Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections (2007)

Suppose that you’re a normal, everyday moviewatcher. You’ve seen a few documentaries and now I come to you and ask you to make a documentary your own self. “Who, me?” you say, “What do I know about making a documentary?” “Just give it a try,” I say, and I say, “David Earnhardt did it. This is his first stab at making one. So, your movie will be about voter fraud, like his was. Here’s a camera. Get out there and record some interviews with the sort of folks that you see shopping every day down at the Save N’ Go Supermarket. That is, turn up some interesting folks – folks maybe just a tad peculiar in their views and in their aspect. Then Wiki some voter statistics and find some footage of voters standing in line and, I predict, you will make a movie very like Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections.”

Nothing wrong with that. The movie’s karma is positive. It’s impossible to take a step these days without tripping over an article on voter problems, so you probably won’t learn anything new, but at the movie’s conclusion, Earnhardt urges you to:

1. Contact your representatives in congress.
2. Say no to paperless voting machines.
3. Volunteer to be a poll observer.
4. Volunteer to be a poll worker.
5. Share the film with others.
6. Dialog with others on the subject of voter fraud.
7. Write letters to the editor.
8. Lobby for change.

Good and reasonable urgings for these, our parlous times.

The end credits also serve as a bibliography.

Thus endth my review of the documentary Uncounted.

But now listen. Who do you want to govern you in difficult times? A guy who can’t win an election even when he garners a majority of the legitimate votes cast, or a guy who can turn a handful of votes into a freaking landslide?

There is incontrovertible evidence in the Lascaux cave drawings that before one of the annual cave elections, the Neanderthals stole all the voting clubs and as a result soundly thrashed the Cro-Magnons. The Neanderthal who was thus elected started some unnecessary wars, flubbed local aid after the neighborhood volcano erupted, and caused the cave-dwelling population in general to seriously rethink the whole business of voting-with-clubs technology going forward.

Full disclosure: when I was in the fourth grade, the student who was to do the voice and operate the strings for the Peter Pan puppet in the big school puppet show was to be determined by student vote at an audition. Those of us trying out for the role stood behind a blanket rigged as a screen. We were to read out lines from the Peter Pan script when our number was called. The students on the other side of the blanket, once they heard all of us read, were to vote on the voice that would be Peter Pan. Before we began, I went to the end of the blanket and wrote down my number on a piece of paper and surreptitiously flashed it around the end of the curtain. We then did the readings. Turns out that the voting students didn’t like me. They all voted against the number that I had flashed. However, by dumb luck I had flashed the wrong number and won the vote when all the haters raised their hands for me by mistake. My point here is that vote rigging is rife! Whatever it takes to pull Peter Pan’s strings!

Now let’s suppose that the Republicans stole the ’04 presidential election by flipping 3 million votes, as some claim that they did. This still means that almost half the voters in the U.S. cast their ballots to reelect Bush, after four years of his presidency – after the war, Katrina, the gutting of the EPA, so forth. Can we make an argument here that fraud or no fraud, fix or no fix, if almost half the country voted for Bush in ’04, then the country as a whole deserved what it got throughout his second term? Can we make an argument that one in three citizens in America still likes George Bush and so the country richly deserves what’s coming up next as well?

And by the way, thought experiment: If Michael Moore made Fahrenheit 9/ll today instead of four years ago, how would the movie be different? Bush reading about the bunny rabbit, Katrina, the start of the war – all far in the past now. What the frack has Bush been doing the last four years that would still make Moore’s movie Cannes-Golden-Palm-worthy? If you see Moore, please ask him for me and email me his response at this address. Thank you.

If you do go ahead and make a documentary about voter fraud (votes don’t kill people, voters kill people), and if you are of a conservative stripe, the film will probably focus on voter registration fraud, which according to McCain and Palin threatens to convert the U.S. into a Soviet-style state governed by the spawn of Satan. ACORN, formerly thought of as a minor civil-rights organization, turns out to be an outfit structured along the lines of SPECTRE. If you are of a liberal stripe, you’ll want to warn all black voters that their ballots have already been cast by the central Republican Diebold computer, and that if they actually show up at the polls, they’ll probably be pulled down by Sheriff Crawford’s German Shepherds and dragged off to the county Gulag out beyond the settling ponds.

I mean, if I’m standing there in front of an outsourced computerized voting machine, I’m accepting the fact up front that anything might happen to my vote. The computer might turn it upside down, or right to left, or black to white, or flip it, or delete it, or recycle it, or email it to Kirghizistan, or use it later to have me tracked down like a dog. Far from losing my vote, the computer may never forget or forgive me for it. I’ve seen Idiocracy. Twice. Dumb is stronger than smart and I’ve got history on my side to prove it. Last but not least, there might be a little person hiding inside that machine, operating its lights and whistles. Capture that reality in your film.

And put in gerrymandering. For a nice touch, shoot the exteriors in Gerry, New York (on Route 60).

And while I’m thinking about it, what is it with all those names on the ballots? Why am I voting for a damn judge? And how was I to know that my random selection of school-board members last year would cause natural selection to be tossed out of the grade-school curriculum in favor of that divine Providence who misengineered my lower spinal disks? And what is a county adjuster anyway? Explain to the viewer the steps that should be taken to clean up these ballots. Put all these jobs up for sale.

Also, here’s a hint for you, novice documentary-maker: rather than focusing on the sins of one political party or the other, go find an election that pits two unscrupulous win-at-any-cost types against each other. Gather your information during their campaigning and electioneering, as the attendant payouts and other tricks and frauds and jackanaperies ensue. Work quietly so as to avoid being shot or otherwise disappeared while doing so – and then when the election is over, don’t fail to interview several of the folks who voted a lot – do they plan to spend their money or save it? Will they have a place in the new administration? Etc.

General guidelines:

1. Don’t make the movie in your home state or any state that borders on your home state, to minimize blowback when you screen it.

2. Never admit what you’re doing to the local populace. Your great-uncle Jeter on his deathbed begged you to come to Cletisville to visit and record memories of the town and its old – very old – family memories. Hence your camera and the interviews.

