Documentary Films at the Seattle International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West

The forty-third edition of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) unspooled across twenty-five intense days and nights in May and June, 2017. This edition of the festival boasted new leadership: Executive Director Sarah Wilke and Interim Artistic Director Beth Barrett, who in general terms continued the programming emphases of their immediate predecessors. That tradition emphasizes a “something-for-everyone” approach offering Seattlites a vast spectrum of programs of new films, such as Northwest Connections, Culinary Cinema, African Pictures, New American Cinema, Emoción pura: Cinema from Spain, and China Stars. In their joint statement in the festival catalogue, Wilke and Barrett offered these impressive statistics to characterize the forty-third edition: an expected 150,000 spectators or more viewing over four hundred films from eighty countries in nine far-flung venues across the greater Seattle area. The festival boasted thirty-six world premieres, thirty-four North American premieres, and twenty U.S. premieres. As is usual at SIFF, this edition of the festival programmed a meaty selection of new feature documentaries from around the world—approximately sixty by my count. My reflections on a half dozen of the most interesting of these documentaries appear below.

The witnessing of the major sociopolitical issues and events rending a given failing society represents one of the most worthy charges documentarians can undertake. Mexican director Everardo González fearlessly shoulders this charge and hauntingly pays witness to the savage violence currently engulfing regions of his own country in Devil’s Freedom. In 2006, then Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared an all-out war on the drug cartels. After more than a decade, the fruits of that failed initiative now stand at an estimated 200,000 dead and 30,000 forcibly “disappeared.” In addition, policing remains corrupt and beyond accountability; and human rights abuses occur routinely. The most recent Mexican government statistics registered 9,916 murders committed in the first five months of 2017, an increase of thirty percent over the same period in 2016.

Subjects in Everardo González’s Devil's Freedom wear skull-like masks, with grotesquely cut-out holes for mouth, nose, and ears.

In Devil’s Freedom, González rejects the use of statistics, intertitles, contextualizing voice-over narration, and other conventional documentary approaches in favor of one that is strikingly minimalist yet deeply unsettling: in head-and-shoulder shots, subjects wearing flesh-colored, tightly form-fitting elasticized masks face the camera to discourse about the criminal violence they have directly participated in or witnessed. They are the witnesses, victims, and perpetrators of kidnapping, murder, rape, armed robbery, forced “disappearance,” and torture—and presumably willing to tell their stories only as long as masks protect their identities.

 Their stories are chilling. One young killer cold-bloodedly recounts his first professional hit, which he committed at age fourteen while still wearing a school uniform—apparently a thrilling and well-paid after-school activity. Another young murderer, when asked why he commits such crimes, simply shrugs his shoulders and nonchalantly responds “money.” His pay nets $3,000 per murder, which can add up when an entire family is involved—though it was tough to pull the trigger of the 9mm pistol aimed at those little kids. The gallery of perpetrators swells with representatives of the municipal police, the federal police, and the army—all of which underscores the fact that criminal violence in Mexico is institutionalized and deeply ingrained in society. The victims’ despairing accounts illustrate the futility of attempting to bring perpetrators to justice as well as the unresolved status of most of the crimes. The bodies of many victims are never even recovered. Impunity reigns.

Devil’s Freedom was the most artistically daring documentary that I saw at the festival. González’s aesthetic coup is the skull-like masks, with their grotesquely cut-out holes for mouth, nose, and ears. This ghostly mask motif may resonate with Mexican viewers since it recalls the skull imagery associated with the Day of the Dead. González’s masks in toto have a leveling effect, since they are worn by both victimizers and victims. This leveling is Othering and dehumanizing: the everyday culture of violence has equally turned all these enmascarados into grotesque puppets in a deadly dance of death. González ends Devil’s Freedom on a seemingly positive note: a grieving female victim painstakingly unpeels her mask from her face and stares straight at the camera, thus challenging viewers to somehow cut the strings, escape their identity as puppets of violence, and become once again beings with human agency able to change their destiny and their society.

A young Chavela Vargas in Mexico.

