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Entries in Advocacy (3)

Tuesday
Jan232018

BENDING THE ARC

Featuring: Dr. Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim, Ophelia Dahl, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Dr. Joia Mukherjee, St. Ker Francois, Adeline Mercon, Meliquiades Huauya Ore.
Screenwriter: Cori Shepherd Stern
Directors: Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos.

Reviewed January 23 at the Jetty Memorial Theatre, Coffs Harbour as part of the 2018 Screenwave International Film Festival.

Rating: 4.5/5

A 30-year campaign to provide poor nations with the means by which to save their populations from fatal contagions makes for an enriching, enraging and deeply emotional profile in Bending the Arc. Deriving its metaphoric title from the words of abolitionist and great reformer Theodore Parker (“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one…from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice”), the directing team of Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos have crafted a story of social heroism, fierce spiritual triumph and driven scientific determination.

The core of the documentary is the friendship that bonds Dr Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl (daughter of Raold) and Dr Jim Yong Kim. In the early 1980s, idealistic twenty-somethings Farmer and Dahl found themselves in Haiti, surrounded by dire poverty and a population still stricken with the archaic but deadly scourge of tuberculosis. The pair set out to alter the sad destiny of a small group of Haitians and, with Dr Kim joining their crusade, established a medical centre that drew 100,000s of frail villagers, some perilously close to death.

The movement grew into Partners in Health, a not-for-profit medical research charity whose aim is to establish educational facilities and hospital grade infrastructure in the poorest of regions. Secondary to this aim but no less rousing on-screen drama is the stoushes that the trio and their dedicated volunteers pick with Big Pharma and the rich healthcare systems of Western society, the dark overlords of which refuse to consider the health of poor populations worthy of consideration, let alone investment.

The directing duo’s lightness of touch creates a compelling narrative momentum (kudos to writer Cori Shepherd Stern’s solid structure) while clearly detailing the mountains the movement needed to climb to make real their goals. Utilising interstitial time-and-place cards, Bending the Arc charts initiatives that have combatted drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru, the AIDS plague in Africa, the aftermath of the Rwandan civil war and the terror of the early days of the Sierra Leone Ebola outbreak. In addition to these grand scale undertakings, Davidson and Kos evoke the deeply emotional journey of all involved by tracking the route to recovery of patients who we meet at death’s door (the plight of MDR-TB sufferer Meliquiades and his reuniting with Dr Kim reduced your critic to heavy man-sobs).

Given the current administration’s callously racist disregard for the so-called ‘sh*thole countries’ that feature in Bending the Arc, the documentary takes on a volatile humanism-vs. -corporatism urgency that would most likely not have been on the filmmaker’s minds when the film wrapped just ahead of its premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival; it never preaches or takes a political stance, yet reveals the bastardry, greed and short-sightedness of the western medical-industrial establishment.

In the last half-century, the dedication and drive to make better the lives of those with whom we share this global community has never been more desperately needed; the epic struggles and grand achievements of the Partners in Health teams has remained truly heroic (none more so than the community health officials, charged with day-to-day administration in some of the most poverty- and illness-stricken corners of the planet). Bending the Arc, through its core ‘All Humans are Humans’ mantra, celebrates the soaring, empathic personalities that will continue to rebuild international society over the next half-century.

Donations to PARTNERS IN HEALTH can made via the organisation's official website.

 

Wednesday
Jul062016

SUSTAINABLE

Director: Matt Wechsler.

Rating: 4/5

Through strong voices and high production values, the modern documentary genre is demanding that the global population counter the abuse and exploitation of our resources by mass industry. It is the turn of the mega-farming practices of ‘Big Agriculture’ to be exposed in Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable, an elegant, deeply empathic study of the Earth under corporate siege and the pockets of community landowners determined to turn the tide.

Over the last decade, potent statements have been made by factual filmmakers against the mining sector (Gasland, 2010; Frackman, 2015), the automotive industry (Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006), financial giants (Inside Job, 2010; Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room, 2010) and technology manipulators (Terms and Conditions May Apply, 2013; Zero Days, 2016), not to mention the cage-rattling oeuvre of agitator Michael Moore. Industrial agriculture, such as that spotlighted by Sustainable, has come under fire before, in passionate works such as Fresh (2009), We Feed the World (2005), Food Chains (2014) and Food Inc. (2008).