3. Adopt a rural accent.

4. Wear only togs from Walmart.

5. Buy drinks all around, frequently.

6. Never mention the election, but it’s ok to say, “So who is this Bubba Prendergast with his picture up on posters all over town?”

7. Go to church.

8. Don’t talk to anyone with a dark skin, foreign accent, or Asian eyes.

9. Keep your own eyes peeled on election day for ballot stuffing, vote buying, counterfeit votes, disappearing ballots and ballot boxes, scaring the voters, and murder.

For a historical discussion of voter fraud, I refer you to Tracy Campbell’s “Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition—1742-2004.” For an in-depth examination of how to lose a local election and then come back and win the next one, if you know what I mean, I recommend “The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1),” by Robert A. Caro. It can’t be beat. For Diebold (not Livebold), Princeton University Exposes Diebold Flaws.

Contest: What’s the craziest conspiricy theory you’ve heard regarding the Bush/Gore, Bush/Kerry, or McCain/Obama election? Prize: Three votes in this year’s special coroner’s election in the town of Pigliver, Texas. (You have to cast one vote in the morning, one vote in the afternoon, and one vote in the evening, using the names Pardee, Pardeux, and Pardoo, respectively.)

Movie recommendation: When it’s all over, go watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to restore a little bit of your faith in the country.

Let me conclude this review like any good politician concludes his speeches, whether currently indicted or not: God bless America.

Out of Balance (2007)

the world is going to hell. you can stop reading now – you already know it.

“out of balance: exxonmobil’s impact on climate change” provides 60 minutes of bad news, none of it new news. unless, that is, you yourself don’t believe that the world is going to hell or are somehow not aware otherwise of the fact that it is, in which case you’re wasting your time reading this and you won’t be sitting through this movie either, unless you’re too drunk or lazy to change the channel, in which case it will have no more effect on you than the shopping channel does, or, no, less.

why was this film made? perhaps the director received a grant. also, existentially speaking, before the end of the world we’ll want a library of cassandra-like warnings like this on dvd, which everyone ignores until it’s too late (now, in other words). also, every rhinoceros needs an ox-pecker on its back.

who was this film made for? in it, a crowd of sweet-tempered rational folks explain why we’re up to our ears in shit. every grammar school kid already knows this, in the same way that kids in the fifties were prepared, if they ever stopped to think about it, for that bright flash of light that might happen any goddamn minute, reducing kid, family, and elementary school to ashes that would glow green in the moonlight.

we all know we’re going to die but we don’t stop living. mostly we just don’t talk about it. some of us go to church or temple or the mosque once a week to be reminded of the fact, and to be reminded also perhaps that the world is, yes, going to hell, and that we also, not just the government and big business and all those other countries out there, are to blame, but holy day services don’t take an inordinate amount of time and can be tuned out in the same way that movies like this one can. granted, every once in a while the notion of death and personal extinction might hit you, perhaps in the dead of night, but hang on and it passes. the world might be going to hell but it probably won’t get there today. i myself don’t bother listening to the preacher telling me that i’m going to die and i don’t pay any more attention than i have to to the world’s downward environmental spiral either. i haven’t seen the al gore film or any other such documentary and i wouldn’t have seen this one if not for being a spout maven. i look away from pictures of oil-soaked birds. the planet is screwed and i could stop consuming but that wouldn’t help much, so i’m ignoring the whole thing as much as possible.

and by the way, out of balance? what’s out of balance? if you piss in a muddy puddle with an oil slick on it, is the puddle now out of balance?

exxon mobil is the largest corporation in the world. a corporation isn’t a person, it’s a thing. in this case it is a huge, godless, relentless, remorseless, unstoppable, soulless, destructive thing that along with your own piddly little contribution will destroy the planet, unless the nukes start flying or a manufactured mutant pathogen kills us all before it can.

the film introduces us to a former exxon ceo who received 400 million when he retired. lee raymond, a big fat ugly pretentious guy you want to paste in the face the second you see him, him blathering some patent nonsense that amounts to his declaration that whatever you happen to think, he and his kind rule the earth, or what’s left of it. corporations might be things, but they’re infested things, crawling with fat ugly humans feeding off the crumbs of corporate profit. if there were any justice in the world, which of course there isn’t, this guy would end up down in the deepest basement of hell.

and ditto for the clean-cut old bastard who replaced him.

or am i being too harsh here?


not that i’m doing anything to change the situation. will watching another hour on the subject make any difference? you think? i recycle. i vote democratic. i stick pins in my president bush potato head. i drive a prius. but oops, i consume just as much as everyone else in this country. i don’t take the train. my 401k can’t go down the drain just to save the planet. the years pass and the world goes downhill, but so do i and i’ll hit the wall before the world does. i hope. but of course that leaves the kids and their kids holding the bag.

after raymond the planet-killer, “out of balance” presents the valdez spill – the devastation and botched cleanup and the coverup and the fact that the company to this day has escaped any significant consequences, financial or otherwise, pertaining to its blame. 200 billion in profits since the spill. exxon, catering to the nazis back in the day, working with any and every brutal dictator that proves useful (sort of like the u.s.). this is one of the companies that is supposed to lead us to glory city after the libertarians turn out the government and get rid of regulation? instead of voting, why don’t we just go shoot ourselves? but wait. let me take a second to tip my hat to our libertarian brothers, who would reduce the size of government because the government just makes things worse. boys, don’t bother with the bush administration. with regard to climate change and any sort of rational meaningful intelligent responsible controls over anything that exxon does, no need to worry about the government messing it up, because the government hasn’t done squat, and won’t. you’ve got your way. you need not concern yourselves. just relax and let big business pillage the world unfettered. they’ll do it a lot more quickly and efficiently than any government ever could.

