SFF 2010, Day 6: Bees, Space and War.

On the second last day of my festival I had another documentary marathon. 4 in a row and strangely enough I was excited. Documentaries are turning out to be major highlights of this festival and one I saw today turned out to be close to the best thing I have seen at this festival. I will be posting a separate review of Exit Through the Gift Shop as there is much to be said about it. Lets have a look at the other 3 I saw then shall we...
Upon consideration I don't think I liked this film. Looking over my notes I see the phrase 'I don't care' scrawled several times in bad handwriting, as are the words 'Boring' and 'Christian bee-keepers!!'. This film was advertised as being about the mystery of the missing bees. As bees all over America suddenly go missing without a trace the impact on pollination and our ability to grow the food we need comes to the fore. The film splits its time between covering that issue and looking at the effects this and the GFC generally is having on a family of bee-keepers in California.
Colony frequently undercuts the actual issue of the missing bees with statements telling us this seems to happen cyclically, every 20 or 30 years and the problem is not that the bees are gone for good but that a few years of bad business will simply put these bee-keepers out of work. Oh... O.K. So the bees are kinda fine then? A new pesticide being used on farms may or may not be the reason the bees are going missing. The film seems either disinterested in delving deeply into the issue or maybe there is little more to the story than that. One bee-keeper clearly states in the film that the bees are fine and will be back but the bee-keepers may not be around after a few years of financial loss.
So this film then concentrates a hell of a lot on this particular Christian family in California and the deals they try to make with farms. Much of the climactic moments of the film cover the family trying to negotiate a fair amount to charge farms for the rental of their hives for pollination duties. I'm sorry but I don't really care if they charge $140 per hive versus $170 per hive. If these financial issues are as important as the issues over the missing bees then the conclusion I reached from this film is there isn't really a major problem at all. Sure, the global financial crisis has hit the bee-keepers and they are struggling but I didn't particularly care and I don't think you will either. Give this one a miss.
Space Tourists was marginally more interesting than the previous film but everything becomes relative at a film festival. This is a classic example of a feature length documentary that really would've worked better as a 60 minute television work. The film follows the journey of Anousheh Ansari, the world's first female space tourist. She paid 20 million dollars to take a place on a Russian mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The film has some quite fascinating footage of our tourist training on archaic Russian machines. They are quirky yet functional devices, perfectly symbolic of a sweet simplicity in the Russian space program. One machine is simply a chair that spins around.
The other highlight of this film is watching the scrap metal traders in Kazakhstan speeding through the flatlands chasing down fallen rockets from the launches. These tough men live off the scrap from falling Russian rockets and it seems a rather profitable enterprise.
Other than that there isn't much interesting material in this film. Some of the ISS footage is fun. Anything banal is automatically amusing in zero gravity and this fills up some running time. But in the end it all amounts to not much. Yay, wouldn't it be fun to go into space. It's on its way. That's about it. Not the worst I have seen this festival but ultimately inconsequential. The best I can say is that it passed the time.
Restrepo's clean, sharp observational quality immediately makes it one of the best war documentaries I have ever seen. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger made 10 separate trips to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan over the course of a year in shooting this film. They chronicle a single platoon and the formation of an outpost named Restrepo in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. Strategically this is an important spot as most of the Taliban fighters coming across from Pakistan seem to travel into Afghanistan through this valley.
The film is essentially plotless as it shows what it is like being stationed at this outpost for a year. Things do happen of course, including one harrowing sequence where the soldiers come across a bombed out house with civilian casualties. This was their fault and they readily admit it but that's war. It's irrational, confusing and frequently pointless.
The most important thing I found in this film was the realisation that I knew very little about what is going on on the ground in Afghanistan. Do you? After spending a (condensed) year with these soldiers I still don't know either. Hetherington and Junger go to great lengths to strip any authorial commentary from their documentary and while there are of course still traces, the film remarkably leaves a lot up to the viewer.
It obviously is difficult to not be disturbed by the image of an American soldier firing a machine gun whilst yelling, “Come get some!!!” but the film makes no statement either way on what you are seeing. Interspersed throughout are interviews shot with the soldiers after their return home. They constantly reiterate their pride in the job they have achieved. Holding this outpost against often multiple attacks a day seems like a significant achievement to them. One that justifies the casualties we witness over the year. It's very difficult as a viewer to agree with them. The whole enterprise seems absolutely pointless. One may argue that looking at war on such a micro scale will always render it pointless. It's hard to ascertain the larger impact of holding this strategic location and the film is wilful about holding its point of view. It never pulls back to give a greater perspective.
John Anderson, writing in Variety said, “ [Restrepo] suffers from the same problem as the ongoing U.S. drama in Afghanistan: a lack of narrative coherence.” I think Anderson and others with this view are completely missing that this seems to be the point of the film. There is little understanding of what is happening in Afghanistan because it doesn't make sense. The war itself doesn't make sense. Did the soldiers make any difference holding that outpost for a year? Who knows? They certainly don't know, despite them assuring themselves of its importance. This virtual existential emptiness in everything that these soldiers achieve seems to be the main contention of the film. Placing it into some great constructed narrative would have most likely ended up being sickeningly jingoistic. Keeping the film so focused results in one of the most amazing views of soldiers at war ever shot.
What is even more startling is the behaviour of these soldiers. The film seems chock full of war movie stereotypes but we constantly reminds ourself that this is a documentary. The frightening conclusion that is raised by the film is that of the influence of film and TV over these soldiers. It's a sobering example of life imitating art but in a way that no one ever wanted to see. At times you can just picture these soldiers placing themselves into a scene from Platoon or Apocalypse Now. The sequence from Sam Mende's Jarhead which features Marines in Kuwait cheering while watching Apocalypse Now rattled through my head several times while watching this. It's scary stuff.
This is a vital film. Important in its objectivity and realism (or course no documentary is completely objective but the observational quality of this film is the closest we will get to something free of politics) this is something I think a lot of people need to see. It doesn't overtly vilify what is going on in Afghanistan but it paints a picture that is so completely alien to western audiences that I think it's required viewing. This is what is going on, and it is absolutely pointless.
  • Getting from the Dendy to the main cinemas in peak hour is a stressful journey involving taxis and running. Not fun.
  • I will never listen to twitter rumours again. It started floating around that all reserved seating for Exit Though the Gift Shop was cancelled and I freaked out. It was untrue. Damn you twitter!
  • One more film and this festival is over for me. Bitter-sweet feelings but I'm satisfied having seen some great films.