Hot Docs Film Festival | Day 1

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hotdocs 75Part of the appeal of covering a festival, of course, is the fact that people connected with the films being shown are present to discuss their work and answer questions.

 

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Watching Anita, a great new film by Freida Mock, put me in mind of Lisbeth Salander. If you’re old enough to remember a time when Clarence Thomas was not on the Supreme Court, then you probably also remember Anita Hill, a law professor from the University of Oklahoma, getting raked over the coals at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary panel. Hill, when asked (as part of the vetting process for Thomas), told the investigators that when Thomas was her boss (at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, no less), he repeatedly sexually harassed her. Like most women, she had no recourse but to put up with it, and eventually found another job and moved on with her life.

Not surprisingly, the hearings—before a panel of white men—turned out to be more about attacking Hill than determining any facts about Thomas, who was about to be given an extremely influential job for life. It wasn’t surprising that the Republicans attacked Hill’s integrity (Alan Simpson even pulled a Joe McCarthy, claiming he had received reams of correspondence attacking her, but producing none of it for inspection), but it was supremely disappointing that the Democrats sat on their hands and watched it happen. Most shocking was the fact that, although witnesses spoke at the hearings in support of Thomas, none of the other women who were prepared to testify that he had sexually harassed them were allowed to speak.

The sad truth is, the only effective support Hill could have produced at that hearing would have required her to hide a camera (or at least a tape recorder) in her bag, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style, waiting for Thomas to start talking about Long Dong Silver and pubic hairs in his Coke. Releasing those tapes to the news media and/or the public would have made Thomas a laughingstock and exposed him as the monumentally unworthy successor to Thurgood Marshall that he truly is.

Fortunately, Anita Hill’s life has not been defined by her experience with the Senate Judiciary Panel, and Anita does not dwell unduly on that episode in her life, but instead presents a much fuller picture of her life and work. Two points in particular are emphasized: how the roots of her strength lie in her family (she’s the youngest of 13 children; her grandfather moved his family to Oklahoma after he was threatened with lynching), and how seriously she takes her role, both as a teacher (she was a tenured law professor at the time of her testimony) and as a leader (she makes many speaking appearances today, encouraging young women to stand up for themselves and find their voice).

In the Shadow of the Sun, directed by Harry Freeland, is a straight issues documentary about a horrifying reality: In parts of Africa, the body parts of albino people are considered magical, thus creating a market, driven by witch doctors, in hacked-off arms and entire corpses of people whose only crime is to have a lack of melanin in their bodies. Freeland focuses on Ukurewe, a Tanzanian island in Lake Victoria that has a high percentage of albinos.

Albinos also suffer from an elevated risk for skin cancers and have poor vision (melanin helps focus the eyes), and are frequently shunned by the melanin-normal population, sometimes including their own families (bringing to mind Tyrion Lannister’s remark in Game of Thrones that all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes). The film’s central figure is Josephat Turner, an albino activist who travels around the country educating people on the facts about albinism, and advocating for albino children. The film also spends a good deal of time with Vedastus Chinese Zangule, a young albino man with a talent for electrical work whose greatest desire is to be able to attend school. In the Shadow of the Sun does a fine job of presenting the difficulties faced by albinos in Tanzania, but fails to dig deeper to uncover the financial interests behind this horrifying trade in human body parts.

Which Way is the Front Line from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington is a documentary tribute by Sebastian Junger to British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed while covering the Libyan civil war. It’s mostly a biographical film, honoring the man and his work (Hetherington was an award-winning still photographer as well as a videographer), while also highlighting two questions often ignored in discussions of war and war photography. One is the visceral appeal of war to young men, quite independent of its purported purposes or actual effects on the populace in the country where it is being waged; the other is the uncomfortable fact that a war photographer is, by necessity, part of the war machine (or, as producer James Brabezon put it during the talkback, part of “the monetization of war”). One issue not discussed: whether the production of beautiful photographs, such as Hetherington’s, about terrible circumstances makes those circumstances seem less terrible.

Part of the appeal of covering a festival, of course, is the fact that people connected with the films being shown are present to discuss their work and answer questions. I hit the Trifecta on day one, getting to hear Frieda Mock and Anita Hill speak after Anita, Harry Freeland and Josephat Turner after In the Shadow of the Sun, and James Brabazon after Which Way is the Front Line from Here. | Sarah Boslaugh

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