Portland observer. (Portland, Or.) 1970-current, April 13, 2016, Page Page 16, Image 16

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    Page 16
April 13, 2016
Slate of Documentaries
C ontinued froM p age 13
the story of Sonita Alzadeh, an
Afghan teenager living illegally in
Iran and attending a school for ref-
ugees who desperately wants to be
a rapper. Among the obstacles she
faces? She lives in a culture that
forbids women from singing pub-
licly, that sees her as useful only
for obtaining a valuable marriage
contract that will help her desper-
ate family, and that severely limits
any kind of self-expression. The
filmmaker ends up walking some
interesting lines as Sonita enlists
her for help in getting to the U.S.
and in navigating her mother’s
disapproval--but it is a compelling
window into Sonita’s culture and
into the ways that even the most
oppressed teenagers struggle to
find their voices. It is slated for a
theatrical release in late May.
13. “Behemoth” has garnered
awards internationally and is a dev-
astating depiction of environmen-
tal degradation wrought by coal
mining in Inner Mongolia. The
director takes a poetic approach to
the subject, drawing a parallel to
Dante’s Inferno, and I must say, I
did feel as though I was watching
hell for 90 minutes. The director
lingers and finds the scope and an-
gles for depicting what is happen-
ing to a formerly lush landscape in
a way that makes your heart ache,
as does his focus on the exertions
of the people who perform the ago-
nizing and hellish work of moving
coal and doing other senseless acts.
You can almost feel their bodies
breaking down--and sure enough,
many such workers become very
ill and are not well-supported by
industry or the Chinese govern-
ment. The power of the images
here is best experienced on the big
screen, and there is no mistaking
the importance of bearing witness
to this scale of human folly.
14. “Call Me Marianna” has
achieved awards recognition in
Europe and at Full Frame, where it
won a new filmmaker award, and
examines the sex reassignment
journey of a woman in Poland.
Although its pace drags a bit and
the accompanying music is more
annoying than effectively por-
tentous, the film is nevertheless an
interesting window into one wom-
an’s experience, which involves
the loss of relationships and even
a court battle, as well as a cascade
of health problems. I appreciated
the opportunity to witness how
a non-famous person in central
Europe navigates these particular
treacherous waters.
15. “Raising Bertie” is the fruit
of the filmmaker’s six-year journey
with three young black men in rural
Bertie County in North Carolina,
trying to launch independent lives
in the face of limited opportunities,
economic hardship, and a paucity
of inspiration and hope from adults
around them. The film started as an
exploration of an alternative high
school founded by a determined
powerhouse of a local woman, but
the school closed early in the film-
ing for lack of funding. The young
men themselves are certainly wor-
thy of the filmmaker’s attention,
and they do manage to survive, but
I would not call it thriving. The
film is an opportunity to fill out
some details of your picture of the
challenges faced by young men in
communities like these; if you are
paying attention at all, the legacy
of slavery is hard to miss.
16. “Gleason” follows the story
of Steve Gleason, a Spokane native
and popular former player for the
New Orleans Saints who was diag-
nosed with ALS at age 34, just as
he and his wife Michel were start-
ing a family. The couple is as genu-
ine, courageous, and good-hearted
as any two young people who have
faced such unthinkable challenges
could possibly be, and Gleason has
led significant advocacy on behalf
of ALS patients--but I also think
the film could have benefited from
a more mature directorial perspec-
tive and perhaps with a bit more
time for the story to unfold. ALS
is as brutal as it gets; I suspect it
would be an unusual human being
who could do this story justice as
a director. That said, it won spe-
cial mention from the Grand Jury
at Full Frame, and Gleason and his
family are the most sympathetic
subjects imaginable. The film will
be released theatrically in July.
In addition to the feature-length
films I saw, I caught excellent two
shorts. “I, Destini” is an animat-
ed short co-directed by a Durham
teenager who reflects on the dif-
ferences between the experience
of her African American family
(including a brother accused of a
serious crime) and her white class-
mates. Her parents helped her with
the project, which began when
she was 13, including by working
on the animation itself. There is
something profound about a fam-
ily working through trauma by
drawing together their response
to what happened--and the film
is quite powerful. If you’re inter-
ested in screening the film, visit
idestini.info, where you can also
watch a clip of it. “The Black Belt”
examines the after-effects of the
Alabama legislature’s decision in
2015 to close 31 DMV locations
in predominantly black communi-
ties to save $100,000 for the state.
Residents must now obtain voter
ID cards from ramshackle mobile
units that visit those communities
very rarely. The film documents a
particularly clear example of in-
stitutionalized oppression. Watch
for it on the website for Field of
Vision, theintercept.com/fieldofvi-