It isn't a surprise that great progressive documentaries were in abundance at the 7th Annual Traverse City Film Festival. The ever-present Michael Moore, probably the most successful documentarian in world history, had a strong say in the choice of films screened at this progressive gathering. The previously mentioned With Babies and Banners, Brothers on the Line and Granitos all were selected and introduced by Michael himself.
Several of the other docs addressed the legal aspects of social issues, including interracial marriage (Loving Story), environmental activism (If a Tree Falls), eminent domain (Battle for Brooklyn, You've Been Trumped), our civil justice system (Hot Coffee) and even Hitler's reign of terror (Nuremberg: It's Lessons for Today).
Mildred and Richard Loving, a black and Cherokee woman married to a white man in 1958 Virginia, challenged the laws against mixed marriage and took it all the way to the Supreme Court. After being banned from their state of Virginia for 25 years, the Lovings won the case that set the precedent for interracial marriage in America. Loving Story reconstructs the drama in a fascinating manner, by utilizing stunning black and white photos and documentary footage shot during the early years of their struggles to stay in their Virginia home. Simple and plain people, they only wanted to live together because they loved each other, but their case thrust them into an unwanted spotlight. Despite the hard fought victory, states resisted for as long as possible. The 2000 census found only 4.9 percent of U.S. marriages were interracial, as anti-miscegenation attitudes in the country are currently rising. This movie serves a valuable purpose by addressing this still controversial issue, and the subject is presented in a beautifully artful manner.
The height of class arrogance is demonstrated in You've Been Trumped, where Donald Trump decides to build "the world's greatest golf resort" in the pristine Scottish countryside. Unfortunately, it involves displacing several locals and disrupting an environmentally sensitive coastline. Director Anthony Baxter was persistent in his attempt to discover why the media was ignoring the statements of most all environmentalist groups decrying the project. He was arrested during filming and even managed to film the police action. The film definitely sides with the people of the region, whose families have lived there for centuries, and lovingly defends the rustic homes and the countryside that is being "redesigned" by the Trump gang. Criminal acts such as cutting off power and water to local residents during construction of the golf course in order to drive them out, are documented in this testament to the will of the people to resist corporate expansion. Baxter attended the festival, where the film received a Special Jury Prize.
Another film that dealt with eminent domain and the power of big business to coerce and buy out land from municipal governments, is Battle for Brooklyn. Daniel Goldstein is featured as the lone holdout in an apartment building scheduled for demolition to make way for a basketball stadium and 16 skyscrapers in Brooklyn. Through his long ordeal he breaks up with his longtime fiancée and ends up living with a fellow activist, who both fight the giant developer, Forest City Ratner. During the eight-year ordeal, people living in the area are gradually bought out by the giant corporation, leaving just Daniel and his partner. That's not all - they also buy out ACORN, local unions and most of the African American community that are all sold the dream of economic revitalization and jobs. Ratner eventually backed off on its plans to build skyscrapers, the jobs never materialized as the economy sunk to an all-time low. During the long fight, Goldstein discovered that Ratner had paid millions to a local organization to 'buy' support in the black community. The film swells to an exciting conclusion as the drama unfolds on the streets of Brooklyn.
Another unsettling and revealing documentary addresses the actions of young American so-called "eco-terrorists." If a Tree Falls: A Story of The Earth Liberation Front focuses on the case of one young man, Daniel McGowan, long removed from his actions in ELF but arrested in a surprise FBI assault at his office. The ELF in its formative years was considered by the FBI the most wanted terrorist group in America. The film creates sympathy for the misguided idealist youth who chose the path of arson and property destruction in the face of ultimate frustration after trying other tactics. It was noted though that in the over 2000 arsons committed by ELF no one was injured or killed. Footage from organized protests build to show the frustration developed by activists opposing mass deforestation, getting pepper sprayed and constantly dragged away. Scenes from the WTO protest in Seattle show ELF members destroying property and going on rampages. Many activists were eventually arrested and sentenced to long prison terms, while McGowan faced the uncertainty of being imprisoned himself for two acts he committed years earlier. The film allows parties from all sides to express their positions. The issues are complex, with dedicated and impassioned youth struggling to save our planet, but also struggling to find the best path of struggle. It becomes eventually apparent that the charges against McGowan are harsh and unfair, considering that the ringleader of most of the arsons was released because he became a state's witness. This well-researched and directed film is a valuable addition to the body of progressive documentaries.
Photo: Still from You've Been Trumped.