The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival opens officially on Friday, and it will close on November 11. In the intervening month, the festival will proceed much as it has for the past 22 years. Movies will play, celebrities will party, and a small coterie of extremely dedicated festival organizers will pray themselves hoarse in the hope of filling the seats at Cinema Paradiso.
But unlike previous festivals, this one will run right through the most bizarre presidential election in the history of the republic. In honor of the event, FLIFF will feature a six-documentary minifest on October 26 titled "Politics, Diplomacy, and the Human Condition." "We're putting those movies there, one week before the election, to get somebody's ire up," says Gregory von Hausch, president and CEO of the festival. "We want to see if we can get somebody to go stand out on a street corner, holding a sign."
I saw five of the six films under discussion (the one I missed, Virtual JFK, imagines how the Vietnam War would have played out if Kennedy had lived), and it's hard to imagine not being inflamed by them. Together, these documentaries create a study in American narcissism and craziness so depressing that you might wish you'd spent the day looking at your stock portfolio.
FLIFF: Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival Preview
Click here for a schedule of FLIFF movies. Or click on the film titles below for film reviews and trailers.
Politics is always confusing, and in dangerous times, it's probably better to be knowledgeably cynical than gaily ignorant. All by itself, Jason Pollock's The Youngest Candidate ought to be enough to douse the fire of youthful idealism, at least when it comes to electoral politics.
In fact, the film is supposed to be a celebration of youthful idealism, and its failure to live up to its own premise represents a successful plumbing of an age-old and perennially relevant question: Why do people go into politics in the first place? The film follows four political candidates, aged 18 to 20, from disparate parts of the country as they fight uphill battles to attain office. "Remarkable Young People," the film dubs them. Your opinion is likely to differ, and quickly.
Two of the youthful candidates are perfectly pleasant kids: outgoing, curious, and seemingly interested in the public good. Raul de Jesus, an amicable, pudgy 20-year-old running for the mayorship of Hartford, Connecticut, is almost tragically attached to his community. He gives director Pollock a walking tour of Hartford's blighted ghettoes — the projects where he grew up, the street corner where he saw his first dead body — and looking at his punch-drunk body language, it's easy to believe that Hartford's troubles keep him up nights. Then there's George Monger, an 18-year-old city council candidate from Memphis who's plainly supernormal. He's a record producer with his own label; he's literate, articulate, and honestly incredulous when he visits Memphis' most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. "People live in these conditions," he says, gesturing to a shack that has more tarp than roof. The look on his face is half manly anger and half boyish disbelief that the powers-that-be could have allowed such a situation to perpetuate itself for so long.
However, despite their admirable intentions, these candidates never articulate anything resembling a political philosophy, nor do they offer any cogent reason why they should be elected. They do offer vague statements about "change" and about their dislike for "politics as usual," but Monger is nevertheless delighted when a local DJ manages to dredge up a video of his opponent selling sex toys on television. He may be interested in the poor, but he's not at all interested in waging a substantive campaign.
The other two youths are far more troubling. Tiffany Tupper, an 18-year-old woman running for the school board of Hampton Township, Pennsylvania, is bright-eyed and precocious — clearly accustomed to adoring pats on the head from her elders. At one point, while trying to explain what drew her to politics, she expresses disdain for the shallow interests of her fellow teenagers. She never liked "pretending to care" what her peers "did over the weekend." Still, she wants to represent them. She would like to be the curative, she says, but you wonder: How can she represent young people if she holds them all in contempt?
Her talking points throughout the movie are: Young people are too stupid to understand her, though young people deserve a voice. She can't see the contradiction, and she can't string together three sentences without explaining that she really wants to win to "prove people wrong." Without realizing it, she admits over and over that she wants to win an office precisely because she can't stand to lose.
