Friday, June 24, 2011

Silverdocs movies

Give Up Tomorrow is the story of Paco and six other young men, who were accused of a rape and murder they did not commit. Paco, the main subject of the film, is vouched for by classmates and teachers who say that he was hundreds of miles away from the crime scene at the time. Through possible misidentification of the bodies at the crime scene, and the alleged victim's mother wielding undue influence in the investigation, the Philippines justice system is revealed to be at best incompetent and at worst extremely corrupt. It's revealed that the alleged victim's father was once a business associate of feared Filipino drug lord Philip Lim, and his daughters vanished right before he was scheduled to testify in a case against Lim; however, a journalist interviewed who wanted to pursue that side of the story was rebuffed by his editors. The victim's mother is overly theatrical in her grief, and later unapologetic about her crusade against Paco, and through her interviews, comes off as very unsympathetic as the film goes on. Paco, however, is very sympathetic. He refuses to flee the country when first accused (against the advice of his family), believing justice will be served because he is innocent, and refuses to give up hope, however hopeless his situation becomes. He never shows the extreme levels of grief that his family does, he remains calm even in dire circumstances, confident that his innocence will come to light and he will be freed. Periodic vindications, such as an overturn of his death sentence and the revelation of corruption in the officials who prosecuted him, are met with further setbacks, like the promise of being freed if he confesses to his crime. But Paco refuses to confess to something he didn't do. In prison, he says, he has three rules; he won't kill himself, he won't kill anyone else, and he won't bring trouble to himself. The title comes from another of Paco's sayings; he says, if he has to give up, he will, "give up tomorrow," and when tomorrow comes, he says the same thing. The story is told through interviews and placards to provide background, with an underdog hero, Paco, facing multiple villains, a corrupt system and the crusading and deceitful mother of his alleged victim.
Lest viewers think that drastic miscarriages of justice are strictly an overseas phenomenon, Scenes of a Crime, which examines police interrogation techniques in the case of a man accused of murdering his infant son, shows that the American justice system has its own flaws. One audience member said the film "made me sick to my stomach." The detectives, who readily admit to using deceit and outright lies to get a confession, do not come off looking good, although they are apparently proud of what they do. Two jurors are interviewed, who do not mention the medical evidence disputing the prosecution's case (evidence that the infant had a severe bacterial infection that had caused him to show signs of illness for days before his death), but just "I saw the confession" and treat that as enough for a conviction. The defense is denied the right to put an expert on interrogation techniques on the stand (a move that one juror said may have changed the outcome of the trial, but another calls "insulting" because "I saw the video"), but with their medical experts, are not fully deterred. Adrian Thomas is ultimately convicted, and the prosecution stands by their story (with one prosecutor describing the case with extreme pathos as though she's still in front of the jury). One of the film's most powerful elements is presenting video of Thomas' interrogation alongside the detectives' admissions of trickery, and with clips from an interrogation training video, which advocates the use of psychological deceit to get the confession. One juror, although disapproving of the interrogation techniques, had the attitude "If that's what works." The most troubling element was how the sound, solid medical evidence, which could have at least produced reasonable doubt, was all but ignored by the jury (a fact further confirmed by phone interviews the filmmakers conducted with jurors who did not want to be filmed) in favor of the "confession." The obvious implication here is that medical evidence was too technical and, perhaps, "boring," but the confession was immediate and easily understood, or so they thought. The reason one juror would have been "insulted" by an interrogation expert explaining that the confession had been coerced and the suspect had been guided by the interrogators (a fact quite apparent in the video, and it should be noted that this interrogation lasted ten hours), is that no one likes to be told that their perception could be wrong, that human perception is fallible. But this fact has come before the criminal justice system in the past, with studies showing the trouble of relying on eyewitness testimony, and the phenomenon of coerced confessions has come up in the past. One of the filmmakers told the audience in the discussion following the film that 25 percent of the convicted criminals later cleared by DNA evidence through the Innocence Project had given confessions. Another troubling element was that the prosecution's medical witnesses, including the on-duty doctor who claimed a skull fracture had killed the infant, refused to be interviewed for the film. Upon later examination, no skull fracture was found on the child. The police based their suspicions on this faulty medical testimony from a doctor who, by his own admission, had not slept in two days. The film interviews people involved on both sides of the case, as well as Adrian Thomas, currently serving a 25 to life sentence for a crime he says he didn't commit. There is no narration, just the stories of investigators, doctors and attorneys, and Thomas, and the interrogation. The filmmakers step back and let their subjects speak for themselves, and, as they said in the post-screening interview, leave the topic open to discussion. While the film ends up on the side of the defense, it is the troubling interrogation video, not skewed commentary from the filmmakers, that leads to this conclusion. Despite the downbeat message, one of the filmmakers, who I spoke to after the screening, feels that some good can come out of it. She expressed her wish to show it to police officers, to show them the ill effects of current, widely accepted police tactics.

