Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Natives Are Restless

In 1937, Harold Rome made an important debut as a songwriter for Pins and Needles. The only hit show ever to be produced by a labor union (and, according to Wikipedia, the only time when a group of unknown non-professionals brought a successful musical to Broadway), Pins and Needles went on to become the longest-running musical on Broadway (1108 performances) until Oklahoma! premiered at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943.

In 1962, when Rome worked on a new Broadway show entitled I Can Get It For You Wholesale, a 25th anniversary recording of Pins and Needles was made featuring such talents as Rose Marie Jun, Jack Carroll, and the rising 21-year-old star of his new musical, Barbra Streisand. Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs from that recording: Sing Me A Song With Social Significance.
"I'm tired of moon-songs of star and of June songs,
They simply make me nap
And ditties romantic drive me nearly frantic
I think they're all full of pap

History's making, nations are quaking
Why sing of stars above
For while we are waiting father time's creating
New things to be singing of

Sing me a song with social significance
All other tunes are taboo
I want a ditty with heat in it,
Appealing with feeling and meat in it!

Sing me a song with social significance
Or you can sing 'til you're blue
Let meaning shine from ev'ry line
Or I won't love you

Sing me of wars and sing me of breadlines
Tell me of front page news
Sing me of strikes and last minute headlines
Dress your observation in syncopation!

Sing me a song with social significance
There's nothing else that will do
It must get hot with what is what
Or I won't love you.

I want a song that's satirical
And putting the mere into miracle
It must be packed with social fact
or I won't love you

Sing me of kings and conf'rences martial
Tell me of mills and mines
Sing me of courts that aren't impartial
What's to be done with 'em tell me in rhythm

Sing me a song with social significance
there's nothing else that will do
It must be tense with common sense
or I won't love you."
As mentioned in my previous post, a special class of full-length documentary feature films deals with issues of social injustice. In many cases, a specific timeline will dictate the film's flow of information. A catalytic event may draw attention to an issue which has been simmering just under the public's radar. As conflicts over land, power, and/or money bring the issue to a boil, lawsuits inevitably ensue. Further media coverage attracts celebrities who are either fully in support of the cause or media whores looking for new photo opportunities. If and when a legal trial reaches its conclusion, there is no guarantee that justice will be done and everyone will live happily ever after.

Three documentaries currently on the festival circuit (or due for imminent release in theaters) deal with issues of social injustice. They demonstrate, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that life is unfair and you don't always get what you want. However, the fact that most of these films began their creative process during the Bush administration and are reaching the public during President Obama's administration adds a peculiar twist to the audience's experience.

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An Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature, Scott Hamilton Kennedy's The Garden does a splendid job of showing how the people, united, can eventually be divided. The history, however, is fascinating.  Following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the South Central Farmers created a 14-acre community garden. Tilling the soil and raising crops in the middle of one of California's largest urban areas, these people (mostly Hispanic and African American) suddenly found all of their crops threatened with destruction when the city sold the land back to the real estate developer who was its original owner for less than market price.

If examined as a political melodrama, The Garden is populated by the usual stereotypes of minority struggles.  There are the poor farmers, the community organizer (Rufina Juarez), the underpaid, overworked civil rights attorney (Dan Stormer), and the politician who seems more than willing to sell out the people she represents (Jan Perry). There is a rival community leader  (Juanita Tate, the founder of Concerned Citizens of Central L.A.), who has her own special interests and an obvious villain (real estate developer Ralph Horowitz). 

The Garden shows, in crushing detail, how idealism and justice don't always win in America, especially where large amounts of money are at stake. With time working against the plaintiffs, we see desperate attempts at fundraisers (with cameos by celebrities like Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Danny Glover and Darryl Hannah), as well as the somewhat futile visits from politicians looking for photo opportunities (Dennis Kucinich, Maxine Waters, and the soon-to-be mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa).

Although the land was bulldozed by Horowitz and the garden destroyed, some good did come out of the struggle. Impoverished minorities were empowered to unite as a community (some banded together to buy a farm in the Central Valley and have since moved there to produce crops). What is most fascinating about The Garden, however, is to see what a difference two short years makes. 

The destruction of South Central's urban farm took place at the height of the Bush administration's callous disregard for the poor. The change in priorities since the Obama administration has taken over the nation's helm is obvious. The Obama administration sees itself as a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" as opposed to a government whose power has been bought and controlled by corporate interests. The Garden (which will be playing at Landmark's Lumiere Theater starting this weekend), offers a valuable lesson plan in community organization as well as the importance of knowing who your opponent is and what he is capable of doing to sabotage your efforts.

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One of the documentaries that created substantial buzz at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (and has just been screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival) is Joe Berlinger's Crude.  This powerful film focuses on the 13-year, $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco in which several indigenous Ecuadorean tribes are suing the oil company over the environmental damage caused by its toxic practices in the Amazon rainforest

Berlinger's film follows a chronological timeline from 1964 (when Texaco first began drilling in Ecuador) to when Ecuadoreans began to develop cancer, leukemia and birth defects as 18 billion gallons of toxic wastes (many times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill) leaked into their soil, fresh water supplies, and local rivers. In what has become a classic David versus Goliath scenario (also known as the "Amazon-Chernobyl case"), Pablo Fajardo -- a local Ecuadorean who was raised in poverty and whose law degree was sponsored through the Catholic church --  and Luis Yanza have managed to bring the full weight of the law and the media to bear on one of the world's largest and richest oil companies. 