but i digress. a note to the director: please don’t throw hurricane footage up there on the screen and blame the storm on global warming. folks like to watch hurricane footage. hurricanes are old friends. they have names. they’re fun. they’re comfortable. they can’t happen here. plus, your filmclips use boring overused footage that we’ve seen over and over ever since we first turned on our tv. hurricanes are something that happen down south and provide annual disaster entertainment in the news timeslot, along with the climax to the occasional drama. they don’t work as any sort of warning. also leave out the oil spills. in fact, leave out footage of every disaster that we’ve ever seen before. and skip the melting glacier spots. and the deserts just sitting there, hot and dry. you can’t stop murder by showing the citizenry episodes of the sopranos. the only way to use a burning house on film as a warning is to go over to the viewer’s home, burn it down, film the smoking remains, and show THAT to the homeowner. just a thought. horrific images work in the context of sad hindsight, not as warnings.

and regarding the end of the world, did i mention that jesus christ will arrive when least expected? to me that would be this evening, but my fundamentalist friends tell me that whenever it may be, there will need to be a planet with humans on it here to receive him, so climate change can only get so bad and no worse. whew.

finally, a special shout-out to those who point out that this documentary does not present exxon’s side of the story. hey, even the bible lets satan get in a word or two. you watch this movie and hear climate scientists, glacier specialists, writers, UN officials, and tree huggers explain to you how and why the world is going to hell – but NO i repeat NO dissenting opinions are presented! the filmmakers somehow forgot to let crazy uncle charley out of the attic. they somehow didn’t seek out that one nutty scientist who still believes that it was warmer a hundred years ago than it is today. that it’s warmer now but not our fault. that it’s our fault but there isn’t anything we can do about it. just don’t make me give up my car and take a bus for christ’s sake! i’ll do anything you ask! don’t make me turn off my old grandma’s nightlight so she stumbles and falls trying to go to the bathroom in the dark. don’t make me turn down the thermostat and freeze my children to death. yes, it’s getting warmer but what’s wrong with that? i won’t have to go to florida for my vacation. it’s got hotter and colder ever since the planet formed. sure it’s happening this time in ten years instead of a hundred thousand but so what? evolution will take care of it. it’s only one degree. less than one degree. it’s only six inches more of sea water. hurricanes were down this year. so forth. no dissenting opinions presented in this movie! my god! what are we going to do? it’s not fair! exxon deserves it say, its spin, its junk science, its whatever. just because i’d be crazy to believe anything anybody from that company tells me, on principle, doesn’t mean a fair and balanced documentary can’t throw in some bullcrap, right? and intelligent design, what about that? and let’s hear from RJR while we’re at it. you know what? exxon could tear this little film apart. exxon and the american petroleum institute could flatten this film. exxon could present data, scientists, public relations experts, your momma and daddy and your chosen man of god, and deny and disprove every fact in this movie and all the facts that didn’t make it into this movie as well. they probably already have. hang on. let me search “exxon” in youtube. 428 hits. scrolling and scanning. haven’t come to anything pro-exxon yet. gratifying! looks like “out of balance” has a lot of company. the world is still going to hell but at least i can watch 428 short blasts at one of the companies doing the damage while it happens. to tell you the truth, this film is so even-tempered that i was sort of hoping that the oil company would produce a “Thanks for Smoking” spokesman or two, or the mad scientist they keep locked up in the cellar. and by the way, what does the pope have to say about all this?

you can’t turn around anymore without stumbling over yet another environmental horror story. all the hemlocks on the east coast are dying (new yorker, dec. 10). no new redtails survived in jackson hole because the horseflies hatched early and killed all the nestlings. san francisco oil spill: bayside parks still closed; birds still dead; nobody to blame. dead birds? west nile virus. oil spill in korea. the curves used to go up and down; now they just go up; co2, methane, temperature, all in sync. so forth. the populace relying on technology to save us without impacting our patterns of consumption. will there be a catastrophic series of events, as in the classic sf book Timescape by Gregory Benford, or lesser, repeated ecological insults that finally result in the collapse of civilization as we know it? i just saw a racoon crawl out of a gutter drain. any sign of wildlife is a good thing. google “plastic in the ocean” and see what you get. the world’s largest landfill. the world’s largest garbage dump. a mass of floating garbage larger than a state, out there on the way to hawaii. x thousand bits of plastic for every cubic foot of ocean water. you want out of balance? how about “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.”

in the year 2000 we needed to elect a leader who could save us. oh well.

final optimistic thought: maybe the next 9/11 will be an environmental, rather than terrorist, disaster, so that when the government goes fascist again in response, it will be in the cause of saving the planet.

“out of balance: ExxonMobil’s Impact on Climate Change” hasn’t found it’s way into imdb yet. For more information about “Out of Balance,” visit the film’s website at http://www.worldoutofbalance.org. For more information on Joe Public Films, visit http://www.joepublicfilms.com. Contact Joe Public Films at joepublicfilms [at] yahoo.com.

Africa Unite (2008) – Can ganja save Africa?


In 2005, the Bob Marley and Rita Marley Foundations organized “Africa Unite,” a series of events to be held in Ethiopia. Nominally created to posthumously celebrate Bob Marley’s 60th birthday, Africa Unite was meant to encourage and nurture unity between nations and peoples on the African continent and to inspire self-sufficiency and world consciousness in African youth. As an annual event, it has continued: Ghana (2006); South Africa (2007); Jamaica (2008, from February 1 to 21). (http://africa-unite.org/site/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/)

The film “Africa Unite” is meant to show, and does show, the coming together of peace-minded folks from 40 to 60 African countries (reports vary), for a series of workshops, including three days of African student-delegate dialog sessions, meetings, and a celebratory concert. Marley’s wife, mother, five sons, and sundry grandchildren flew to Addis Ababa from Jamaica for the occasion, together with a collection of elderly lifelong Rastafarians.

Africa Unite is not a concert film; it documents all the elements of the occasion, culminating in the 12-hour concert in Addis Ababa, which was attended by 300,000 to 500,000 people (again, estimates vary) from all over the continent. The movie contains snippits of the concert and the commercial DVD adds more, but if you’re looking for reggae onstage, you won’t find much of it in the documentary itself. Instead, check out YouTube (e.g.,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5fRBNoDR2Y) for a quick look and listen. In the film there are glimpses of Lauryn Hill, Angelique Kidjo, reggae leaders Bob Andy, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, and a number of Marley’s children, including Ziggy, Damian, Stephen, Cedella, Julian and Kymani, the top shotta himself as he lays out “Crazy Baldheads.”