Wechsler maintains the rage by highlighting nearly a century of chemical-based mass produce output and the shocking damage it has done to the American farming landscape. However, Wechsler and producer Annie Speichler, the principals behind Hourglass Films, hone their lens on the more personal narrative of Marty Travis, an Illinois farmer and businessman who has reclaimed his family heritage and undertaken to rejuvenate both the soil upon which he farms and the community in which he resides. The title implies hardline ecological beliefs, but also comes to represent a preserving and maintaining of America's proud farming history.

The filmmakers suggest that the future of America’s agriculture industry and, by association, the healthy longevity of the population is tied to men and women like Travis; masters of traditional farming methods that need to be re-employed with a smarter, more holistic approach to the paddock-to-plate cycle. This extends to big-city restaurant owners and chefs, who deal directly with the new wave of primary producers and take an active role in the production of their key ingredients and the lives of their suppliers. 

The film acknowledges that the crucial mechanisms necessary to fix the damage are in its infancy. The breadth of change required to feed the world via sustainable methods is unlikely to happen in the next half-century, but that the science and those willing to apply it do exist and are at the forefront of positive change. It also pitches a convincing line in economic attainability, in an effort to silence naysayers who say changing the industrial paradigm is beyond the nation's means.

Aesthetically, Sustainable is at the high-end of the talking-heads/advocacy genre. Fluid camerawork and golden-hued lensing capture the spiritual essence of the rural setting, further strengthening the key thematic strands of tradition, community and hope. Wechsler keeps the science garble to an effective minimum, often employing simple animation and strong personalities to get information across. The obligatory call-to-action interstitial that is de rigueur for the modern doco, often overstating a filmmaker’s agenda, feels entirely earned in this instance; Sustainable brings a level-headed, humanistic and vital perspective to mankind’s relationship with the planet.

Sustainable screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11. Ticket and session information can be found at the event's official website.

Friday
Jul012016

A BILLION LIVES

Director: Aaron Biebert.

Rating: 4/5

The solidly crafted three-act structure of Aaron Biebert’s A Billion Lives provides a compelling, infuriating case study in big business dirty tricks. That the tobacco conglomerates are guilty of poisoning the global population and crushing the potentially life-saving emergence of a smoke-free alternative won’t be fresh news to educated audiences who seek out these types of paradigm-shifting, talking-head advocacy efforts, but the slick visuals and thoroughly researched arguments make A Billion Lives one of the best recent examples of the booming genre.

The title is derived from the number of people that might have been saved had ‘Big Tobacco’ not conspired to kill off the e-cigarette, or ‘vaping’, industry in its infancy. The liquid-based steam inhaler movement, which emerged in the late 2000’s and boomed, briefly, in the first half of this decade, was finding favour as a far less toxic option for nicotine-&-tar traditionalists, the removal of the ‘smoke’ from smoking representing a seismic shift in health side effects. However, Biebert’s even-tempered diatribe convinces that the dreams of e-cig entrepreneurs were extinguished by corporations with vested interests all things traditional cigarette.

The first act is a pacey recounting of the birth of the global tobacco industry, entertainingly repackaging already widely known facts into a timeline that brings us to the present. The personal drama that drives the first 30 minutes and infuses the whole film is that of David Goerlitz, the macho face of smoking in the 1980s when he was the ‘Winston Cigarettes Guy’ and who now speaks loudly and proudly against the industry. The second act focuses in on the invention and expansion of e-cigarette technology, while the last act points a bitter, accusing finger at the forces that shut down the sector.

The director’s collection of experts runs the gamut from high-ranking bureaucrats in the health and primary industry sectors to everyman business people to everyday addicts. Each has their own spin on how billion dollar profits and the greasy-palm tactics of both commercial and governmental interests subverted vaping industry growth; most extraordinary are notions that even anti-smoking bodies favoured self-interest over the greater good and helped quash the e-cig momentum.

Biebert plays first-person narrator, posing on-camera observations that extend his voice-over contributions to fourth-wall breaking. Given the profile he affords himself, he may have declared whether the film is a personal plea; he never states what drew him to the e-cig debate or whether he is a ‘vaper’. Where he excels as a storyteller is in the balance he finds between issue-driven details and the more human aspects of the narrative.

A Billion Lives doesn’t quite impact with the knockout punch of Josh Fox’s Gasland or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the polished standard bearers for the ‘Big Business is Evil’ factual-film genre. But Biebert’s lean production team nevertheless land some telling blows against the global industrial complex that unjustly bolsters profits at great cost to the planet’s population. Even non-smokers, who may otherwise find it hard to sympathise with the nicotine addict, will be drawn into the injustice and dark manipulation Biebert captures.

Screening at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11 2016. Check the official website for session and ticket information.