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Some of the most moving and thought-provoking documentaries I watched at AFI Fest in June went to the heart of racial and class divisions in our society. They told stories that made clear the immense challenge Americans, especially white Americans, face in facing reality.
The theme was launched on opening night with an HBO film, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, by Peter, George and Teddy Kunhardt. Stevenson’s best-selling book Just Mercy chronicled his uphill fight against systemic racialized injustice in the criminal courts. In True Justice, an extended interview with Stevenson, along with his speeches at events, forms the backbone of the film. His stories of justice routinely sabotaged by racism are bone-chilling, and he easily connects them to America’s denial of the long legacy of slavery. Supporting his arguments is interview material with one of the innocent men he finally got off death row. It took Stevenson working on the case for 14 of the 30 years Anthony Ray Hinton spent in a five-foot-by-eight-foot solitary cell. Hinton, in his mild-mannered and thoughtful style, strives for forgiveness, to avoid poisoning his own future. Stevenson wishes that the society, and the Supreme Court, would ask forgiveness for past injustice, and address reparations, in order to avoid injustice poisoning us all.
Stevenson’s memorial to those who were lynched, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which we see in the film, is a step toward making the past part of our present. Familiar montages of historical imagery, including from lynchings and the civil rights movement, accompany and illustrate the points he makes.
Bryan Stevenson’s powerful personality—charming, modest, persuasive, and intensely committed—carries the film. His underlying theme is simply that we must come to terms with the legacy of slavery, to be able to live both with ourselves and others—and make justice possible.
An unforgettable companion piece at the festival was Jacqueline Olive’s Always in Season, which is a more aesthetically interesting work, and equally thought provoking. The film follows the struggle of one family to investigate the murder of their 17-year-old relative. Police summarily called the hanging a suicide, but even the mortician found plenty of evidence contradicting that judgment. Indeed, Lennon Lacy’s murder may hang on one of the oldest tropes in lynching—interracial love.
But police in the small Southern town, where no one even needs the Klan to justify white supremacy, haven’t taken on the challenge. Olive interweaves the long, ugly, and all-too-hidden history of lynching with this one family’s story, and convincingly shows that lynching is a current reality. The film draws on deep research, evident among other places in archival montages, and features a complex soundtrack that is appropriately haunting. Editing brings the horror and outrage of the present to the past and locates the present in a dark context.
You cannot see lynching as a historical or regional anomaly after watching these films. It’s as American as picnics, which sometimes have been held at lynchings. Always in Season will show on public TV’s Independent Lens in January.
Border South, made by Mexican immigrant Raúl Pastrana, is another salutary piece of storytelling from immigrants’ perspectives. Pastrana follows travellers on the long route through Mexico from Central America. The dangers and threats they face are daunting, but equally evident is the range of personalities, the ingenuity, and the creativity they bring. The film focuses on one particularly engaging—and often funny—young man, who after narrowly avoiding murder by railway police wins a humanitarian visa in Mexico. Determined to get to the U.S., he faces overwhelming realities.
Pastrana’s stories from the road are good reminders of the talent and skill it takes to be such a migrant. “I decided to keep the focus on them during the journey itself, to show how smart they are and have to be, to manage it,” Pastrana said at the festival.
Pastrana also follows University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León, who researches deaths in the unforgiving Southwest desert. De León’s sobering speech to men at a migrant camp is a cold dose of realism. He tells them how hard an illegal journey across the border will be, and that many of them will die. Then he pleads with them that if their companions die, to remember their names and tell an official. Pastrana spends too much of his time trying to find out, for endlessly hopeful families, if their loved ones’ remains are in the desert.
Border South’s many small revealing moments evidence the power of documentary, to tell us what is left out of even excellent researched reporting on this urgently topical issue.
The festival also brought in some international work that I was deeply grateful for, which also spoke to themes of race and class.
In My Blood It Runs, by Australian Maya Newell, follows the family of an Aboriginal boy over several years. Ten-year-old Dujuan has inherited, his relatives say, healing gifts, and he has obligations to study and use them. While he masters this training easily, he struggles with school, where the teachers don’t demonstrate the dimmest understanding of his culture. He’s at a precarious age, just old enough to be taken from his family by child welfare services, and thus to be condemned to the fate of generations of aboriginals—to spend his life alienated from his language and culture.
But even though his family lectures him on the dangers, Dujuan acts out his frustration and anger. After getting expelled, he moves north to live in his dad’s Aboriginal community. He begins to flourish in school, and continues to learn his own culture’s language and skills. He learns to protest the long, and continuing practice of culturally disenfranchising Aboriginals: “Kids in country, not in custody,” he chants. His goal, he says, is now to support Aboriginal land and cultural rights.
Newell lives in Alice Springs, which has the highest population of Aboriginals of any Australian city. She has worked with local communities for years, including in programs to record oral histories and train new Aboriginal storytellers. This work shows off her long investment in the relationships she has built. With access built from trust, her film is intimate, insightful, and loving without being sentimental.
Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam’s Chez Jolie Coiffure is a priceless immigrant’s-eye view of daily life in Europe. A Cameroonian in Belgium, she follows a hair stylist, Sabine, who has an outsized personality—alternately bored, bossy and defiant as she styles, offers personal advice, and bails out friends. Her little shop is in a corridor of a mall in an African neighbourhood of Brussels. Shockingly, white tourists regularly parade in large groups through the corridor to peer through the stores’ glass fronts. “Move on. This isn’t the zoo!” Sabine sometimes yells at them. Slow paced, the film is also an addictive experience. Icarus Films distributes it. Your university library could use it.
Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family follows members of a family business—running private ambulance services in Mexico City. If you need an ambulance in Mexico City, you can’t depend on government services. And if you call for a private ambulance, it’s possible several will respond, each trying to outrace each other to get your business. And then the victor might discover that you don’t have the money to pay. The nightly grind of reverse ambulance-chasing is part dark comedy, and part tragedy, pitting the poor against each other. This, by the way, is what shrinking government services looks like. The apocalypse is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.