Eugene Weekly : Movies : 10.6.11

From Activism to (New) Zealand
Film festival brings an alphabet soup of documentaries
by John Locanthi

Documentaries come in many different forms. Originally a very dry, informative genre, in recent years the documentary has morphed into self-proclaiming activism and even philosophical essays that deliberately mislead the viewer, as in Orson Welles’ F for Fake. The Good Works Film Festival in town this week at Bijou Cinemas and the Hult features a selection that runs the gamut from traditional documentaries to Michael Moore imitators spending as much time discussing themselves as their subject.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

When the Mountains Tremble, a documentary about the Guatemalan genocide in the early 1980s, first aired at the inaugural Sundance Film Festival. The movie caused an international uproar and resulted in Rigoberta Menchú, one of the few to speak out about the brutality, winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Pamela Yates made that earth-shattering film, and in 2011’s Granito, she wants you to know it.

Styled as part-memoir, part-political thriller, Granito follows the efforts of Yates, a Spanish lawyer, and others to bring former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to justice in an international court. Before this, however, the viewer is treated to a lot of clips and B-roll from the When the Mountains Tremble. This older footage gives viewers a sketch of what happened in that Latin American country in 1981-2, for those who haven’t seen the original documentary. Yates rarely misses a chance to show herself in these clips, in case you were curious just who was documenting the living hell that had become most rural, indigenous Guatemalans’ lives.

Hundreds of thousands were “disappeared” under the brutal military regimes propped up by Uncle Sam. In recent years, as Granito shows, researchers and investigators have found reams of evidence and obtained un-classified documents to prove these orders were coming from the highest levels of the military. But the Guatemalan government refused to let Ríos Montt be extradited and tried for his crimes. There will be no ultimate justice, but it remains important to remember the atrocities of the past and treasure those civilians that survived.


The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls

A yodeling musical comedy show put on by lesbian twins from the backwoods of New Zealand? It sounds too exotic to be true, but the Topp Twins have become cultural icons in their native land. 

Untouchable Girls follows Jools and Lynda Topp through the early days of working on their parents’ farm and performing on the streets, to their many flamboyant characters, to their political activism and finally to Jools’ battle with breast cancer.

Director Leanne Pooley weaves together live performances and interviews with the Topp Twins and their alter egos, as well as talks with numerous satirists, comedians and friends, to give a full picture of these effervescent Kiwis turned gay icons. Viewers watch the duo overcome several hardships with a laugh and a yodel.


Between Two Worlds

In 2009, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was caught in a whirlwind of controversy: Organizers decided to screen Rachel, a documentary about American activist and, in some circles, political martyr Rachel Corrie. Twenty-three-year-old Corrie was run over by a bulldozer in 2003 while protesting the demolition of homes in Gaza. What followed the controversial screening was an intense debate about the very meaning of being Jewish.

Filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman come from different backgrounds. Kaufman’s father, a veteran of WWII, helped liberate a concentration camp in Buchenwald. An ardent Zionist, he believed a Jewish state was necessary for the preservation of his people. Snitow’s mother was a former communist who viewed the Soviet Union as a social utopia before becoming an important Jewish political figure in the United States. Two different political upbringings, yet both explicitly Jewish.

This documentary creates an open dialogue about Israel and American Jewish identity. Is airing a film about a woman protesting Israeli policy inherently anti-Semitic? Is unquestioning support of Israel a requisite for being truly Jewish? Is building a Holocaust museum on the site of an 800-year-old Muslim cemetery acceptable behavior? 

Although Between Two Worlds may not definitively answer these questions, it does feature candid interviews from rabbis, students, political activists and other members of the Jewish community as they struggle to talk about these issues.


The ubiquitous use of plastics in Bag It

Bag it

Americans use 60,000 plastic bags every five minutes. This is the problem Jeb Berrier initially confronts in Bag It, a documentary that later turns into an exploration of the ubiquitous use of plastic and its effects on both our society and the environment. 

Plastic is a nice, cheap polymer popularized in the 1960s. We think of it as packaging material, bags or toys, but as Berrier shows, it’s also used in tin cans, the lining of soap containers and much, much more. Plastic doesn’t naturally break down. It’s filling our oceans. It’s filling our landfills. And most people don’t even know what it is made of.

Bag It follows Berrier as he seeks out ways to deal with the problem: First, by not using plastic bags; next by analyzing the different varieties of plastic and the ambiguous way they are listed on products; then ending with a plea to simply cut back on consumption. Berrier talks with many like-minded experts, continuously complains about his inability to get an interview with anyone inside the plastic industry and American Chemical Council, and includes footage of him attempting to get a drive-thru fast food joint to let him eat their food on his own plate. 

Berrier also goes into a lengthy investigation of the safety of plastic in baby products as he gets ready to become a father. Bag It isn’t so much about plastic as it is about a man’s quest for answers as he discovers just how much of his life is centered around this synthetic material.


And the Rest

Director Carl Fechner follows the work of individuals across ten different countries as they try to attain the common goal of energy autonomy in The 4th Revolution: Energy Autonomy. There are few, if any, more pressing global issues facing the future of humankind, and this documentary provides valuable insight into the efforts to achieve this dream.

There aren’t many reputations that have been more damaged by the passage of time, the changing of mindsets and the increase of information than that of Christopher Columbus. Even the Rain starts with a director attempting to make a film about Columbus as a conquering imperialist. The producer moves it to Bolivia in order to cut costs, and instead they discover a country in upheaval as the government tries to privatize the water supply. The exploitation of indigenous people hardly ended with Columbus.

The centerpiece film and discussion of the Great Works Film Festival will be Light in the Darkness, the third film in the Not In Our Town series. This film follows the mayor and residents of Patchogue, NY, as they try to address the underlying causes of the violent attacks on the members of the town’s Latino community.

The Good Works Film Festival plays Oct. 7-10 at several locations; for information, visit



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