A very different Mexico appears in co-directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s Chavela. This is the Mexico inhabited by ranchera singer extraordinaire and queer icon Chavela Vargas, who died in 2012 at age ninety-three singing professionally almost to the end. Chavela depicts bohemian Mexico City in the 1940s, where the male-dominated ranchera genre was popular in cantinas and nightclubs—and where Vargas created her definitive on-stage persona by abandoning high heels and skirts in favor of an androgynous look, trousers, and usually a red poncho. In the 1950s, the scene shifts to Acapulco, a popular playground for American celebrities, who also enjoyed listening to these sincere and sentimental songs whose lyrics evoked broken hearts, loss, abandonment, absence, solitude, and yearning. In the 1980s, the setting becomes Tepoztlán, a town south of Mexico City where Vargas—then a dropout from her musical profession—eked out a modest existence and finally faced up to the crippling alcoholism that had prevented her from performing.

Chavela directors Daresha Kyi and Catherine Gund.

In her director’s statement in the film’s pressbook, Gund relates how she first caught up with the chanteuse while spending time in Mexico in 1992. The young Gund, a fan, had a video camera with her and was able to record a substantial interview with the singer, who had just recently successfully launched a professional comeback in Mexico. After Vargas’s death, Gund located this wide-ranging interview, which she then edited in Chavela so as to give structure to the singer’s biography. This thematically rich interview material is well complemented by abundant performance footage and informative interviews with lovers, colleagues, and admirers—most of them women—although Spanish auteur and Vargas champion Pedro Almodóvar plays a key role in the final segment of the film, which follows the singer’s extraordinary international comeback in the 1990s.

The artistic approach in Chavela is conventional; and technical flaws at times appear, such as occasionally poor image quality in the original interview. Nevertheless, Chavela scores many successes. The performance footage is riveting, and the filmmakers have helpfully provided animated floating titles that type up English translations of the lyrics as they are being sung. Much of the other rich archival footage has been seldom seen, such as apparent home-movie images of a young Vargas playfully associating with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The range of interviewees is such that viewers are offered a thorough understanding of the manner in which Vargas historically broke new ground by bending gender norms in both her professional and personal life. For instance, her queering of the ranchera genre is well explained—the impact of her deep, rough voice longingly wooing female lovers.

Chavela Vargas

Some facets of Vargas’s life remain unexplored: for instance, her exploitation by the Mexican record industry, or her reported stay with a humble Huichol family that generously sheltered and supported her when she was down and out in the 1980s. The never-ending rumors swirling around her scandalous love life remain rumors; and we never do learn if her liaison with Frida Kahlo lasted days or years, or if she really did leave with Ava Gardner after singing at the Acapulco wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd. But Chavela is not an investigatory but rather a celebratory documentary—a celebration of the life and work of a talented and determined lesbian who overcame professional and personal obstacles in a misogynistic, homophobic society by becoming a cigar-smoking, pistol-packing, tequila-swilling macha amongst machos.

Two informative, well-crafted, and timely documentaries on indigenous themes screened at the Seattle Festival; both were sponsored by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, whose ancestral land lies in the Puget Sound area. Iqaluit director/screenwriter Alethea Arnaquq-Baril herself appears as a subject in her aptly titled documentary Angry Inuk: “As an Inuk woman who’s been eating seal meat my whole life, I just naturally became part of the story.” The story is this: from time immemorial, the Inuit of the Canadian Artic have followed a way of life largely dependent on seal hunting. This marine mammal provides the only fresh meat generally available; and its pelt is crafted into boots, mitts, and clothing. In one illustrative sequence, a designer and seamstress of sealskin garments shows off her strikingly handsome and ultrawarm wares. Although the species of seals harvested (e. g., bearded and ringed seals) are not endangered, for decades southern Canadian, U. S., and European animal rights and environmental groups—think Greenpeace—have launched “anti-sealing” campaigns that eventually shut down the international commercial market in seal products, such as clothing. While this ban has allowed the Inuit to continue their subsistence hunt for food purposes, the commercial market dried up, thus leaving hunters with next to no income to purchase gasoline for their snowmobiles, ammunition, and other necessities, which can prove extremely costly in the Far North. In a telling sequence in a Western-style store, the camera lingers on the posted prices of food imported from southern Canada: a cabbage, we learn, retails for $28. The seal hunt is not only embedded in Inuit culture, the filmmaker convincingly argues, it is also economically sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Angry Inuk: Qajaaq Ellsworth, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Joannie Ikkidluak, and Isuaqtuq Ikkidluak.

Angry Inuk: Isuatuq, Joannie and Perry Ikkidluak butchering bearded seal.

