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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Facing the country's challenges, from Pearl Harbor...

Screen Grabs: Facing the country’s challenges, from Pearl Harbor to COVID’s first wave

Exhibit at the Disney museum examines Walt's role in WWII—and 'First Wave' tackles the pandemic's arrival in NYC.

This Tuesday, December 7 marks the 80th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the “Day of Infamy” that pushed a hitherto-reluctant US into active WWII involvement. One interesting way to observe that milestone and learn more about the subsequent war effort is at, of all places, the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio—a former military base that was of considerable importance during the period. Special exhibit “The Walt Disney Studios and World War II,” which runs through January 9 in a building separate from (though just behind) the museum’s permanent main halls, provides a fascinating multimedia flashback to the era.

Disney’s cooperation with government efforts started immediately: On December 8, 1941, the studio lot in Burbank was taken over by 500 anti-aircraft artillery battalion troops, assigned overnight to bunk there in order to protect a Lockheed factory nearby. That emergency measure didn’t last long, but nonetheless the company was soon making itself over as an “auxiliary war plant,” with 90 percent of its output turned towards war-related efforts until VJ Day nearly four years later. That meant making training and propaganda films, for both armed forces and civilians, at home and abroad—with titles like The ABC’s Of Hand Tools and Donald Duck Dodges Depression. But it also encompassed everything from similarly-slanted comic books and other educational materials to designing military insignias, stamps, and airplane “nose art.”

All this work was done on a contractual basis, and while successful, it was not intended to generate profit. The studio’s commercial output drastically slowed in the face of these new responsibilities, and also because it had just put out two movies that at the time, appeared to have been costly commercial failures (Pinocchio and Fantasia, both hits in the long-run) that emptied its coffers. Unlike other studios, Disney mostly avoided producing films with overtly current or political themes—Walt had already realized that his fortune lay in re-issuing old releases, and topicality came with an expiration date.

Nonetheless, there were occasional headlong dives in that direction, like Oscar-winning 1943 short “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” in which Donald Duck experiences a “Nightmare in Nutziland” (the production’s initial title.) There were also extensive efforts to promote the US government’s “Good Neighbor” policy towards Allied nations in Central and South America, notably resulting in the next year’s hybrid cartoon-live action feature The Three Caballeros, which is in the running for the most rambunctiously-surreal thing ever issued by the studio.

Housed in a two-story building that seems to have changed very little since the 1940s, the exhibit intrigues, not through the artifacts and clips on display, but with its glimpse of how society in general was transformed by the war effort. For one thing, the loss of home-front manpower due to military service meant that Disney’s operations, like every other industry, suddenly offered much wider professional opportunities for women. For info on visiting during the installation’s final month, go here.

In a week heavy with new documentary releases in general (see below for a few highlights), there are some that are also relevant to the Pearl Harbor anniversary. They include To What Remains (in theaters this Fri/10), which is about Project Recover, an organization whose oceanographers, historians, veterans and such search to find and repatriate the over 80,000 Americans missing in action since WW2. Available too is Jerry’s Last Mission (just released to Apple TV and iTunes), which profiles a fighter pilot from New Jersey who flew the very last combat mission over Japan.

Mention should also be made of two smaller film festivals arriving this week: The Rafael Film Center hosts the International Buddhist Film Festival in-person this Thu/9 through Sun/12 (full program/ticket info here); and this year’s streaming-only edition of Cinema Italian Style offers new Italian film Thu/9-Wed 15 (info here.)

Though this week provides an occasion to look backward, most newly-arriving documentaries are very much focused on current issues, both international and close to home. Of a very local bent is Debbie Lum’s Try Harder!, which is now playing SF’s Regal Stonestown Galleria and Berkeley’s Regal UA after touring the festival circuit this year. It’s a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Lowell High School, SF’s own #1 ranked public HS, where students admit their number is intimidatingly full of “geniuses” and “superhumans,” while outsiders rather derogatorily call it things like “Tiger Mom Central” and “an Asian excellency school.”

“The pressure is kind of insurmountable at times,” one kid says in the film. If you remember your own teenage days mostly for their goofing off and social aspects, you’ll be blow away by how different life is for these intensely competitive not-quite-adults. The strain they and their parents exert to get high scores and grades (how is a 4.7 GPA even possible?) in order to be accepted by top universities appears to leave very little time for fun.