Released in 2007 and directed by Stephanie Black, a documentarian with limited resume, the film makes no mention of Africa Unite 2006 – 2008. Danny Glover’s Louverture Films and the Marley family’s Tuff Gong Pictures are listed as executive producers. Glover has been a Bob Marley enthusiast since he attended one of Marley’s concerts back in the ’70s. The movie is a standard, old-fashioned documentary, presenting a UNICEF-assisted event in an institutional style that the UN might appreciate. That is, we get a clip from the concert; the Marleys flying to Africa; another clip from the concert; workshops and conference sessions preceding the concert; another clip from the concert; local color; clip; boilerplate; clip; footage of Ethiopia; clip; so forth.


Several aspects of my critical apparatus competed for attention as I watched this movie:

a. Mr. Concerned Citizen. Africa Unite! How wrong can that be? Represent!

b. Mr. Cynic. The Marleys visit a zoo and admire the caged lions. Welcome to Africa! Is the title ironic? Is this the Africa of Kenya, Chad, Sudan, Somolia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Congo, Zimbabwe, etc., etc., that we’re talking about?

c. Young Mr. Unrepentant High-School Viewer, still alive down there in my brain only one layer up from Mr. Id Crocodile Brain Stem. Conjured up from the deep past by the industrial-strength instructional-film vibe radiating like a death ray from frame one onward in this film. Whatever experience in filmmaking the director Ms Black has had, she seems to have designed these 89 lonnngggg minutes to be transmogrified later by young institutionalized viewers into high-school term papers – reports on how to spur economic and educational reform and combat poverty and strife in African nations, via talkin and then more talkin – her movie being a workmanlike, dull, interminable, didactic, social-studies series of scenes unreeling on an old-fashioned projector in Civics 101 in a warm stuffy classroom right after a heavy lunch of meatloaf in the school lunchroom. Heads thunk onto desktops as students doze off and topple forward, necks going all slack.

Mr. Concerned Citizen queued up the DVD and sat down with pen and clipboard in hand. Tapped foot to the beat as the first concert footage poinked out, de dah.

Mr. Cynic took control of the pen as we see the Marley brothers on a plane flying east to Africa for this, their excursion into peace-making. The plane lands in Addis Ababa to the accompaniment of hopeful music and words about Africa peace, political will, and the future. In big red letters on the side of the plane: Kenyan Airlines. In addition to the 1000+ killed so far in the current civil unrest in Kenya, country fracturing along tribal lines, a second parliament member is assassinated – a member of the opposition in the government and a peacemaker. Get onboard the peace train!

Mr. Concerned Citizen yanks back control of the pen as the first African student to be interviewed comes onscreen, talking about the need for African nations to come together, the need for Burundi and Rwanda to kiss and make up. Uh oh. She’s from Kenya. Got to Ethiopia for the peace concert just before the bullets started flying in her neighborhood. Political unrest based on tribal allegiance. Mr. Cynic is back, scanning the young woman for tribal markings or gang signs on her traditional Kenyan costume. Meanwhile, Barack Obama records a cool-it message for broadcast in Kenya, but his father belonged to the tribe associated with the opposition, so conspiracy theories are immediately hatched re his involvement in the unrest. Condi to Kenya to settle things down!

But now, while Mr. CC and Mr. C contend for my consciousness and the hand holding the reviewer’s pen, the film unleashes roundtable discussions, speeches, and canned historical footage of the League of Nations and before I know what’s happening, Mr. High-School Viewer is in charge and trying to put my body, including the hand holding the pen, to sleep.

And how to deal with this neverending civil violence in African nations, per Africa Unite?

Q. Kymani, what do you think it’s going to take to unite Africa?

A. Just the right state of mind. Point blank. That’s all it comes down to. Your thinking. What is your purpose on Earth? My purpose is to make the next one feel up, feel happy. I don’t live for myself; there’s no joy in that. I think if everyone took on that approach then we would have a peaceful and united Africa.

And that goes double for Darfur and its genocide, Kymani, and Chad with its coup and killings, and the hidden civil war and ever-mounting death toll in Congo.

“The efforts of the Bob Marley and Rita Marley Foundations are giving life to the words of Bob Marley: “Africa Unite!” Sponsoring a series of events each year in a different country, the goal of uniting Africa is becoming a reality.”

Bear with me while I quote the message:

“The role of education was emphasized as the critical element in the process of African transformation. This education must be both formal and heartical. We must work with school curricula, children in clubs and informal groups as we seek to have everyone learn about slavery and its effects as well as what our philosophers teach about the way forward. We must all have the same books telling the same story of our Pan African history.

“The Bob and Rita Marley Foundations were requested to investigate publishing books as well as having ongoing discussions with the relevant Ministries in Africa. The Foundations were also asked to continue their scholarship program. Ghana through Professor Nketia has pledged its support to work with the Foundation on this. Different countries both in the diaspora and in Africa should also consider holding workshops for music development at the local level. These could be supported by the Foundations.”

In the movie, it’s all about the old CW reasons for Africa’s current problems: post-colonial damage, World Bank, IMF. Exploitation by the white man. The carving up of Africa by European interests in the late 1800s. The history and consequences of slavery.

To celebrate post-colonialism, Mr. Cynic takes a ganja break.


Rastafari started up in Jamaica in the ’30s, when blacks were poor and meant to stay that way. Meanwhile, Africa was still run by Europe. The Rastas announced that every individual is worth something, and that Africa, as Man’s birthplace, is also worth something. By 2000, Jamaica was as much as twenty percent Rastafari, with more than a million Rasta worldwide. The name comes from “Ras” meaning “head” and Tafari, the first name of Haile Selassie before he was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. The Rasta take Selassie as God on Earth, although now that he’s dead, I’m not sure what his brief visit on this planet is taken to have accomplished. When the Messiah returns, most religions don’t expect him to run a country for a while and then expire, but then, some Rastafaris believe that Selassie’s purported death was in fact a white hoax. That is, he’s out there somewhere and will return in due course to liberate his followers.

