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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: New year brings films challenging us to...

Screen Grabs: New year brings films challenging us to rethink the status quo

Forced sterilizations in California prisons, disastrous Venezuelan coastal pollution, autistic youth, and adults who live with facial disfigurement are the subject of 2021's first releases.

After four years in which every progressive value was not just under attack, but its opposite being pushed through at the highest levels of government, many are understandably looking forward to undoing some of that damage in 2021. It’s appropriate, then, that a quintet of the new year’s first releases all promote understanding and advocacy of vulnerable populations’ issues—both within the US and beyond. 

The most specific to California is Belly of the Beast, available through Roxie Virtual Cinema as of Fri/8. Everybody knows that a lot of dicey stuff goes down in prisons. Still, Erika Cohn’s documentary focuses on something you’d hope would nonetheless still land in “it can’t happen here” territory: Forced sterilizations of female prisoners without their knowledge or consent. It’s usually been done when they are undergoing some other procedure, including giving birth itself, or alleged removal of cysts for cancers that turns out to be non-existent. These are women who might reasonably look forward to starting new families one day after release (and often are painfully separated from children they’ve already had), only to discover they no longer have that option. If “informed” at all, it’s via unexplained consent forms they’re made to sign while groggy under anesthesia. 

Incredibly, such programs in the state were perfectly legal until 1979—and decades earlier they provided a duly-noted model for Nazi Germany’s “Master Race” eugenics, which likewise aimed to prevent “undesirables” from producing offspring. But despite that illegality, and strict federal regulations on top, it turned out California prisons just continued flaunting the law. They gave women hysterectomies just cuz, or blatantly in order to stop “producing criminals and welfare mothers,” who’d presumably drain future tax dollars. It’s estimated about 1,400 such sterilizations were performed between 1997-2013 in the California prison system. 

Much of Belly chronicles the fight of ex-prisoner turned activist Kelli Dillon, lawyer Cynthia Chandler (of non-profit Justice Now), and investigative reporter Corey Johnson to push a new prohibitory bill through the state legislature. They succeeded—though the prison system’s pushback was to reduce advocates’ access to prisoners, and prisoners’ own access to reproductive health care. 

Also raising the dread specter of eugenics is Jerry Rothwell’s The Reason I Jump, inspired by Naoki Higashida’s international best-seller, purportedly written at age 13. It was co-translated into English by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, who himself has an autistic child and is one of several parents interviewed here. Like the book, the documentary’s primary aim is to illuminate for lay viewers how an autistic person perceives the world—and how their actions (bouts of screaming, even violence), abilities or lack thereof (including incoherent speech or none at all) do or don’t reflect what they’re actually thinking. (In fact their behaviors may be a means of expressing frustration at being unable to communicate what they’re thinking.) 

Impressionistic and poetical, Reason trains camera on subjects around the world, from England to Arlington, from India to Sierra Leone. In the latter locale, a family with an autistic daughter has to combat old-school prejudice and superstition towards their supposed “devil child”—something that not so long ago was the case nearly everywhere. (Remember, the Nazis’ “final solution” encompassed physical or mental “defectives” as well as ethnic and sexual-preference minorities.) 

The film attempts to illustrate the “chaotic” and “emotionally very taxing” perception of people whose grasp on the physical world (being hyper-attuned to details at the expense of a “big picture”), time (past experiences can seem just as immediate as the present), and other things are very foreign to a more conventional mindset. Still, there is common ground buried in there: It is startling to see “nonspeaking” autistic youth express themselves with perfect cogency when taught to spell digitally with keyboard or alphabet chart. The Reason I Jump is also available for streaming as of this Fri/8, via the Roxie, CinemaSF, and Rafael’s virtual cinema programs. 

Probing a very different kind of fraught child/parent dynamic is Katrine Philp’s Beautiful Something Left Behind, a Danish-produced documentary that was initially shown under the title An Elephant in the Room. The general subject here is death, more specifically children dealing with death, and in particular a Morristown, New Jersey organization designed to ease that daunting task. Good Grief provides classroom-style support, structured play (including a padded volcano room for release of pent-up emotions) and counseling for kids who’ve lost family members. The film focuses primarily on grieving tots who are grade-school-aged or younger, and have lost one or both parents. We also follow them home (sometimes that means a new home with a single uncle), to see how they’re adjusting overall. 

Beautiful Something doesn’t stray from their viewpoint to let staff explain specific methodologies or programs. We don’t find out how long kids are involved in these therapies, or how far afield they come from. So the doc doesn’t so much illuminate a process as provide its beneficiaries a platform to speak their minds (including on ideas of the afterlife) and, well, be kids. What’s clear is that adult anxieties over discussing profound loss, or eagerness to gloss it over, are very poor strategies for such impacted children—talking it all through is much, much better in both the short and long run. The film is available Fri/8 via virtual cinemas nationwide, and opens Fri/22 at Roxie Virtual Cinema.  

Likewise bigger on showing than telling is Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, that nation’s current Oscar submission for the Best International Feature prize. A little more explanation would have been nice: A local sheriff telling schoolkids “Sedimentation is killing us all” doesn’t explain much to them, let alone the viewer. Nonetheless, one gradually gets a sense of the bigger picture, and Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ lyrical documentary is compelling as a somewhat bizarre slice of life. 

In the village of Congo Mirador, houses are on stilts, and traffic between them is by boat—but this life seems to be in its death throes. Pollution from oil extraction in the region is destroying Lake Maracaibo, which residents live and depend upon, curtailing commercial fishing while attracting unwanted other wildlife (snakes, rats). This isolated community is at the mercy of politicians whose empty promises of rescue no longer carry any meaning, and who openly buy votes with bribes. Here, child labor (and 13-year-olds getting married) barely raises an eyebrow. 

This is a deceptively lovely and humorous film about various ugly, escalating realities, shot over seven years’ course. In another seven, it’s questionable Congo Mirador will even exist—by then its inhabitants may all be refugees, forced to start again from scratch somewhere else. Once Upon a Time is already available in North America through the streaming service Topic. 

The sole narrative feature in this roundup is Alexandre Franchi’s Happy Face, a 2018 Canadian drama finally making its way to US home-release formats. A more straightforwardly earnest, TV-movie-like treatment of themes explored in that same year’s unclassifiable Chained for Life (and with some of the same performers), it centers on a Montreal support group for adults with some kind of facial disfigurement—whether they’re scarred, burned, birth-defected, or afflicted by a chronic skin condition. The facilitator is Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), who in a somewhat questionable correlation claims she’s also a “second-class citizen” because she, too, is judged by her appearance (she’s a plus-sized woman). 

Into their midst walks heavily bandaged Stan (Robin L’Hourneau), who in fact is only pretending to be disfigured (he tapes up his face with gauze) out of some need for support on his own issues. Which are mostly ones of abandonment: His father left him and his mother, leaving the latter embittered and overdependent on her son, who in turn is freaking out now that mom faces a terminal cancer diagnosis. 

Androgynously handsome Stan is not an especially compelling protagonist, and Happy Face is a sometimes clumsy film. Still, if it spends too much time on the wrong characters, there’s nonetheless unquestionable power to the time spent with figures played by David Roche, Alison Midstokke, E.R. Ruiz, and others. These performers’ very real disfigurements, as well as the discussion of resultant life issues, make one vividly aware of how deeply embedded society’s fears of the uncommon appearance really are. We have to confront the fact that it’s not just a matter of what current fashions constitute admirable beauty, but a burden of shame and horror levied on those who through no fault of their own cannot possibly approach those standards. Happy Face is currently available in digital and On Demand formats from Dark Star Pictures. 

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