Saturday, April 5, 2008

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Four Capsule Reviews

FLYING ON ONE ENGINE (dir. Joshua Z. Weinstein) focuses on Sharadkumar Dicksheet, a wheelchair-bound plastic surgeon who travels once a year to India to repair cleft palates on children. His camp-style tour visits rural areas, where in a week the doctor performs hundreds of surgeries, working in the operating room for 12 hours at a time. In India, some Hindus honor him as a god, and he's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize eight times. What makes the film unlike what you'd expect is Dicksheet himself. In his 70s and frail in health, he still has an ego big as all Asia, sniping at his assistants like a temperamental diva and complaining that Nobel winners are far less deserving of the honor than he. His compassion is visible in his amazing service to the poor people of his native India (and the touching gratitude of the people he helps), but his demeanor remains disdainful, aloof, and calculating.

BE LIKE OTHERS (dir. Tazan Eshaghian) looks into the lives of transsexuals in Iran. Iranian religion and law, if not its culture, tolerate gender reassignment surgery, which is funded by the government. It's the only option available for men who want to be with men or women who want to be with women. Homosexuality is severely repressed, however, punishable with imprisonment or stoning. In private, a number of the pre-ops confess that if they lived in the West, where homosexuality is tolerated, they would not consider the surgery. Most are rejected by their families and communities--even former boyfriends--and turn to "short-term marriages" (religiously approved prostitution) to survive. Many commit suicide. For Westerners, the trans world of Tehran looks like an alternative universe--but the homophobia and religious guilt should be familiar to many.

THE BODY OF WAR (dir. Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro) is a painfully intimate look into the life of Tomas Young, an Iraqi War vet paralyzed by a gunshot wound his fifth day in Iraq. The movie focuses on Young, his wife, and his mother, and their attempts to draw attention to the injustice of Bush's war. I loved all four movies I've seen at this year's festival, but this one is by far my favorite. It's a tearjerker--and a pisser-offer. Young is a bright, witty, and articulate guy, in constant misery and pumped full of drugs which cause him to feel lightheaded. At one speaking engagement, he jokes, "If I say a lot of uh's and stammer in my speech, pardon me if I sound ... Presidential." His life is further complicated by the fact that his younger brother is heading to Iraq next, and his stepfather is a right-wing Dittohead, who sees nothing wrong at all with the way Bush has conducted his wars. The filmmakers don't romanticize or sentimentalize Young's plight, and the young man is courageously frank about intimate effects of a life lived in a wheelchair. Intercut with the episodes of Young's life as an activist is Sen. Robert Byrd's rousing 2002 speech to Congress, pleading with its members not to abdicate their Constitutional responsibilities (for declaring war) to the President. The film indicts not just the President, but especially the Congress who gave the President unprecedented powers of war--as well as all the other Americans who kept their heads in the sand, while revenge, greed, and mendacity wrecked the country. Several scenes of this movie will remain in my head for months to come, I'm sure.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (dir. Werner Herzog) places the dry-witted German director in Antarctica, where he determines not to make just another penguin movie. Instead, he focuses on the outcasts and philosophers who wind up working odd jobs at the southernmost point on Earth. One interviewee, a linguist, muses on the irony that he has ended up on the one continent with no languages. Typical of Herzog, the film is obsessed with eccentricities and mania--the strange underwater world under the ice mass (stunningly photographed), the wild and wooly adventures of some of the people working in Antarctica, and the unusual scientific studies in which they (often dangerously) engage. Herzog questions whether mankind's time on earth is almost at an end, as most scientists now predict. In the end, the camera relents and directs our attention to the penguins, but mainly to one "insane" loner penguin, fleeing the pack, heading on a suicide mission to the icy mountains.

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