The Ethiopian story is that King Solomon fathered a child with the Queen of Sheba, whom she took home and who became the root stock for the black Jews of Ethiopia, who continue today. The presence of these Jews is one reason that Rastafari accept Ethiopia as Zion. Another is that Ethiopia remained independent while all the other countries on the continent were being colonized.

I forget what the dreadlocks are about. Something life-affirming.

I know of no connection between “rasta” and “rasty.”

Ganja is essential to the religion. I cannot overemphasize this.

There is a “live forever” thing going on in the religion as well. Bob Marley wouldn’t donate his organs, even when at death’s door, because he figured he was still going to need them. But how useful are cancer-ridden organs anyway?

Sellassie gave the Rastas 500 hectares of his personal land in the area of Shashemene, 150 miles from Addis Ababa. Whenever he drove by, he would say “Where are my people?” But he also told the Jamaicans to stay home until they had defeated their oppressors in Jamaica, so that’s where they still were every time he drove by Shashemene and asked, except for a few settlers who did go over, returning to Zion. When Sellassie was deposed, Mengistu took back all but 11 hectares. The Africa Unite celebration included events at Shashemene, what’s left of it.

As I mentioned, the Marley’s brought some elderly Rastas with them on the plane and these octagenarians were motored about Addis Ababa. So these gentlemen are looking out the car windows at Zion. Ethiopia, being one of the poorest countries in the world, features scenery that has a lot in common with the slums of Kingston. Taking climate, populace, and ambiance all together, and the grinning crowds of the poor, these men now in the promised land were staring out at something that looked a heckava lot like home. Didn’t seem to bother them.

I asked my Ethiopian friend about black-on-black racism in his country, which has 80 tribes. He went racial on me in a very complicated way and I just let that whole question drop. Something about Negro, Bushman, and Bantu and how the superiority of Hamites over Negroes was no myth. Nose shape. Tall vs short. Smart vs dumb. American Negros looking more Bantu that Negro because of the white admixture in their blood. So forth. You’re black in the US and then you get off the plane in Africa and everybody is black. Great. But oh oh. You’re a little stocky with a flat nose and the next thing you know, it’s “Dude, you Hutu? Cause if you aren’t Tutsi, you’re in a bad place here!”

Mr. High-School Viewer takes a ganja break in honor of the Rasta. Man, I could eat a horse. I checked out “Eating horse in Ethiopia” and got hits about man-eating horses. That’s the kind of thing that can rattle you when your hold on reality is a little shaky anyway.


So the Rastas deplane in Ethiopia – their Zion – with portraits of Selassie – their god – on their T-shirts and words about slavery and colonialism on their lips. No mention of the coup in ’74 that deposed Selassie, or the fact that he’s dead, or the ensuing Communist regime in the country, or Mengistu’s conviction for genocide. Much is made in this movie of the fact that Ethiopia fended off Italy back in the colonizing period of the late 1800s, but I heard no mention of Italy’s occupation of the country from 1935 to 1941. Whatever.

Because if you’ve got to pick a place to represent the cradle of humanity, well, humans have been living in Ethiopia since the beginning, since before the beginning, since before they could pass the human test. The Rift Valley. Formerly Punt and then Abyssinia, Ethiopia is the second oldest country in the world, after Armenia, to become Christian. (But now with a large Muslim population too). Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa, with a secular government since 1974. It was an original U.N. member. The capitol is by no means isolated. The headquarters of the African Union is situated in Addis Ababa.

This constant talk of African unity after throwing off the colonial yoke – Mr. C couldn’t help remembering that Ethiopia only concluded its bloody civil war with Eritrea in 1993, with flareups since then, and that its neighbors are Sudan (Darfur), Somolia (Black Hawk Down), Kenya (current civil unrest, rigged elections), Eritrea (border flareups), and Djibouti (10-year civil war, single-party government) – well, why else so many calls for unity? Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia, Mozambique; death and violence past and future, breaking along tribal lines.

While Mr. C snorted, it occurred to Mr. CC that the speakers were not orating in a vacuum, in front of the cameras, but on a continent, in a land, of uncertain freedoms and swift retribution. In the poor and warlike country of Ethiopia, could it be that these men and women were taking care while running on about unity and freedom, to oppose those concepts to past colonialism and slavery, rather than the current situation in at least 145 African countries today where it might be worth their lives to get more particular about present injustices rather than those of fifty years past?

Hmm. Ethiopia ranks 106 out of 167 African countries vis a vis human rights. The country comes in between Cambodia at 105 and Burundi at 107. There is little freedom of the press. 80 ethnic groups contend for power and small privileges in 83 languages. Mr. CC calls to mind the armed and unsmiling troops circulating through the crowd in the concert clips, eying the audience, not the performers.

As a defense against this serious pondering, Mr. C and Mr. HSV take ganja breaks, sharing a blunt.


Mr. CC knows that there are between 18 and 20-odd democracies in Africa (depending upon how elastic your tolerance, or delusion, is); in 1980, there were only 4. This is why Bush can take a victory lap over there without having to dine every night with an outright war criminal, and without getting shot or locked up. He can send Condi to Kenya to straighten things out, ignore Darfur, and accentuate the positive in that special way that he has. Mr. Bush enjoys an approval rating in Africa much higher than in his own country; this is all Mr. C needs to know. But in fact, Mr. C also knows that most of these African democracies are “imperfect,” “fragile,” or “illiberal.” He is familiar with papers with titles like “Who Killed Democracy In Africa?” and ““Support for Democracy Seen Falling in Africa.” Doing our math, we see that if more than 60 countries were represented at Africa Unite, many of the student attendees arrived to participate from countries ruled by a dictator. Did any of these students appear in the movie? Those who spoke on film were identified as citizens of Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, and The Gambia – all countries among the fledgling democracies; and even so, these students spoke in careful measured tones and used diplomatic sentences. No fire-eating, to be caught on tape before they returned home. Who are these students fronting the documentary anyway? They all showed up at an Africa Unite banquet in the movie dressed to the nines.

