Hot Docs Film Festival | Day 5

hotdocs 75American Commune, directed by Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, offers an insider’s look at The Farm, once the largest agricultural commune in the U.S.

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In God We Trust’s Eleanor Squillari

If life in North Korea is half as surreal as it is usually presented in the Western media, it must be really something (and not in a good way, at least not for the people who live there). The difficulty of learning anything North Korea means that any film shot there is of interest purely for the sake of its location. Fortunately, The Great North Korean Picture Show, directed by Lynn Lee and James Leong, goes beyond idle curiosity and gives you some sense of what life is like for students at the only film school in North Korea, as well as for professionals working in the field. In some ways, it looks pretty much like the film business anywhere, although more amateurish and lower tech, and with the heavy hand of government control always an unspoken presence.

Lee and Leong were working under some stringent restrictions—minders were with them at all times, each day’s footage had to be reviewed and approved by the government censors, and everyone interviewed was clearly on their guard lest they lose their privileges—so in response, the film sometimes includes commentary in subtitles, detailing what was going on behind the scenes of whatever you are seeing on screen. That, plus a little reading between the lines, tells you all you need to know.

The Defector: Escape from North Korea, directed by Ann Shin, offers a different perspective on life in North Korea by focusing on people attempting to escape from there. The spine of The Defector is the tense journey of one band of refugees, led by a former defector named Dragon who is both a humanitarian and a capitalist: He’s risking his own freedom to help people escape, but also collects a hefty fee for his troubles. Shin intercuts the 3,000-mile journey of this particular band of refugees through China, Laos, and Thailand with sidebars on matters such as living conditions in North Korea, the use of cellphones in the modern smuggling trade, and the fate of a North Korean family awaiting their immigration hearing in Canada.

American Commune, directed by Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, offers an insider’s look at The Farm, once the largest agricultural commune in the United States. Founded in 1971 in Lewis County, Tennessee, The Farm was a pure slice of flower-child idealism, formed by a group of San Franciscans who had been traveling around the U.S. and decided to pool their funds and create a community, where work and goods would be shared communally. Croshere and Mundo’s parents were among the original members of The Farm, and both have fond memories of their childhoods there.

The Farm prospered at first, and was held up as a model of idealism in practice. By the mid 1980s, however, things were going sour, as a high birth rate and a lack of outside income resulted in chronic shortages of necessities like food and clothing. When The Farm started charging rent, the Mundo household split up, with the mother taking her daughters—in their words—to live in “a luxury apartment in San Diego.” How this was paid for is not explored; perhaps the grandparents kicked in (their maternal grandfather was a well-known surgeon). It’s one of many questions left unanswered, and in the end, American Commune is more a nostalgic look back at a time now vanished than it is a critical examination of The Farm, or the “back to the land” movement in general.

Just when you thought there wasn’t anything more to say about Bernie Madoff, along come first-time filmmakers Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson with In God We Trust, which not only has a lot to say, but says it very stylishly. The film is organized around the testimony of perhaps the ultimate insider, Madoff’s personal secretary Eleanor Squillari, who cooperated with the FBI to help trace Madoff’s many shady business deals. Normally I dislike re-enactments in documentaries, but they work well in this one because the film is narrated by Squillari, and so it seems almost like you’re looking into her memory as she recalls the events you see on the screen.

Here’s a tip for anyone involved in dishonest business transactions: Don’t piss off your secretary, because if she decides to spill the beans, it’s going to be your funeral. Squillari provides detailed information about how Madoff’s operation worked and finds links between mysterious characters and large sums of money. In God We Trust also suggests that Madoff was involved in money laundering. While the latter is extremely difficult to prove, it’s a more plausible explanation, given the amounts of money and length of time involved, than the simple Ponzi scheme first offered as an explanation for the collapse of Madoff’s enterprises. | Sarah Boslaugh

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