AFI Docs is upon us, with Wednesday evening’s kickoff at the Newseum set to screen Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus,” about the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in sports.
While it’s impossible to see all the films, here a few to keep on your radar this weekend.
“Atomic Homefront” from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rebecca Cammisa shows the grass-roots efforts of suburban St. Louis citizens fighting against past secret government uranium enrichment in the area as part of World War II atomic bomb research. The radioactive waste has harmed the residents — many of them dying of cancer — and the entire site stands at the precipice of a major underground fire that could be an even greater disaster for the entire community.
Ms. Cammisa follows the citizens, most of whom are poor and cannot afford to move, in a David-and-Goliath battle with the EPA and the site’s contractor to deal with the problem — all while watching helplessly as their family, friends and neighbors succumb to cancer.
An astonishing effort, and a reminder that past sins can never been atoned for if they are not even acknowledged.
Screens Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Landmark E Street Cinema.
The State Theater in Washington, Iowa, claims to be the oldest continuously running movie house in the world, with films having been screened there since 1897. It’s quite a record, indeed, but even more impressive is the work of local historian Michael Zahs to save from entropy a trove of turn-of-the-century films that fell into his family archives. Mr. Zahs’ admirable — some might say quixotic — work is the subject of a quirky yet highly engaging doc called “Saving Brinton” by filmmakers Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne.
Sobering statistics tell us that some 80 percent to 90 percent of all silent films have been lost to time, so the treasures Mr. Zahs uncovers are that much more precious. In 1981 Mr. Zahs’ family purchased the home of William Franklin Brinton, one of the first motion picture impresarios, who traveled the heartland showcasing the new art from of cinema to rapturous crowds. Many of Brinton’s films were left behind in the house, and Mr. Zahs has made it his mission to “save” them.
Mr. Zahs, sporting a beard worthy of Methuselah, is both eager and earnest in what some might call a fool’s errand, but his is indeed a noble mission, as his quest is to both save not only some of the earliest movies ever made, but also to bolster his town of Washington, a largely rural farming community known little by Iowans, let alone anyone outside the Hawkeye State. (A Google Maps search of the town shows the Walmart as its most prominent feature.)
In Mr. Zahs, Messrs. Haines, Richard and Sherburne have found one of the most unlikely, yet most likeable, heroes of contemporary nonfiction cinema. With a Midwestern shrug and the absence of even the hint of irony, he sets about the task of rescuing as much of the nitrate stock as possible with the help of film preservationists, academics and artists.
A festival of his treasures plays at the State, accompanied by live musicians, and Mr. Zahs is shown throughout the film bestowed with award after award for his efforts. The poignancy of his vocation becomes even more sharp as his mother, in her eighties, gradually succumbs to old age in a nursing home — a stark reminder that time takes us all and smothers all works in the sands of entropy, but it is an accounting of just a piece, however small, of how our cognizance of our own history is in fact what makes us human.
Screens June 17 at 4:15 pm. At Silver 2 and June 18 at 4:15 p.m. at Landmark 7.
“City of Ghosts” from filmmaker Matthew Heineman (of the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land”) may be the bravest example of filmmaking the world has seen in some time. Its subjects are Syrian citizen journalists from Raqqa, which saw Arab Spring protests against longtime strongman leader Bashar Assad, but then, after Mr. Assad quashed the resistance, a vacancy was left — and a fiery imam named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stepped in to declare a new caliphate across the Muslim world.
The Islamic State was born, and its reign of terror, disruption of both Middle East and Western society and inhuman brutality has continued ever since.
Like all such insurgencies, the Islamic State has declared itself infallible, the one true and unquestionable interpretation of Islam, and any who dare question its authority and methods are hunted down and executed publicly. Mr. Heineman’s film does not dare blink, showing gruesome footage of the terror army’s tactics as it humiliates and slaughters its enemies in the streets of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, for all to behold.
Free press is all but unknown there, but the committed group of reporters continues to fight the Islamic State propaganda machine by broadcasting the truth about its atrocities to the world on a Facebook site called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.”
This naturally draws the ire of ISIS, which first targets the reporters and then their families. Some flee to nearby Turkey, but even there, as they discover, they are not safe from ISIS’ reach, whose poison begins to spread beyond the Middle East and into Europe and even America.
Mr. Heineman follows this dedicated group of Syrians, who continue to report on the horror in the hometown from afar, first from Turkey and then, when even that becomes unsafe, Germany. The threat of death is ever present, with soldiers of ISIS even sending them photos of whatever safe house they find. Their on-the-ground reporters in Raqqa face even graver threats, daily risking death or worse to record undercover video and send it via encrypted internet or satellite means out of the country.
What these men have done, and continue to do, is nothing short of heroic. Friends and family members who did not leave Syria are killed, and even colleagues who made it out are assassinated, sometimes in broad daylight.
