The Empathetic Stance in Documentary Film: Remembering “The Education of Shelby Knox” (2005)

I see films depicting all sorts of human activity and culture and ritual. I see people engaging in incredibly diverse  practices that they use to try and make sense of a sometimes confusing world.

And, while many good documentary films tell the stories of people who have acted nobly,  sometimes they tell the stories of characters who engage in  sense-making practices or rituals that seem to me to be everything from foolish to frivolous to downright despicable.

My bias, though, (and this is something that sometimes sets me apart from those who seem to dwell permanently in ridicule and cynicism),  is that I always try to watch those practices from the standpoint of empathy, understanding, gentleness, and a serious attempt to see the world as the characters see it.  And I also have a bias toward films that take this perspective.  This is not the kind of empathy that condones actions, but the kind that struggles to see the world as someone else sees it.

I  can think of many examples of films that resist using a sledgehammer and instead depict  characters and their  actions with empathy, even when most people would correctly  find those actions to be  unacceptable. I want to know why people do things, what world they see that makes those actions seem logical.  I don’t mind an occasional film that ridicules the ridiculousness of some people’s actions, but for the most part I favorite insight over ridicule.  In fact I find that filmmakers who strive for insight and empathy often end up with films that more completely and fairly condemn someone’s action than those filmmakers who set out simply to make fun.

Just off the top of my head, one recent example is  Rose Rosenblatt’s and Marion Lipschutz’s marvelous The Education of Shelby Knox.  I love this film because it came to each character with humility, knowing that they each had constraints, responsibilities, and a whole life story that brought them to a given moment.

One fundamentalist minister, in particular, expressed views that could not be farther from my own. Yet because of the filmmaker’s attitude towards their subjects, and because they completely resisted making him look like a jerk, I was left with a real understanding of how this man sees the world and why he sees his fundamentalism as an antidote to forces that scare him. I still disagree with him,  with more vehemence and anger than ever,  but it seems to be a more informed and nuanced disagreement than the queasy feeling I had when Michael Moore ambushed Charles Heston.

Yes, Moore ambushed an impossibly foolish man and made him look — surprise! — impossibly  foolish. Congratulations, Michael.  But I did not find that to be even remotely insightful. I want to know more about the motivations and impulses, the historical and social contexts,  that lead to such foolishness. And I am not saying that I want this in even a slightly didactic way.  Audiences deserve  this insight, and they deserve it in the context of an elegantly crafted and edited film.

You really should check out The Education of Shelby Knox. The forces that this courageous young woman confronts are considerable. Many of those who oppose her effort to disseminate good information about sex in secondary schools seem narrow and even venal. But this is the kind of extraordinary film in which even the actions of the ostensibly venal are presented with incredible insight and context.

That will always trump ridicule any day.

The Night in 1968 I Was Born: Public Broadcast Laboratory’s “Birth and Death”

My lifetime of interest in documentary film began sometime during the week of December 4, 1968.

I was 17 years old. The $12.5 million Ford Foundation experiment in public television and precursor to PBS, the Public Broadcast Laboratory, was starting its second and final season with a two hour cinema verite film by Arthur Barron and Gene Marner, “Birth and Death.” The concept was to follow the birth of a baby in the first hour and the death of a man in the second hour.

I have always felt like I was born that night. Neither childbirth nor death had yet become the openly discussed public events that they are now, and the film was a revelation.

Coming around the same time as “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles, and a year before two incredible semesters at UCLA studying the history of documentary film with Professor Edgar Brokaw, it was the first time in my life that I saw the raw and emotionally jarring power of cinema verite documentary. Before that night I had no idea what was possible when a first-rate cinematographer, often working with a handheld camera, would use excruciatingly intimate close-ups and candid reaction shots to capture the inherent power of lived experience.

“Birth and Death”  (1968) is discussed and remembered far too seldom, and was very much an early, brief precursor to POV. The night of that broadcast began what became PBS’s proud history of showing the work of outstanding documentary filmmakers to national audiences. It was also the night on which, as a teenager typically oblivious to mortality, it first struck me at the deepest level that going to Viet Nam with the rest of my age cohort might mean that I would die.  And I remember thinking after seeing the Barron film: Dying means you stop breathing. Dying means darkness. Not good. Not good at all.

I thought of all those years tonight when I heard that Fred Wiseman’s film company, Zipporah, has gradually been releasing his extraordinary body of work on DVD. Wiseman, I only learned a year later in 1969 at UCLA, had — at the very same time as Barron’s “Birth and Death” — already begun his astounding body of verite work in 1967 with “Titicut Follies.”

I later saw most of that work, much of which was also broadcast on PBS. Check out the Zipporah site and catch up on some of the greatest verite film ever made. I have a personal favorite, “Near Death,” and I’m sure many of you have yours.

1967 – 1972.

An amazing time for cinema verite. An amazing time to be coming of age. And – for a 17 year old about to contend with the Viet Nam draft — an amazing time to realize that, sooner or later, for good or for bad, birth would eventually be followed by death.

Now All I Feel is Rage: “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” Pt. 2

 

A few weeks ago I tried to describe the emotional impact of Kieran Fitzgerald’s “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez.” It’s been a long time since a documentary left me so incapacitated by grief. The first time was in the midst of violent anti-war protests against the Viet Nam war, in a room full of cynical boomers at the UCLA Film School, as we watched Albert and David Maysles’s “Salesman” and were reduced to sobbing.

“The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” is a superb example of a documentary that shrewdly reaches for the pain without pouring on the polemics. Only after delivering a blow to the heart does that pain slowly make way for rage about the larger social context in which Esequiel was killed.

