We live in a time of war, both real and metaphorical. The 20th century has saddled us with a linguistic trope that can trap our perceptions of the problems and questions we face, and that has a way of turning metaphorical conflict into literal conflict. Some metaphorical wars seem to have disappeared (the war on poverty has seemingly morphed into a war of takers against makers). Others, like the war on drugs, the war on terror and the culture wars have been hard to shake.
Several new documentaries screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year address the dilemmas we have created for ourselves by configuring social, cultural and political issues in militaristic terms. Even the films on historical topics, like Best of Enemies and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, show that many of our current problems are indebted to metaphorical wars past.
Here are brief insights into a handful of these timely, thoughtful and necessary documentaries.
1. (T)ERROR: One tactic in the war on terror is the use of paid informants to infiltrate Muslim communities in the U.S. and to induce “persons of interest” to engage in criminal activity. In the past decade, the number of these informants has jumped from 1,500 to 15,000. There is very little oversight of the informants, who are mostly criminals working in exchange for reduced sentences and cash. (T)ERROR is an extraordinary exposÃ© of this program. Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe manage to follow Saeed “Shariff,” an informant for the FBI, on a live case without the knowledge of the agency. Saeed is a fascinating character, a former Black Panther, convert to Islam and ex-con who is deeply compromised but also exposes a deeply flawed program. That the filmmakers were able to infiltrate the infiltration to such an extent (even beyond Saeed) exposes the bungling ineptitude of the FBI, the cynicism of the informants and the tragedy that results. To its credit, the Bureau did not allow itself to be infiltrated by the film and offered no comment. But that doesn’t make us feel any safer. (T)ERROR will be screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York this June.
2. Peace Officer: This film examines the militarization of the police, especially in the context of the war on drugs. Our guide and main character is the indefatigable William “Dub” Lawrence, who had a long career in law enforcement and as sheriff in the 1970s introduced the first SWAT team to Utah. The goal was to provide a professionally trained force capable of responding adequately to volatile situations involving lethal weapons. Years later, Lawrence's son-in-law was involved in a standoff with the SWAT team (he was pointing a gun at himself), which ended with a siege and the son-in-law's death. Dub devotes his considerable investigative and critical skills to reconstructing and reviewing this incident and others like it, and to fighting against the militarization of law enforcement. He is both a moral and technical authority on the various changes in policy, law and regulation that allow undercover police with military-style weapons to break down doors without knocking and begin shooting for offenses as minor as growing marijuana. We also hear from sympathetic police officers who feel trapped by the systemic militarization of police work. Filmmakers Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber have found exactly the right voice to call for peace and conclusion to the failed drug war.
3. Deep Web: Some people choose to fight back in the war on drugs. Director Alex Winter’s fascinating look at the rise and fall of Silk Road is a timely examination of issues relating to technology, law, privacy and drugs. The film opens with a an informative explanation (complete with graphics) about the Darknet, Tor and Bitcoin, the building blocks for an anonymous, unsearchable marketplace online, the ultimate black market. Silk Road, begun in 2011, was the place to go for illegal drugs within that black market, offering immediate access to the highest quality drugs worldwide. Deep Web leans toward a libertarian/anarchist/cypherpunk advocacy of unrestricted freedom in the anonymous online marketplace. Much of the film focuses on the trial of Ross Ulbricht as the non-virtual person behind the virtual persona “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the avatar running Silk Road. There is a suggestive case to be made that the online market reduces violence in the drug trade even if we don’t see it as the incarnation of “Austrian economics.” Ulbricht’s trial raises a number of uncharted legal questions relating to privacy and the rules of online policing, questions the courts appear unwilling to chart at present. Deep Web premieres on EPIX on May 31 at 8 p.m.
4. 3½ Minutes: An all too familiar political theme of our times is the appalling war on unarmed African-American youth. Marc Silver’s film examines the trial of Michael Dunn, a white man in Jacksonville, Florida, who confronted four black teenagers in a parked car about the volume of their music. Dunn fired multiple rounds into the teens' car, resulting in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The core of the film lies in its footage of Dunn’s trial. The judge agreed to allow one film crew into the hearings, and remarkably, granted that opportunity to this documentary crew. We get to see not simply a record of the trial, but an observational study of the legal drama. How does it actually work to stage a self-defense argument in such situations? What kind of resourcefulness and courage are required by Jordan’s friends as they are cross-examined? While there innumerable troubling aspects of the Jordan Davis shooting and similar incidents, the absurdities of “Stand Your Ground” are particularly glaring. If perceived threat is sufficient justification for violence, and the evidence for perceived threat is itself the perception of threat, there is no clear way to falsify that claim. The circular illogic of the law is among the myriad issues within our system of criminal justice on trial in this riveting documentary.
5. Of Men and War: Some wars are not metaphorical. Laurent BÃ©cue-Renard’s Of Men and War is an observational study of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at a treatment center in California for post-traumatic stress disorder. The film manages to avoid a number of potential traps. There are no expert talking heads serving up clinical diagnostics or statistical dimensions to the problem. There are no policy advocates to frame the issue in abstract social and political terms. This is a strictly veritÃ¨, fly-on-the-wall observation of life at the Pathway Home. The bulk of the footage comes from group therapy sessions that are raw, visceral contests with the demons that remain long after combat. Of Men and War also manages to avoid sentimentalized portraits of its characters. The veterans are neither wounded heroes nor sacrificial innocents. Perhaps a French filmmaker observing American vets helps correct some of the distortions brought on by a war-weary decade and a half. Certainly the documentation of damage done should make us think twice about plundering actual warfare for our politically laden metaphors.
6. Best of Enemies: At the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1968, ABC television aired a series of nightly debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. Apparently, this was something of a desperate gimmick to boost the ratings of a flailing network. The spectacle was effective, and as Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville show in Best of Enemies, it was at once a last gasp of patrician, high-minded debate and a harbinger of the rancorous mudslinging that poses as news in the current media landscape. We get broadstroke references to American militarism in Vietnam and the various domestic revolutions of the late 1960s. But for the most part, the film highlights the rapier wit, ornate rhetorical styles and affected aplomb of these characters. The debates seem less about substantive policy issues than about undermining the moral integrity of the other side. A crucial turn occurs when Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley calls Vidal a “queer” and threatens to punch him in the face. All the blue blood has been drained and we are now on the familiar ground of partisan thuggery and culture wars.
7. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution: Stanley Nelson has been making documentaries on African-American history for several decades now. His work is a staple on PBS and has a consistent, clean expository style of archival footage cut with interviews of historical actors and the experts who study them. The Black Panthers is a stellar example of his work. It is, in part, about power struggles within the leadership of the organization, but the main argument seems to be that there was no top-down control of the movement. What began as a community defense organization against police brutality in Oakland in 1966 exploded into a national movement guided by a variety of voices arising from the members and by the particular circumstances of each city. The story is one of historical contingency. The film has a rich stock of archival footage and it addresses fascinating cultural details of the movement, like the fashion style it created, the artwork of its ephemera and its social service programs. We get to hear from well-known leadership figures as well as rank-and-file joiners. The re-emergence in our own time of police violence targeting African Americans makes this historical story especially pertinent. And several telling elements of the Black Panther story resonate with the metaphorical wars that surround us. The FBI, apparently terrified by the revolutionary potential of the Panthers, began to pay informants as a way of dividing and undermining the organization. One of the first major deployments of SWAT units was the 1969 standoff with the Black Panthers in Los Angeles. Metaphorical wars have a way of becoming hard to distinguish from real ones.