Friday, August 31, 2007

Docuweek Part 3

A half a block west from the busy intersection of Sunset and Vine sits the Cinerama Dome, a landmark in Hollywood history and a haven for film enthusiasts for the past four generations. This 72-foot geodesic dome is one of the most notable theatres in Los Angeles and is the site for numerous blockbuster premieres. The Cinerama Dome is newly renovated with 20 multiplex additions accompanied by all the amenities, such as a posh café, bar, outdoor patio, and souvenir shop---very L.A.

The ArcLight Theatre is the home of the 11th annual DocuWeek. DocuWeek is a theatrical showcase presented by the International Documentary Association bringing us the finest in documentary films for a one week engagement. The Price of Sugar and Nanking are two of the more than dozen films depicting the elements of human drama from different parts of the world and time periods.

The Price of Sugar

Director Bill Haney, along with co-writer Peter Rhonda, brings us an intriguing piece from the Dominican Republic. One of the most interesting aspects of documentary films is the ability to bring us real life human stories beyond what we see on the evening news. The Price of Sugar is the story of the sugar cane industry and its debilitating and dehumanizing practice of using Haitian laborers. It is also one mans struggle and fight to bring some type of justice to the immorality and treatment of the Haitian plantation workers.

For the most part, the Dominican Republic is noted as a vacation paradise in the winter months attracting vacationers from the United States and Europe. However, just a few miles inland from the white sandy beaches and clear crystal blue water lies 250,000 acres of sugar plantations. These lush plantations are worked daily by Haitian immigrants smuggled into the Dominican Republic and are promised good jobs, fair wages, and better living conditions then their economically and politically oppressed country of Haiti. Given less than 90 cents a day, these workers find themselves subjected to unfair and appalling labor practices, extreme poverty, and forced concentration type conditions.

Father Christopher Hartley walks down a rural shantytown village under the partly cloudy blue skies of the Caribbean and greets a Haitian villager with the warmest of hugs, greetings, and salutations. The stubble bearded Catholic missionary is a man of godly determination, one whose persistent and rebellious nature has led him to his current calling, which is to help the Haitians from the quagmires of a corrupt system. Born into a wealthy and privileged family in Madrid, Spain, Father Hartley’s calling to serve God came at a very young age; his service in the church has led him down a road of aiding the suffering and the oppressed.
Inspired by the work of Mother Teresa, with whom he worked with for 20 years in England and Calcutta, and now serves as the primary leader and messiah-like figure for the Haitians.

Yet, Father Hartley is under extreme opposition. One out of five sugar plantations is controlled by large families, one being the Vicini Family, whose invisible hands control everything regarding the plantations and are as brutal and sharp as the machetes that cut the canes. Not only does Father Hartley and his supporters have to deal with the Vicini family, but there is strong retaliation by the Dominicans, politicians, and media all whom are controlled and financially supported by the Vicini Family. Like a Colombian drug cartel, the Vicini Family is allegedly responsible or tied to the numerous killings and disappearances of resistant plantation workers whose only crime was to create a better life for their families.

It is here that the story gains momentum and the dramatic events begin to sway like the lush palm trees that make up this green landscape of corruption and strife. It is a struggle for liberation and what is right for the Haitians: fair labor, adequate living conditions, proper nutrition, education, and the right to a legal identity.

The Price of Sugar is a very straight forward documentary; it is a beautifully photographed piece of journalism that brings to life the people of Haiti and the tropical landscape of the Dominican Republic. Through the use of color still photography, cinematographers Jerry Risius and Eric Cochran, capture the suffering and inhumane conditions of the Haitian people. These intimate portraits allow us to visually see and feel the suffering, yet beauty of these people.

This is a film with a clear and potent message, one that deserves a much wider distribution beyond a film festival. It is a film that allows us to critically analyze and think about the plight of third world countries and the debilitating conditions still existing beyond our privileged borders. Hopefully, once viewed, it will be discussed when sipping our cups of coffee with sugar.