Rage? That’s right. I’m no longer paralyzed.

Watching “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” brought to mind every example of pathetically misguided criminal justice policies that have been adopted exclusively as public theatre, remedies designed to create elegant yet completely phony illusions of action.

Oh, I know that these “solutions” are sold to the public as the latest and greatest answers to public anxiety. And I know that a scared public is vulnerable to quickly adopting almost anything that looks tough.

It’s just that these “solutions” are so often scams, quick and dirty fixes proposed by some politician who knows that a politically successful policy will always trump an effective one.

And do we come up with some good ones! A mandatory sentencing law takes discretion away from judges, young men and women are imprisoned for life because they are present during a homicide someone else committed, the merchants of toughness continue the absurd and oxymoronic hunt for a fair and humane death penalty, boot camps open that are nothing more than modern chain gangs, and US Marines are deployed to the border to watch for drugs. Everyone is thrilled. Whoopee.

Mission accomplished. Society has drawn a line in the sand. Aren’t we the tough guys?

Which would be just hunky-dory if not for the fact that virtually no one is any safer. And even worse, as we revel in our new feelings of “security,” we completely miss all the ways that our faux toughness has created a whole new set of victims — innocent people on death row, juveniles tried as adults, 50 year olds entering their third decade of imprisonment for drug possession, and young men like Esequiel — shot dead on land that he and his family honored and tended.

When the Clinton administration decided to calm an anxious public by deploying US Marines to the border near Redford, Texas, it was engaging in pointless feel-good theatrics. It looked great. The US Marines looked great. We showed those creeps who was in charge.

Too bad an innocent young man in South Texas had to ruin all the fun.

 

No Escape from Grief: The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

Yesterday, I saw a film of such shattering emotional impact that it forced me to face just how much I have been missing lately by focusing more on artistic form than visceral emotion. In fact, I found being torn apart and rendered incapable of rational analysis to be nothing short of liberating.

But there I go again with the self-serving language that obscures rather than reveals emotion. I wasn’t “rendered incapable of rational analysis.”

I was crying and I couldn’t stop. On a bus. With people staring at me.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (July 8th, 10 PM, PBS) tells the story of an 18 year-old American citizen – a son, a brother, a student, a friend – who was killed in 1997 near the Mexican border in Redford, Texas by US Marines watching for drug smugglers. While the rules of engagement did not call for deadly force, filmmaker Kieran Fitzgerald painstakingly details the series of events that led a U.S. Marine to shoot and kill Esequiel as he tended his family’s goats with a .22 rifle. Esequiel thus became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on American soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings.

So many of us respond to tragedy by playing an instinctive mental game. Surely, we tell ourselves, a tragic story will have one detail about a victim, one simple fact which will allow us to delude ourselves into thinking that we have found a reason for the unreasonable. Perhaps the victim was someplace he or she shouldn’t have been. Perhaps, even years before, the victim did or said something that even now allows us to temper our grief. It’s stunning how quickly we all, even unconsciously, resort to victim-blaming.

Some times we even say (or just think, if we are smart enough not to give voice to our least humane instincts) that “he got what was coming.” We think those words can provide a psychic antidote to the deeper horror that comes from pain that won’t go away. But that is when we must face the fact that good people like Esequiel Hernández, through no fault of their own, can sometimes die painful and tragic deaths simply by finding themselves in the cross-fire of powerful and violent institutions.

Esequiel dies because of an absolutely pointless and symbolic deployment of Marines as border guards in the “War on Drugs,” a mission for which they are scandalously unprepared. Before you know it — with the maniacal anti-immigrant rantings of media provocateurs like Bill O’Reilly playing in the background – a young man lies dead.

As I watched The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, I kept playing a mental game in a vain attempt to rid myself of pain: At least, I told myself, the evil of the killers will provide a different kind of relief. They can be hated and resented and serve as the vessels in which I will place my rage at a young life lost too soon.

But then “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” deals a second blow. Fitzgerald profiles the four Marines — although the one who actually fired the fatal shot chooses not to be interviewed — with such nuance and emotional depth that it becomes impossible to find the relief and resolution that would come from clearly evil killers.

They are human.

And then all I felt was despair, left with a difficult challenge we all face as we try to make sense of the world. Like it or not, we must accept that some tragedies are destined to remain open sores on our souls, forever unresolved, forever a source of grief.

In the end, though, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” comes back to a young man and his grieving parents. He didn’t have to die, but he did, and even now — a day later — I can’t figure out a way to move from relentless grief to any thoughtful action. I can’t figure out where to direct my rage.

I can only cry for Esequiel. And his mother and father and brother.

 

 

 

P.O.V./PBS 2008 Season Preview

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Please do me a favor and look at a preview of POV’s extraordinary 21st season. If any of the films really grab you, more detailed information and trailers and broadcast times are available here.

The entire season schedule can also be downloaded or saved. You could hardly say that any of the 21 amazing seasons of Public Televsion’s most important showcase for docuimentary films were better than any other.

But 2008 is really breathtaking.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am watching Natalia Almada’s “Al Otro Lado” (POV’s 19th Season) for the 20th time so I can enjoy the incomparable footage of La Malandrina Jenni Rivera and Los Tigres del Norte!

Anybody know when Los Tigres are coming to New York? And do I have make a trip to my hometown LA to see Jenni? The last time I tried to buy tickets for Los Tigres, they were being scalped at $350 – $500.

L.A. is actually not such a bad idea. Perhaps I’ll post some Jenni Rivera music at some point so you can see why, when push came to shove and I was little under the weather this spring, Jenni and Los Tigres were there for me.

¿Quién sabe? ¿Soy quizá un Norteño judío?