While SFFilm’s Doc Stories showcase runs through next Tues/8 (see our preview here) , there’s no lack of new documentary features concurrently finding their way to regular release. Several of the latter have a Bay Area slant, notably two opening this Fri/4 at SF’s Roxie Theater.
Longtime local nonfiction filmmaking team Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman (Blacks & Jews, Secrets of Silicon Valley, etc.) are back with Town Destroyer, which premiered at the Mill Valley Festival last month. This is an analysis of a controversy that was all over the local and national news not so long ago… even if it seems very long ago, as it was just-pre-COVID. To some, the brouhaha confirmed a stereotype of SF as the kingdom of “liberal snowflakes” who experience a meltdown at anything potentially troubling. But the issue was more complex than that, with painfully strong feelings on all sides, many of whose participants more typically found themselves on the same side.
When George Washington High School—designed by architect Timothy Pfleuger, who also created the Castro and Paramount Theaters, among other landmarks—opened in 1936, its hallways sported 13 impressive murals titled The Life of Washington. The artist, Victor Arnautoff, was a Russian emigre who’d studied under Diego Rivera, and whose work reflected both that master’s visual style and leftist politics. By the standards of the era, the work was indeed pretty progressive in content, mixing a standard, celebratory depiction of early US history with images that clearly indicted treatment of Native Americans, the institution of slavery, and so forth. It did not leave our 1st POTUS unblemished as a participant in both those officially sanctioned wrongs.
Nonetheless, the murals stirred little debate… until the 1960s, when some Black students protested aspects they deemed offensive. This resulted in a companion mural from African American artist Dewey Crumpler, entitled Multi-Ethnic Heritage, being commissioned for an adjacent corridor. More decades passed before the issue flared up again, though this time it seemed the criticisms were coming less from individual students than outside organizations. Now Arnautoff’s Works Progress Administration murals were being decried for depicting slavery and tribal genocide at all, something now criticized as triggering. In mid-2019 the School Board threw gas on the firestorm by voting to destroy the works outright. That did not happen, and in fact the murals’ fate (should they be removed? hidden? left as is, but with explanatory text?) remains uncertain.
But the conflict revealed particularly ugly ideological divides, as amply shown in Town Destroyer. On the one hand, things were said like “If you support this mural, you have a colonized mentality” and (on a signboard) “Stop Protecting White Supremacy.” On the other, the whole situation was termed “identity politics gone off the rails,” and the suggestion that the murals were traumatizing an “easy way to justify the erasure of things you don’t like.”
Larger questions arose: Is art’s purpose to provoke, or placate? If art (or history) is altered to blunt painful truths, isn’t that dishonesty, whether coming from the political left or right? As one observer puts it, “Nuance… is sort of a quaint notion now.” The Life of Washington was intended as a teaching tool—but are only “positive” lessons allowed now, even when history itself was cruel and unfair?
There are passionate arguments on both sides, and they are not as simply divided by racial, cultural, or political identification as you’d think. Town Destroyer contextualizes this fight within a landscape where similar battles are occurring (like over Confederate monuments), though often for different reasons.
Just an hour long, Snitow and Kaufman’s documentary offers a fascinating overview of a case that encapsulates many of the bitterest divisions of our era. However, there’s one thing almost everyone will agree on: After seeing the film, you will most likely be jonesing to see Arnautoff’s magnum opus in person, because it looks quite stunning. Good luck with that: GWHS is seldom if ever open to the general public. Town Destroyer opens Fri/4 at the Roxie, with the filmmakers and special guests present at all shows. More info here.
Another local, Reid Davenport, is both director and star of I Didn’t See You There—although we do not, in fact, see him onscreen. The 77-minute film is entirely shot from his POV as a person navigating everyday life from a motorized wheelchair. When a circus tent gets erected in his Oakland neighborhood, it causes him to muse on “the legacy of the freak show,” and how his own status as a differently-abled person echoes both the conspicuousness and invisibility of those whose physicality makes them societal outliers.
Though we do visit Davenport’s family in Connecticut, we do not get a lot of insight into him as an individual. I Didn’t See is more philosophical than biographical, a meditation on an apart-ness the filmmaker grapples with on numerous levels (including “I wonder if I feel more than other people”). In his general perspective and frequent logistical frustrations, his movie provides a challenge to the complacency of the able-bodied, and a chance to experience a very different relationship towards the external world. It also opens Fri/4 at the Roxie, with some screenings attended by Davenport and producer Keith Wilson. Full schedule and info here.
