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Crises in Detail: AFI Docs 2019

Border South

Border South

By Gary M. Kramer.

At the 2019 AFI Docs Film Festival this year, five provocative shorts and features tackled important topics ranging from the drug crisis and immigration to the creationism debate and disability issues. Here is a rundown of these highlights from this year’s fest.

Elivia Shaw’s short, The Clinic, is an unflinching look at the inspiring volunteer work Dr. Marc Lasher does treating addicts and IV drug users in Fresno, CA on Saturdays. This empathetic film showcases Dr. Lasher’s humane treatment of his patients. They come to him for care, from getting their blood pressure taken to referrals for methadone. In one disturbing scene, Shaw films Dr. Lasher treating a head injury, but the procedure is obliquely shot – much to the viewer’s relief. The Clinic is an intense, difficult sit, but this observational film is less about the actions of Dr. Lasher and his fellow volunteers and more a commentary on the drug crisis in America. A Vietnam vet who talks about taking drugs 50 years ago also describes how he fared upon returning home from the war. A woman who wants to be seen as a person, not a stereotype, is surprised when she challenges Dr. Lasher for his social security number – and he provides it. What emerges from this portrait of a typical day is the dignity of these men and women both on the front lines and battling addiction. When one woman acknowledges she needs to stop the drugs, it is a gratifying and life-affirming moment. The Clinic is full of such powerful scenes.

Another fine observational documentary is the feature Chez Jolie Coiffure. Director Rosine Mbakam positions herself in the titular hair salon run by Sabine, a Cameroonian immigrant in Belgium. Nestled inside what looks like 300 square feet of space in a shopping mall, Sabine braids and combs hair, affixes lashes with glue, doles out relationship advice and comments about the white people that pass by the salon and stare inside as if it were an exhibit at the zoo. Mbakam never leaves the confines of the tiny salon; she deftly uses the mirrors and glass to capture the expressions of the community of Cameroonians who congregate in the tiny, safe space. These women – and it is mostly women, though a few men drop by from time to time – discuss immigration experiences, money, birth, death, housing, race, and other issues. Mbakam’s portrait of this network is knit as tightly as the braids Sabine weaves. Chez Jolie Coiffure is a warm, appealing profile of these Cameroonians who support each another, as they work to create a life abroad.

Another immersive documentary about immigration is Border South, by director Raúl O. Paz Pastrana, about Latin Americans trying to reach the United States. The film takes a prismatic approach, focusing on several case studies. Gustavo Alberto Lopez Quiroz is a 31-year-old Nicaraguan who hopes to make it north. He talks about sleeping on the train tracks and recounts being shot. His story, which involves getting an official ID card, puts a human face on the 400,000 migrants that try to reach the U.S. every year. (Tens of thousands go missing each year as well, the film indicates). Border South also presents the efforts of the members of the University of Michigan’s Undocumented Migration Lab, which records the backpacks, shoes, ID cards, and other ephemera that are left behind in the desert as migrants cross into America. Scenes where clothes have been discarded, or bodies are found are sad but revealing. These moments put the efforts of migrants into bold relief. Rounding out the documentary are stories and footage of various migrants on the trail itself. Trying to jump on trains headed north, drinking coffee they made in an empty 2-liter plastic soda bottle, or getting tattooed, these young men talk about fears of being kidnapped or taken in by immigration officers. Border South shows how Gustavo’s story ends, but most of the other migrants are left in limbo, making this film an all too accurate portrait that conveys the real fears and dangers of those seeking a better life.

We Believe in Dinosaurs tears into the creationist vs. evolution debate with noticeable aplomb. Directors Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown chronicle the three-year process of Ken Ham realizing his vision to build a life-sized Noah’s Ark in Williamsburg, Kentucky – about an hour from his Creation Museum in Petersburg. The Ark Park, as it is called, generated considerable controversy because Ham received state support and tax benefits despite laws regarding the separation of church and state. We Believe in Dinosaurs showcases the efforts of Dan Phelps, a local geologist and activist who tries to debunk the creationist’s beliefs with scientific facts and stop the Ark Park from receiving government tax incentives. It is, unsurprisingly, an uphill battle, and Phelps is sympathetic in his efforts. The filmmakers also interview people on both sides of the evolution debate. David MacMillan, a former creationist and Creation Museum charter member, pinpoints how and why his opinions have changed. In contrast, when Doug Henderson, one of the artists working on the Ark Park displays, espouses his beliefs and doubts, he doubles down on his creationism. These two subjects are compelling because they show the difference between critical thinking versus blind faith. And their remarks provide a nice contrast to footage of Ham brainwashing kids by getting them to ask, “Were you there?” when they are confronted with scientific facts. We Believe in Dinosaurs really gets at the heart of the culture wars, and generates righteous anger throughout, from the efforts of creationist Eric Hovind, who protests an atheist group protesting the Ark Park’s opening, to showing the insidious nature of people like the smooth-talking Ham, whose hires only creationists. We Believe in Dinosaurs may not change minds about the debate about science and truth, but it adroitly reveals how people think and believe. This is the film’s greatest strength.

Lightning vs. Thunder, directed by AJ Schnack and Nathan Truesdell, is a terrific short about a weeklong camp where adult amputee veterans help kids who are amputees or limb-deficient play softball. Josh Wege is one of the coaches and watching him encourage pre-teen Macey Collins as she throws and catches a ball, or tries to get a hit, is engaging. He displays both charm and care as he makes this shy young girl feel relaxed and happy being with other amputees – kids and adults – like her. This heartfelt film features a satisfying coda that reveals just how strong their bond becomes.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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