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Saturday, November 26, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Workin' for a livin' (and documentin' it,...

Screen Grabs: Workin’ for a livin’ (and documentin’ it, too)

From aspirational cowhands and Mexican dancehall girls to Chernobyl workers and Syrian artists, these docs get their hands dirty.

Other people’s jobs are always interesting—to learn about, if not to actually work. A slew of newly released documentaries will give you that vicarious thrill of experiencing someone else’s profession, if only for a safe 90 minutes or so that will not put you in actual contact with grabby client hands, kicking cows, death threats, or radioactive fallout.

The livestock hazard isn’t even remarked on in Bitterbrush, which is currently playing the Opera Plaza. But a couple times it alarmed me, if not the two female hired hands who are the protagonists in Emelie Mahdavian’s verite feature. She follows a four-month episode in the lives of Hollyn and Colie, two young women who do what men (even sometimes gay ones, like the guys in Brokeback Mountain) usually get depicted doing: Traveling to different ranches for seasonal work, rounding up cattle, breaking horses, and so forth.

While this span is just one-third of a year, it seems longer, since the weather we witness runs a full gamut—at one point the duo spend their day riding through a straight-up blizzard. But they never complain, not because they’re the classic “ain’t much fer talkin’” cowpoke type, but because they really like this life. They’re delighted by their latest digs, though to anyone else the cabin’s rusticity is just rundown-summer-camp level; they shrug off the fact that it lacks a toilet. They make a good team, both garrulous and upbeat, unfazed by the uncertainty, strenuousness or low pay of their chosen profession. (In today’s economics, neither of them are likely to ever enjoy the independence of owning their own cattle herd or farm—such endeavors now require corporate-scaled financial muscle.)

Bitterbrush does encompass a turn of fate that will probably end their partnership, though even then the two are unflappably even-keeled. I found Mahdavian’s use of Bach piano works on the soundtrack to be a somewhat odd choice, as the straightforward movie about a still-rugged American West otherwise has few pretensions towards the meditative or lyrical. But it’s an engaging look at labor that may be slowly dying out, yet otherwise seems to have changed rather little in a century or two. The director is reportedly next working on a film about choreographer Alonzo King and his SF-based LINES Ballet company.

Another thing that probably hasn’t changed much since in a couple hundred years is the profession practiced by the women of Laura Herrero Garvin’s La Mami: They’re “dancehall girls,” as you might have found in an Old West saloon or a dime-a-dance ballroom before the last mid-century. The establishment they work happens to be the Barba Azula Cabaret in Mexico City, a classy-looking, historied joint with a live band. Presumably the clientele who can afford to come here are a “better class,” but they bring the same old problems: Roving hands, getting too drunk; buying too many drinks for women who are encouraged to hustle such purchases, but also need to stay alert and upright. Most of them don’t even seem to enjoy alcohol, yet it’s part of their job that they wobble home half-crocked every night.

Another verite slice of life, sans explanatory text, commentary, or interviews, La Mami finds its central figure in the titular older woman who was once spotlit singer “Olga,” but is now relegated to the dressing room. There, she’s a combination concierge, washerwoman, and cranky mother hen to the “girls” prepping for or taking a break from paying dance partners/suitors downstairs. Mami has little patience for their occasional theatrics. She’s exhausted, long-suffering and short-tempered, still doing this fucking job (yes, including cleaning toilets) when she ought to be retired. She started here long ago to pay her children’s medical expenses. Similarly, middle-aged Priscilla has resorted to Barba Azula’s slightly shameful employment to cover the surgery, chemo, and hospital recovery she’s brought her son from Tijuana to undergo.

These two women have a lot in common, and you can tell hardboiled La Mami softens a bit when Priscilla is present. While we don’t find out everything about them—even the cabaret dressing room is a place where they hide some things about their “real” life—we learn enough to be touched, as well as sometimes amused. La Mami begins playing the Roxie this Fri/24.

Unlike the gaudy microcosm of Barba Azula, most communities specifically built around an industry (and to house its employees) are uninspiring places with a corporate personality and little else of interest. But one town—now basically a ghost town—in northern Ukraine flourished under such circumstances, becoming one of the most enviable places to live in the former U.S.S.R. Hitherto small in size and nondescript in history, Chernobyl was chosen as site of the Vladimir Lenin Nuclear Power Plant in 1972, its construction, then operation bringing great prosperity to the area. Because the plant was so important to Russia’s economic aspirations, residents (most of whom lived next door in Pripyat, a new city founded in 1970 just for them) enjoyed a high standard of living for the Soviet era, with relative plentitude in terms of material and recreational wealth.

That pleasant life is duly recorded in promotional and home movies glimpsed at the beginning of James Jones’ Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, which debuts on HBO and HBO Max this Wed/22. Then, of course, it all went to hell. The emergency reactor shutdown and subsequent core meltdown on April 26 1986 remains the worst nuclear disaster in history. Nearly four decades later, the entire area is still an “exclusion zone,” more or less uninhabited, mourned by those whose fairly idyllic life there would never return.

