Domumentaries at the 2022 Montclair Film Festival
This film could have been titled American Dream/American Nightmare. Instead it’s called Bad Axe, the unlikely name of the Michigan town where it is set. Bad Axe is small, almost exclusively white and Trump signs dot the landscape.
For his first full length feature documentary, David Siev has chosen the subject that he knows best, his family. His dad was one of six kids whose mother got them out of the killing fields in Cambodia. His mom is a second generation Mexican-American. They started out in Bad Axe with a donut shop and martial arts studio, then later started a restaurant. He has two older sisters, 30-something Jaclyn and 20-something Rachel. They are educated, smart, outspoken and outgoing women, exactly the type that usually leave a town like Bad Axe in their wake. But these two never stop supporting their family and working in the restaurant. For a while Jaclyn did so by commuting 2-½ hours every weekend from Ann Arbor where her day job was located.
The film is shot during the pandemic. The family is forced to close their doors and serve takeout only. Not only do they face the challenge of COVID but must deal with the inexplicable wave of Asian-American hatred that swept the country. There’s the red neck vigilantes that try to terrorize Rachel by tailing her after she closes the restaurant. There’s the morons who refuse to wear a mask to enter and become abusive when asked to do so. And there’s the customers who vow never to come back after the two sisters are seen at a Black Lives Matter rally after George Floyd’s murder.
There is an intimacy about the portrait of this family that likely could only be achieved by having a family member behind the camera. It has the feel of a bunch of iPhone videos shot at the spur of the moment. You see everyone’s high and lows, the bickering and the self doubt, but mostly the honesty and commitment.
This isn’t a drama so it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the restaurant has survived, is doing well and has the support of the community. Siev called this documentary a love letter to his family. You can just feel that in scene after scene. These guys are the quintessential 21st century American family.
(Scheduled to open in theaters mid-November.)
Tracey Arcabasso Smith also chose to make her first feature length documentary about her family. Bad Axe is a feel good story. Relative is anything but.
Smith turns the camera on herself to describe in a fair amount of detail how she was sexually abused as a young teen by two older cousins. She turns the camera on her mother who acknowledges being abused by her grandfather. Her 89-year-old grandmother was abused as a child four times, twice by relatives. A great aunt adds her story about a cousin. And another relative, who later asked to be pulled from the film, was raped by her father.
These interviews are interspersed with a giant archive of home videos: births, weddings, religious ceremonies, every type of family gathering. Everybody looks joyful and smiling. I could only think of how the women who were treated like this had to go to one big family event after another in the presence of their abusers. There is one incredible scene in which four women, all of whom must be 75+ sit around a kitchen table with Smith and talk about how they were abused as young girls, something they likely haven’t talked about for decades. This isn’t a script somebody wrote folks, this is real.
Much of the discussion in the film is about how and why nothing was said. They talked about how as a child you blame yourself. They talked about how they didn’t want to blow up the family and about how maybe it wasn’t that bad because it wasn’t rape. The older women especially, at least on the surface, seemed to say “it happens, then you move on.” Some forgave. Nobody forgot. There is love in this family too. We just don’t see it in the men.
Maybe these revelations are therapeutic. Maybe someone will speak up next time since it has been brought into the open. Maybe it will prevent another young girl from being abused. That’s all good, but it’s still hard to watch.
The Picture Taker
This is a different type of family saga, one about a family trying to keep alive the legacy of a deceased father and grandfather despite some uncomfortable truths.
The picture taker is Ernest Withers. He got his start in the segregated army in World War II. He returned to his home in Memphis and opened a photography studio. He was one of the first Black policemen in a racist city, though he was dismissed from the force for an extracurricular financial transaction that may or may not have happened.
What his contemporaries remember is that he and his camera were everywhere. He chronicled the civil rights movement in Memphis, the Emmett Till trial, a landmark sanitation workers strike and the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King. He photographed famous musicians and the clubs they performed in on Beale Street. He photographed Negro league baseball games. Mostly he photographed his community, their weddings, their funerals, their parties.
Our introduction is of a beloved community resource. That is until we find out he was a paid informer for the FBI. This is the J. Edgar Hoover FBI ever ready to suggest a link between the Communist Party and the civil rights and later the Black power movements. Also ever ready to use whatever surveillance techniques he could find to prove his point. Withers infiltrated local organizations, tracked local activists and fed the info to the FBI.
All that notwithstanding, the archive of Withers’ work is amazing and we see so much of it in this film. It is rare to see a documentary that uses still shots so extensively and that leaves the camera on those stills so we can absorb them.
There are extensive interviews with Withers’ children and grandchildren. There are also interviews with some of the activists that Withers may well have passed information about. It produces a legacy of ambiguity. The filmmakers do not lead us to an easy conclusion.
The documentary opens with a Withers quote: “If you ain’t what you is, you is what you ain’t.” Community legend or traitor, I ain’t exactly sure what Withers is.
(Film is scheduled to be shown on PBS Independent Lens this winter and made available on the PBS app.)
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
This documentary is like two different movies in one. There is the story of the group PAIN and their campaign against the Sackler family, owner of Purdue Pharma, makers of oxicontin. The other is a life story of photographer Nan Goldin. What ties them together? Goldin founded PAIN.
I described Goldin as a photographer. Having watched this she is or has been an activist, an addict, a sex worker, a curator, a dancer, a bartender.
Two of the most moving scenes in the movie are about two very different families. The Sacklers reached agreement with a bankruptcy court that they would pay a settlement but would then be immune from civil lawsuits. Part of the conditions of that settlement was that they listen to the families of the victims of pain-killer addiction. In a virtual conference three Sacklers listen to the tearful stories of families who lost their children to overdoses stemming from their oxicontin addiction.
The other scene involves Goldin’s family. While she was a child, Goldin lost an older sister to suicide after her parents, who couldn’t deal with her, sent her to an orphanage. Goldin eventually gets hold of all the doctors’ reports from the various institutions where her sister ended up. It tells the story of a normal rebellious teenager. Loving parenting was the missing ingredient.
There are also moments of triumph like getting numerous museums to turn away the Sacklers donations and taking their name off of galleries, including the Louvre, the Met and the Guggenheim.
Amidst all of these stories is Goldin’s impressive body of work. She was a chronicler of the counterculture of the 70’s and 80’s as well as the AIDS crisis. Some of her portraits reminded of Diane Arbus. Many of her photographs are organized into slideshows with musical accompaniment.
There is so much to this movie. My description only scratches the surface. Sometimes it seems like it’s all over the place. But every part of it is so interesting. So what if it doesn’t all fit together seamlessly.
(This movie is currently playing in a couple New York theaters. HBO owns streaming rights.)