Friday, October 16, 2009

Adam Hartzell: DocFest 2009

Adam Hartzell reports on three features in the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, a.k.a. DocFest, opening tonight at the Roxie. More coverage of the 14-day event is available at sf360, at the Evening Class, and at the SF Bay Guardian website and arts & culture blog. Adam:

I have ambivalent feelings about the use of ridicule in documentaries, such as those of Sascha Baren Cohen, Bill Maher or Michael Moore. As much as I might agree with the political views of these filmmakers, we know that the tactic of ridicule can impede efforts to bring people over to other views. Rather than convince people, ridicule can end up causing the other party to be defensive. And in the form of ridicule, any efforts to educate are received instead as condescension. Yet there are individuals and organizations that are not interested in actually furthering debate or illuminating discussion. They seek to obfuscate, to inject disinformation for the sole purpose of confusing people from knowing the factual information. (I’m looking at you FOX/GOP network!) When facing disinformation campaigns, I find ridicule useful to reduce the power that figure or the organization they speak for might illegitimately have. As much as I might feel Bill Maher often goes overboard, when he mocks Glenn Beck with a fake Beck book release entitled Painting with Poop, Maher is homing in perfectly on the insanity of Beck’s idiotic ideas.

Of the three DVDs I screened for the 8th edition of the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, none were out to ridicule their subjects. They treated each subject with dignity. But if there is any topic that deserves ridicule, it’s the nonsense of the Young Earth Creationists and their efforts to muddy up progress with false claims that the earth is only roughly 6,000 years old.

In this way, I find Todd Gitlin’s The Earth Is Young problematic since it is vulnerable to lending an unwarranted legitimacy to Young Earth Creationism’s fraudulent claims. Real world scientific evidence is stacked against the claims made by Young Earth Creationists in this reel world. They disregard science in order to advocate their pre-ordained beliefs. My concern is that without placing the proselytizing of Young Earth Creationists into context, we risk their views receiving unwarranted respectability. Call me a worrywart, but I’m concerned that by having such scientifically unfounded claims sit there in the democratic vat, the result would lead us towards dormancy on necessary public policy issues, such as our need to address climate change and our need to implement infrastructure changes to address the post-petroleum, post-car future that is soon upon us.

Yet, Gitlin’s documentary is intentionally off-putting, so the approach is not completely problematic since this creeping creepiness throughout the film is the indirect critique that I would rather be more direct. The drone we hear throughout the film, the voice-of-god-like blob cleverly placed amongst the microscopic world of microorganisms, the focus on the mute faces and gesticulating hands, these all add to the overall eerie feel of the documentary underscored by the bizarre claims made by the practitioners. It is this discomforting imprint that stays with me, leaving me not just unimpressed with the proselytizing trying to pass for scientific research, but a bit frightened as well.

For those who like their film-festival experience to overlap thematically, the Young Earth Creationists make an appearance in Joe Winston and Laura Cohen’s film adaptation of Thomas Frank's non-fiction book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? As much as I might disagree with the political views of the Christian Conservatives, I appreciate how the directors refuse to ridicule them here. This allows for a more accurate portrayal rather than the caricatures drawn in some liberal circles. For those who haven’t yet, I suggest reading the book rather than relying on this documentary to inform you. The arguments laid out by Frank regarding how working class conservatives vote against their own economic interests are made more compellingly in the book than the film. But then again, maybe I just have a book-bias when it comes to nonfiction, because there is some action at the end (which I can’t reveal here without spoiling) that underscores Frank’s thesis. What this documentary does do in some ways better than the book is humanize the citizens of an oft-ridiculed state of the union. Plus, since this documentary takes place during the federal midterm election after the publication of Frank’s book, it provides a snapshot of a political shift in Kansas. I don’t think we’re in What’s the Matter with Kansas?’s Kansas anymore, Toto. Kansan Politics have begun to matter a little differently.

The best of the films I caught for this year’s SF DocFest was Patrick Shen’s The Philosopher Kings. Shen focuses his camera on the lives and philosophies of those in what is considered by many as the lowliest of professions, the custodian. Several janitors at several academic institutions are interviewed on their thoughts about their jobs, their futures, life, death, and everything in between. Personal epistemologies are espoused by each of these custodians based on life experience. Shen demonstrates each unique perspective while also drawing life parallels, such as accidents and family histories, along with similar situations specific to janitorial work.

In this way, Shen demonstrates the interplay between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ put forth by Anthony Giddens. As Andrew Hickey notes of Giddens’ work in Hickey’s contribution to iPod and Philosophy: iCon of an ePoch, this is “An interplay that operates as a negotiation between the structural conditions of existence you find yourself in and the desires you have to express a certain identity” (p 124). The agency found within the structures of their profession is quite evident in The Philosopher Kings, from Melinda Augustus of the University of Florida who engages in self study of the butterflies in the building she cleans, to Corby Baker who finds inspiration for his own artwork in the student projects he dusts at Cornish College of Arts in Seattle.

Locals might recognize the UC Berkeley representative, Michael Seals. But many in the film argue that it is likely locals won’t recognize him, since we often make our janitors invisible. As someone who regularly greets and talks with the janitorial staff at my work, I am often disappointed at the levels others engage in to ignore the presence of those who assure our facilities are presentable and work smoothly. Others seem to walk around them as if they are a poorly placed pillar in the middle of the room by some absent-minded architect, looking away from them as if they are not worthy of everyday salutations. The Philosopher Kings gently addresses the injustices of such invisibility. It is an absolute gift of a film that will hopefully leave audiences with a change in perspective, which is the aim of every good philosopher, and of every good documentary.


  1. Hey worrywort Adam! (joking!!)
    I also watched that "the earth is young" documentary and it was very interesting. Coming from Japan, I think almost every Japanese people believe in "evolution" as a fact, we learned it as a fact.

    I've been learning about "religious" people since I came to the USA and it's always fascinating. They say anything, they made up anything to make "creation" sound realistic which is to me, it's failing.
    But if you believe something that strong, you can lose/ignore common sense and take any bs....oops, opinion. (and this is just my opinion about this movie,,,,so no offense:))

    Overall, it was an interesting movie.

  2. Howdy Seikov!

    Yeah, I'm sure the way that the US approaches evolution politically and through pop-culture can seem strange when you come from a culture where the Christian Creation Myths aren't literalized or even known at all by many. Consider yourself lucky, in that regard.