The Casual Blog

Tag: documentaries

A documentary marathon, and learning about American apartheid

 

Sally’s orchid

Last week we checked into the Marriott in downtown Durham for the Full Frame Film Festival.  We really like documentaries, but even so, sitting and watching films for four days is a test of mind and bottom.  We’d bought tickets for 15 films, and as we started I wondered if we might have bitten off more than we could chew.  

But we made it, and it felt like a quick trip around the world, which left us buzzing with new impressions.  Several of the movies we saw were about difficult subjects, like Syrian refugees, child trafficking in Ghana, Jihadist fighters, and disarming landmines in Iraq.  We got new perspectives on the 1967 civil disturbance in Detroit, the Supreme Court, American prisons, and the high-end art market. It was inspiring to see the accomplishments of so many talented filmmakers, and heartening to see a lot of people coming together to see their work.   

An iris yesterday at Raulston Arboretum

One of the films that particularly resonated for me was Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, by Giorgio Angelini.  Angelini skillfully wove together several narratives relating to housing discrimination against blacks in the US. Until recently, I’d thought of such discrimination as one of those unfortunate chapters in American history which we’d put behind us.  But I’ve been reading The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, which makes it clear that it’s a fundamental flaw in our system, and its effects are still very much with us.  

For much of the twentieth century, federal, state, and local governments actively promoted segregated housing.  There were several methods for this, including public housing programs that forbade mixing of races, federal housing loan programs that excluded blacks, and promotion of suburban development that excluded blacks.  These and other programs included official, explicit policies that intentionally discriminated based on race. They were augmented by state and local zoning and planning that isolated black neighborhoods and put industries and waste disposal operations near them. 

Angelini’s documentary and Rothstein’s book both explain how such policies led to much lower levels of homeownership for black Americans.  This has had a ripple effect, as whites were able to accumulate wealth as home equity at much higher rates than blacks. Over the decades, this has increased wealth inequality.  There was also a ripple effect on education levels and resulting job qualifications, as segregated neighborhoods were tied to segregated schools.

State discrimination based on race was made illegal by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1868, and civil rights legislation in the 1960s explicitly outlawed private housing discrimination.  But the American apartheid system developed in the first half of the 20th century is still pervasive. Our suburbs are mostly white, and racially mixed neighborhoods are unusual. This has come to seem so natural that we seldom even notice it, and it has hardly ever been a matter of public debate in recent decades.  

I’ve always assumed that racial segregation was more the product of ignorance rather than evil, though Angelini’s and Rothstein’s work may suggest a more disturbing explanation.  Politicians can build coalitions by exploiting fear. If white people are taught to view black people as threatening, they come to believe they need special systems for protection:  racist police, more prisons, and separate neighborhoods. They come to oppose funding for social safety net programs, since they include benefits for black people. They come to support defunding public education, to discourage participation by privileged light-skinned people and possible mixing with dark-skinned ones.

Once blacks and whites are well separated, the big lie that black people are fundamentally threatening to whites is easier to sustain, since white people have fewer close contacts with blacks that would disprove the lie.  That is, there’s a feedback loop that starts with racial fear and grows into a greater fear and more extreme policies. And so we come to our time, when police killings of unarmed black teenagers seems understandable and forgivable to some whites.

And the greater fear can be used by politicians.  Query whether this is part of the program of Trump and the alt right in characterizing inner cities as horrific war zones and people with darker skin color as menacing criminals who need to be walled off and locked up.  Could that be what the Trumpian base’s excitement for “building the wall” is really about? Whipping up a fear of black people and others so powerful that it overwhelms logic, decency, and even self-interest?  

Racial fears are very powerful, but the good news is that they can be countered.  Now that anti-black discrimination in housing and other areas is being exposed, we can understand it better.  We can see that racial fears are delusional and self-defeating. We can understand that bigotry is contrary to our highest values and aspirations.   And we can overcome it.  

Our documentary film marathon

Waiting in line for a screening in the Carolina Theater

Last week we spent four days in Durham at the Full Frame Film Festival, where we  saw a lot of documentaries.  We spent some quality time getting to know black working class families, surfers, Syrian refugees, pig farmers,  ballet dancers, Guatemalan revolutionaries, emergency room doctors, and others.  It was mind-expanding!    

Documentary filmmaking seems to be thriving as an art form.  This was Full Frame’s 20th anniversary, and all of its ticket packages sold out in advance, with large and appreciative audiences for everything we saw.  The Festival selection committee considered 1750 films, and ultimately showed about 100.  At many screenings, the directors showed up and answered questions, and added to our understanding of the films.

We stayed at the downtown Marriott, which is connected to the Festival screening rooms in the Durham Convention Center and the Carolina Theater.  The hotel staff folks were remarkably friendly, and they had a good breakfast buffet.  We got our lunches from the fine Greek folks who set up a tent on site (the eggplant stew and baklava were outstanding), and for dinners found nice places (Indian, tapas) to eat close by.   We saw 16 films, and liked almost all of them.  Here are quick notes on some favorites.

Whose Streets?  This was a street level view of protests in Ferguson, Mo. after the death of Michael Brown, including rioting and police brutality.  You could feel the anger and better understand the frustration of the black community there.

Zaatari Djinn.  A film about the daily lives of Syrian refugee children in a camp in Jordan.  It sounds depressing, but in fact it was quietly beautiful, humorous,  and touching.

Filmmakers and the Rainey family, subjects of Quest, answering questions after the film

500 Years.  An account of what just happened in Guatemala:  a revolution led by indigenous Mayan people who ousted the corrupt president.  It covered a lot of ground — 500 years of oppression of the Mayans, including genocide.  It was inspiring to see the young leaders and protesters.

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.  I didn’t know anything about big wave surfing or the most famous big wave surfer in the world, but I sure do now.  Amazing, exhilarating footage of the biggest waves and biggest rides you’ve ever seen, and a portrait of a flawed but remarkable person.

The Last Pig.  Bob Comis, who devoted years of his life to making the most humane imaginable pig farm, comes to the view that he can no longer make peace with the killing.  As he says, and you can see, the pigs are sentient beings — lively and curious.  Comis ultimately can’t see how we can decide not to eat our dogs, and still eat our pigs.  

Quest.  A working class black family in North Philadelphia, with a music studio, a strong community, and random violence.  We get a view of both the stresses and the richness of their lives, with some sweet and intimate moments, like braiding hair.  It took about 10 years to make this film, and it was worth it.  

Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer.  This features Marcelo Gomes, a dancer with American Ballet Theater in New York for the last 20 years.  Now a senior in dance terms, he still looks great and dances wonderfully, and seems like a nice person to boot.

Tell Them We Are Rising:  the Story of Black Colleges and Universities. Starting with the slavery era, we learn about how blacks were educated (or not) in America.  For much of the 20th century, historically black colleges were an oasis in a segregated world.  An important part of the film is about the civil rights struggle and the leadership role played by students.