Documentary Films At Telluride
By LARRY JOSEPH CALLOWAY
To get started on a documentary film you don’t need documents or film. Just take a camera – it doesn’t have to be expensive – to an interesting situation and the world will provide, if you wait long enough. The devil is in the editing. These new possibilities for non-fiction production were delightfully demonstrated in Jafa Panahi’s “Taxi” at the Telluride Film Festival.
He was in big trouble with Iranian security, and if he was seen filming he would be arrested. So he came up with a plan. Masquerading as a taxi driver, he rigged a cab with small cameras and hit the streets of Tehran. The resulting ride is, well, great taxi theatre. We see the actual humor and humanity of a country depicted by our politicians, who have never been there, as a bleak and dangerous enemy.
A loudmouth passenger sits in front complaining that a neighbor in a hurry hopped in his car and it would not go. Then the guy saw all the wheels were gone and it was sitting on blocks. If a couple of these thieves were hanged in public that would stop this car stripping, he says. A diminutive passenger in the back seat, a teacher dressed in black and covered, says, “I can’t believe what I just heard.” An argument ensues at a pitch that would make an American talk show host proud, and the loudmouth gets so mad he orders Panahi to stop and let him off.
And that’s just the first scene. There is a smuggler with a selection of DVD movies, another with banned CD albums. The taxi is flagged down at a traffic accident and Panahi rushes him to the hospital. A film student argues about the rules against depicting reality. A flower lady is going to visit political prisoners. A mugging victim spots his mugger but declines to do anything that would subject him to police interrogation. . . . If you film it, they will come.
“Sherpa” is the result of unusual and tragic timing in a bizarre location, the high-tech tent city called Everest Base Camp. During the climbing season (April-May) in 2013 some Sherpa guides got into a mass fist fight with a hothead outfitter. The news prompted Australian Jennifer Peedom to haul equipment to the base of the highest mountain the following year for a film on the Sherpa guides and porters who do most of the work and face most of the risk in the Himalayan climbing industry. So she was there when the massive ice flow above base camp let loose, burying and killing 16 Sherpas. The film narrates the aftermath – a post-colonial revolt.
Michael Ware, an Australian journalist who covered Iraq, premiered his “Only the Dead See the End of War,” which has similar free-form origins. As a writer for Time magazine, he involved himself courageously in news from all sides, including combat in Fallujah and Ramadi, taking visual notes with a $300 camera as an afterthought. “I’m not a filmmaker – only a guy who was there and started filing stories on what was happening,” he said in Telluride.
His complex dealing with al-Zarqawi messengers gave him access to al-Qaeda propaganda videos of beheadings and i.e.d. explosions. His own embedding with American forces let him film some morally difficult death scenes. In one a wounded enemy is bleeding to death as soldiers look on passively. Ware’s constant narrative exhortations about the dark night of the soul and how war turns you into something you thought you would never be is illustrated by the fact that he is taking the video of the dying soldier and doing nothing himself.
Ware switched to CNN, which aired his distinctive reports from Iraq for about three years. Their relationship ended abruptly in 2009 without public explanation. I wondered if Ware, with his broken nose and dark countenance just isn’t pretty enough for CNN or whether the problem was political. After all, his position is that the invasion of Iraq was a horrible mistake perpetrated by, in his words at Telluride, “a small cabal of conservative intellectuals in Washington who thought they would just implant democracy and let it spread and everything would be fine.” Instead, the 2003 American invasion of Iraq energized the radical anti-Shia Islamists and led to 9/11. Then the American killing of al-Zaqawi in 2006 opened the way for al-Bagdhadi, the head of ISIS (the reputed Islamic caliphate). And now, Ware said in Telluride, “There is no way to roll back the Islamic State.”
I asked him if he would return to CNN now that his film is done. He just shrugged, saying, “We’re family and families fight.” His film has been accepted by HBO for broadcast in March 2016, he said, happily.
“Bitter Lake” by longtime British documentary director Adam Curtis is an explanatory history of Afghanistan illustrated with his selections from hundreds of hours of film clips from the archives of the BBC. His story begins with the U.S.-Saudi alliance near the end of World War II in which we develop the oil fields and buy the oil and the Saudi royal family gets military protection, provided that we never, ever interfere with the kingdom’s fundamentalist religion known as Wahhabism.
In 1946 the American contractor Morrison-Knudsen began the Helmand River project in Afghanistan on the scale of the company’s Hoover Dam. The reclamation-hydroelectric project displaced the way of life, causing resentment. And that’s when the Saudis began to get involved, motivated by the dream of spreading the kingdom’s Wahhabism. Rich with “petro dollars,” deposited with international banks skirting investment and currency regulations, the Saudis funded conservative schools, called madrassas, in Afghanistan. The students matured and formed the Taliban. The Saudis also effectively exiled the most disagreeable reformers at home. Many went to Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden.
The Helmand project raised the water table, wiping out traditional farming but creating fertile ground for a new crop: poppies. And so the Taliban got into the lucrative drug trade.
The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, fighting a long losing war against ethnic groups defending their homeland. One leader was Ahmed Shah Massoud, who hated both the Russians and the Taliban. Events swept through the media “like waves of a fever,” Curtis says, and the regional politics was so complex that the American public did not even begin to get the picture. Then along came the great communicator, Ronald Reagan, who simplified the world into what Curtis calls “a moral fable” of good and evil, black and white. It is still believed today.
Curtis says that after the Soviets withdrew, the defending groups turned on each other, but we didn’t understand this. Americans thought anyone shooting at them belonged to the same group. As anti-American and anti-Shia sentiments flared, a conspiracy led to the attack on 9/11/2001. Less than two days earlier the Afghan national hero Massoud was assassinated by suicidal cameramen at a press conference. News of the event might have been a signal.
What we need now, Curtis says, is “a new story, one we can believe.”