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Docs in Sight: A Spring Round-Up

Here is a spring roundup of some documentaries that are premiering theatrically, available on DVD or included in festivals like the ever-important Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (running from June 12th-26th). For additional reviews, please go to

—Williams Cole

From A Jihad for Love, Ahsan bears testimony. Photo courtesy of Halal Films.
From A Jihad for Love, Ahsan bears testimony. Photo courtesy of Halal Films.

Letter to Anna

Within minutes from the beginning of Letter to Anna, we are in a world of intrigue and fear. Who killed Anna? Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya made as many enemies as friends with her fearless reporting of the conflict in Chechnya and keen sense of justice. In candid interviews recorded a few years before her death in October 2006, Anna talks of her life as a journalist in a censored society—of death threats, of being shadowed, of being imprisoned by the Russian military. The awareness that her life is in danger makes these interviews a chilling exercise in foresight. Interviews with her grieving family members and colleagues slowly build a picture of a woman who was passionate about truth, to the exclusion of everything else. Humor intersects with the bittersweet in these recollections. Anna’s editor at Novaya Gazeta recollects wishing that he were a refugee so Anna would be kind to him. Her ex-husband remembers coming back home from work and wanting to be elsewhere as she zealously worked away into the night. Through Anna, we also see the conflict in Chechnya, and in a darkly surreal scene that evokes Abu Ghraib, a Russian soldier’s home video shows a naked Chechen man being beaten and dragged. Part elegiac, part investigative, Letter to Anna makes a strong statement about the power and loneliness of those who choose to tell truth.

(Showing at Human Rights Watch International Film Festival)

—Shahnaz Habib

Operation Filmmaker

When trying to create a documentary narrative that is engaging and intimate, finding the right character can make all the difference. Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker proves that doing so is a risky business that sometimes implicates both filmmaker and subject. The story follows the plight of Muthana Mohmed, an aspiring Iraqi filmmaker in Baghdad whom Liev Schreiber saw on an MTV special soon after the invasion. Schreiber gave the young upper class English-speaking Iraqi the opportunity to work as an intern when he was shooting Everything is Illuminated in Prague. But rather than fulfill the role of an ingratiating PA on a film set, Mohmed disdains the petty tasks that most entry level American film people would jump at. What transpires from there is a plethora of open-ended questions and assumptions about what it means to be “liberal.” At the same time, the work investigates the many complications of documentary filmmaking. For example: is it right for the filmmaker to keep giving her subject money to survive, and, if not, should she have broken off the relationship—and the film—earlier? With or without knowing it, the film essentially exposes the raw nerves of liberal good intentions, the kind where well-meaning, well to-do people find how the social, cultural and economic complexity of truly helping people can be overwhelming. Establishing clear boundaries would have helped all parties involved. But because of the sheer enormity of the problems, and the realities of the ways people try to help, this becomes a raw tale that will spark uncomfortable debates. That’s a good thing. And, of course, good intentions are better than no intentions.

(Premiering June 4th at IFC Center)

—Williams Cole

Without the King

This doc tells its tale through a series of revealing contrasts. A man laps up water from a puddle in the ground because there is no drinking water; cut to the royal dining room in one of the several palaces of Swaziland. The king pays suave lip service in interviews and speeches to fighting poverty and AIDS; international human rights workers then reel out chilling statistics—the rate of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland is 42.6 per cent. The nation’s chiefs bow and scrape in front of the king in a wide angle shot; shaky handheld footage shows bullets fired at a group of political activists. But while these cuts create a sharply delineated picture of a country in crisis, where the documentary hits pay dirt is in observing up close the transition of the king’s oldest daughter from a giggly teenage princess with perfect nails and pat rhetoric, to a confused, homesick student on an American campus, and finally to a sober young woman who confronts her guilt and shame with youthful determination after her first encounter with her country’s misery and poverty. Michael Skolnik’s camera is adept at winning trust, both from the princess and the viewer, but the credits start rolling too early, as if eager for a happy ending wherever it can be found.

(Released on DVD in July)

—Shahnaz Habib

A Jihad for Love

One of the most noticeable things about A Jihad for Love, a film that portrays a variety of men and women who struggle with being both Muslim and gay, is how many blurred faces there are, a testament to the fear of real retribution for many of the film’s subjects. Homosexuality in Islam is officially forbidden, and in theocratic states that idea often results in draconian laws and unforgivable incidents where gays have been imprisoned and tortured. A Jihad for Love portrays some of the stories that took place in South Africa, Egypt, and India, and it follows a group of gay men who fled from Iran to Turkey. Some then went to Canada, where it’s evident that a great pressure is initially lifted. What’s interesting about many of these characters is that they are not rejecting Islam per se but instead are trying to find a place to be who they are and still find a way to “live with God.” In fact, some of them engage in discussion with Imams or are themselves Islamic scholars who argue for a different interpretation of how parts of the Koran have been used to persecute homosexuality. Jihad is a powerful document and complement to Trembling Before G-d, a film about gays in the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities (Sandi Dubowski was a producer of both). These films have taken subjects that are simply not approached and engaged them head-on, but within a narrative that also encompasses a respect for the religion and faith of the subjects. Together they show what should be obvious: people who know they are gay will always be so and, while they might be forced into a traditional place in a conservative society, they will always be unfulfilled and, at worse, self-hating. Watching Jihad for Love makes one wonder how many gay people there are trapped in such communities all over the world.