The political doesn’t get any more personal than when it comes to abortion, and now thanks to an activist conservative Supreme Court, it appears the era of Roe v. Wade—and “choice”—may well be over. How did we get here after 50 years, during which span a majority of Americans came to support abortion access? Cynthia Lowen’s Battleground offers some insight on that score. What distinguishes her documentary is that she offers considerable insight into grassroots activism on both sides of the fence.
It opens with audio from a closed-door meeting Trump, Steve Bannon and others held with leaders of the “religious right” forty days before the 2016 election. Needless to say, those lamentable future occupiers of the White House are highly accommodating, providing perhaps the most egregious example of Twitler’s lack of backbone on any issue save self-interest—he had always been publicly pro-choice, then began waffling, switching sides with a vengeance when it sank in that he needed the “pro-life” voters to win. In retrospect, no one should be surprised: Trump is exactly the sort of person who will always be able to get an unwanted pregnancy “handled,” legally or not, as People With Money always have. And god knows he doesn’t care about anyone else’s rights.
However, most of Battleground’s focus is not on the headline-makers, but on those in the trenches—in particular, anti-abortion activists who’ve been working towards this moment for years, even decades. We see groups of collegiate women who travel to a D.C. “March for Life” in January 2020 to “save the babies.” They demand “equal rights for unborn humans,” hoping “not just that abortion will become illegal, but abortion will become unthinkable.” Organizations like Students for Life of America and the Susan B. Anthony List are very well-organized, and there is no questioning the earnestness of their members.
Well, OK, a few personalities here do seem driven by things other than (or in addition to) moral uprightness, such as the founder of an SF-based group who says “I’m perfectly aligned with mainstream feminism aside from the abortion issue.” Still, she grew up in a religious cult and seems to have some, er, issues—like the kind of inordinate fondness for picking verbal fights with total strangers that can lead to fanaticism, and/or Fox News punditry. But most of the pro-lifers here seem to sincerely concur with such concepts as “having a baby is more of a way to empower women.” (Like every other abortion critic, however, these nice people never, ever mention men’s responsibility in the matter.)
It is interesting to see close-up the strategizing of such groups, including their straight-up asking citizens to be “single-issue voters,” even if they have to hold their noses in pulling the lever for last-minute ally Trump. Battleground is almost entirely limited to the game-changing year of 2020, when RBG’s death, Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment, and other events turned a tide. There’s just brief note of the flurry of drastic state rulings since then, and a tag re: Roe’s June overturn. This battle isn’t over yet, but no one will blame you for feeling combat fatigue. Battleground has already had a brief run in theaters, but now is available for streaming on digital platforms including iTunes.
If you want to leave all these Earthly woes behind, there is warm, fuzzy and interplanetary comfort to be found in Good Night Oppy. Ryan White’s documentary about the data-gathering land rover that was only expected to function on Mars’ surface for about 90 days, yet wound up lasting a remarkable 15 years. (Its “twin sister robot,” named Spirit, conked out pretty quickly by contrast.)
The exploration vehicle/device dubbed Opportunity was sent into space in 2003, landed on the “Red Planet” six months later, and sent a steady stream of photos and intel back to NASA long after. Its minders at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena demonstrate a very paternal mindset, saying things like “There’s energy in its veins, it needs to be given love,” and otherwise viewing Oppy more like a genius dog than a technological tool.
At least that’s the impression we get from this very slick package, which numbers Spielberg’s production company among its makers and isn’t so far in cuddly tone from his E.T. or A.I. The NASA scientists interviewed more than do their bit to anthropomorphise our “heroine,” particularly in choosing various golden oldies as Oppy’s (and their own) “wake-up song,” including the B-52’s “Roam,” ABBA’s “SOS,” plus “Born to be Wild,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” etc. Elaborate reenactments of the robot’s experience via Industrial Light & Magic wizardry are accompanied by a treacly, heart-tugging orchestral score.
OK, I’ll admit it: I am a wee bit allergic to just this sort of “Science made cute” exercise, in which actual Mars discoveries take a backseat to contrived, “very human” dramatics. It’s like a midpoint between Wall-E and those old Disney “True-Life Adventures,” which manipulated nature footage into sentimental narrative shapes. But no doubt more than a few young people will get turned on to robotics, space exploration, et al. by watching Good Night Oppy, and this movie’s spoonful-of-sugar emotional appeal was really tailored for them. It opens in area theaters Fri/4, then begins streaming on Amazon Prime Nov. 23.