Silverdocs 2011 was not all depressing examinations of corrupt justice systems. To Be Heard is a genuinely inspiring film about a creative writing program in the Bronx. It's unique among the documentary genre in that it presents a solution rather than just a problem. Three students in the program become well-known to the audience to the point where their successes and failures are truly felt by the viewer. When Anthony, a truly talented poet and performer, gets in trouble with the law and can't seem to change his detrimental character flaws, there is a genuine disappointment. When Karina is kicked out of her house after a fight with her mother, there is palpable sadness. When, at the end, we learn she has become a teacher in the Power Writing program (we see her earlier giving journals to her younger siblings and guiding them through writing), the audience cheered. The audience I saw the film with cheered heavily when learning that Pearl, an intelligent, driven and positive young woman, had been accepted to Sarah Lawrence, her dream college. By showing the failures of the students along with the successes, the film avoids "inspirational film" cliches, showing that the writing program is not a miracle cure, but merely a tool to help students who want to help themselves. Teacher and filmmaker Roland Legiardi-Laura said in the panel discussion following the film that this is a program that can be replicated anywhere, that there is no real trick to it, but just giving students a platform to express themselves and learn the power of words (a power, Roland tells them, the world "doesn't want you to have"). This film could be an educational tool, to inspire other schools to replicate the program, and there were educators in the audience, some of whom expressed interest in doing exactly that in their own curricula. This is a film that has the potential to not only inspire viewers, but to revolutionize the American education system, which teachers, parents and students around the country have said is going rapidly downhill.
Being Elmo is a lighthearted, and inspiring in its own way, portrait of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who created the iconic Sesame Street character Elmo. Clash grew up in Baltimore, obsessively watching Sesame Street and, he says, anything done by Jim Henson. Through his local puppet shows at schools and hospitals, he gets on local television and, later, a chance to work with Henson and on Sesame Street. The film goes through his bewilderment as his creation Elmo becomes a cultural phenomenon, and the paradox that entertaining millions of children had taken him away from his own daughter (an issue I wish the film had explored in more depth). Toward the end of the film, Clash is shown giving a child, also interested in puppetry, a tour of the Sesame Street studio and puppet workshop, just as Jim Henson's puppeteers had done for him early in his own career. Another affecting moment has Clash, and Elmo, meeting a sick child, and while Elmo is hugging the child, the camera pans down to Clash, holding up the puppet, fighting back tears. He's moved by what's going on, but can't break character. Elmo can't be sad. The film's best moment comes when Clash describes his flash of inspiration for the character of Elmo. Taking Frank Oz's advice that every puppet character "needs a hook," the hook for Elmo hits Clash on a train ride. Elmo ends up with characteristics of his parents, who Clash says supported him and his dream from the beginning. He gives Elmo his father's imagination and his mother's positive energy. Elmo's hook, Clash realizes, is "love...Elmo loves you." Here, the creator of an icon not only explains how he came up with the character, but also the character's appeal. Young or old, who doesn't like to feel loved?