What’s more, almost no amount of excelling can actually guarantee the desired end result: For starters, Stanford (the dream choice for many here) has an acceptance rate under 5 percent, and is said to generally disdain Lowell for churning out applicants who are interchangeable high achievers. (There’s a big surprise at the end of Try Harder! in terms of who does actually get a “yes” from that institution.) Such endless grindage for disappointing rewards triggers more than a few deflated graduates, making them “very cynical about the colleges they end up going to.” Nonetheless, one hopes finally gaining physical/psychological distance from their parents’ expectations will work its time-tested magic in shaping more self-assured, self-directed adults.

There’s some drama here, as when a beloved science teacher is sidelined by cancer, or one disadvantaged student loses his home over a father’s drug habit. But most of Try Harder! is about the push, push, push for desirable college entry—one protagonist here applies to 26 schools. This documentary is too fast-paced and engaging to be a downer, but on the other hand, you don’t really envy the pressure its likable young subjects are under.

Partly shot in SF, as well as Seattle and Los Angeles, is Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk’s Lead Me Home. Those three cities have all declared homelessness emergencies within the last five years, and this nonfiction featurette examines that issue sans statistics or professional-expert commentary. Instead, we simply get first-person testimony from the unhoused, as well as impressionistic glimpses of their lives—as well as that of the homed, whose security looks precious and remote when viewed from the outside in this context.

Just 40 minutes long, Lead Me has an empathetic vividness that arguably renders the issue more relatable than an information-packed analysis could. We hear a social worker asking houseless people what services they need and what their experiences have been, eliciting a wide range of responses. What got them into this position? Disability, depression, rejection from loved ones due to coming out as transgender, substance issues, losing a job or apartment—you name it. Their stories underline the extreme difficulty of regaining what society thinks of as the bottom of the material-stability ladder once you’ve fallen (or been pushed) off it. A sort of multi-city symphony on a theme of ever-increasing division and hardship in the wealthiest nation on Earth, this poetical document is now playing on Netflix.

A more recent (and hopefully shorter-lived) scourge is the subject of Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave, which chronicles the first four months of NYC’s COVID epidemic, starting in March of last year. That city was very hard-hit, at one point having more cases than any other entire country. It experienced the worst brunt of equipment and personnel shortages, thanks in part to the Trump administration’s ineptitude in preparing for or coping with a major health crisis. We see the eerily abandoned streets of the normally-teeming metropolis during shutdown, as well as a dramatic reversal in May, when the death of George Floyd re-ignited Black Lives Matters protests against excessive police force.

But the primary focus here is on the enormous strain placed on hospitals, with particular attention paid staff and patients at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center. With no vaccine as yet in sight, and much unknown about COVID, mentally and physically exhausted caregivers struggle to maintain as hitherto healthy people suddenly struggle for breath, or succumb to a rapid death. Despite all possible precautions taken, these medical personnel are at high risk of contagion, often ending up tending their own gravely-ill colleagues. The film appropriately captures how Latinx and African-American communities are also disproportionately impacted.

While there is light at the end of this particular tunnel, the well-crafted First Wave, like other COVID documentaries to date, emphasizes the harrowing immediacy of a lethal emergency that such workers have little choice but buckle down and deal with. Following a short theatrical release, the documentary is now streaming on Hulu.

Another escalating global issue with no end in sight is suppression of a free and truthful press. Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s prize-winning documentary Writing With Fire is about Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News), a weekly newspaper and YouTube channel that is the only such outlet in India run entirely by women. More, these particular women are Dalits, the “untouchables” of a diehard caste system, and their home in Uttar Pradesh of the nation’s north has high levels of misogynist violence as well as corruption, cover-ups, deaths due to illegal mining operations, etc. Police often simply ignore complaints from people of their class, even when one resident suffers is repeatedly raped in nightly home invasions.

Reportage can make a real difference in forcing address of such injustices, as well as other issues like lack of clean water or electricity in underserved communities. But the Khabar Lahariya staff encounter a great deal of opposition, not just from political and/or business foes, but also from their husbands and others concerned with the propriety of women overstepping traditional caste/gender-role bounds.

Their courage is impressive, as death threats are not to be taken lightly: Not least because critical coverage of anti-democratic leaders can be taken as blasphemous towards the religious beliefs those leaders claim to represent. (It’s suggested that exacerbating Hindu versus Muslim tensions is one way that the Indian elite maintain power, deflecting attention from entrenched economic inequality—a tactic that has its equivalents around the world.) Writing With Fire, which is currently playing Opera Plaza Cinemas, offers an inspiring portrait of stubborn resistance under daunting circumstances.

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