BY PAMELA BOWMAN, PHOENIX, ARIZONA, USA — Edwin Starr sang, “War, huh, yeah … What is it good for … Absolutely nothing …” But, the topic of war seems to be good for something at Sundance 2007. Seven films found the topic of war — conflicts of the present and past — worth remembering, reliving and recreating to grant filmgoers access to this ancient and most inhumane activity.
GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB, directed by Rory Kennedy, will screen in the Documentary Competition. Rory Kennedy ‘s documentary provides insight into what occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The film examines what and who was responsible for the abuses that occurred to the inmates. It also looks at how the United States, the world leader for human rights, excuses itself from obeying the very laws for which it has gone to war to protect. Americans will find this film revelatory, uncomfortable and disturbing. For those who have the valor to watch this film, Kennedy offers the opportunity to engage in the discussion of how to defend and protect the liberties the U.S. professes all people to have.
NANKING directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman will also screen in the Documentary Competition. In contrast to Abu Ghraib, NANKING depicts humankind at its most humane and also at its most inhumane. In 1937, the Japanese Army entered the Chinese city of Nanking. Hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens were killed. Among those were women who were first raped, tortured and barbarically murdered. A small group of Westerners in Nanking united to save, protect and shelter some of the citizens from their tormentors. By comparing the actions of these two groups, the film shows the spectrum of good and evil that exists in the human race. It forces an internal interrogation to decide what we might have done and what we should be willing to do today.
In addition, the film exemplifies the importance of documenting history. Guttentag and Sturman were able to recreate these events from journals, diaries, pictures and footage. Through interviews of survivors from both countries they were able to recreate an event that many would leave buried with the corpses of men, women and children of Nanking. They have been resurrected in this film to teach us all the power of the individual.
Director Charles Ferguson brings the Iraq documentary NO END IN SIGHT to Sundance 2007. The power of the individual is showcased in this film. Unfortunately, that individual is the President of the United States. Ferguson interviewed high-level government officials who were in Iraq prior to the war and others who were present during the military discussions on what should occur. NO END IN SIGHT exposes the incompetence of the American administration and the consequences of their choices. It also shows the results of those choices and the impact on Iraqis, Americans and the world. This film reveals the roots of this war for anyone willing to watch it. While it may be difficult for any nation to admit that their leaders failed them, future voters will benefit from the awareness that elected officials could better represent their values and expectations. Many Americans may have believed that they could trust their government to tell the truth. This film shows a betrayal of that trust in concrete terms. Viewers will be unable to say they don’t know the truth unless they continue to ignore it.
WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN by director Stephen Okazaki is haunting in its depiction of the events and the results of the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945. He visits with 14 people who survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaskai on August 6 and 9th, respectively. Over 200,000 civilians died instantly. This is the story of those who survived. In some cases, the audience witnesses that there are some are things that may be worse then death. In addition to the survivors, those Americans who carried out the bombings are also interviewed. They talk about how they live with their obedient compliance to their orders. WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN reminds the world’s citizens to recall what happened 62 years ago. It reminds us to recognize how fragile the balance still is between countries with different cultures, beliefs and values. In one brief, blinding moment, the world was irrevocably changed. The escalating tensions in Iran and North Korea should cause us to recall that millions of lives can be destroyed. All hearts will be haunted by the stories of the survivors of the White Light / Black Rain.
Director James C. Strouse explores the impact of war in dramatic narrative form. His film GRACE IS GONE will screen in the Dramatic Competition. Lead actor John Cusack said the following about his choice to do this film. “Art is political in the deepest sense when it gives people a sense of place within a political framework. The circumstances of this war in particular are buried in spin and hidden agendas, and I think it is an artist’s job to try to expose the truth, in this case an emotional truth. There are some moral questions that needed to be asked about this war that go beyond political discourse and polemics. In my view, not every discussion needs to be one of point — counterpoint. If we can’t acknowledge that pain and grief caused by war is real, then we’ve really gone mad. That’s why I thought GRACE IS GONE was a really important movie to do.”
GRACE IS GONE is a dramatic film that powerfully depicts the impact of the Iraqi war on the individual. As Americans, we are all affected by the war, but that impact is nothing compared to what a family experiences with the loss of a father, mother, daughter or son. GRACE IS GONE is Strouse’s debut as a director. He worked closely with Cusack who was also a producer of this film. Their commitment to the truth is evident in the characters and their relationship with each other. The true strength of this movie is the subtle way in which it brings a deep understanding to the viewers about that loss. It also gives the viewing audience a sense of place and allows the audience to explore their own political framework, Cusack and Strouse help us all to experience that war and art are political.
HOT HOUSE by director Shimon Dotan appears in the World Documentary Competition. There is a saying in the U.S. that prisons teach inmates how to be criminals. In Israel, nearly 10,000 Palestinians have been sentenced to prison for acts of murder and other criminal behavior. Dotan interviews these prisoners and finds future terrorists are being created within these prisons and their plans are being formulated within the prison walls.
Dotan’s documentary emphasizes everyday prison life. It shows that prisoners have access to newspapers, television and, more importantly, each other. While there are inmates who express their commitment to the negotiation process, there are others who did not and do not regret their terrorist actions. In their culture, they are heroes and martyrs. They embrace this belief and continue to embrace it and encourage it with their children. The strength of their belief is deepened during their time in prison. They say there is strength in numbers. As the number of prisoners in Israeli prisons increase, Dotan shows that Palestinian nationalism and ideology strengthens as well.
Masha Novikova’s THREE COMRADES show how the daily lives of citizens are fragmented by war. Chechnya fights for its independence from the Soviet Union as their citizens face terror and despair. They struggle with the fear of the unknown future while remembering the hard but predictable past. War kills more then lives. It kills childhood and memories and hope.