Sometimes Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

By Frako Loden

The tagline for DocFest, the 19th San Francisco Documentary Festival, is “Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction”—a saying we all appreciate more than we’d like during these days of COVID-19, wildfires, racist domestic terrorism and unhinged presidential campaigns. But however much we might want to hide from some of these truths, we still relish a good documentary that tells it like it is—or at least when we’re feeling more fragile, brings back fond memories or confirms our biases. SF DocFest gives you a chance to do all that with 49 new documentaries, easy to watch from home with the website’s clearly worded instructions. Here are ten that you might choose from.

The 20-minute short film, Natasha Deganello Giraudie’s One Word Sawalmem,  features the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Lake Shasta, an indigenous community in Northern California. Sawalmem means sacred water, “a spiritual entity with divine intelligence,” says Michael “Pom” Preston, co-director of the film and son of the current leader of the tribe. Water rushes Chinook salmon from the Pacific Ocean up through the Sacramento and McCloud Rivers, climbing more than 30,000 feet to the Shasta Mountains where the red-fleshed fish is an integral part of Winnemem Wintu health and culture, not to mention nutrition for all living things in the region. Shasta Dam, completed in 1944, was designed to hold back water for Central Valley agricultural irrigation, but it also blocked the salmon from returning home and flooded 80% of the Winnemem Wintu’s homelands and displaced the people. The tribe, joined by other indigenous groups, takes the 300-mile river’s journey from San Francisco Bay up to Mount Shasta, stopping at Sacramento to express their dismay at Governor Newsom’s plan to veto Senate Bill One, which would essentially allow “Trump’s plan to divert even more water from our struggling rivers for industrial agriculture.” This gem of a film reminds us that water, in short supply for most of us these days, is a sacred force that, allowed to take its natural course, heals all the creatures it touches.

I watched a rough-cut screener of David Garrett Byars’s Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Public Lands back when it still bore the title This Land. I’m assuming that the old title comes from Woody Guthrie’s lyric “This land was made for you and me,” a paean to the 640 million acres of public lands owned by all Americans. This hard-hitting and well-researched documentary concentrates on three spectacularly beautiful sites that are in jeopardy by oil drilling and uranium and copper mining interests, who profess the nation’s need for “energy independence” and “new jobs” while pillaging environmentally and culturally significant lands to enrich a narrow oligarchy. They are Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. We’ve heard about them, some of us have visited and enjoyed them, but how many of us realize that we must now fight for their survival? Guided by the research of rugged outdoorsman and environmental journalist Hal Herring, we learn the history of public lands from their indigenous origins through the policies of Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Nixon. Of course the two most destructive presidents, Reagan and Trump, were and are in thrall to corporate interests and have mutated environmental policy to favor them. At this writing, Trump has signed an executive order allowing offshore drilling throughout ANWR. But as we have seen this past summer, when the American people see enough injustice they do want to fight it, and this film offers as inspiration and leadership a number of activists, tribal leaders, ranchers, historians and whistleblowers who can slow and perhaps halt the orgy of public-land grabbing.

Remember video drop boxes, late fees and failing to rewind? Taylor Mordon and Zeke Kamm’s The Last Blockbuster affectionately looks back at the days when couples, hell the whole family, went to the middlebrow chain video store on Friday evening to choose the weekend’s entertainment on VHS tape. At the height of its video-rental dominance in 2004, Blockbuster Video had 9100 outlets and employed some 84,000 workers before filing for bankruptcy in 2010 and being acquired by Dish Network. In the US at least, the young staff had to wear unfashionable khakis and the trademark blue-and-yellow polo shirt, but it was a coveted job. Working at a Blockbuster in the heartland was easier than other service jobs like fast food: check videos in and out, shelve them and chat with fellow employees and customers about video preferences and recommendations. The emotional center of the film is Sandi Harding, manager of the last remaining Blockbuster in the world in Bend, Oregon. Now a pilgrimage site and even available for private visits on AirBnB, Sandi’s franchise employed a generation of Bend’s youth, including her own kids, and went through all the vicissitudes of the company’s history in its burgeoning small-town location three hours from Portland. A host of vaguely familiar talking heads reminisce about their Blockbuster experiences, and former executives relate the business history and entanglements with Viacom, Carl Icahn and Netflix. Personally I can’t relate to this film, since I was a fan of Bay Area rental outlets that Blockbuster tended to kill: non-chain stores that carried a more eclectic inventory and employed more passionate and informed counter people. It’s these stores that I remember fondly, not a Blockbuster that had hundreds of copies of the top-grossing movies and refused to stock anything more daring than an R rating. Here in Berkeley we enjoyed watching Blockbuster stores die.

