Joining the previously reviewed Restrepo and Last Train Home, three documentaries were sent to me by various studios to be considered for a 2010 NYFCO award: “Disturbing the Universe”, a highly ambivalent biography of Bill Kunstler made by his two daughters, “A Film Unfinished”, based on raw footage filmed by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, and “Waste Land”, a film about how Brazilian artist Vik Muniz made portraits of waste pickers at the world’s biggest garbage dump in Rio using the detritus that surrounded them.
I would not be disappointed if any of these five films won an award, but my top three picks remain: The Pat Tillman Story, Budrus, Julia Bacha’s tale of Palestinian resistance, and Gasland, a powerful exposé of “fracking”. Indeed, just about every documentary I reviewed this year was far more interesting than the fictional films cranked out by Hollywood’s assembly lines.
Sarah Kunstler was 12 years old and her sister Emily was 10 when I met with Michael Ratner and his sister Marjorie Ratner, the wife of Bill Kunstler, at Bill Kunstler’s townhouse in Greenwich Village in 1988. I was there with Michael Urmann, the executive director of Tecnica, in order to get their advice over how to respond to the initial charges of the FBI that Tecnica was part of an espionage network running high technology out of Nicaragua into the USSR. Little did I suspect that Marjorie had begun to view her husband as having lost his radical mettle by this point, a view she expressed at some length in her daughters’ movie.
The main complaint is that by the early 1980s, Kunstler had begun to sully his reputation by becoming an attorney for people like Larry Davis, a Black drug dealer who had shot 6 cops during a bust, El-Said Nosair, the Egyptian who had killed Meier Kahane, and most inauspiciously the Mafia don John Gotti, who is seen being embraced by Kunstler at the conclusion of a successful defense. These “bad guys” were nothing like the Chicago 8, the Lakota Indians leading the Pine Ridge occupation or any other of the “good guys”, both male and female, who had made the sixties and seventies so exemplary.
Their gripe is reminiscent of what has been said about Ramsey Clark, who made his legal expertise available to Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, two of the most hated figures of polite liberal opinion in the United States. Without dwelling too much on the political confusion of the Kunstler kids, I can only say that Kunstler was only following in the footsteps of people like Clarence Darrow, who not only defended John Scopes against charges of teaching Darwinian theory to his public school students, but the cold-blooded murderers Leopold and Loeb. If one believes that a Larry Davis did not deserve the best lawyer available to him, then clearly Bill Kunstler’s daughters did not understand their father very well.
The film is a tribute to one of the greatest constitutional lawyers of the late 20th century as well as a genuine leader of the radical movement. Despite the sour notes, there is still plenty to savor in this movie, especially as a reminder to those of us who grew to love Kunstler as well as those who came of age in a time when people like the Chicago 8 were long gone from the scene. One can only imagine how Kunstler would have responded to the witch-hunt being organized against Julian Assange right now, a case that promises to be equal to the Dreyfus affair or Sacco-Vanzetti in terms of its political importance.
“A Film Unfinished” is pretty harrowing stuff. It shows the reality of life in the Warsaw Ghetto just before the Jewish population was about to be swept up and transported to the death camps, a measure that led to the ill-fated uprising. Nazi cameramen were charged with the duty to film the mass misery and the supposed good life of the wealthy Jew in order to produce a documentary that blamed the suffering of the poor Jew on their own upper class rather than Nazi occupation.
Nothing is held back. You see corpses on the street and people on the brink of starvation. You also see Jews being directed by the Nazis to participate in religious rituals like the Mikvah (a ritual bath) in order to satisfy some twisted faux anthropology agenda. Mostly, the purposes of the film remain something of a mystery since the Nazis were dead for the most part long before this documentary was made, with one notable exception.
The chief cameraman Willy Wist, who gave testimony to a commission on Nazi war crimes, is played by an actor using his own words. Wist is the typical Nazi underling who evades any responsibility for his actions, mostly trying to make it sound like a job sweeping floors or peeling potatoes. With all we know about the Nazi system, it is nearly impossible to figure out how a human being could spend his days filming corpses on the streets.
For a human reaction to the events depicted in the film, that is up to a handful of elderly survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto who give their reaction to the Nazi film by director Yael Hersonski, a young Israeli, who asks for their reactions. Despite the tendency for the holocaust to be used an excuse for Zionist cruelty, Hersonski resists this impulse, even to the point of having signed a January 2009 statement by 540 Israeli citizens that states:
In the past, the world knew how to fight criminal policies. The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves: its trade relations are flourishing, academic and cultural cooperation continue and intensify with diplomatic support. This international backing must stop. That is the only way to stop the insatiable Israeli violence.
We are calling on the world to stop Israeli violence and not allow the continuation of the brutal occupation. We call on the world to condemn, and not become an accomplice in Israel’s crimes.
My first exposure to the world of people making a living out of salvaging material from a garbage dump was the 2002 “God’s Children” set in Manila, about which I wrote in part:
Hiroshi Shinomiya’s documentary “God’s Children” takes the audience into the lowest levels of hell on earth. It revolves around the lives of Filipinos who eke out a living in search of scrap metal, plastic bottles, etc. at a massive garbage dump near Quezon City called “Smokey Valley,” a sardonic euphemism in line with “Smokey Mountain,” another garbage dump outside Manila whose denizens were featured in Shinomiya’s first film.
Eighteen thousand families were drawn to Smokey Valley because there were no economic alternatives. During a question and answer period after last night’s screening at MOMA, the director stated that the unemployment rate in Manila for youth now stands at fifty percent.
In the opening scenes of the film, we discover that a typhoon had ripped through the area in July 2000, causing a landslide of garbage that demolished shacks abutting the dump, killing more than one thousand dwellers. We are reminded of the aftermath of 9/11 as we see rescue crews pulling dead bodies out of the fetid rubble, but with one difference. Given the power relationships that govern this planet in this epoch, nobody ever held memorial concerts or raised millions for these victims of the nameless and faceless terror known as capitalist neo-liberalism.
In contrast to “God’s Children”, “Waste Land” is a far more upbeat and redemptive offering. It is also a tribute to the dedication and idealism of artist Vik Muniz, who has little in common with the art world hustlers like Damian Hirst even though his work, including the portraits that were documented in this movie, are shown in the same gallery as Hirst’s idiotic and high-priced work.
Muniz is best known for using non-traditional material in his art work. For example, he created two versions of the Mona Lisa, one with jelly and the other out of peanut butter! But his most ambitious project was to create mammoth portraits of the people who worked in the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. These were “catadores”, who were paid for collecting recyclable materials. Indeed, they resent being called garbage pickers. Instead, they insist that they won’t touch garbage, only material that has some value.
As was the case with his Mona Lisa, Muniz recreated classical artworks such as The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David using the catadores as stand-ins. The portraits are embellished by stuff collected from the Gramacho dump and then photographed for display in various galleries and museums.
While Muniz is an appealing character, it is the catadores who make this film memorable. Coming from the lower depths, they show no signs of having accommodated to the degradation that surrounds them in this desperately poor slum. They are proud that they have not resorted to selling drugs or prostitution, two professions that other slum denizens drift into.
“Waste Land” is now showing at various theaters around the country including Brooklyn Heights Cinema. Screening information is here. http://www.wastelandmovie.com/screenings.html
“Disturbing the Universe” can be rented from Netflix right now and “A Film Unfinished” will probably be available before long as well.