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Tonight in NYC, One of The Best Documentary Double Bills of The Year: Far From Vietnam & Far From Afghanistan

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This next-to-last day of Lincoln Center's Cinema Of Resistance series takes us on a historically informative, accurate, and certainly timely documentary journey from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Herewith, notes on four films from the final two days of Lincoln Center's very worthwhile Cinema of Resistance series. Kudos to Lincoln Center's cinematheque programming director Dennis Lim and guest co-curator filmmaker John Gianvito for their origination of this series, which I think should be an annual program. As always, please ignore all typos.

PRISONER/TERRORIST

I always thought "Natalie Portman's Shaved Head" was a dynamite (as it were) name for a band, invoking the segment in The Wachowski Brothers' globally beloved, mildly impactful classic V For Vendetta, during which a passive workaday media company employee transcends -- through imprisonment, privation and the diary of the prior, deceased occupant of her (ultimately symbolic, metaphorical) jail cell -- the trappings of her former existence.

Prisoner/Terrorist
is a most surprising, lo-fi, high-art fever dream which stretches the duration of its protagonist's cell time for the entire length of a feature film, sublimely inhabiting the mindstates of a captured would-be revolutionary convulsing through the diabolical processes of attaining enlightenment (of a sort) precipitated by nightmare upon nightmare, catharsis upon catharsis, deprivation and torture after deprivation and torture, and epiphany after epiphany in his jail cell-as-launching pad into the amorphous conscius aeternus enkindled by prolonged solitude.

The film's unnamed, or rather, titular protagonist (Taguchi Tomorowo) commits a horrifying act of blind terror (opening fire in an airport) and is apprehended after his suicide grenade fails to go off under him. Through an agonizing struggle, his fascinating self-dialogue proceeds on a trajectory beginning with the existential challenges of effective, ethical action against The State, through a grappling with life, consciousness and The Self, with visitations from historical figures and astral projections along the way.

Whether director Adachi Masao was himself ever imprisoned, I don't know; the fact that he was a real-life member of the Japanese Red Army, and this 2006 film was his first work in thirty years certainly informs its heady potency. The scene in which the prisoner is offered two million dollars for his memoir may be biographical. In any case, this sublime film is well worth your thirteen bucks and your leaving the job early tomorrow for the 3;30 screening. I also think it would also make a terrific stage production.

Prisoner/Terrorist will be screened on Thursday, 3:30 PM at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center

FAR FROM VIETNAM

Vietnam's colonial history (manifesting its resilience), an accounting of the unfathomable amount of dollars, material and heinous apparatuses utilized by Americans in our war against it, a self-immolation (by an American Quaker), stateside parades, protests and clashes twixt opposing camps within our citizenry, a brilliant self-indictment by an intellectual whose hyper-awareness of history and media leaves him in a paralytic state of total misanthropy, a look at ingenious Vietnamese bomb shelters (reminiscent of whack-a-mole, a game you can never win), a Vietnamese street theater troupe indoctrinating children about LBJ's hubristic villainy, and a street corner shaman uttering a tone poem repeating one word, "napalm" to a bewildered gathering of onlookers - for whom, in a hilarious and meaningful anti-climax, he breaks his trance and hips them up in a nasal New York(?) accent about what napalm does to children (as he holds a child), are some of the many documentary episodes which make this omnibus film a stone-cold classic.

My only gripe about this film - and I think this is the only time in my life that I will ever write this -- is that it should very definitely have been dubbed, or rather, narrated in English (excepting, of course, the Vietnamese segments) rather than French.

If the engagé filmmaker is concerned with the extent to which the work serves its intended aim - in this case informing American civilians about a war which they'd been essentially lied to by their government, military and media - then I simply don't know how it didn't occur to directors Varda, Marker, Ivens, Lelouch, Resnais, Godard and Klein (an American!) that U.S. audiences who'd grown up on newsreels at the movies would best absorb this film in their native language. It seems pointless to narrate it in French, and utterly distracting to burden the visuals with English subtitles. An English language narration would also be a brilliant subversion of a familiar and trusted cinematic news form.