But Tupper is downright responsible next to Ytit Chauhan, 19, running for city council in Atlantic City. You can't help but feel bad for the kid — he spent his childhood bouncing from town to town, parent to parent, until washing up in Atlantic City with his grandparents. The other kids in the documentary keep their families in the loop, drawing on them for support and moral guidance. Chauhan barely sees his grandparents, though he clearly needs them. Canvassing around, practicing "retail politics" in front yards and on street corners, he is met with disinterest, skepticism, and racism. "Are you Pakistani?" asks an old man. "No," Chauhan replies, "I'm Indian." "Oh," says the old guy. "How! All you need is a feather in your hat!"
Chauhan could use some love, but he doesn't get any. He directs the hurt he feels inward, stoking some inner core of Nixonian resentment and megalomania that he can't always hide. He desultorily stalks the streets of Atlantic City, putting up cheap-looking signs and destroying his opponent's literature, talking to himself, reaffirming verbally that he's good and smart and deserving of office. You'll seldom see so complete a picture of loneliness, someone so in need of a hug. On election night, he drunkenly riffs on his own greatness. "Ytit Chauhan is not a man," he says expansively. "Ytit Chauhan is an idea. It's a theory. A concept of community, of love. It's something that we all yearn for. We don't know what it's called — some people call it 'karma' or 'nirvana.' It's actually called Ytit Chauhan!" He grins then, pleased that he's revealed so profound a truth.
Interview with Jason Pollock, director of The Youngest Candidate.
Murder, Spies, & Voting Lies: The Clint Curtis Story and Boogiemen
Murder, Spies, & Voting Lies: The Clint Curtis Story is an exhaustively (and exhaustingly) thorough investigation of the claims of Clint Curtis, the man who was allegedly approached by Florida Rep. Tom Feeney to design a software program to throw the 2004 presidential elections to George Bush. The film has some formal problems — it was created by Brad Friedman of Bradblog.com, who is clearly entranced by his own visage on a silver screen and never seems quite content to let the Clint Curtis story be the Clint Curtis story. Still, it's hard to walk away believing the 2004 election was won honestly. Friedman's inability to self-edit can hardly mask the film's most powerful point: In states that used paper ballots in the 2004 presidential elections, the voting results precisely mirrored the exit polls, while in states that voted electronically, the tallies bore no resemblance to the exit polls and favored Bush over Kerry in ways no pollster could have predicted. This is too weird to ignore, which is why it's so damned upsetting that the film is getting such a limited release.
Boogieman is no less informative and far more compelling. It's an overview of the career of Lee Atwater, famed Republican political strategist and dirty-trick pioneer. One wishes it delved into his history more deeply — if Atwater has any surviving aunts, uncles, or parents, we certainly never find out about it. Alas, maybe the world doesn't need a psychobiography of a human swine like Atwater, a man who existed only to allow overgrown versions of Ytit Chauhan to attain office. It is enough to watch his career roll by. One of his early coups involved conscripting a fundamentalist Christian to run as an independent candidate for a South Carolina congressional seat so he could stir up anti-Semitic invective against Jewish Democrat Max Heller. This allowed the Republican candidate to capitalize on his district's prejudices without getting his hands dirty.
Atwater's career continued in this vein, playing to the very worst instincts of the American electorate to secure wins for Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. It is with something like horror that we remember, midway through the film, that this is the man who controlled the Republican National Convention during Bush Senior's time in office. To his credit, director Stefan Forbes allows that horror to mount without the least bit of assistance from him: Most of the people interviewed in Boogieman actually seem to like Lee Atwater. You can see why. He's charming, quick-moving, quick-witted, impish — as facile with R&B guitar licks as he is with a devastating soundbite. The film actually opens with Atwater onstage at the '88 Bush victory party, jamming on blues standards with a bunch of black guys. He can duck-walk, he can do the splits, he can play on his country's deepest reservoirs of racial fear to win an election and still give big, sincere-looking hugs to his black bandmates.