Arnaquq-Baril daringly challenges her non-Inuit viewers from the get-go by rubbing our noses in the blood of the hunt. She opens Angry Inuk by witnessing the nitty-gritty work of the traditional Inuit seal hunt: in a majestically sweeping, horizontal landscape of snow and ice, one male hunter armed with a rifle shoots one animal at a breathing hole in the ice. The seal is immediately gutted and skinned, the intestines carefully folded up; and the hunter rewards himself by eating on the spot a bit of the brain. In private homes, the animal is then dressed out and the skin washed and softened. Arnaquq-Baril’s approach here is participatory: family, community members, and the director herself are all seen participating in this communal cultural process, which culminates in the tradition of food sharing and the consumption of the raw meat—reportedly rich in minerals, vitamins, and energy-giving components. Arnaquq-Baril’s participatory approach effectively mixes her own voice-over commentary and on-screen presence with abundant input from other members of the community.

The second half of Angry Inuk follows the combined efforts of Arnaquq-Baril, the well-known lawyer and advocate for Inuit rights Aaju Peter, and concerned Inuit students as they mount a pro-sealing campaign to counter the devastating ban instituted by the European Union. Central to these efforts are trips to Europe to lobby parliamentarians. In addition, social media campaigns are launched culminating in the imaginative and controversial #sealfie crusade that sought to spread pro-seal hunt sentiment around the globe.

 Angry Inuk is richly provocative, and one leaves the theater pondering certain major issues touched on but not thoroughly explored, such as these: how rapidly is the traditional Inuit diet disappearing in favor of store-bought food and Westernized eating, and what are the health and financial implications? As seal hunting has become less economically viable, how is the slack being taken up by mining and other extractive industries potentially far more harmful to the environment? What relation exists between suicide rates and traditional activities such as seal hunting? Arnaquq-Baril is to be congratulated for crafting an activist film that passionately lays out many of the key issues with firsthand cultural savvy and socioeconomic clarity. Nanook of the North this is not.

 Angry Inuk:  Isuaqtuq Ikkidluak out on the seal ice while seal hunting. 

Angry Inuk: Isuaqtuq Ikkidluak out on the seal ice while seal hunting. 

With her new feature documentary, 500 Years, American director Pamela Yates closes out her Guatemalan trilogy known as The Resistance Saga—a magnum opus tracing many of the principal sociopolitical events unfolding in that majority-indigenous, wartorn country from the 1950s almost to the present. The three films of the trilogy are irrevocably intertwined with recurring themes, human subjects, self-referential motifs, and even archival and other footage. The first documentary, When the Mountains Tremble (1983), was produced during the Cold War, when anticommunist American administrations supported with vast matériel—such as helicopter gunships—brutally repressive right-wing military dictatorships in their battle against leftist insurgencies. This film, which was co-directed with Thomas Sigel, proved successful with American audiences in part because the filmmakers had wangled extraordinary access across the sociopolitical spectrum: patrolling with the heavily armed military in trucks or helicopters as they seek to “eliminate” the enemy in the countryside, or documenting in the field the sociopolitical and military activities of an undersupported, out-gunned, and ideologically naïve Guerrilla Army of the Poor.

Yates’s committed, pro-guerrilla viewpoint in When the Mountains Tremble is abandoned in the next film, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011). Here Yates follows selected figures on the Guatemalan and international scene striving to create a more inclusive, just, and democratic society during the transition to democracy after the signing of the 1996 peace accords, which had signaled the end of hostilities and the demise of the armed left. One such figure is Rigoberta Menchú, the distinguished Maya activist leader awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after publication of her best-selling testimonio (testimonial account) I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. A young Menchú had previously appeared as an effective on-camera narrator in When the Mountains Tremble, where she pleads for the suspension of all U. S. aid whatsoever to the murderous Guatemalan military regime.

In 500 Years, former dictator General Ríos Montt with his defense attorneys arrive to hear the verdict in his case.

Granito also features Yates’s dramatic and eventually successful search through the warehoused outtakes of When the Mountains Tremble for an interview she had conducted in 1982 with General Efraín Ríos Montt, who at the time served simultaneously as President of the Republic of Guatemala and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. In this intense interview, the mustachioed, loquacious, and camouflage-clad generalissimo practically admits that given his high positions he must ipso facto have known about the acts of genocide and human rights abuses conducted by the military he commanded. In fact, he was the éminence grise behind the most bloodthirsty counterinsurgency campaign in the modern history of Latin America. His operational documents specifically targeted the Mayan population as an “internal enemy” to be annihilated.