Of course, this may be an irrelevant question because this was not a film that would have even been seen in mainstream movie houses, though I do wonder if it had been in English, if more individuals might have come across it, perhaps thanks to friends who dragged them to arthouse films. Sigh.

Suffice to say, today in my beloved hometown, one of the most interesting and yes, useful, double bills of the year will be on screen, when FSLC show Far From Vietnam and Far From Afghanistan. We now have two new generations of burdened warriors, from Bush War 2 and Afghanistan - in addition to our peacekeeping efforts around the world - in our American family and there is great utility in seeing both of these films together.
In addition to today's screening, Far From Vietnam will be shown daily at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center from 8/28 to 9/3. 'Pity it's not on a regular double bill with Far From Afghanistan.

Far From Afghanistan will be screened at 6PM and Far From Vietnam will be screened at 9PM at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Unfortunately, separate tickets must be purchased for each film. A three-ticket package is available.

FAR FROM AFGHANISTAN

The notes above are what make Far From Afghanistan the most timely, and thus one of the most essential screenings from this series.

Having already screened this film on DVD, I urged everyone I could at the press screening of Far From Vietnam to stay for this one. Simply put, Far From Afghanistan is Far From Vietnam's DV-era offspring, also an omnibus film made with the mission to deliver perspectivars varius and a history of a foreign land, in this case the site of the longest war we've ever sent our military men and women into (the decades-long alternating psychodrama and impasse amidst a dangerous DMZ and a strategic manufacturing partnership in the two Koreas -- which are really one people -- notwithstanding).

We see a primer on Afghanistan's history; we see life on the street for vendors; we see what life is like for women in Afghanistan; we see the effects of weaponry, from amputees' and doctors' perspectives (both here and in Afghanistan); we see a family living in caves and whose recounting of raids by the Taliban give plainly sublime and disheartening insight about the heart-shocking herd calculus of a hunted tribe, followed by a different survival story of an American drone pilot; we see life on the street in Michigan and the victims of a power company's turn-off notice (in a very grim update to Michael Moore's evictions man in Roger & Me), we see a power-tie-wearing finagler explaining and selling foreign investment into Afghanistan; we see the bride of an American solider plagued by PTSD who, haunted by his murder of children, murdered himself after being ridiculed for mental weakness by his colleagues; we see girls in a school in Afghanistan, resilient after acid attacks; we see Eisenhower's military industrial complex speech; we get media-watch stats on war coverage; we get potshot juxtapositions of absurdly leisurely consumerist cultures and unbelievably heroic subsistence existences, and we get stats on civil wars in Afghanistan, reminding us about human nature au general.

One of the statistics cited in the film is an estimation that globally, since World War 2, over 25 Million people have been killed by wars on this planet. 90 percent of them were civilians, and 3 out of 4 were women and children.

So, here's a film review by way of a mathematical calculation, which is to say, this is one of the many things Far From Afghanistan has us pondering:

90 percent of 25 Million = 23,625, 000 dead

3 out of four are women and children, so 75 percent of 23,625, 000 = 17, 718,750

Which makes:

8,859,375 children killed
8,859,375 women klled

I didn't check the source of these statistics in the credits, so let's say they are completely false. Let's then arrive at another estimate of deaths -- what's a small enough number to be acceptable? And who decides?

One of the film's most unique segments is a dramatization of the business of drone strikes -- not from the view of survivors of, say, an Afghani family whose murdered kin have been written off as collateral damage in a signature strike -- but instead, via a depiction of a day in the life of an American drone operator.

During a drive home through a desert highway, a drone pilot (wearing a seemingly useless aviator's jumpsuit, until you realize the value of security blankets) flashes back through his day at the office, a day comprised of: Surveillance/Request for permission to fire/Fire at a running humans (we see screens reminiscent of the Wikileaks helicopter footage)/Getting an estimated number of those he's Killed In Action/Repeat.

Mid-drive, he gets a call from his Mom, an underemployed librarian who talks about what a tough time it is, with everyone upside-down on their mortgages; he pulls over, and listens tensely as she tells him about libraries being closed down and mentions that Western Union is offering free money transfers. He offers to help her and heads home, stopping at a drive-thru to pick up dinner (on his car radio we hear a talk show host speak of "a critical time").