Click below for a trailer of Murder, Spies, & Voting Lies: The Clint Curtis Story
Any distance you might feel between yourself and the result of cheap politicking depicted in Boogieman is obliterated within the first half-hour of Neshoba. Americans over 50 will likely remember the sudden disappearance of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found six weeks later. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both in their early 20s, had been shot in the chest; James Chaney, the only black man among the three, had been tortured before being shot. The bodies of all three were hidden in a levee.
The state refused to charge anyone with murder — the killing had been committed with the help of local police officer Cecil Price, and Price spent only two years in prison (for "civil rights violations," the most damning crime that could be prosecuted at the state level). Most of the more than 20 Ku Klux Klan members who killed the men never did any time at all. For 40 years in Philadelphia, Neshoba's ironically named county seat, known killers walked the street.
In interviews with those who remember the murders and knew the men who committed them, Neshoba shows how a guilty conscience has frozen the community in time. They're still defending segregation; they still despise the no-good-Jew civil rights workers who invaded their town in 1964. They have to.
It's a shock to see the fresh-faced Neshoba residents being flip about the crime in 1964. "I think it's a publicity hoax," one smiling girl says in the days before the bodies were found. "But if they are dead, I say they asked for it!" The film's impact is dulled not at all by the sight of Edgar Ray Killen, the 80-year-old country teacher and probable architect of the killings being dragged off to jail in 2005. It doesn't erase the image of James Chaney's little brother, maybe 11 years old, crying his eyes out at his brother's funeral while trying to sing "We Shall Overcome" or the sound of civil rights worker Dave Davis going all to pieces at a rally in the '60s, screaming "I don't want to go to any more memorials!" It is the sound of a man being eaten alive.
Killen went to jail, but Davis and the boys' families still have a grievance. Over the end credits, filmmaker Micki Dickoff plays Bob Dylan's Medgar Evers eulogy, "Only a Pawn in Their Game," and on this particular day, you have to wonder whose game it is. Atwater's? Tom Feeney's? Might it one day be Ytit Chauhan's?
Click below for a trailer of Neshoba
You probably don't know photographer Eddie Adams, though you know his work. His most famous picture is the one of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan blowing out the brains of captive Vietcong Nguyen Van Lem on the third day of the Tet Offensive. That picture won Adams a Pulitzer and nearly ruined his life.
Adams photographed 13 wars. When he got sick of the fighting, he'd return to the United States and take friendly pictures: an image of Louis Armstrong at 71, alone in a dressing room, eyeing the trumpet on his lap with a mixture of love, resentment, and total exhaustion; shots of the Clintons goofing off and apparently smitten with each other; cutesy pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a pool with a rubber ducky.
He was weird to the point of iconoclasm. It was hard to pin down his political philosophy, and his aesthetic philosophy, if he had one, was forever in shift. Though he is the only subject of these documentaries whose work is not explicitly bound up in politics, in life-and-death decisions, he's also the only person who behaves as though something depends on his actions.
So the tone of Susan Morgan's An Unlikely Weapon is markedly different from that of the day's other films. You don't watch to see what outrageous thing its subject will do next; you watch because it's a pleasure watching Adams make sense of his world. He loathed watching people die in Vietnam; he also loathed how poorly people treated Gen. Ngoc Loan when he relocated to the United States to open a restaurant. Occasionally, Adams would become overwhelmed by the awfulness of the world and would feel compelled to do some dangerous work once more, like joining a floating city of Vietnamese "boat people," stateless refugees, when it was unclear if any of them would make it onto land alive. (They did, and Adams' pictures helped convince Jimmy Carter to grant the amnesty to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees.)
In the last decade of his life, Adams spent much of his time trying to teach his craft at the Eddie Adams Barnstorm workshop. It's a simple thing, one that plenty of ordinary people would do if they had risen to the top of a profession they loved. Still, after a day of watching men behave like politicians, it is liberating to see one who knew how to be a citizen.
Director Susan Morgan Cooper discusses An Unlikely Weapon.
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