500 Years chronicles the seismic events that shook Guatemalan society from 2013, the year of Ríos Montt’s genocide trial, through the grass-roots, nonviolent campaign to oust President Otto Pérez Molina that culminated in 2015. Part One of the documentary follows Ríos Montt’s trail in the First Criminal Court of First Instance for Criminal Justice, Drug Trafficking, and Environmental Crimes. This represents the first instance in modern history that a head of state stands trial for acts of genocide in her/his own country. Yates appears to have benefited from total access to the courtroom proceedings, and, using two cameras, she shot on digital data cards a thousand hours of the trial.

 In Part Two, “Defending the Land,” Yates uses two well-informed and articulate female Mayan activists to explore the social implications of the genocide for indigenous people in the 21st Century. Central here is the question of land tenure, since during the civil war 626 indigenous communities had been razed in the military’s scorched-earth offensives. Where they once stood, immense mega-projects have ominously risen up—hydroelectric dams, agro-business ventures, open pit mines. Part Three, “The Uprising,” documents the manner in which Mayan unity forged alliances with middle sectors and the nonindigenous urban population to successfully confront the ruling elite and oust President Otto Pérez Molina, who stood accused of participating in multimillion dollar fraud schemes as well as human rights abuses.

Jubilation at Protest: The culmination of the citizen's uprising in 500 Years was the bringing down of the President and Vice-President of Guatemala who are now in jail awaiting trial.

In voice-over commentary in Granito, Yates stressed the moral and social responsibility incumbent in her work and insisted that “witnessing is the essence of being a documentary filmmaker.” This is her greatest success in the trilogy, which represents one of the most significant documentary efforts in film history in terms of chronicling across decades the major sociopolitical events in a given country in the Global South. As for 500 Years specifically: using traditional documentary tools, such as interviews and the filming of courtroom proceedings, it succeeds in giving ample voice to the long oppressed indigenous community. 500 Years is an empowering work that justly celebrates the indigenous population’s major achievements in recent years in promoting social justice and creating a more open, nonviolent, inclusive, and truly democratic society in which inequality and racism may eventually be tamed. For a more in-depth look at the film and an extensive interview with the director consult the upcoming Winter 2017 issue of Cineaste (Vol. XLIII, No. 1).

Resistance is also a central theme of American documentarian Matthew Heineman’s illuminating and unsettling City of Ghosts. The title refers to occupied Raqqa, Syria, since 2014 the de facto capital of ISIS. Because of a news blackout instituted by ISIS, the Western mainstream media were generally prevented from reporting on events. Heineman wished to make a film about life inside the city; but he dared not travel there, since he presumably would have been quickly identified as a Western investigative filmmaker and then summarily executed. So he drew on the resources of an underground citizen-activist association dubbed Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS).

Matthew Heineman's City of Ghosts.

This determined and brave group had first banded together in April 2014 to covertly record the repressive measures typical of everyday life under ISIS as well as the atrocities routinely unleashed by the Islamic State against alleged infidels, such as crucifixion and public execution by beheading. These citizen activists/journalists—at great personal risk—armed themselves with cell phones and covert spy cameras in order to film while witnessing public beheadings, ostensibly worshiping inside mosques, traveling around the city, or other activities. This footage was then posted widely on social-media platforms or RBSS’s website. And some of the footage was shared with Heineman, who, with permission, used it as the spine of City of Ghosts.

The filmmaker intriguingly crosscuts this clandestine actuality footage with scenes observing life with four principal subjects—members of RBSS who, because of death threats, fled Syria via Turkey and now reside precariously in exile in undisclosed locations in Europe. Heineman uses a small and compact camera and draws on an intimate vérité style to film these war-weary young men in cramped safe houses. There they endlessly smoke, work on computers, and discuss pressing concerns, such as the trauma resulting from the loss of family and friends, the ever-present dangers of opposing ISIS on the Internet, the emotional ups and downs of exile, the digital propaganda war between RBSS and ISIS, and the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment in Europe.

The theatrical release of City of Ghosts could not be more timely since in July, 2017 U. S.-backed military forces began their final offensive to recapture Raqqa from ISIS. The United States and its allies face an exceedingly complex civil war in Syria and a Middle Eastern scenario that appears destabilized and ever more threatening. On the home front, in Donald Trump’s America, responsible journalism—and the very notion of truth—suffer unrelenting attack by the political powers that be. Speaking about City of Ghosts in an interview in Cineaste (Vol. XLII, No. 4, Fall 2017), Heineman maintains, “In this world of fake news, when journalism is under fire and truth is seemingly malleable, I think this film is ever more important…it’s about a group of people fighting for the truth, seeking out the truth. I think there is no more important thing to explore than that.”

