Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2015

Three Hot Docs films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Despite the fact that the three documentaries under review here have already been shown at the Hot Docs Film Festival that ran from Apr. 23 to May 3 in Toronto, they deserve your attention since there is every possibility that they will be shown at other festivals and—best of all—receive distribution at finer movie theaters. As is so often the case, the documentary is a worthy alternative to the rancid feature films churned out by Hollywood if for no other reason that they are grounded in reality and as such tend to engage with the sort of issues that engage my readers. To wit, “Peace Officer” is about the militarization of police departments in Utah; “A Sinner in Mecca” is about a gay Muslim on a hajj; and “Speed Sisters” is about three young Palestinian women who have become famous for racing cars in the West Bank and elsewhere. Not only are these three films penetrating looks at social reality, they are entertaining especially for their ability to tell stories about remarkable individuals—a task that commercial filmmaking subordinated long ago to special effects and cheesy formulas geared to the adolescent mind.

“Peace Officer” begins with its subject William “Dub” Lawrence emerging from a septic tank with some wadded toilet paper wrapped around a pump—not exactly a scene that promises anything to do with SWAT teams and their abuses, although Lawrence goes on to say that cleaning septic tanks is a more honorable profession than politics. As the former sheriff of Davis County in Utah, an elected post, he is certainly qualified to make such comparisons.

In 1974, Lawrence decided that Davis County, which is in the northern suburbs of Salt Lake City, needed a SWAT team. As the film explains, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units were created first in Los Angeles by Darryl Gates in the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965 as a kind of heavily armed response to that urban uprising and others that might ensue such as the 1974 shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) that had kidnapped Patty Hearst.

Fast forwarding to 2008, Lawrence—long since his departure from police work—was horrified to discover that the very SWAT unit he had created had taken the life of his son-in-law, a 36-year-old firefighter named Brian Wood who had physically assaulted his wife during a mental breakdown and was threatening to kill himself with a revolver inside his pickup truck. The cops held a press conference after his death claiming that he had shot himself in the heart but a skeptical Dub Lawrence eventually discovered that he was shot by a sniper cop during a frenzy that had been mounting ever since the SWAT team surrounded the distraught target of a mission utterly unlike the confrontation with the SLA or any other urban uprising that the SWAT teams had been created to overcome. What Lawrence discovered to his dismay is that the cops had begun to think of themselves more as soldiers putting down an enemy combatant rather than peace officers in the film’s title.

After analyzing the evidence of spent bullets and their trajectory at his son-in-law’s house, Lawrence charged the cops with not only lying about how Brian had died but of covering up their extrajudicial killing. The cops had claimed that he was a threat to both them and to the neighborhood as if the dozens of heavily armored and armed marksmen could not contain a single man with a revolver.

So traumatized by his son-in-law’s killing and the example that this botched military intervention had set, Dub Lawrence made himself available to other families that had lost a son or daughter to SWAT teams, including Matthew Stewart, an army veteran who had been growing marijuana in his basement for his personal use. The cops came to his house in the middle of the night, just as American GI’s had done in Iraq as standard practice, and began firing their weapons at him when they spotted him with a revolver in his hand, evidence in all likelihood of Stewart defending himself against a home invasion. In the melee that followed, one cop was killed by “friendly fire” and Stewart shot one other. Charged with murder, Stewart hung himself in a jail cell rather than face execution or life imprisonment—all for growing weed in his basement.

Dub Lawrence’s son-in-law and Matthew Stewart were about as “white bread” as you can imagine and cut from the same all-American cloth as other Utah natives but ultimately victimized by the same homicidal tendencies that have been on display in Ferguson and elsewhere as the film makes abundantly clear. On November 23rd 2014, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that cop killings in Utah outpaced drug, gang and child-abuse homicides.

Now 70, Dub Lawrence has become a fearless, principled and savvy critic of the illegal and fatal police practices that have sparked a new civil rights movement. As the “star” of this documentary, this defender of the idea that the first obligation of a cop is to “keep the peace” is a real hero as opposed to the never-ending references to cops as heroes in the mainstream press.

As is so often the case with documentaries, they have only an outside chance at theatrical distribution. It is my hope that not only will it make it to the usual venues but also get picked up by the broader movement and shown at college campuses and high schools where the new activists involved with “Black Lives Matter” can be found. This is a film that holds out the hope that a broad-based movement committed to the right of a citizen to live in peace and to be protected from death squads in uniform will be respected.

