Several films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival deal with excessive greed. Inequality for All, which I wrote about earlier, showed the drastic effects on the American economy of skyrocketing CEO salaries. But Big Men presents inside footage of exactly how greed consumes a small Texas company given a chance to exploit the natural oil resources of an entire country, in this case Ghana.
Comparisons to how neighboring Nigeria was exploited, and the resulting corruption and mass poverty, give a clear indication of what will happen in Ghana as local leaders kiss up to the Texas millionaires and their fatal attempt to ravage further Africa. Director Rachel Boynton (Our Brand Is Crisis) provides an insider's look with stunning accuracy.
Then there's Bernie Madoff, who made off with a lot of people's money! Probably history's worst white collar criminal, Madoff set up an elaborate Ponzi scheme with a legitimate office that was a front for an entire floor of scheming money grubbers. In God We Trust is another insider's look at greedy corporations, exposing the operation, the key players and how they fooled so many people for so long. The Ponzi scheme works by paying investors with money collected from new investors. The key to this expose is the lone honest secretary, Eleanor Squillari, who kept records for everything, not knowing a thing about the scam until the day Madoff was arrested. Her quest for truth and justice makes for a fascinating story, with footage inside places few of us would ever see otherwise.
Another great film that challenges U.S. imperialism and exposes its henchmen is a new documentary about the iconic author/philosopher Gore Vidal. In Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia we meet the opinionated author who often held parties for the most brilliant thinkers, politicians and artists of the time. Footage of his classic TV battles with conservative William Buckley, and interviews with many notables who called him friend, make for an extremely entertaining reminder of this man's attempts to beat off the wolves. Tragic turncoat Christopher Hitchens, who proclaimed himself the successor to this progressive literary figure, is put in place by Vidal, who exposes Hitchens' political failings, and ends up outliving Hitchens besides.
We meet Vidal's loving male partner who shared his entire adult life, and we realize how we miss such stimulating thinkers, unafraid to tell it like it is, who fearlessly challenge the establishment. This is a valuable way to spend your time in a movie theater.
There is a plethora of films addressing the many threats to our environment, and Gasland was an important addition to the body of work. But Gasland Part II is a long-winded and unnecessary sequel to the quite sufficient Part I treatise on the dangers of fracking, ultimately of interest to only the most dedicated. Activist filmmaker Josh Fox, a Michael Moore wannabe, is heavily immersed in an important mission and certainly most dedicated to the cause, but this film adds little to the message that fracking is not good for your health or the environment. Although it updates recent findings on the extent of damage caused by fracking (deep drilling for natural gas), it offers little that is new.
War atrocities committed by American soldiers in Afghanistan are the subject of Kill Team. Embedded reporters and soldiers' own cell phone cameras provide footage not available in past wars. A group of U.S. soldiers is charged with killing innocent civilians for sport. The absorbing documentary interviews the participants and discovers that a bullying sergeant forced them to get involved in the thrill game. Kill people, drop a weapon on the scene to make it look like the attack was justified, then cut off body parts for souvenirs. One bullied soldier disgusted with the process, decides to become the whistleblower and is isolated from the rest of the group. His parents, concerned for his life, fervently support his innocence, and the bulk of the film is the defense team's preparations for the upcoming military trial. Well edited with building suspense, the film pops out of the news headlines, providing the human drama that is seldom seen in war reportage.
Bridegroom is about gay love, but it's a story for anyone who has a heart. Laughing and crying throughout the entire theater, a long standing ovation for the artists, winner of the audience award for best documentary - it doesn't get much better than that. At a time when the same-sex marriage issue is on the front page, young and handsome 29-year-old Tom Bridegroom dies in a fall from the roof of his apartment building. His partner of six years, Shane, is devastated and posts his tragedy on YouTube. It goes viral with 4 million hits!
Interviews with Shane, his family and friends, and poignant pictures of the two men growing up, provide a convincing testament to the power of love, and the urgency of the struggle for legalizing same-sex marriage. Shane's hip great-grandmother scolds critics, "It's a Romeo and Romeo story. Get over it."
Jin and The Rocket are films about exotic destinations that most people will never see. And they're also films that most people will never see. That's unfortunate because these are the true gems at festivals, films that bring stories from the other side of the world into your living room, that show great art and filmmaking resides in nearly every country in the world. Both are films about the tragedy of war.
Jin is an almost silent drama that follows a young Kurdish woman rebel who leaves her post to wander through the most breathtakingly beautiful forests of the world, and also the most dangerous. Constantly being trailed, her life is on the edge of survival, caused by the tragic battle over land and borders. She wants to return to a normal life but the film constantly reminds us of the futility of her quest, and the futility of war.
The Rocket won the top Audience Award, and rightfully so. An Australian film about Laos, it is a fantasy about a rocket-making contest in a small village facing famine unless there is rainfall. A peasant family is forced to leave their village set to be flooded by a new dam. Ten-year-old Ahlo is an ingenious rocket maker, who competes for the top prize to not only help feed his family but help bring rain to his village. It's a light-hearted fantasy, but also a grim reminder of the devastation of war as unexploded bombs are still being discovered throughout the village.
Photo: From Big Men (via tribecafilm.com).