One of the reporters tells the camera that he and his cohorts all come from comfortable middle-class lives, acknowledging they were among the lucky few who could escape with both limb and peace of mind — if such a thing is possible — intact. They wax on the very real possibility that they will never again be able to return to the home they once knew on the Euphrates River. For what the Islamic State has not already destroyed — in physical terror or in spreading their hateful ideology to even the children of Syria — has been continued thanks to U.S., Russian and other allied bombing campaigns to root out the terror army.
There is no braver cause than telling the truth, particularly in one of the world’s most dangerous places, and where, as under all totalitarian regimes, the official line is gospel and not to be questioned, and all pronouncements otherwise are smashed.
And even in Germany, certain reactionary elements decry the Syrian refugee influx into mainland Europe as “polluting” the purity of European blood, and tell them to “go back to ISIS.” It’s a stirring, chilling echo of Hitler’s paragon hailing of ethnic German purity.
And even on this side of the Atlantic, many decry giving Syrian refugees haven.
The more things change … .
At a time when the U.S. president daily assaults “fake news,” and a segment of the American public continues to believe him, the search — nay, the need — for truth is more important than ever. We are fortunate to live in a country where the worst that will likely happen to a journalist is to be at the mercy of Twitter fury. “City of Ghosts” is a stark, dangerous reminder that many in the world do not enjoy such a luxury.
Greater cinematic heroes than these brave men, who continue their crusade against the terror army still in charge of a significant portion of the Middle East, will not likely be found again anytime soon.
One of the year’s best films.
In English, Arabic and German, with subtitles. Screens June 16 at 6:15 p.m. at Landmark 6 and June 17 at 7 p.m. at Silver 2.
In a similar vein, one film not to be missed this weekend is Adel Khan Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen’s outstanding “Recruiting for Jihad,” in which Mr. Farooq, an Islamic Norwegian filmmaker, follows the notorious jihadi recruiter Ubaydullah Hussain as he tries to conscript Norwegian Muslims to the cause of terror.
It was a brave move on the parts of Messrs. Farooq and Rolfsen to even attempt this project, and even more startling is the access that Hussain allows them into his sanctum as he uses his phone, internet and in-person meetings to convince young Muslims to join up with the Islamic State. Some he persuades to go to Syria, and in one of the most searing sequences, Mr. Farooq inquires as to the hypocrisy of someone like Hussain enjoying Western democratic freedoms to incite such hatred, and then in the same breath decrying those same values.
Hussain lacks any sense of irony or equivocation. The world, he believes, must not only be Islamic, but under Shariah law. The entire planet will be better, he says, with this madness imposed upon all.
Incredibly, the filmmakers themselves then become part of the story as Norway’s authorities, intent on building a case against Hussain and his cohorts, raid and seize their documentary footage, thereby thrusting the issue of freedom of speech and press up against state concerns about security.
It continues to be a delicate dance, but one that is ever more important in the era of press being portrayed as villains.
In English, Arabic and Norwegian, with subtitles. Screens Friday at 8:45 p.m. at Landmark 6.
Rock ‘n’ roll unquestionably came from black music, but what most of us — this reviewer included — never knew is that American Indians’ roots in rock reach back even further. The outstanding new documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” shows how America’s indigenous peoples have had perhaps an even greater influence on rock than any other segment of the country’s ethnic makeup.
Filmmakers Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana detail how runaway slaves were often taken in by American Indians, and this led to a mixing of traditions that gave rise to the precedents of rock itself.
“That’s Indian music? I thought that was African music,” bluesman Guy Davis waxes at one point in the doc, adding that the two groups hoped their music would make them “invulnerable to the white man.”
“Was that music the blues? It might not have sounded like it, but baby that was the blues!” Mr. Davis says emphatically.
Such a point is backed up by the fact that the banjo was a plantation instrument, not a white instrument, even though its use came to be associated later, of course, with bluegrass, country and early Americana, i.e, roots music.
There are no divisions in music, only mutual borrowing.
The title itself comes from the Link Wray riff “Rumble,” which the film’s subjects dissect and trace back to Wray’s Shawnee heritage.
Talking heads include Robbie Robertson of The Band, who has Native American blood, Stevie Salas, and perhaps the most prominent American Indian musician, Randy Castillo, who was Ozzy Osbourne’s drummer until his death in 2002 from cancer.
The case is even made that Mick Jagger’s distinctive vocals owe far more to American Indian performance than the blues. It is just one more piece of the complicated puzzle that is rock — America’s gift to the world.
Screens Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Landmark 1.
A more heartbreaking film might not be seen this weekend than Laura Checkoway’s “Edith+Eddie,” a short doc about a nonagenarian couple who are also America’s oldest interracial newlyweds. However, this unlikely love story is threatened by feuding family members who believe that one — or both — can no longer care for themselves and wish to move Edith to Florida against her wishes.
In just 28 minutes, Ms. Checkoway highlights issues of elder abuse and the selfishness of those seeking the estate rather than the good of their elderly relations.
Screens Friday at 1:45 at the Close Ties Shorts Program at Silver 3.