The world may be ever-increasingly at the mercy of those who believe any reality they don’t like is “fake news.” But filmmakers continue to provide some counterbalance, with documentary production busier and more prominent than ever.
In terms of local nonfiction-cinema special events alone, we’ve just had the SF Green Fest, and the United Nations Association Film Festival is ongoing through this Saturday. This week brings doc-heavy likes of both the self-explanatory San Francisco Dance Film Festival (at various locations Fri/28-Mon/7, info here) and the rather-less-so San Francisco New Concept Film Festival (at the Main Library Thu/27-Sun/30, info here), whose precise focus is a little hard to discern from their website, but which appears to be at least partly aimed at Chinese-heritage audiences. Arriving next week is SFFilm’s annual showcase Doc Stories (November 3-8 at the Vogue and Castro. info here).
Meanwhile there are plenty of new documentary features getting released, with or without having traveled the festival circuit first. Here’s a roundup of a few particularly worthy titles accessible as of this week:
A Decent Home
As if the creeping menaces of political extremism and climate change weren’t enough, much of the world’s population is facing another escalating emergency, one that can even more clearly be blamed on runaway trickle-up capitalism. That would be the crisis of affordable housing, something that here in SF everybody professes to want… yet somehow high-end development always seem to win out instead. Just as we’ve become an unaffordable city for many over the last quarter-century, so much of the rest of the country has slowly been squeezing lower economic echelons out of house and home.
Sara Terry’s documentary looks at an overlooked aspect of that big picture: The approximately 20 million Americans who live in mobile homes, often one of the last remaining “affordable” options, particularly those those who want to actually own their domicile. However, they seldom own the property it is on, living in “parks” that get stereotyped as “trailer trash” dives, but as seen here can frequently be leafy, pleasant neighborhoods with closeknit communities. They are real havens for that one-third of our citizenry who make $30,000 or less per year.
So, where’s the rub? Well, within the last decade such locations have come to the attention of private equity firms looking for more industries to purchase, monopolize, maximally monetize, then sell off again to the highest bidder. So longtime residents from coast to coast have found themselves under the thumb of new, faceless corporate owners. The latter immediately hike rents, if they don’t sell the land whole for more lucrative development (say, luxury condos).
Even when residents raise capital to make a purchase offer themselves, they’re often refused, because god knows a billionaire company owner needs to get the most for his money. (One such fabulously wealthy, acquisitive creep threatens to break the filmmakers’ camera focused on his Mr. Burns-like countenance during a city hall meeting.) Local government claim they can do nothing, since such sales are legitimate. But local governments are also usually spineless when it comes to valuing investors over tenants, a scenario with a long Bay Area history.
“When are the rich rich enough?” asks a woman here, having lost her home and community because…well, because they sat on an asset some remote stranger could profit from. The answer, of course, is “Never.” Its title taken from an early 1960s federal pledge to provide every American “a decent home” (even Republicans supported that concept then!), this is the kind of documentary that can make your blood boil, and hopefully stir an activist impulse. A Decent Home is available for streaming from most On Demand platforms as of Tues/25.
A historical injustice, also transactional in nature, is the focus of Margaret Brown’s new film, currently streaming on Netflix. The international slave trade was banned from the US in 1808, though ownership and sale of slaves continued in the South until the end of the Civil War. While further importation of such captives was a capitol offense during the interim span, it still went on secretly. The last known slaving vessel to reach our shores was the Clotilda, purportedly burnt to erase all trace of its criminal journey upon arrival in 1860. Descendants of the 110 or so kidnapped Africans it carried still populate the coastal Alabama area where it landed in what is now called Africatown. But that ancestral tale was folkloric rather than strictly factual, because any solid records of the Clotilda were successfully erased.
Recently that changed, for a couple reasons. First, famed author Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” finally got published in 2018, many decades after her death. That book preserved the testimony of Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last survivors of the Clotilda’s passage, whom she interviewed at length in 1927. Also four years ago, National Geographic and other entities pooled resources to organize the first real search for the ship’s remains. It was found rather quickly, exactly where expected, sunk only a few feet offshore. The reason for its going missing for so long? Well, it looks like the heirs and allies of the wealthy white family that funded the Clotilda deliberately misdirected anyone previously looking for the wreck. (Still prosperous, the Meahers naturally declined to participate in this documentary.)
The ship’s remains are now in the hands of scientists, researchers, and historians, who will comb through DNA traces and other evidence left behind. So Descendant does not have a lot of answers about whatever happened in 1860, as yet. What it emphasizes instead is the modern-day Africatown community, and its excitement at seeing a long-suppressed history confirmed and reclaimed at last. There is also wariness, since the Clotilda’s salvage raises tourism prospects that residents are reluctant to see seized upon by the same moneyed classes who’ve drained their coffers for generations.
This movie provides one answer to the “Why?” question re: slavery reparations. A woman says she’s heard the sentiment “It [the slave trade] was 400 years ago, get over it!” her whole life. But Africatown, founded just outside Mobile by ex-slaves from the Clotilda, bears testament to the fact that racial exploitation never really ended. That hamlet was perpetually zoned for the heaviest industrial uses by wealthier neighbors, becoming a long-term nexus for toxic chemicals and resulting cancers. Descendant can feel a bit protracted and meandering. But it makes very vivid just how immediate the legacy of slavery is in parts of the South, and why reparations represent a legitimate means of redressing historic wrongs that linger into our present day.
On a lighter note—though this documentary is often as tearjerking as it is a wallow in critter cuteness—there’s Mye Hoang’s ode to dudes who love their pussy. Apparently in some macho circles, it is not considered cool to be a “cat person,” that being a supposed lady thing. Plus, the manlier pet choice of dog is more inclined to do manly, athletic, adventurous things with you.
Au contraire, this film’s biped subjects claim. A couple of them have cats who very much enjoy their status as hiking and backpacking companions. Another is a stray who “adopted” a whole station house of strapping firefighters. An Atlanta-based stuntman chronicles how he became a cat guy, which in turn won over his now-girlfriend. “You see a man care for something that’s not himself, that’s attractive” she says, which is both kinda sweet and the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Sadder still, though, is the saga of the homeless emigre ex-construction worker in NYC whose desire to see his cat again is pretty much the one thing pulling him through a cancer diagnosis and long, grim hospital stay.
Sprawling from coast to coast, these stories are endearing, as of course are the cats. I was less taken with the LA “actor and influencer” who’s enjoyed a career spike by cranking out funny cat videos starring himself. But there’s the compensating inspirational value of one selfless fellow’s brainchild Flatbush Cats, a Brooklyn rescue operation that’s singlehandedly reduced the feral population with a successful long-term capture/spray/release program. If you like cats (even I do, and I’m hella allergic), this well-crafted diversion may be the best thing of its kind to come along since 2016’s arthouse hit Kedi. Cat Daddies, which won the Audience Award at SF Indiefest earlier this year, opens at the Roxie Fri/28.