The exhausting struggle of Fajardo and his colleagues at Amazon Watch to get justice for the indigenous people of Ecuador triggers memories of Erin Brockovich. The cancerous side effects on local communities may be similar, but the people who live in the Amazon jungle have little in the way of media clout in their own country, much less the United States.

As the film progresses, viewers get a clearer understanding of how every little legal step must be supplemented with media coverage in order to move the lawsuit forward.  In addition to some laughable interviews with Sara McMillan (Chevron's chief environmental scientist) and Chevron's corporate attorneys, viewers are made privy to critical turning points in the lawsuit's progress. When Vanity Fair published a devastating article entitled Jungle Law in its 2007 "Green" issue, Fajardo became an instant celebrity.

His newfound celebrity helped to attract the eye of Ecuador's new president, Rafael Correa, as well as Sting's wife, Trudie Stiler (who visited Ecuador's jungle regions and helped to spread the word internationally about the situation in the Amazon). Fajardo went on to win a CNN "Hero" award and, in 2008, both Fajardo and Yanza received the prestigious Goldman award (the environmental equivalent of a Nobel prize). In his director's statement, Berlinger notes:
"I knew there was an important story to be told, but I quickly realized that if I was going to go through with the extraordinary effort it would take to make a film, I would have to do something different than what might be expected from this kind of environmental story. I wanted to break from the standard formula of an environmental disaster exposé, and create a unique and challenging cinematic experience that brings an audience into a world they probably have never seen before.

In making this film, I felt it was important not just to show the situation and try to point fingers at a culprit, but to pull back and tell this massive -- and massively complicated -- story from a wider and more nuanced viewpoint.  How did this happen in the first place? What are the roles of corporate power, of government, the media, and big money in a case with the long history and such potentially enormous consequences as this one? What does it take to tackle a problem of this magnitude? Is it really as bad as it seems? I knew that to do the story justice and also satisfy my own creative and journalistic impulses, I would have to get beyond simply showing the alleged environmental damage and human suffering and explore the messy, ambiguous process of getting justice in the real world."

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger

"In the real world, things aren't black and white, and this is how I approached this story as well.  An indigenous Amazonian leader doesn't just show up at a Chevron shareholders' meeting and confront the CEO all by himself -- he is coached by a Harvard-educated attorney.  The Ecuadorean plaintiffs can't spend 15 years in court on their own -- they need a high-powered Philadelphia law firm specializing in class action lawsuits to pay for the investigations that Ecuadorean law requires -- and that law firm stands to profit from any judgment.  The attorneys for both the oil company and the plaintiffs compete for media attention, but the spotlight on the case gets brighter when celebrity activitists Trudie Styler and Sting come on board. Yet here, too, I hope the film topples the usual clichés, as Trudie proves herself to be anything but a token "rent-a-celeb," delivering on a promise she makes to help ease the suffering of the people. And while some people may initially perceive the representatives from Chevron as simply being part of a "big bad oil company," they come across as real human beings who make a number of very intriguing legal and scientific claims."
Aguinda vs. Chevron (Fajardo's first  case as an attorney) has proven to be so controversial that the fear of Chevron's clout was still evident at one of the film's screenings at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  Photographer Lou Dematteis, whose book Crude Reflections: Oil, Ruin and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest has just come out in print thanks to San Francisco's own City Lights Publishers, told the audience how numerous other publishers would not touch his book due to their fears of retribution from Chevron.

When Crude receives its theatrical release, you'll certainly want to see it. As with The Garden, the change in America's national posture from a government run by two thoroughly corrupt oil men to a government led by a former community organizer will give viewers a much keener perspective on the world as it is and as it can and should be.

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With the Republican party dying on the vine, it's interesting to note how the threat of a gay lifestyle no longer packs quite the demonic punch it had when Karl Rove was acting as Bush's Brain. As more and more openly-gay candidates have run for office, and a steady number of closeted gay politicians have been forced out of the closet, why anyone would choose to remain in the closet remains a mystery.

When I first watched Stephen Colbert make mincemeat out of a newly-elected GOP representative, I found something oddly disquieting about the segment.  Either Aaron Shock was a Republican mimbo or something else was being left out of the picture. Watch the video and see for yourself.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Better Know a District - Illinois' 18th - Aaron Schock
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage Commercial

Needless to say, when Americablog published its article entitled GOP Congressman Aaron Shock Wants You To Know That He's Not Gay. Really. the pieces of the puzzle quickly fell into place. Kirby Dick's new documentary entitled Outrage covers ground that is, alas, all too familiar to gay audiences. While it would be easy to think that only someone who still believes Liberace was straight might learn something from this film, after watching Congressman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) tell the U.S. House of Representatives that to label Matthew Shepard's murder as a hate crime is to give truth to a hoax, I can only shake my head in disbelief and wonder if hatred, ignorance and stupidity might have a genetic component after all.

Dick's documentary features the usual suspects (Congressman Barney Frank, Senator Larry Craig, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey as well as long-time gay activists Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile and Mike Rogers). There are also some candid confessions from men who have had sex with closeted politicians who have extremely hypocritical voting records.

The documentary closely examines the reasons why some politicians try to remain closeted as well as the culpability of the mass media in playing along with their secrets.  Ironically, a key figure missing from this documentary is former Florida Congressman Mark Foley.

Outrage will, no doubt, raise a few eyebrows among the crowd that feels it is still rude to "out" a politician who is working against the very people he seeks sexual favors from. To those whose lives have been directly impacted by such trolls -- or who have grown weary of their bullshit -- there is less news here than one might expect.  I doubt that seeing so many closeted gay politicians in one film will make Outrage a good recruiting tool for the Log Cabin Republicans. Here's the trailer:

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