The Montclair Film Festival was held two weeks before the U.S. presidential election. The festival program, filled as always with documentaries, covered a wide range of election-time issues: race in America, the economy, gun violence and the influence of money in politics. The way the festival was presented, seven months delayed and shown at a makeshift drive-in or streamed, is a reminder of the biggest election issue of all, the pandemic and how it has been handled.
Here are some highlights of movies that make you realize how important it is to vote this year.
The surge is women running for office. It is presented as an outgrowth of the 2016 election and the next step after the Women’s March on Washington that followed Trump’s inauguration.
The film follows the campaign of three women running for congressional seats in 2018. All started as rank underdogs running as Democrats against Republican incumbents in traditionally red districts. The candidates are Jana Lynn Sanchez in Texas, Liz Watson in Indiana and Lauren Underwood in Illinois. All are running in predominantly white suburban districts and all have to win primaries to get on the ballot in November.
If you saw the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, this might sound familiar. It is essentially the same movie, following three female candidates for Congressional seats. Since they are both filmed during the same campaign, I assume they were made at the same time, although the Netflix doc came out a year earlier.
I was prepared to watch more of the same, but found Surge to be a riveting and inspiring movie. These women campaign the hard way. They knock on doors, shake hands in the street and appear at senior citizen club tricky trays.
What stands out in both of these movies is the incumbents that these candidates are seeking to unseat. They are all the same: wealthy, old and white. Disconnected from the folks in their district, if there’s a debate they usually use a surrogate. They are used to throwing money at the campaign and cruising to one re-election after another. They only show up when it becomes apparent that they may for once be facing a competitive race.
Knock Down the House was lucky to have chosen as a subject Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her race and turned out to be something of a political superstar. Surge has a star too. Lauren Henderson is a smart, fearless, energetic woman with an engaging personality. She’s a registered nurse. She would become the youngest black woman ever elected to Congress, and this from a very white district. I’d be proud to have her represent me in Congress.
Will we be watching documentaries like this in 2021 and 2022 about the 2020 campaign? Or will we get to the point where women running for office is so expected and accepted that it’s not noteworthy enough to make a movie about?
Not much has happened in American politics and society since the election of Trump that could give much cause for optimism. The kids at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are an exception. That is the high school where a mass shooting that killed 17 took place in February 2018.
This isn’t a documentary about what happened. It’s the story of what happened afterwards. It shows a group of teenagers responding not just with grief and anger but with determination and commitment. They confront NRA supporting politicians. They organize the mass march on Washington. They bus around the country mobilizing kids their age to fight the laws and lawmakers that enable gun violence, whether in our schools or in our neighborhoods.
Some of these kids, like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, have become pretty well known and widely-recognizable. But the film also follows a girl who was wounded in the attack, Sam Fuentes. Being a leader, being on stage and on camera, doesn’t come so easily for Sam, but her path to healing and her emergence as an activist is perhaps even more resonant as she is a bit more like what many would consider a typical high school girl.
Of all the things these kids are shown doing, the one that stands out to me is how they deal with the so-called counter-protesters, the crackers and rednecks who dress up like GI Joe and come marching around armed to the teeth. These kids don’t shout at them or hide from them, they walk on over to them and try to engage them in an intelligent and empathetic conversation.
Lots of other kids joined them. Inner city kids dealing with gun violence on the streets worked together with high schoolers from affluent suburbs. Will these kids do a better job of sorting out this country than we did? I’m 50 years older than most of the kids in this movie but I look up to them and listen to them. And I sure hope they’re all old enough to vote now.
Why would I include a fictional movie based on a book written three years ago in a list of movies about election time issues? It’s the economy, stupid.
If I had to describe this movie in one word it would be lonely. The beautiful, vast and empty desert landscapes. The somber, moody piano music score. And a woman living on her own in a van.
The nomads of Nomadland are people who have had a rough turn later in life. They have lost a job or a spouse, have been bankrupted by healthcare costs or foreclosed. They live on the road in campers or vans. One even lives in her Prius. In the words of Fern, the woman who is followed by the cameras: “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless.”
They travel from place to place chasing mostly temporary gigs. There’s seasonal work at an Amazon warehouse, where a fringe benefit is a place to park your van, a nomad pow-wow in Arizona where they teach each other things like how to fix your own flat, a season cleaning toilets at a campsite. One did a season at Wall Drug, while another headed to the bee harvest in Nebraska.
This is not a story of despair. Many deep and lasting friendships are created and there is a strong sense of community.
The movie is based on a brilliant book by Jessica Bruder (you can read my review here). The book is non-fiction. The movie is fictionalized although some of the background characters are nomads from Bruder’s book. While the book is about the sociology, camaraderie and community, the film makes a more personal story. Fern, a fictitious character, is presented with opportunities to move back in under a roof. She defers. Yet nothing about her life on the road seems to make her particularly happy. In the end, she starts another round in an Amazon warehouse.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel
This is a follow-up to a 2003 documentary. The filmmakers suggest that corporations have changed their approach to the public, focusing on their role as socially responsive entities. The filmmakers call BS.
BP is one example. The company CEO was one of the first in the fossil fuel industry to acknowledge the impact of climate change and talk about the company’s commitment to addressing it. We then see footage of fatal oil rig explosions and massive leaks, courtesy of BP.
Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase talks about how his bank is undertaking a massive initiative to revive the city of Detroit. The filmmakers talk about how the reckless policies of his bank helped lead to the 2008 recession that devastated that city and its residents. The priority of corporations is return for shareholders and that always takes precedence over issues like climate change and income inequality. That point is hammered home.
There are interviews with scholars, authors and activists. I don’t remember who said what but there are some memorable quotes: “the greed economy is killing us;” “the destructive corporate agenda is completely out of control;” “you don’t need a PhD in economics to know your life sucks under capitalism.”
The latter part of the movie is devoted to activism. We hear from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Greta Thornberg and others. And the cameras visit Zucotti Park, the protests for a $15 minimum wage and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The message is not solely take to the streets, not just vote, but run for office.
And, as a reminder that the legalization of marijuana is on the ballot in several states, including New Jersey where I live……
Answers the question of what happened to the hippies who headed off to live on communes. Answer: they became pot farmers.
You might think these are good times for marijuana growers but the fate of Deb the cannabis farmer suggests that just like in other areas of farming the little guy is getting squeezed. In Freeland, which is a fictional film, the local authorizes come after Deb, her customers get spooked and despair continues to spiral from there.
The movie is filmed in Humboldt County, Calif. The cinematography is amazing and the beauty of the scenery paired with the somber score reflects the story being told. The other highlight is the performance of Keisha Fairchild in the lead role as Deb. Timely viewing in my state where we’ll shortly be voting on legalizing marijuana.