The Lost Tapes is constructed almost entirely from archival footage buried for nearly all that time—shot because it was expected to illustrate a “triumph” over disaster, then hidden because instead it chronicled the opposite. This “toxic nuclear mess the likes of which the world had never seen before” was supposed to be “impossible,” because the plant was fail-proof. Of course, that turned out to be a lie. Some on-site staff were eventually used as patsies for the catastrophe, convicted in Stalin-esque show trials. But in fact they’d followed all safety procedures—it was their official guidelines, and the equipment itself, that was faulty. Meanwhile, an estimated 8.4 million Soviets were exposed to radiation, and as many as 200,000 died—though the official estimate was, and remains, a laughable 31.

It is argued in this absorbing flashback that the other fallout was the death of any remaining faith in the Communist government, which itself would collapse just a few years later. Unfortunately, among those who wouldn’t live to see that historic turn were the cleanup workers. Risk-oblivious and very poorly protected, they make a poignant sight here—cheerful when commencing their duties, already looking drained of life when accepting medals for service afterward. There is gruesome footage here of the immediate, grave bodily harm that befell many of them, their skin pretty much falling off. It’s not a good look for those now arguing that nuclear power is our best means to circumvent climate change.

Redressing a different type of injustice is the mission of the subject in new Netflix documentary Civil: Ben Crump, about the Florida-based civil rights lawyer who’s been called “Black America’s attorney general.” But why would African Americans, or any other minority, need their own AG? Aren’t we all equal under the law? Yeah, right. Ask the relatives of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, Michael Brown—all of whose surviving families were represented by Crump—and others who’ve been fatally shot by police or alleged neighborhood do-gooders for being purportedly “suspicious.” Or sometimes, it seems, for just being Black.

The middle-aged subject of Nadia Hallgren’s film has been accused of being a profiteer for getting (in some cases) multimillion dollar payouts for wrongful death suits. But then, those civil trials often provide the justice that is mysteriously elusive in criminal ones, where the usually-white, often-uniformed perps seldom get found guilty for killing typically unarmed African Americans. He’s also participated in such David vs. Goliath cases as the ones over Flint’s water contamination, Johnson & Johnson’s ovarian-cancer-related baby powder, a Black woman refused at a bank for trying to cash her own paycheck, and so forth. The reputation he’s gotten from championing such issues has resulted in his firm getting about 500 prospective client calls per day—and his needing to have a bodyguard because of the constant threats from, er, other sections of our society.

Like many documentaries about people who largely live in the spotlight, Civil doesn’t penetrate far behind that glare. Admittedly, there may not be a lot else to Crump—he is, natch, a workaholic. He’s also not especially articulate, which limits the degree of insight available from a film that mostly assumes a predictably inspirational, hagiographic tenor. Still, this semi-revealing look at his working life over a year’s course is worthwhile simply for affirming that justice is so skewed in the US at present, a lawyer can become “renowned” simply for providing some corrective alternative to it. Racists and certain conservatives may despise Ben Crump, but his career is the product of the world they’ve created.

War created the diaspora glimpsed in The Story Won’t Die, David Henry Gerson’s film about Syrian artists attempting to find their way—and continue their art-making—in exile. The largest single displacement of people since World War II, Syria’s civl war has since 2011 turned half of the nation’s population into refugees, while killing an estimated half million or more.

Those individuals profiled here run a disciplinary gamut: Dancer, singer, rapper, all-female rock band, performance artist, videographer, painter, sculptor, et al. Much of the work we see is striking, and needless to say often a direct commentary on their experiences of displacement. They also tell the camera some harrowing stories of kidnapping, torture, family members killed, forced conscription, ostracizing as “traitors” for the most trivial or random offenses. A rare lighter-hearted anecdote has one guy relating his luckily incident-free flight by boat with fellow band members, plus no less than three drum kits. Washing ashore on the Greek isle of Lesbos, they further surprised tourists on the beach by handing out their debut CD.

While some have made fresh starts for themselves in one European country or another, others remain stuck in refugee camps, hoping for approval of their immigration applications. All feel they had little choice but to leave, yet remain worried sick about loved ones left behind. Perpetually underplayed in international media (particularly in contrast to the Ukraine crisis), Syria’s tragedy is not given a thorough backgrounding in Story, but we do learn that it has disseminated plenty of talented voices around the world who can elucidate on the subject. The Story Won’t Die is released to On Demand platforms Tues/21, World Refugee Day.

Art springing from a less stressful place—well, OK, the Reagan Era was kinda stressful—will be celebrated this Thurs/23 at the Tenderloin Museum in conjunction with its ongoing “Once Upon a Time in the TL” exhibit. The latter was curated by Dale Hoyt, a historied local scenester who unfortunately passed away just a few weeks ago while working on the show. The one-night “Punk/Performance On Screen” program at 7pm features his own video works, as well as others by Craig Baldwin and Richard Gaikowski, with heavy emphasis on local music acts of the punk scene’s early 1980s multimedia peak, including Tuxedomoon, Flipper, The Units and Snakefinger.

Hard to believe it now, but SF then was a haven for artists, with cheap living, rehearsal and performance spaces available in the Tenderloin and beyond. The city didn’t have “Karens” then—if it had, no doubt some of these alterna-types would have burned her in effigy as a prank. For all today’s whining about stolen Amazon packages, broken car windows, and such, it must be said that today’s highly gentrified city is indeed safer. Do we miss the old, dirty, dicey SF of four decades ago? Oh hell yes. For info on the Tenderloin Museum program, go here.

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