(Premiered May 21st at IFC Center—look for television broadcasts as well)

—Williams Cole

Iron Ladies of Liberia

Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in Liberia presides over a debt-ridden country where civil war has been raging for 14 years. Iron Ladies of Liberia follows her through a tumultuous first year in power as she creates a woman-powered government, meets rebel leaders, persuades the US to waive debt, takes the World Bank to task for not doing enough, and muses about Chinese investment in Liberia while a make-up artist brushes eye shadow into her face. There are other iron ladies in the film, including the filmmaker-narrator (co-director Siatta Scott Johnson), whose own land dispute with another Liberian becomes a political-personal metaphor for Liberia’s civil crisis. But it is Ellen Sirleaf who drives the story forward with her persona—that of an articulate, intelligent leader with an instinct for good listening and straight talking that is put to remarkable use, on camera, as she invites rioting ex-soldiers in for an emotional and open-handed discussion. However, the affectionate worship with which the camera follows Sirleaf around disables any critical investigation of gender differences in leadership styles. Although we know she is the continent’s first woman head of state, the film does not provide any back story about her life or influences. It is left to Google then to tell us that Sirleaf is a Harvard-educated former political prisoner.

(Available at—with links to both home and education sales.)

—Shahnaz Habib

From Letter To Anna, Anna Politkowskaja, June 2003. Photo courtesy of P.S. 72 Productions.
From Letter To Anna, Anna Politkowskaja, June 2003. Photo courtesy of P.S. 72 Productions.

Who Killed Martin Luther King?

While there are many books and movies, as well as gigabytes of Internet pages, dedicated to the conspiracies around the assassination of JFK, there is comparatively little out there about the killing of MLK, a heinous act that altered the course of American politics and society. Who Killed Martin Luther King? was produced in the early 1990s for British TV and went off into the archives. Luckily, this thorough investigation has been revived on DVD and it brings up all the myriad questions, loose ends, odd characters, and inconclusiveness that some might smear as “conspiracy theory” but combine to bring up valid issues that debunk the idea that James Earl Ray was just another “lone nut” who wanted to kill. Through interviews with Ray, eyewitnesses, Memphis police investigators, and a series of shadowy figures who claim connections to American intelligence agencies, the film skillfully peels away what, given the gravity of the act, seemed like a relatively superficially investigated incident. At one point a former FBI agent says that after the assassination one of his colleagues even muttered “we got him.”

(DVD available on and other places)

—Williams Cole

We are Wizards

There is a lot of laughter, both self-deprecating as well as purely comic, in We are Wizards, a film which follows Harry-Potter inspired artists into the not-so-deep, not-quite-dark recesses of wizard rock and online battles against giant corporations. Wizard rock stars include Harry and the Potters (ironic and companionable) and the Hungarian Horntails (intense and aggressive, with a combined age of eleven). Harry Potter-inspired activism ranges from a 16-year-old mobilizing fans all over the world to boycott Warner Brothers’ Potter merchandise, to a Christian filmmaker at the other end of the spectrum who cautions against cults and black magic. While the story unfolds through these quirky personal portraits, Josh Koury’s documentary occasionally steps back to ask tantalizing larger questions: about how subcultures emerge and combine and transform, the real and imagined worlds that artists live in; who owns creativity; and why we need myths. If the documentary offers no answers, it is also because there are no easy answers. It takes patience to follow the various competing strands and protagonists, but We Are Wizards is a marvelous sideways glance at our pop culture in all its fragmented, self-referential, nerdy glory.

(Visit for more information)

—Shahnaz Habib

One Small Step: the Story of the Space Chimps

If you’ve ever seen a chimpanzee run into someone’s arms and hug them with the same verve that a four-year-old child will, then you see that these animals’ emotional landscape is not unlike the animals that we classify as human. One Small Step takes us back to the Space Race in the late ’50s and ’60s when chimps were used to test all kinds of conditions that humans would then get all the glamour for withstanding. Yes, the first Americans in space were of the simian variety. But the Air Force, developing a colony of “space chimps” to experiment with, ended up letting most of them go to biomedical laboratories for testing of all sorts after deciding they didn’t need them for testing the path that humans would go. The film includes fantastic and disturbing NASA footage and touching interviews with the trainers who would see the animals they cared for go up to through the atmosphere, die on the way, or return to embrace them, making it clear they didn’t want to do it again. Chimp champion Jane Goodall is also featured, as is the successful camp in Florida where many of these chimps have thankfully ended up.

(DVD available at and Amazon)

Williams Cole


Williams Cole

Shahnaz Habib


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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