War, whether for good or bad, has this uncanny ability to allow men to perpetuate some of most inhumane and heinous acts upon other men. World War II has characteristics of not only a tremendous amount of military casualties, but unlike World War I it bore a great deal of civilian suffering and casualties.

The obvious was the war in Europe which bred the ideals of genocide and human atrocity worse than anyone could possibly imagine. Yet, in the early years of the war in Asia, Nanking and its Chinese citizens were murdered and raped at the hands of the Japanese Imperialistic Army bringing the carnage that was only once known to have occurred only in Europe far into the land of China.

Nanking is a vivid account of the tragic events that took place during Japan’s overthrow and invasion of the city of Nanking in 1937. The events were taken from the diaries and letters of a handful of Westerners working and living in Nanking at the time of the invasion. Four years before Pearl Harbor, Japan attacked China first by sacking the city of Shanghai then making its imperialistic slaughter into the capital of Nanking, China.

In the Fall of 1937, Nanking being one of the four great ancient capitals of China, was a busy, bustling metropolitan city sitting on the beautiful banks of the Yangtze River. Surrounded by picturesque lakes it was a time of tremendous urbanization where citizens went about their daily business on crowded streets. It was also the current home and working place for a group of westerners, ranging from doctors, nurses, missionaries, businessmen, and diplomats.

On August 15, 1937 Japan commenced a series of bombing raids debilitating its infrastructure and crippling the city and its resources. As the days progressed bombing raids one after another continued and the rumors of an impending Japanese army began to develop. Directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman paint the painful imagery through a series of personal and eyewitness accounts from the surviving citizens. In addition, the testimonials of the Westerners are brought to life through their readings of their words done through the cameo performances of actors and actresses such as Woody Harrelson, John Getz, Muriel Hemingway, and others.

More bombing raids continue and everyone is ordered to evacuate the city. Without the means, the poor are left behind and the city is not only laid to rubble but is slowly deserted. Soon questions of morality begin to arise regarding the poor. Should they be rescued? With the dedicated help of these brave Westerners, whose service of the highest kind is to assist the remaining Chinese citizens through this tragic ordeal. Night after night, day after day, more bombing raids continue, putting Nanking in a state of terror waiting for the Japanese Army to arrive.

The Westerners banded together. Missionary George Fitch suggests that a safety zone be implemented for the remaining Chinese citizens; after a series of diplomatic setbacks a safety zone is established and provisions and supplies are requested and an international committee is instituted.

Thousands of displaced Chinese men, women, and children seek refuge into the safety zone with hopes that the Japanese bombs land outside the zone’s perimeters. Within 25 miles from the city the Japanese army begins to shell Nanking using land artillery fire, with all that has ensued the worst is yet to come.

Although half of the story telling is done through the acted out readings, these are not as moving as the testimonies of the surviving citizens. It is here that we get the real sense of the viciousness that occurred. For example a Chinese man whom at the time was around 10 or 11, tells the emotional heart breaking story of how a Japanese soldier bayoneted his mother, killing her and savagely stabbing his baby brother. There were 20,000 cases of rape that occurred during the first month of the Japanese occupation of Nanking, one victim graphically recants her hellish ordeal. It is stories and experiences such as these that give the film a sort of hopeless melancholy and leaves you in a bit of a stupor.

However, newsreel and photographic imagery is the foundation in bringing these stark testimonies to life. Guttentag and Sturman lead you down a trail of archival news footage coupled with black and white photographs depicting the atrocities. Yet, the most moving and disturbing piece of the film is the 8mm movie reels that were smuggled out of Nanking depicting the grotesque and vivid injuries inflicted on the Chinese citizens.

With music supported by the solemn strings of the Kronos Quartet, Nanking is a film that is not quite easy to digest. The message sometimes gets diluted in the graphic imagery, but it is a film that will disturb you…if that is the intended goal. It is another chapter in the annuals of war, a chapter in World War II that is relatively unknown until now. Yet, it is a poignant reminder of the evils committed by overthrowing dictatorships and the compassionate struggle of foreigners in a foreign land to save thousands of innocent lives.

Rowan Harrison

1 comment:

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