I urge you to check the screenings page for “Peace Officer” from time to time to see if it is arriving in your neck of the woods since this is about as timely and as moving a documentary film as you will see this year or any year.

In 2007 Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim originally from India, made a film titled “A Jihad for Love” that was the counterpart to “Trembling Before G-d”, a documentary about gay orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their faith with their religion’s official homophobia. Sandi DuBowski, who directed “Trembling Before G-d” served as Sharma’s producer so the two films were obviously linked in the minds of both parties.

Sharma has followed up with “A Sinner in Mecca”, a very personal film about basically the same subject but focused on his own experience. It cuts back and forth from New York City, where Sharma lives with his husband, and Saudi Arabia where he has gone for a hajj. Despite his faith, he has trepidations about traveling in Saudi Arabia where supposedly you can be beheaded for being gay as the film asserts in the opening moments. It must be said that although gays are hounded and frequently receive corporal punishment, some experts claim that beheading or any other form of capital punishment does not take place.

In a way, this was not something that the director had to worry about since he was in Saudi Arabia to pray and not to play (especially since he is happily married.) Indeed, the primary emphasis is on the rituals that attend a hajj, something that ultimately makes the film so compelling.

Poised on the razor’s edge, we accompany Sharma in places such as Medina, Mecca and in the desert as he tries to fulfill his obligations as a Muslim all the while second-guessing his faith, especially when he slaughters a goat as the culmination of his spiritual cleansing. In his blood-spattered garments, he wonders what this has to do with holiness.

This is a particularly important question facing all the “sky religions” that originate from the Old Testament. As the film explains, this Muslim ritual is tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac (referred to as Ishmael in Islam). God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son but at the last minute told him that he was only testing his faith and to sacrifice a goat instead:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

I never considered this strange biblical tale until I began reading Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” at Bard College as part of my voyage through existential literature. As it turns out, you can read the entire text at http://www.whitenationalism.com/etext/fear.htm. Although the owner of the website does not explicitly state what this ghastly tale has to do with white nationalism, you can surmise that as a defense of blind obedience to God, it strengthens the case that authority in and of itself is a good thing. As a guide to spirituality—whatever that means—it seems useless.

Despite all the attempts to wed “sky religions” with progressive values, it is always tales like Abraham and Isaac or God visiting plagues on the Egyptian people for the misdeeds of the tyrant who ruled over them that make me leery of all the god stuff. I can understand Parvez Sharma’s need for faith but ultimately the only belief that can sustain me as I grow older and more thoughtful about the big questions of life and death is that our salvation is in revolutionary change even though that requires a greater leap of faith than any story in the bible.

As might have been expected, the women who race cars in “Speed Sisters” are hardly involved in anything resembling Le Mans. The cars they drive are indistinguishable from ordinary road cars except for the fact that they have been stripped of extra weight and have souped-up engines.

The races are based not on head-to-head competitions on an oval track or a racecourse such as Le Mans but in contained spaces not much larger than a football field where the driver has to navigate through narrow paths on frequent right angles without straying off course. It is roughly analogous to an event like Le Mans as a miniature golf course is to the Masters in Augusta.

The three women in “Speed Sisters” are hardly what you imagine as the typical Palestinian. They are relatively affluent and altogether secular. Their main obstacle would seem to be the sheer difficulty of paying for a mixture of profession and hobby. The chief reward appears to be trophies they receive for turning in the best time at one of these events.

That being said, they run into the same challenges as any Palestinian, including hours spent trying to get through a checkpoint or dodging rubber bullets or tear gas during one of the many confrontations between activists and the IDF.

The story being told in “Speed Sisters” is not the same as a typical documentary about the Palestinian struggle but rather one of a group of women trying to achieve normalcy in highly abnormal conditions. As such they have an affinity with the gay people lining up to get married in “A Sinner in Mecca” during one scene taking place in New York that includes Parvez Sharma standing on line with his husband to be.

In trying to make it as a racer, the women have much in common with their counterparts in NASCAR country except for the fact that they are living under an occupation. Parvez Sharma makes films about gay Muslims being accepted on their own terms, including his own mother who was pleading with him to “find a nice girl” until her death from cancer.

As a dimension of revolutionary change in the 21st century, isn’t it about time we recognized that when people struggle to enjoy the same rights as those afforded to white, heterosexual Christians, the results can be explosive? That’s the ultimate contradiction of the struggle for democratic rights that the left has to cope with if it is to have any impact on the social struggles in the Middle East for sexual and political freedom.

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