Cullen Hoback's documentary What Lies Upstream investigates the contamination of a local drinking water supply in West Virginia.

I have not yet seen the definitive final cut of American filmmaker Cullen Hoback’s new investigative documentary What Lies Upstream. Nevertheless, I did screen a version at SIFF, so I can offer readers a brief preview of this important coming attraction. Hoback opens his investigation by examining the contamination of a local drinking water supply in January 2014 caused by a leak at a chemical tank farm in West Virginia. This leakage occurred from Freedom Industries’ eroded above-ground storage tanks in an area known as Chemical Valley because of the concentration of such industries along the river banks. In a boat we accompany Hoback himself as he journeys upriver past the spill. River imagery predominates in the film, a constant reminder of the environmental importance of the many waterways in West Virginia subject to pollution by the coal and chemical industries.

The Freedom Industries leakage of the highly toxic, unregulated chemical MCHM, a coal-cleaning agent, into the Elk River had caused the poisoning of the potable water supply for 300,000 residents during a nine-day period. This poisoning was discovered not by scientific testing or analysis but by mere local folks about to drink this liquid—they immediately complained about an off-putting odor. As later becomes evident, no testing whatsoever had been done for the presence of that specific chemical in the local water supply. This shocking and scandalous event is but the starting point for Hoback’s ever-expanding investigation into a massive drinking water crisis in America.

Perhaps following Michael Moore’s tried-and-tested lead, Hoback structures his material by starring himself in the lead role. He proves well up to the task, and his on-screen investigative persona is engaging and easy to watch. We see him cleverly ingratiate himself with locals in their yard by revealing his own down-home connection during his boyhood—what could be more convincing than home-video footage of himself as a kid romping around in West Virginia back yards in the 1980s? We go out fishing on the river with Hoback and Randy Huffman, who served as Cabinet Secretary for West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection at a time when 25,000 violations of the Clean Water Act occurred. Huffman lands a good-sized fish; but, tellingly, does not commit to taking it home to actually eat. At night, the crusading Hoback takes a secret charter upriver to stealthily collect water samples to be scientifically tested.

We shadow the calmly comported, quietly determined filmmaker as he treads treacherous waters buttonholing local health officials, industry lobbyists, independent scientists, whistleblowers, bureaucrats, politicians, and others. In one astonishing scene, Republican state senator Mike Hall, when asked about an environmentally damaging bill he has just sponsored and voted for, appears to have no idea of the specifics of the measure or the fact that it was largely written by industry lobbyists and water company executives themselves. Hoback doggedly attends press conferences, public hearings, panels, and forums, where he picks up valuable advice, as when famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich flatly reminds those present that “regulation without enforcement is worthless.” Hoback takes film activism to the nth when he brazenly enters the very scene he is filming: at a Safe Water for West Virginia public celebration he grabs the microphone to announce his own recent findings of serious contamination by yet another chemical in the state’s drinking water. A journey to Flint, Michigan—site of a recent lead contamination scandal—suggests to Hoback that corruption exists at the highest levels of government, in the regulatory agencies.

What Lies Upstream

 Early in his film, Hoback features a brief clip of President Donald Trump; and, indeed, this figure hovers ominously over the water-quality issue as he guts the Environmental Protection Agency and federal environmental standards and as he schemes to prioritize polluters and developers over public health. My intention in the above preview of What Lies Upstream is to stimulate readers to see this documentary in one form or another just as soon as possible—preferably before gulping down more insufficiently tested drinking water. Time is of the essence. Hoback’s previous Terms and Conditions May Apply (2013) is a major investigative documentary examining the urgent question of digital privacy, and with What Lies Upstream the filmmaker cements his reputation as a leader in this field. For an interview with Hoback—concerning Terms and Conditions May Apply—consult Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Fall 2013.

As the above reflections suggest, documentary film programming at SIFF 2017 was strong. I saw few documentaries that took major risks in terms of esthetics, but many that very competently explored given topics. In particular, activist filmmaking is thriving perhaps because of the availability of relatively cheap, compact, and highly portable gear—such as that used by Heineman—and because of the recognition on the part of filmmakers that such works can and must be produced on modest budgets. In addition, it would seem that the winds of resistance are a-blowin’ not just in Trump’s America, but also around the world.

Dennis West is a contributing editor at Cineaste.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4