But then, lo, at the 70-minute mark, Ms. Black edits in a more militant voice. Some attitude pipes up here. A fellow saying that knowledge is power and sounding like he means a lot more than that. Name? Country? Withheld. Mr. CC and Mr. C can both go a little paranoid when high, and at this point began to remark on the vanilla flavor of the previous discourse, and the beady, shifty eyes of the Ethiopian official windbags who alternated with the students at the mike and who previously caused Mr. HSV to take control on the couch and nod off. Now, suddenly, the harping on colonialism and slavery and the IMG and the World Bank is dropped in favor of a strong call for a ban on weapons, power to the people, self-sufficiency, and truly democratic policies. A woman speaks as well, and her name is blacked out. She demands peace and quality health care. And Ms Black allows Danny Glover to bare his teeth a little: “Use all means to listen to and celebrate the young people.”

But that’s enough of that. No burning of bridges with future Africa Unites yet on the drawing board. It’s back to colonialism, racism, artificial borders, and debt. Nary a mention of the tradition of central political authority that fosters corrupt and despotic leaders, the habit of African leaders to avoid criticizing each other, or the unbelievable backwardness in much of the continent. Leave the internationally-connected cities, like Khartoum, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Kampala, and you’ll discover a continent where the rest of the world seems remote indeed, in time and in space. Here there are communities without the wheel, using ancient methods of agriculture, where tribal law and custom still employ polygamy and do not recognize private ownership of land, and where religions are based on magic and other anti-modern forces (including fundamentalist brands of Islam). There is a chasm between ancient and modern in Africa and Western intervention hasn’t affected it much. Africa is not just another South America. (This just in: Bush visits Ghana but misses the open sewers in the streets and the major poverty in the country, visiting instead the most expensive private school in Accra. Says that abstinence can work in the battle against AIDs.)

On the other hand, huge shanty towns surround every large African city: the young leave the quiet countryside to find work in urban areas. Is this the force that will change Africa? Many thinkers on the subject, including voices like Paul Theroux, Graham Hancock, and Michael Maren, believe that outside aid is doing more harm than good, with the exception for disaster assistance and environmental aid – and, I hope, Bill Gates’ millions for vaccines.

I asked my Nigerian friend about repression in Nigeria. He showed me his scars and I let it go at that.

Mr. C points out that there are ten times as many hits for “democracy in africa” as for “what’s wrong with africa?” Mr. CC responds that there are twice as many hits for “violence in africa” as for “democracy in africa.”

One thing I do like about Africa is that the inhabitants of the continent haven’t eaten all the large animals there. When humans emerged from Africa and spread out around the rest of the world, they consumed everything large in sight and did it damn quick. Mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, big cats – all eaten. They had no fear of humans. A few critters survived, but not many. Buffalo, moose. But they followed humans and got to North America, for example, during an ice age, with the hungry hunters out of the way down south. Evidently in Africa, where humans and big animals evolved together, the animals learned to fear the humans and so survived; an equilibrium was established.


Africa sometimes seems united in a slow-motion effort to destroy itself. For this viewer, Africa Unite, the movie, is so full of resonances, connections, associations, and questions about that continent that it transcends its subject matter and clunky execution to become a testament to humanity’s ongoing insanity, which is unchanged since those days in the Rift Valley when we could walk pretty good but didn’t do too much thinkin. Cognitive dissonance between the dancing onscreen and children with machetes and Kalashnikovs, refugees, debt forgiveness that lines the pockets of the corrupt, justice at the end of a gun, the species of freedom that comes courtesy of abject poverty, no blacks in the IMF, AIDs, Ebola, West Nile, the new malaria, diarrhea, river blindness. The Internet loaded with African argument and discussion about race, black vs black, not black vs white. Followed by some great reggae concert energy. At this point you can get high and go to sleep, or switch over to the latest episode of Lost, or run outside and burn down a couple of buildings in protest.

You’re Gona Miss Me (2005)

You’re Gonna Miss Me (2005)
Directed by Keven McAlester. Documentary. Not rated. 94 minutes.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a well-made documentary about Roger (Roky) Erickson, a ’60s lead singer from Austin whose career arc spiked early and then descended steadily, taking him on a long slide from modest stardom to incarceration to abject and lengthy mental illness. The film sketches his history and offers a little rock and roll on the side.

A brief scene from a courtroom intervention opens the film, with one of Roky’s brothers petitioning the court to have Roky removed from the care of his mother and placed with his brother instead. This scene signals to us that Erickson won’t be dead at the end of the movie, that there is family conflict in the offing, and that we can now go back in time to Erickson’s roots with the judge’s decision and its consequences awaiting us when we make it back to the present.

The movie then proceeds, interleaving scenes of a beautiful, full-voiced, youthful Roky with scenes of the wreck that he has become by the time he reaches his 50s. Interviews with Patti Smith, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and others suggest that Erickson’s performance style and voice had considerable influence on rock and rock in the late 60s. Janis Joplin considered joining one of the bands that he co-founded, the 13th Floor Elevators. (She went to San Francisco instead.) Meanwhile, the Elevators released an album titled “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.” For this, and because of the LSD and grass that they used heavily, the group was credited with coining the term “psychedelic rock.” A quick check of my shelf of 60s wax reveals The Electric Prunes, Ultimate Spinach, and Canned Heat, but no Elevators.

There followed success, the hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” San Francisco, drugs and alcohol and women, and then it was all downhill from there. Hepititis. Back to Austin. Lockup in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Two broken marriages. Back into his mother’s arms. As the story unfolds, we jump back to the present periodically, where Roky’s behavior onscreen convinces us of his mental illness.

