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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Fighting back, from Armenian revolution to Civil...

Screen Grabs: Fighting back, from Armenian revolution to Civil Rights struggle

Plus: An in-depth look inside Balanchine's notorious ballet classroom. New movies!

What with a global pandemic, climate change, and anti-democratic movements gaining steam in a whole lotta nations, one might quite reasonably feel nostalgic for the good old days, when the only people who thought in terms of “end times” were religious nuts. What to do? Well, there’s only ever one real option: Fight back. Several new documentaries offer inspirational examples of just that.

Two of them are on-the-ground, often surreptitiously-filmed chronicles of recent battles against authoritarian regimes. Though the countries concerned are very different—located on different continents in different hemispheres, for starters—there are some remarkable similarities in the stories these films tell.

Garin Hovannisian’s I Am Not Alone initially focuses on former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, who’d been a significant player in opposition to Serzh Sargsyan when Sargsyan was Armenia’s Minister of National Security, then when he was elected President in 2008. For that Pashinyan was sent to prison, laying low for a while after his 2011 release. But in 2018, when the country was mired in poverty, and its de facto dictator had simply changed the constitution to remain in power after maxxing out his allowed terms, Pashinyan decided to act. He began a solo walking-tour protest to demand democratic reforms that would wend through the nation’s three main cities, picking up more participants en route. 

By the time this march reached the capital, it had gained considerable steam—albeit not enough to prevent Sargsyan’s rigged Parliament from handing him another election “victory.” But that defeat was not the end. As Pashinyan says here, “When we stopped trying to control the process, the process came to life.” The result was a spontaneous revolution that eventually overcame the President’s Republican party (which performed so poorly in a subsequent legitimate election, it won zero Parliamentary seats), the military police, leadership arrests (women stepped up to assume roles vacated by jailed men), and oligarchs (whose hoards of loot and weaponry would soon be seized in reform-government raids). I Am Not Alone, which Avalanche Entertainment just released to limited US theaters, is a perfect illustration of the domino effect—Parhinyan’s theatrically solitary, stubborn push accumulated momentum until it had toppled a corrupt ruler and his entire government.

That happy ending is TBA in Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo’s A La Calle (aka In The Streets), which details the straits Venezuela has gotten into since the already controversial heyday of “Chavismo.” Hugely popular (save with the upper classes and capitalist foreign governments, of course), President Hugo Chavez nationalized industries in a country rich in mineral resources. Hitherto trickled-up profits were turned toward funding Socialistic programs that greatly improved living standards, education, health care et al. for the poor. But those profits were tethered to the ever-fluctuating international oil market, and when Chavez died of cancer in 2013, a long-lasting pricing boom had already gone bust. 

Faced with an economic freefall that his predecessor’s policies had done nothing to prepare for, chosen successor Nicolas Maduro consolidated power by increasingly autocratic, repressive means. A wholesale 2017 collapse resulted in violence, renewed poverty, mass emigration, and sky-high inflation. Maduro simply denied the crisis, to the degree of refusing (even blockading) international aid to address desperate food and medical-supply shortages.  

Longer and more sprawling than I Am Not Alone, A La Calle (which is now on HBO Max) takes the pulse of diverse viewpoints, but mostly hones in on an opposition that continues to gain strength despite oft-brutal regime pushback. Particular focus is placed on imprisoned activists Lorenzo Lopez and Nixon Leal, as well as some ordinary citizens impacted by the widespread hardship—plus US-backed Juan Guaido, who since 2019 has been considered the nation’s lawful President by many, despite Maduro’s refusal to step down. (At one point, faced with his party’s landslide election loss, Maduro announced that voters had made “a mistake,” and disempowered the National Assembly his opponents now controlled.) It’s a messy, unresolved situation this rather cluttered film doesn’t always clarify, and perhaps it can’t. Still, it offers some illumination. [For another view of this history, see 48 Hills reporter Reese Erlich’s coverage.]  

Much closer to home, albeit less close to the present, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s My Name Is Pauli Murray celebrates the life of a 20th-century American pioneer on many frontiers who’s somehow failed to get the full recognition due her. Born Anna Pauline Murray in 1910, raised by progressive mixed-race relatives after her parents exited the picture at a very early age, she was “one of four Negroes” admitted to NYC’s (then) women-only Hunter’s College. Graduating in the depths of the Great Depression, she rode the rails in male guise, became a labor activist, and drafted arguments against Jim Crow laws while a law student at Harvard that were later taken by others (often without crediting her) all the way to the Supreme Court. Finishing at the top of that class, she nonetheless encountered such difficulty getting hired to a law firm, she started her own.

Undeniably brilliant, Murray enjoyed a long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; was involved 15 years before Rosa Parks in a similar case of refusing to vacate bus seats to whites; taught for a while in the newly created Republic of Ghana; was on the ground floor of founding the National Organization for Women; git appointed to a Presidential commission by JFK; wrote acclaimed memoirs and poetry. Late in life, she went to seminary school, becoming the first female African-American Episcopal priest. Yet despite even more achievements, she’s been given relatively short shrift in US civil rights history—perhaps due in part to the lesbian relationships and gender nonconformity she’d arrived much too early to be “out” about. Her old-school style, language and anti-segregationalist focus also clashed somewhat with students during the Black Power era, some of whom deemed her a “Tom” for opposing separatist ideas and the embrace of some hitherto-derogatory terminology (like “Black” itself).

So My Name, which is currently playing theaters including the Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas (it’s on Amazon Prime as of Oct. 1), comes as something of a reclamation of a figure many onscreen interviewees can’t quite believe they’d only recently heard of. Though she’s been dead over 35 years, Murray’s intelligence and generosity come through vividly in this inspiring film, which draws largely on voluminous journals and letters to let her tell her own story. 

Also departing this mortal plane in the mid-1980s is the principal subject of In Balanchine’s Classroom, which is now playing the Roxie and Rafael Film Center. Connie Hochman’s feature measures the influence of a man who generally eschewed politics—apart from fleeing the Russian Revolution, as he’d benefitted from the prior Imperial regime—but revolutionized the medium of dance. Before George Balanchine, ballet was often little more than decorative, short on dramatic force or discipline. His extraordinary vision, drive and perfectionism radically changed that landscape, particularly once he formed his own permanent training institution (School of American Ballet) and company (NYC Ballet) in the US. 

He personally taught the company class nearly every day, and no matter what the participants’ prior training, that experience was jaw-dropping. Balanchine used that time not as routine warmup for performers but as a laboratory, one with unprecedented demands in precision, stamina, and difficulty. “I remember thinking, ‘There is nothing I can do that will please this man,’” one dancer ruefully remembers. Yet Classroom is a more positive portrait of him than the brutal taskmaster of some past depictions. It shows how specifics of technique and instruction as well as choreography are still being passed down by former collaborators, who are now getting elderly themselves. 

Among the latter seen and heard here are Edward Villella, Suki Schorer, Jacques d’Amboise, and Merrill Ashley. There is also exciting, high-quality performance footage spanning decades, and previously unseen archival video of the man himself teaching company class in 1974. I confess, I don’t like traditional ballet all that much. But I do like Balanchine, who more than anyone dragged that art form into the 20th century; and if you like (let alone love) either this specific choreographer or his medium in general, you will likely find Classroom a joy. 

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