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The broccoli of the Sundance Film Festival

2014-01-27 19:00
"Africa" "Syria" "Bahrain" - Great documentaries move beyond the stereotypes and remind you that real people worth caring about are fighting for their country there.

I've seen more violence, starvation and dead bodies in the last five days than in my entire life before going on a documentary-watching binge at Sundance Film Festival.

"But Cape Town is an holiday island in hell," an African-American film fan said. We were standing outside, discussing things, a group of random strangers, a few of whom had raised their hand in the Q&A after the screening of  We Come as Friends, a controversial, brave, visually beautiful and profoundly afro-pessimistic film, in which director Hubert Sauper takes on the neocolonialism of oil and mining companies, and winds up portraying black africans as a bunch of clueless, illiterate, inarticulate, violent, scary and naive idiots, and most foreigners in Africa as cynical exploiters.

In his film, cruel and crafty pale-faces trick and manipulate African people into selling their land for the modern equivalent of a few brass beads (true). They corrupt and bully them with western values (complicated). The disenfranchised Africans are loud, incomprehensible (even when Sauper bothers with subtitles, which in crowd scenes he usually doesn't) and the only vaguely activist voice is from someone who was born there, but is now an American. When I questioned him on this, Sauper said that activists' "planes are shot out of the sky". All the more reason to interview them? But the audience lapped up his portrayal of African people as cyphers in a violent game of sins.

"I was surprised by how aware they were of their situation", the same film fan from before also said. He was talking about an old man with serious wet brain or advanced dementia who was filmed ranting while dressed in a pilot's suit – debris from a crashed plane.  How patronizing! How little, exactly, do people like him expect of Africa?

The Africa in We Come as Friends doesn't seem worth saving. There's truth in the film, but only the ugly kind – the truth of despair.

Although the We Come as Friends won the "bravery" award from Sundance, I feel it was eclipsed by three other inspiring and also courageous films that dealt with similar topics: E-Team by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, We Are the Giant by Greg Barker and Goran Hugo Olsson's intellectually daring and beautifully cut Concerning Violence.

E-Team follows researchers from Human Rights Watch as they go undercover in war zones from Bosnia to Syria, to record rights abuses and expose them via the media. And before you think this is some "rah rah peace joint", it's not. As one of the characters says: It's only about trying to make sure that war is waged in a less terrible way than it might be if nobody shone a light on the terrible things people do in the dark.

Exploring the courage or ordinary individuals, We Are the Giant  links peoples' movements and revolutionaries from Mandela to Stalin to Ghandi, from Syria to Egypt to Bahrein, as they grapple with the question of whether violence is ever the answer. Its primary focus rests on a family in Bahrein whose peaceful protests have one sister and her father in jail and another exiled. Their insistence of peace – for fear of becoming what they oppose – is humbling, shocking and inspiring and does so much to expose preconceptions about Islam.

Documentaries can change the world

It's harder to describe and define Concerning Violence. Imagine going to a lecture and being hypnotized and taught at the same time? Exquisitely shot, Concerning Violence is oddly comforting to me, specially after hearing even left wing American media question why the ANC resorted to armed struggle.  Amazing archival footage of guerrilla movements in Angola and interviews with colonialists in Zimbabwe are woven together by brilliant editing, defining the undefinable, and reminding us that a revolution, like a supermodel, always begins as beautiful and then, like your mama told you, later earns its face.

What's the difference between these three films and We Come as Friends? There was nowhere to go from We Come as Friends – and certainly not Africa or anywhere classified as the "3rd (class?) World)". Even when questioned, the director responded: "Cape Town is just like Europe, but the rest of Africa isn't like that you know." Do I?

Yes. I have been all over South Africa and to six other countries in Africa. And they are not hell. Not everywhere. Not all the time. Not forever, even if they are sometimes in places.  

Documentary films really can change the world, and if you're going to see a film made by someone that cares about the world, Sundance is a good place to go looking. Even if some people are saying stupid shit, at least they're talking about it.

* "Broccoli" is an film industry term for films that are good for you, but people don't watch. I happen to like broccoli provided it comes with enough sauce.

Jean Barker is at Sundance on a Film School Pass, to check it out and pig out on new movies. She hopes to return next time as a guest of the festival. She blogs at jeanbarker.wordpress.com and tweets as @jeanbarker


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