Halfway through the movie, in the course of interviews with family members, musicians, the police, and others, there suddenly appears onscreen a 24-year-old young man, talking about his father Roky. His father? This is Roky’s son? Where did he come from? This is a reminder that the filmmaker is compressing 58 years of a man’s life into 94 minutes. If I took an hour’s worth of video from your life, threw in 30 minutes of interviews with your family and friends, and then sat you down to observe the results, would you notice anything missing? Could I capture your essence in that time? However successful McAlester is at doing so, this movie can’t turn me into an expert on Erickson in an hour and a half.

[mild spoilers]

As the past and present converge, we see Roky’s youngest brother decide to petition the court for the right to become Roky’s legal guardian. This means removing him from his mother’s care and a lot more work than the brother realizes. Like when you decide to paint your house.

The core message of the movie now emerges: If you are unfortunate enough to need help in this life, mental or physical, and you don’t happen to be rich or famous, your fate will depend upon the kindness and good works of your family, friends, and possibly of strangers. In Roky’s case, any such kindness was insufficiently strong or committed or lasting or widespread among those who knew and cared for him to overcome his resistance to it. He walked away from one wife; another wife walked away from him. His brothers looked on from a distance. He dropped friends and they let him drop them. The only, unlucky, exception to this lack of commitment to help came from his mother. Year after year, Roky lived as his mother wanted him to live, remaining dependent upon her. No medication. No music. No dental care. This from a mother who comes across onscreen almost as damaged as Roky himself. If I were to tweak the movie in any way, it would be to add footage that somehow helps us understand and visualize the long, long stretch of time between Roky’s youth and late middle age – a lifetime, his life – wasted, frittered away, consumed by an illness that could have been managed by treatment and the involvement of a single person willing and able to make the effort to help him, but instead kept him tied to a mother satisfied to have him near her and broken rather than out in the world and functional.

But, finally, the younger brother does step up and provide the financial and emotional effort to make a difference in Roky’s life. A demonstration of the results, after a long period of treatment, rehabiliatation, and support, is provided quietly by Roky with his guitar in a chair outside his brother’s home in Pittsburg.

The screener disk contained no extras. I’m sure that commentary tracks will increase the value of an already excellent documentary. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie at 81; the IMDB rating is 8.4. For more on the film, listen to FilmCouch podcast #26. For the latest on Roky Erikson, check out his Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roky_Erickson.

Manda Bala (2005) – Put down that frog and step away

Before dealing with the end of the world as we know it, which this movie does not explicitly mention but which is lurking there in the unspoken background – before dealing with that, it being a pet peeve of mine, let me mention first an equally annoying pet peeve: many podcasters, the Spout podcasters occasionally among them, use the expression “begs the question” when they actually mean “raises the question.” This error of diction has become so common in the U.S. today that it’s probably useless to even mention it here, but since I heard it again on FilmCouch recently, let me remind those who might be unaware of it that “begging the question” is a form of logical fallacy in which an argument is assumed to be true without evidence other than the argument itself. Thank you.

Meanwhile, back in the day, if you hated documentaries but had to write a paper on one, you could head down to Ninth and Trawler and catch The Nudist Story at the Jewel Box. The Nudist Story is the film where everybody plays volleyball with their backs turned to the camera. Otherwise, you were stuck with “Hemo the Magnificent” or “Our Mister Sun” or a training film explaining how to avoid the clap and why you ought to do so instead of chasing around after the girls at school who were reputed to be the biggest pushovers. These days, in addition to naked flesh, you can find lots of other quite acceptable entertainment in nonfiction films – crime and corruption in its multivarious forms, incest, child abuse, pedophilia, perversions both common and obscure, the apocalypse, and George Bush. Manda Bala, for example, will get you through the night quite agreeably, with a laugh or two, when you can’t count on slipping a review of Hostel II past your Remedial English 2B class instructor.

Manda Bala executive summary: That’s all you got?

But stand by while I rethink that.

Manda Bala Cliff Notes: Frog farm launders money for massively corrupt president of the Brazilian congress; kidnappers are mean; a guy worries about getting mugged in Sao Paulo; bulletproof cars (if it’s good enough for the Pope, it’s good enough for me); plastic-surgery surgery, with blood and music that has a cutting edge; using a helicopter to avoid carjacking; no helicopter-jacking, sadly; and the clincher: politicians can be corrupt.

“Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”) is an expression common in Brazil but hard for me to explain in English, at least as I understand it (feel free to correct me). Imagine a situation like Iraq, for example – sixth year of the war, unrelenting violence, little water or electricity in Baghdad, a sense of inevitable disaster – you might look at that and just say “Manda Bala,” meaning “What the hell, go ahead and pull the trigger.”

I checked out a few reviews of Manda Bala while awaiting my screener, just to pick up on the buzz. The temperature ran hot (except for Stephen Holden): “rich vibrancy of threat,” “inexcusable violations of political faith and public safety,” “hauntingly mounted voyage,” “shocking and scary,” “mesmerizing, tense, exciting,” “a country and a society entirely out of control,” “black humor and stomach-churning detail,” “the ravages of political graft and unchecked crime.” Documentary Grand Jury prize winner at Sundance. Cleaned up at the Cinema Eye Awards. “A film that cannot be shown in Brazil.” Wow.

Well, Manda Bala can’t be shown in Brazil because one of the guys appearing in the movie told the young men who made it that he’d sue their asses three ways from Sunday if the film ever opened in a theater in that country. Always some sorehead out there with his hand in your pocket.

So is it true that if the filmmakers have particular interests, a design, and a message in mind, but I don’t share those interests, don’t apprehend the design, and misunderstand the message, then how blame is apportioned between maker and viewer for the disconnect will determine whether the movie is good or bad? Because my executive summary above is not in exact accord with the thoughts and intentions of the filmmakers.

