largely as a result of incursions into the land they supposedly held in common.

In “My Blood is Red”, Guarani-Kaiowá Indian Werá Jeguaka Mirim serves as the connecting thread in a story about an indigenous group that is not living within the isolated deep forest but in the middle of Mato Grosso, where the genocidal attack on Indians is greatest. This is a state where “development” proceeds at the most voracious pace in all of Brazil. When the film begins, we see Werá hooking up with Criolo, a major Brazilian rapper who is sympathetic to Indian causes and willing to promote the teenaged Werá’s career as a rapper himself. When we don’t see Werá in the recording studio with Criolo or other established rappers, he is visiting various Guarani-Kaiowá tribes and interviewing their leaders. Their stories are grim. Being pushed off their land in Mato Grosso, they organize confrontations with farmers that pits their bow and arrows against rifles.

In October 2012, a group of 170 Guarani Indians had camped near a farm in Mato Grosso. After a judge served an eviction order, they declared that they were ready to accept their extinction. They issued a statement that indicates how desperate the situation was and remains in Brazil:

We are already going to and want to be killed and buried along with our ancestors here where we are today, therefore, we ask the Government and the Federal Justice not to decree our eviction, but instead we request them to decree our mass death and to bury us all here. We ask them, once and for all, to decree our total decimation and extinction, besides sending many tractors to dig a large hole to drop and bury our bodies. This is our request to the federal judges. We already await this decision of the Federal Justice. Decree our mass death Guarani and Kaiowá of Pyelito Kus/Mbarakay and bury us here. Given that we fully decided it and won’t leave this place dead or alive.

Back To Sölöz, (Tuesday, March 16, 2:30 PM)

Sölöz is a village in the Bursa province just four hours south of Istanbul that director Serge Avedikian has visited over the years to capture on film his quest to track down the remnants of Armenian culture that mostly disappeared during the 1915 genocide. This was his grandfather’s village. During the forced march across the desert separating Turkey from Syria, his grandfather lost his parents just as happened to over a million others.

Serge Avedikian is omnipresent through this poignant and often disheartening film as he tries to eke out some acknowledgement from the village’s Turkish population that a genocide occurred. As the film begins, we see him in a museum dedicated to the memory of Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist who was assassinated in 2007 for simply advocating the integration of Turkish-Armenians into the wider Turkish society. For this, he was prosecuted three times for “denigrating Turkishness”, article 301 of the penal code.

Avedikian, a French-Armenian, has a long and distinguished career in the film industry. He is also a very warm and compassionate man who took a genuine interest in the village of Sölöz’s difficulties in a time of economic decline and instability. Each time he arrives there, he hugs the men who he might have met as a child in an earlier visit. All are willing to help in his quest to find the traces of Armenian presence there but none seem willing to acknowledge the genocide. One man attributes the deaths to the war when chaos prevailed. When Avedikian gently presses him on whether Turkish deaths began to approach the Armenian losses, he gets nowhere.

Avedikian’s main goal is to create a small museum in Sölöz that will be dedicated to the headstones of the deceased that he discovered at the ruins of an Armenian church. Some of the villagers are willing to help him out but in his absence their efforts peter out. Eventually, the headstones end up strewn across a field near the village but barely salvageable.

Despite all this, Avedikian presses on dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Armenian presence in Sölöz, even if it is only on film

Stalking Chernobyl, (March 15, 2021, 12:00 AM)

Despite the film’s title, this is less about the disaster than it is about life in the “exclusion zone” today.

Incredibly, the remains of the nuclear catastrophe have become Ukraine’s number one tourist attraction as people all across Europe come to explore the ghost town as if they were museum-hopping in Paris or London. For most, there is a morbid curiosity about Pripyat, the city that had to be evacuated within a couple of hours after the explosion at the Chenobyl power plant. The tourists appear to be largely young and eager to climb the walls of buildings and towers as if they were scaling cliffs in Utah.

However, the film’s main interest in in the “stalkers” as the title suggests. These are mostly young and very vigorous people who enter the exclusion zone without permission. They maintain a festive attitude during their stay there, sharing food and alcohol in gatherings that might remind you of spring break in Fort Lauderdale.

I found myself watching this film with the same kind of morbid curiosity that draws visitors to Pripyat. Director Iara Lee dedicated it to Andre Tarkovsky who made a film titled “Stalker” in 1979. It tells the story of an expedition led by a figure known as the “Stalker”, who takes two clients to a mysterious restricted site known simply as the “Zone”, where there supposedly is a room that grants a person’s innermost desires. I suppose there’s a connection with Lee’s film but it would take too much brainpower to figure out. In the meantime, I can recommend “Stalking Chernobyl” as an intriguing, offbeat work that demonstrates Nora Armani’s inclusivity as curator.

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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