Back home, in the middle of his super-sized drink and take-out taco, as he reads about the Uniform Code of Military Justice at a government website, he gets a Skype, and he switches his soft drink to beer.

He is told by two fellow pilots who are increasingly troubled by the drone program: "There's been a few incidents of civilian casualties -- inside the other house were women and children...we're getting to the point where we're not finding any terrorists cells in these buildings. If somebody blew up a house with my family in it..."

He responds: "I'm getting mission coordinates' targets; I just go in and fight. I can only trust my intel officer; if he's getting shit wrong and battlefield commanders don't understand, then it's on them."

His computer screen begins morphing into a gun-cam view, as his colleagues try and coax him into standing with them. "Let's talk later." he says, hanging up on them. On his TV, we hear Bush #2: "If we wait for threats to materialize, we've waited too long." Then we hear Obama: "We're in Afghanistan to prevent cancer spreading though that country."

In this dreamy, nightmarish vignette, which, though only a dramatization, there is incredible value in seeing the disconnect of remote warfare, and the simple human impetus that drives a soldier - who is an employee with financial responsibilities like any other individual, caught up in a web much larger than him, existing in a state of denial in order to survive. This is as necessary a view of modern and drone warfare as the footage of civilian casualties.

WINTER SOLDIER

At a recent screening of Which Way Is It To The Front Lines: The Life And Time of Tim Hetherington, documentarist Sebastian Junger put forth the idea that for Veteran's Memorial Day, a space ought to be created wherein soldiers can gather and simply rap about their experiences, speaking one at a time at a microphone throughout the entire day and night, sort of like (and by making this addition, I don't mean to lighten the gravitas of such an endeavor with the comparison) the annual Bloomsday marathon readings of James Joyce's Ulysses.

And this is a terrific idea, especially, essentially, if attended by civilians who would just listen and bear witness (albeit, on an infinitely secondary basis) to what it is that we - either through our apathy or our full-throated support - endorse every time our (or any other) leaders use the women and men of the military, who sign-on to the socioeconomic lottery built into their job contracts which stipulate that they may have to engage in killing and life-risking for battle-based solutions to the problems between states, ostensibly on behalf of, well, us.


Winter Soldier
is a filmed record of such a gathering in 1971, when combat veterans in various stages of re-adjustment spoke to the press about their individual and collective experience. We see the earnest coaxing of soldiers by our current Secretary of State John Kerry, who, despite his vote in the Senate in support of Bush War 2, correctly, in his senate testimony in 1971, asked: "...how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"; we see the facticity of race-and skin-color-as-class making for a large number of minorities on the front lines, noted by an African-American solder who reminds us about his reality before, during and after the war; we see class division; we see misguided patriotism; we hear the beating of the heart of darkness and we are told exactly how war is Hell, story after story, by the foot-soldiers who created it.

The reports from the Winter Soldier Conference were derided by the establishment media and the entire film was not shown to the public. When Time magazine (driven by the misguided zeal of its son-of-missionaries founder and publisher Henry Luce), which had regularly been publishing the misinformation furnished by the military and the Johnson administration, famously (two years before Winter Soldier) published the boot camp graduation photos of all the dead American soldiers killed during a single week of the war, our understanding, or rather, our national estimation of the Vietnam War's true cost began to change. Sadly, we are now at a point in history when even the very grimmest video footage doesn't always serve to re-align our war consciousness (though it often succeeds in making us call for revenge).

Seeing and listening to the first-person accounts of our (almost entirely) noble life-sacrificing-slash-killer class, just returned from Hell-On-Earth may be our last best hope. Perhaps from this film - never before seen in theaters until now -- we'll put into practice a forum which makes Veterans' Memorial day exactly that, in order that we might attain the solemn wisdom required to know when to collectively pull the trigger.

Perhaps we all understand that there have been unique epochs in history when humans have simply had to battle with, and kill, other humans - yes? I'll note that I ambivalently endorsed military action in Afghanistan after September 11th.

