With today’s bombardment of information, or what can be called simulacra and simulation, evoking what is truly real is a challenge, especially in the supposed reality of documentary cinema.
Director of Programming Sean Farnel at HotDocs 2011 stumbled upon his own intuitive interpretation that levitated from a vast curation of seemingly unrelated films: striving for authenticity. He attributed authenticity to the documentary’s ability to convey feelings and ignite a connection between the subject and viewer, while also allowing audience members to collectively experience an arc of emotions. “There’s courage both in this willingness to strive towards authenticity, and to be seen, visible and vulnerable in that striving,” writes Farnel.
Indeed, subjects and filmmakers took personal and emotional risks to bring their stories to life. Hot Docs unleashed an tide of films with hefty servings of bravery in terms of boldness of subject and brazenness of storyteller. But stretching the notion of ‘striving for authenticity’ one step further, most striking was the incentive of Generation Y to stick to the ‘true’ path in the hope of producing, or being, something real. In a world that raised them on media and digital technologies – often clouding their ability to distinguish reality from fantasy in a hyperreality – young people today have a tendency towards disenchantment, be it with their government, their country, or society’s expectations. Ultimately, they might have a tougher time just being themselves.
Several selections at Hot Docs showed young people struggling to shrug off the numbness and stay true to their core, in the realms of politics, passion, art and attitude. To be politically authentic is a problematic idea, oxymoronic if you will. And if you’re an idealistic youth who wishes to ‘better this world’ in America’s current political climate, it might be wise to rethink your tactics on ‘fighting for your rights.’ In Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s documentary, Better This World, two childhood friends from Midland, Texas stand up for their political beliefs and end up facing domestic terrorism charges. As activists disillusioned by the direction of their country, 20-year-olds David and Brad liaised with an anarchist group in Austin, leading them to the front of the protest lines at the 2008 Republican National Convention. They are pressured by their political mentor – nationally recognized radical Brandon Darby – to prove their allegiance to the cause.
The best friends hit the local Walmart for supplies and manufactured eight Molotov cocktails, with the intent to use them on lawenforcement vehicles in a parking lot. Shortly thereafter, their revolutionary ringleader Darby is revealed as an FBI informant. Claiming entrapment as a defense, David and Brad face 30-year sentences and pressure from the authorities to turn each other in and accept a plea bargain. The bulk of the visually and sonically sophisticated Better This World is told by the intelligent and highly articulate David and Brad, who allow the directors into their family homes and jail cells to hear their story, throughout the trial and its aftermath. The two Texans are dauntlessly sincere about their politics and actions that prompted the FBI to come snapping at their boot heels. In the heightened paranoia of post-911-homeland-security mania, the lines continue to blur between revolutionary and radical, between sticking to your convictions and becoming a national threat. Even at a young age, David and Brad knew what was right (and still do) and they are not likely to stop fighting for the kinds of changes in the world they deem imperative.
«Young people today have a tendency towards disenchantment, be it with their government, their country, or society’s expectations»
In the vein of other documentaries that come from the arid grasslands of the Afghani battlefield, Restrepo and Armadillo respectively, war photographer Danfung Dennis’s feature debut, Hell and Back Again follows 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris as he transitions between two visceral apocalypses – one riddled with machine-gun fire in Afghanistan and the other back home in North Carolina, where the battle continues as Harris struggles with a severe leg injury that either has him writhing in pain or stoned on painkillers. In an attempt to lift the general public out of a war fatigue perpetrated by ten years of mainstream media coverage of the War on Terror, Dennis and Harris deliver us the average soldier’s take on Afghanis and Americans, battle and blood, fierce pain and the thirst to kill.
Harris is a resilient soldier, but a fallen one, both physically and psychologically. What makes Hell and Back Again particularly noteworthy is its delicate, honest, handling of America’s place in Afghanistan and the place of American soldiers back home.
Dennis keeps the camera rolling in candid moments among the soldiers and between Harris and his wife, recognizing that both the profundity and downright idiocy of war are equally important in its reflection.
With fewer excuses for herself and her country – and evidently less reluctance than Nathan Harris when admitting her pain, guilt and resentment – is Robynn Murray, an American cheerleader-turned-soldier-turnedpost-traumatic-stress-victim in Sara Nesson’s Poster Girl. Debilitated by depression, riddled with mental anguish and haunted by ceaseless nightmares upon her return from Iraq, Murray battles the red tape of Veteran Affairs and her own enraged demons. Tattooed “with the story of war, regret, yet pride” to eternalize both her weapons and wounds, Robynn Murray turns herself inside out over the course of two years in front of Nesson’s lens.
Just 38 minutes long, Poster Girl is one of the most sincerely heartbreaking laments of war, capturing raw emotion and Murray’s progression towards redemption. Totally disenchanted by the army, she admits to the lives she destroyed while retracting her allegiance to the military that ordered her to do so. In a wonderfully cathartic decision, Murray joins an art collective for exmilitary personnel that shred and pulp their uniforms to make something beautiful. Reappropriating her purpose in life, along with the mental, emotional and tangible baggage she brought back from battle, Murray literally sheds her skin before our eyes and stands outside her anguish – new and genuine.
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