Another film I couldn’t relate to was Mike Scholtz’s Riplist, which explores the annual celebrity death pool: a contest that rewards the dedicated researcher who can most frequently and correctly predict the demise of a famous person. Of course there’s plenty of controversy over who qualifies as “famous” (a rugby player celebrated throughout the world but not in the US?) or appropriate (is it in poor taste to draft Barack Obama due to death threats?), and some participants are resented for casting too wide a net. The film’s focus is on half a dozen White men and one woman in Fargo, North Dakota, who meet at the end of each year and draft 15 celebrities they think will meet their maker in the following year. Despite some half-hearted attempts at reenactments and eccentric shooting locations (like a mausoleum or the funeral home where one of the competitors grew up), the main scenes are of the contestants airing their choices in a studio where they’re being recorded. Sadly, the caliber of their announcements and musings on death is not high enough to justify the running time, especially when some of the competitors don’t even seem good at it or care enough to play the game with a fervor equal to their competitors.

Eager to know more about the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, home to over 800,000 Rohingya refugees who fled persecution in Burma/Myanmar and the largest refugee camp in the world, I watched Josh Turnbow’s One Life. I was a little bewildered when, after a focus on some refugee children and workers and a puzzled description of Aung San Suu Kyi’s disheartening leadership on the crisis, the emphasis turned to a favorable depiction of the United Nations’ World Food Programme instead. What does this film want to do: provide context and history for the intense animosity against the largely Muslim Rohingya and explain why they’re in the camp, or promote foreign food aid and shelter efforts despite admitting that these are makeshift and even harmful measures for the long-term mental and physical health of the refugees? An ordinary viewer like myself ends up not knowing enough about the refugees to understand their predicament, while blindly trusting in the WFP to manage at least keeping them fed and sheltered from mudslides. 

Bernardo Ruiz’s The Infinite Race forms an episode in the ESPN sports documentary series 30 for 30. This engrossing film explores the indigenous community of the Rarámuri, or Tarahumara as the missionaries mispronounced it, who retreated to remote areas of Mexico’s Copper Canyon in Chihuahua rather than be enslaved by European colonizers. Tarahumara is translated as “foot runner,” and the men, women and children of the community are famous for their ability to run long distances in hot and rugged terrain to tend their corn and livestock. They ran away from the colonizers, but now they’re running from warring drug cartels who steal their land at gunpoint and forcibly recruit the people to smuggle drugs to the northern border with the US. A less violently exploitative party is the ultra marathon phenomenon, started when a White man who had organized races for the Rarámuri began inviting American runners to compete against them in an annual 50-mile race, the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. The author of a best-selling book on the race called the Rarámuri “a Smithsonian exhibit come to life” and caused a large number of non-Rarámuri to come and run alongside their “prehistoric counterparts” (actual phrases used!). A perfect storm brews when both cartel hitmen and the American ultra runners descend on the town of Urique—but maybe both colonizers underestimate the Rarámuri’s traditional solution against oppression.

The fascinating Out Loud, directed by Gail Willumsen, follows the progress of a Los Angeles choir composed entirely of trans performers, the first of its kind. Some singers are more seasoned than others, but they are all literally and figuratively finding their voices in a discipline that has clearly defined gender roles.

Picture Character (Martha Shane & Ian Cheney, 2019) thought-provokingly ponders the history and future of emoji, those little faces and objects that populate the messages of your more effusive correspondents.

Producer Sara Archambault won this year’s SF DocFest Non-Fiction Vanguard Award for her and director Hannah Jayanti’s Truth or Consequences, a semi-experimental meditation on the New Mexico desert town of that name that never quite lived up to the ambitions imposed on it. Personal portraiture, subtle re-enactments and virtual-reality style camera moves evoke a community that is clawing for survival while gazing at a future in outer space. Join Archambault and Jayanti in a live Q&A with DocFest programmer Chris Metzler on Thursday September 10 at 7 pm.

The Last Ice (Scott Ressler, 2019), sponsored by National Geographic, examines the indigenous Inuit communities that have thrived in an Arctic climate for thousands of years but more recently have undergone seismic changes in two major forms:  imposed state boundaries (Nunavut Territory in Canada and Greenland) and climate change, which is quickly melting the ice along this border. The growing body of water has attracted a rush of fossil-fuels and mining investment and extraction by Russia, China and even India—parties who have no concern for the Inuk people’s eco-friendly traditions of hunting walrus, seal, narwhal, caribou and fish with the help of their hardy sled dogs on the receding summer sea ice (projected to disappear by 2040!). Add to that the demoralizing effects of family separation, White boarding schools and native-language suppression forced on Inuit children by the ancestors of these exploiters, and it’s no wonder that the indigenous people profiled in the film are having a tough time. Still, there are glimmers of hope in the solidarity of peoples that transcends national borders and the strength of a culture that draws young people back to the ice as a source of wisdom and nurture. It is really too bad we can’t see this spectacular film on a giant screen—the landscape is more than just an awesome backdrop to the spirit of its people.

Details on all things DocFest and how you can watch all the films are at SFDocFest 2020

 Read C.J. Hirschfield on A Place to Breathe.

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Frako Loden is a free-lance film writer and contributing editor to Documentary.org. She teaches film history and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College. She doesn’t like anyone messing with her assigned seat at the Pacific Film Archive. Frako has written for EatDrinkFilms about Women Directors, African films, French director Jacques Becker, Japanese film master director Kenji Mizoguchi, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Roger Ebert and Polish animation. Her Twitter page is a good way to keep up with her current writings.

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