- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

The right subject

When it comes to making a fascinating documentary, picking a subject is half the battle. The second series of Albert Maysles shorts, which screened Wednesday afternoon at the Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring, proved that maxim to be true: The subjects were Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Orson Welles and artist Christo.

The short on Mr. Brando was especially electric, just as the man himself was especially electric - a charismatic force with few rivals. Of course, as the 30-minute documentary reveals, he would have mocked such a suggestion coming from a man like myself - someone who never met him and is only repeating banalities heard elsewhere.

“Meet Marlon Brando” is several things, including a portrait of an artist and an unflinching look at a difficult man. Its most interesting feature, however, is its hostility toward the celebrity media. As the great actor points out to interviewer after interviewer - “Meet Marlon Brando” captures one day during a media junket for his film “Morituri” - we don’t actually know the man apart from what we read through the media’s filter. Unfiltered Mr. Brando is a sight to behold, alternately humorous and snide.

This short is a deconstruction of the notion that we truly can know what drives a person from a 15-minute interview, and a reminder to not believe everything we read in the newspaper.

Although Mr. Capote, Mr. Welles and Christo are interesting subjects, Mr. Brando proves that a truly great documentary needs a truly fascinating subject.

Forgiving genocide?

“My Neighbor, My Killer” might best be understood as a companion piece to Philip Gourevitch’s stunning work on the Rwandan genocide, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.” If Mr. Gourevitch’s book looked at the genocide itself, director Anne Aghion’s “My Neighbor, My Killer” looks at what happens when a genocide-ravaged society tries to pick up the pieces and put itself back together.

A sparse, no-frills documentary, Miss Aghion’s film records the tales of people whose families were slaughtered in front of them and the apologies - or lack thereof - from the perpetrators. After the civil war that wracked Rwanda and led to the murder of almost 1 million Tutsis by the Hutu majority, the government set up a series of Gacaca Tribunals. These essentially were truth-and-reconciliation hearings: Neighbors accused neighbors, neighbors judged neighbors; those who owned up to their crimes were, largely, freed.

What Miss Aghion so deftly shows is the meaninglessness of forgiveness in this context. After a question about forgiveness, one of the women she is talking to says, “These whites ask the strangest questions.” This response elicited chuckles from the audience, but it’s not meant to be funny: What does it mean to forgive someone who murdered your children and husband simply because of their ethnicity? Is everything back to normal? Does life just go on?

“My Neighbor, My Killer” screens again at 11:30 a.m. Friday. Miss Aghion will be in attendance for a question-and-answer session after the screening.

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