ENGLISH SURGEON Directed by Geoffrey Smith (Australia)
This BBC-produced documentary follows neurosurgeon Dr. Henry Marsh who for 15 years has dedicated his vacation time to flying to Kiev, Ukraine and doing pro bono consultations and surgeries. Marsh was inspired to the cause after being invited to lecture at a KGB hospital and seeing the immense suffering borne from out of date equipment and grossly off-base diagnoses. He has a friend and local point person in Dr. Igor Kurilets who is trying to start a university for neurosurgery in Kiev, who in this film are part comedy team, part support system to a highly specified calling.The film is oddly reminiscent (though diametrically opposed in tone) of last year's Romanian black comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest. The two films slyly observe the day to day ironies for people living in a once closed, communist society as it transitions into something else that is still undefined. We see the doctors struggle to secure the space, equipment and support staff to serve the patients he has lined up for surgery. The solution Kurilets finds is to take up in the former KGB hospital where just a few years prior political dissidents had been imprisoned and administered shock treatment.
Filmed over the course of just two weeks we see Marsh toggle back in forth in his own mind between a hero figure haunted by the death of a child he was unable to save early in his career and an unfeeling godhead. In one uncomfortable scene a young woman who has less than two years to live is left helplessly watching the two doctors go back and forth (in English) over how much bad news to give her while she sits helplessly awaiting a translation. Ultimately deciding not to tell her she's dying until she can summon her mother to join her from Moscow.
English Surgeon effectively confronts the idealized notion of service and just who are the people who dedicate their lives to helping people in need. It's rarely the starlets like Angelina Jolie and more likely to be people with some kind of extreme emotional damage who have funneled their obsession and needs into a positive outlet.
While I recommend the film whole-heartedly I must take offense with the disclaimer in the press notes explicitly stating this is not "a medical film". There is a 20-minute stretch of graphic brain surgery that is not for the faint of heart (which is to say, I nearly threw up and came close to passing out several times). In the scene a patient with a progressed brain tumor becomes dehydrated and begins to have spasms during his operation (in which only local aesthetic has been used). Still in Motion likened the scene to Roy Scheider's open heart surgery in All That Jazz, a scene that also makes me feel light-headed, delicate flower that I apparently am.
The film took the Best International Feature Documentary honor at Hot Docs and has been acquired by ITVS. Official site.
1,000 JOURNALS Directed by Andrea Kreuzhage (USA)
Producer Andrea Kreuzhage (SLC Punk!, Bookies) makes her directorial debut with this documentary about a conceptual art piece conceived by a man who goes by the moniker "Someguy". With the stated goal of encouraging more people to consider themselves as artists, he started a website (as all San Francisco-based conceptual art pieces do) and took sign ups for the titular 1,000 journals he then circulated around the world. People are tasked with leaving their mark, scanning the pages to upload to the website and then passing the journal along. Once filled, the journals will be on display at an art gallery in San Francisco. But human nature being largely lazy and insecure, the bulk of the journals go completely off the radar almost immediately and only one is ever returned completed to Someguy.
has some predictable first-time directing hiccups in crafting a through
storyline for the film. I'm reminded of Alexandra Lipsitz's documentary
Air Guitar Nation where the subject matter is compelling enough but the
director had trouble connecting the participants' passion for what they
were doing with any larger context. Several times while watching this
film I couldn't help but wonder why I should care at all about a group
of people who place a zealot's level of import on making
crayola doodles, personal journaling and backpacking through Europe.
And if this is some effort to unite the world through an unassuming art
project (it was initiated shortly after the terrorist attacks of
September 11th), how are people who don't have regular enough access to
computers to learn about the journals supposed to participate?
There are scenes of genuinely touching moments where interview subjects manage to distill their experiences for themselves. But those bits are mostly centered around acts of extreme cruelty or disgust the journalers feel for each other. In one scene, a middle-age woman who has spent her life taking care of her family uses the journals to open up about her experiences of sexual abuse as a child. Someone responds by creating a sexually explicit collage depicting her as "a fat cow". How the woman found out about something that happened in the journal's timeline after she had it is unclear but the next person in line states blithely that "art is meant to provoke". Yes, fat jokes contribute so much to the discourse. Let's exhibit Rush Limbaugh in the Louvre. Sometimes a director's effort to leave things open to the viewer's interpretation winds up as a total lack of compassion for its subjects and 1,000 Journals suffers greatly from this ambivalence.
The film is playing several more film festival and sales are being handled by Louise Rosen Ltd. Official site.
ASK NOT Directed by: Johnny Symons (USA)
Johnny Symons' impassioned documentary Ask Not is a ruthless investigation of the failures of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The DADT policy was a political compromise enacted under the Clinton administration in lieu of the campaign promise of removing the ban on homosexuals serving in the US military. At the time it seemed to many to be a flawed but acceptable stop gap measure but as Symons reveals, has created a myriad of new problems for soldiers, officers, the military and the Executive branch.
It's a sad fact that the extent of our involvement in the Middle East these days has made this the perfect opportunity for equal rights activists to press the issue, though the film itself is agnostic towards the current wars. In one particularly harrowing scene, we learn that 54 translators fluent in Farsi and/or Arabic were discharged pre-9/11 leaving the Bush administration unable to get through the backlog of wiretap communications that are now understood to contain many red flags leading up to the terrorist attacks.
Symons does an excellent job of balancing talking heads who put the political climate of the passage of DADT into context, archival footage and the personal stories of the deep psychological problems that can be inflicted on a soldier or officer living a lie to serve their country. The number of active duty and retired military personnel he was able to convince to speak on camera is particularly moving.
The film also spotlights a fascinating element in American history -- a moment where President Truman can be lauded for judgment and courage. After signing the executive order to integrate the military many top-ranked generals threatened to leave and while there is no footage from the actual conversation, Truman's response appeared to have been, "Seeya, wouldn't wanna be ya" resulting in zero resignations.
We also spend time with a grassroots activist group called Soulforce that stage sit-ins in the recruitment offices located in strip malls throughout the country. Openly gay people who have been denied the ability to serve and their supporters sit silently are eventually arrested for trespassing. The scene is striking for several reasons, the most obvious being how reminiscent the images are of the lunch counter protests that became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement (with a little post-Gen X irony, these are now black officers arresting white kids). Living in the Bay Area I have a bit of a skewed perspective on anti-military activism and was stunned by how polite civil disobedience is in midwest. The absurdity of the situation is also uniformly accepted, the recruiter all but says "if I could enlist you all I would meet my quota for the rest of the year". And for the duration of the sit-in not a single heterosexual person comes into the office to enlist.
The film has been selected to air as part of the PBS series Independent Lens in the 2008-2009 season. Official site.