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Devil Thrives in the Details

One of the many Darfur atrocities haunting the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback

By Eric Kohn

Activist causes take kindly to the documentary format because it provides an immediate venue for expression. Sign all the petitions you want, but at the end of the day, the power of image wins out. So it goes with The Devil Came on Horseback, which explores the horrific genocide of Darfur by letting the visuals tell the story. In fact, gut-wrenching stills and video of natives who suffered at the hands of the government-armed milita group Janjaweed don’t only lead the narrative -- they dictate its existence. Consistent in its method and indisputably well-made, The Devil Came on Horseback could do for Darfur awareness what An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming.

Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern keenly follow the experiences of US Marine Capt. Brian Steidle, a hardened fighter whose position in the area as the village massacres began to increase in frequency gave him a unique angle on the unfolding disaster. Steidle was sent by the United States to keep watch over the region’s ceasefire between opposing communities (“How do you monitor a ceasefire?” he asks), but they equipped him not with a gun but a camera. Unable to help prevent the Janjaweed attacks in Darfur (his reports on the events were repeatedly ignored), Steidle headed back to the country and shared his exclusive photographs with The New York Times, instantly raising national awareness of the events abroad. He became a momentary hero, appearing on talk shows and giving speeches, driving home the message that the country has a duty to get on the ground and restore order to the fragile African region.

No sooner did the flurry of attention climax, however, than the backlash came hard and fast, replete with government cover-ups and denials from all concerned parties. Steidle remains on message, but the responsible parties have kept him marginalized. Sundberg and Stern use Steidle as their anchor, combining his narration with footage shot in Darfur and in the United States to craft a timeless narrative: Mr. Smith goes to Washington, but he can’t make it to the Senate floor. One of the most receptive audiences to Steidle’s speeches, interestingly enough, comes from Jewish communities. It takes an experienced eye to recognize a Holocaust in action, apparently.

A narrative that’s destined not to please some Jewish communities, My Father My Lord aims to reflect them. Israeli filmmaker David Volach tells the intimate story of a strictly observant family in an ultra-Orthodox community, primarily using a fly-on-the-wall approach to unveil a life of insular behavior dictated by tradition. Unlike the heartwarming portrait of faith-based redemption in a Hasidic family at the heart of last year’s moderately acclaimed Israeli drama Ushpizin, Volach’s direction has a much more subversive angle: Using stark realism, he critiques the championing of spiritual conviction over practicality. Around the third act, an older couple loses a loved in a tragic accident, and the husband tries to hide from his grief through spirituality. It’s a feeble effort. But Volach never condescends to his subjects’ way of life; instead, he allows the drama to provide a vessel for his ideas, and he gets the job done.

Clearly shot on the cheap despite its skillful execution, My Father My Lord suggests the style of early American neorealism. It wouldn’t be fair to consider this representative of all Israeli filmmaking, however; if Volach gives Israel its John Cassavetes, then Eytan Fox is the country’s Richard Linklater. Fox has always made movies that have immense international appeal, using standard storytelling methods to reveal Israel’s intricate social dynamic in ways that few others have attempted in the past. The headline-making Yossi & Jagger told the taboo-breaking tale of homosexuality in the Israeli military. Walk on Water, a thriller of sorts, interrogated the ethics of Zionism. His work comes to the Tribeca Film Festival this year with The Bubble, a Slacker-esque peek at the revolutionary tactics of the nation’s youth. A small band of friends spend much of the movie hanging out in Tel Aviv, doing drugs, having sex, whatever. The big reminders of the specific setting arrive whenever a bomb goes off, leading the protagonists to pick up their phones and struggle to make sure their friends are uninjured (not always the case). Fox uses a light touch with his dialogue, giving his characters vulgar but lovable idiosyncracies. He boldly implements wit in an increasingly bleak storyline, but he seems to imply that entertainment-based activism is a naïve form of expression. “Let’s dance instead of shoot!” declares a young woman, attempting to organize a rave to oppose Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Like, totally.

Touchy Jewish viewers imbued with Zionist proclivities will probably feel uneasy in The Bubble, but they’ll find some common ground in The Last Jews of Libya. Although indisputably slight at 50 minutes, Vivienne Roumani-Denn’s documentary tells a compelling personal tale of struggle and survival in the face of certain extinction. The North African community of Sephardic Jews is miniscule after World War II, but the small band of families that remain intact find a way to flourish. Using narration by Isabella Rossellini, Roumani-Denn uses plenty of archival footage to give her movie the appropriate time traveling effect.

If that’s too heavy for you or something, Dirty Sanchez offers a wildly crass alternative to familiar documentary content. Essentially Jackass Goes to the UK, this comically grotesque round-up of vignettes follows the exploits of several performers intent on enacting the most unsettling acts they can muster up the energy to endure. They begin by giving themselves justification -- sort of. The devil tells the boys that they must enact the seven deadly sins in order to satisfy his satanic desire. Cue the gross-out moments: These guys are nothing if not intense in their brashness, nailing themselves to wooden planks, drinking their extracted fat, driving hooks through genitalia, whatever. After a while, it’s not nearly as funny as much as it is mercilessly (and numbingly) grotesque, but anyone who can relate to this shamelessly beer-guzzling mentality is sure to find themselves in heaven.

It’s the fury of youth culture that allows movies like Dirty Sanchez to find an audience. But the chilled out interaction of suburban youth is so last year, which is something that Palo Alto seems to misunderstand. A low-key story about several disgruntled teens wandering around California in between romances and aimless soul-searching, the series of conflicts and sexual incursions look good on paper, but that’s hardly enough to bring the material to life. The filmmakers appear too earnest in their willingness to bring their memories to life. Put it this way: Nostalgia alone doesn’t dictate good movies.

Posted at May 3, 2007 6:02 AM

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