Yet, even if the waging of war is built into our human character and is sometimes an unavoidable necessity, far too often we far too expediently abandon of our presumed core beliefs, our better instincts, donning our best pragmatic persona, sanding atop the landfill of our human nature and a resignation to history, which is, to say a resignation to repetition, when we write-off, well, global pacifism's challenge to dubious justifications for war, as failed idealism and collective self-deception, and we allow our apathy - or our fight-or-flight instinct -- to be hijacked by nihilists posing as realists, in the advancement of an agenda which rarely is worth the particular realities we call into existence, and would be, through a true forensic function, more correctly and rigorously scrutinized a priori our commitment of (to use a sadly worn-out term) "blood and treasure".

In most wars, the lost treasure is taxpayers' and the treasure gained belongs to a corporation. And in many of those wars, let's say wars over oil reserves, the corporation is merely a necessary evil, resultant of our own failure to conserve at all costs, precious energy and resources. Which is to say, we get the corporate tyrannies and the attendant wars and blowback we deserve. To ensure that this is not used for a pro-nukes argument, the estimation that we will be fighting wars over plutonium within a century or sooner, silences any claim that nukes are a clean and sustainable future energy source.

And so, if we made of ourselves rigorously thoughtful, independent-minded citizens of a polis, fully cognizant of our direct relationship to our soldiers and the people and places they impact, and of course also the real power structures whose interests are generally most served by these efforts and our support of same through resource abuse, we would be infinitely less fallible to manipulation by state and corporate controlled-slash-owned-media into liminally viewing mortal combat as something that is decided on by those who know better than us, and is waged by the warrior class who knew what they were getting themselves into, against icky, sucks-to-be-them peoples in lands far away.

All of which, despite or perhaps because our present day digital world makes much of the specificity of conflagrations eminently manifest to us, lead us to our tragic arrival at general indifference -- which often phases through a period of indignation, from which we justified our consent, which is too often based on, well, stone-cold mis-information.

And so, beyond the cathartic value of sharing in the burden through specificity during public dialogues with our warriors returned from their job of killing on our behalf, there are perhaps countless insights to be gained by a public recounting of how we fight, insights from which there may likely be the raising of a new level of consciousness with which to view and control anew the grave decision of war-making (to make war or not to make war, that is always the question).

To the cynic, it might seem trite to speak about a new consciousness towards war, however, since we've never tried anything like the Winter Soldier hearings on a large, national scale, such a wager - and again, certainly, the inherent benefit to the soldiers themselves - is not only worth it, it is a kind of civic responsibility, particularly in consideration of how many individuals in this nation claim to believe in a God, which in every belief system has something to say about the ending of one individual's life by another. All of which render it not unreasonable to posit an (at least) annual Winter Soldier session in towns across the country, as a worthwhile endeavor.

Winter Soldier was already screened on 8/26. More information on additional screenings and the DVD can be found HERE

Random Notes

Watching war documentary after war documentary makes one think about our present times. I don't think anyone knows what to do about Syria, and it's a tragedy that we simply don't have an informed perspective through which to understand it. Yes, there is slaughter; yes, the various alignments of groups sworn as mortal enemies to us, now fighting against groups sworn as mortal enemies against both us and the aforementioned groups make this way beyond complicated. 'Like Kennedy said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I'm paraphrasing: "Looks like this week I'll earn my paycheck."

One thing I know for certain about life on this planet: despite our propensity to fight amongst ourselves daily on a micro scale, and despite what this says about greed and human nature, when you ramp this up to engaged mortal combat, a single truth prevails: there are nearly infinitely more individuals who, despite their daily squabbles on this earth, would rather not fight to the death, than there are individuals who regularly fight and kill.

This is undeniably -- albeit, only potentially -- the mightiest starting point of all. Perhaps if we engage in the same society-as-cell behavior that we employ daily on a micro-tribal sense and ramp it up large-scale, we could show the true numbers of, well, The Peaceful, Silent Über-Majority. In other words, how could we flashmob millions of pacifists to the most dangerous places on Earth? Sounds absolutely beyond silly, I know, though perhaps not as silly, tragic, as doing nothing and expecting a few dozen appointed individuals to figure it out. Again, this is not a ridiculous question; it is one of the fundamental -- albeit, seemingly, at first, mind-boggling --- problems of our time.