I believe that in the last analysis, the principal interest of Jason Kohn (the director and principal producer – that is, the guy who made the movie) was to make a feature-length theatrical documentary with the film values of a mainstream motion picture – the values of a Hollywood action flick, for example. Like Errol Morris, and maybe because of Morris’ influence, Kohn’s aesthetic here represents the flip side of cinema verite, handheld video cameras, minimalism, and made-for-TV documentaries. For example, Morris prepares sets before shooting, recreates scenes, and uses the “Interrotron” – his invention – when interviewing (a device that, when used correctly, lets viewers make eye contact with subjects in the documentary). A Morris quote has it that style doesn’t dictate truth, so that the handheld camera should not be a prerequisite these days for making documentaries. Kohn hates (his word) the common belief that content will always win out over form; that form is a slave to content. Cinematic effects can be used to make a point with style (vide The Thin Blue Line). There is a provocative element in this idea. Kohn invokes Robocop and Lethal Weapon as film models and Verhoeven, Ridley Scott, and Terry Gilliam as major influences. He wanted to use film rather than videotape in Manda Bala and was able to obtain 35mm lenses adapted for a 16mm camera. Manda Bala is shot in anamorphic Super 16; at 2.69:1, it’s wider than Cinemascope. Kohn says that he made the choice in part as an anti-TV statement. At the time, HBO, the most profitable channel for documentaries, had announced that they wouldn’t letterbox. Kohn also is bugged by TV documentaries that add footage to find a theatrical release. He wanted to make a film that delivers visually in the theater. He wanted to light sets, use dollies, and try out filming techniques used in action flicks. He said that film makes everyone look great, like an actor. He didn’t want to go down to South America, a rich kid by Latin standards, and stick a handheld camera in the faces of the poor. (In the event, the poor onscreen are few and far between. In an odd turn, most of those interviewed about a country gone terribly wrong appear themselves to be saints.) As Kohn expresses it, he wanted to make a documentary Robocop. To him, documentaries aren’t a separate form; they’re just another genre. For example, Morris borrowed from noir when making The Thin Blue Line. Heloísa Passos won the Cinematography Award at Sundance for shooting the movie.

I, on the other hand, received Manda Bala on DVD in the mail and watched it letterboxed on TV. I might as easily have watched it on a laptop or even on an Ipod. So while I can sing the praises of Lawrence of Arabia or a Terrence Malick flick as seen in the theater, I was never going to be watching this one there. So the sad fact is, I’m not in a position to comment on this aspect of the movie, perhaps the most important to its director. Besides, isn’t this supposed to be a golden age for documentaries? Seems like most of the Rotten Tomatoes 90+ movies are documentaries, and there is quite a list of them. And if the theatrical version of a documentary is made with TV values and 30 minutes of extra footage, it might bug Kohn but it doesn’t matter to me because I won’t be paying $10 to see it in the theater anyway. And with the current lively DIY movement and mumblecore and me having just reviewed LOL for example, I’m not especially focused on the photographic values of a film, documentary or fiction, anyway. Although Ten Canoes did knock me out.

So watching the film on my couch without knowing anything about what I’ve said so far, Manda Bala looked ok. It looked good.

In addition to these theatrical and cinematical considerations, Kohn wanted to investigate several interesting subjects. In particular, he wanted to go to Brazil and shoot some footage of a frog farm that he knew about and of matters pertaining to a plastic surgeon that he had heard about. And in the process, he wanted to avoid polemics. In Kohn’s opinion, feature documentaries are a poor way to push political agendas. With Bush getting elected in spite of Fahrenheit 9/11, maybe I agree with him. And Kohn wasn’t interested in documentary filmmaking as journalism. Viewers expecting an expose or other newsworthy story will not find it here. Kohn wanted to go expressionistic, not journalistic. He wanted to experiment and discover what could be done with a documentary, not set out with digitized video in mind. Maybe do something like Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

I, contrariwise, am not intrigued by frog farms or plastic surgery and I don’t have a problem with, and in fact might lean toward, polemical documentaries that observe high journalistic standards and push agendas. So that’s another strike against me vs Manda Bala, going in. And the Sundance prizes perturbed my attitude as well. I mean, this is a film made by three very young and inexperienced filmmakers and needs to be, must be, approached and appreciated that way, which in my case, because of the buzz, sadly wasn’t.

Finally, Kohl learned that he needed a story. He needed to tell a story and make it look good. His second of three editors, Doug Abel, taught him what that meant. Kohn credits Abel with cutting the film into a coherent story. I could be interested in a story. A story, that I could go for.

But to back up a little: Jason Kohn graduated from Brandeis in 2001 and got a job as a researcher for Errol Morris. He visited his dad in Brazil at Christmas, 2001, to look into the filming of the frog farm and the plastic surgeon. His dad knew a lot of folks down there and had some influence in the community; Brazil has a lot of poor people, and a collection of the super rich, but the middle class isn’t so big. Then, in the summer of 2002 at the age of 23, Kohn flew down to actually shoot some film. He called a friend, Joey Frank, and asked him to come down for a couple of months too, to help in Sao Paulo. Kohn knew Frank from Brandeis, but Frank had transferred to Brown, where he was scheduled to graduate in 2003. When Kohn called him he was 21.

Kohn’s father is Argentinian, his mother Brazilian. His father had been robbed in his car four or five times in the past seven years and talked about it a lot, and also complained continually about the rampant corruption in Brazil. Jason knew that the frog farm was used for money laundering and that the plastic surgeon specialized in rebuilding the ears cut off kidnapping victims, and he thought that he might make a short film dealing with corruption and the country’s concomitant street violence and how they might interrelate, with the farm and surgeon serving as framing examples for the central idea of the film.

Frank joined Kohn in Sao Paulo and they asked a third friend, Jared Goldman, who was working at Miramax, to provide backup from the States. Kohn, Frank, and Goldman are credited as Manda Bala’s producers. Kohn is also the director, Frank the assistant director. Kohn and Frank spent two and a half months doing preproduction work in Sao Paulo. They used Kohn’s dad’s house as one office and his mom’s house in the States as the other for the duration of the project.

Kohn had sold his car and saxaphone to raise money and had otherwise managed to raise 10K or so. Frank brought 10K too. The film began with a summer budget of 25K. Kohn talked Heloísa Passos into shooting the movie. Then they filmed the frog farmer and surgeon, and a detective on kidnapping detail, a paranoid businessman, a microchip salesman, an assistant attorney general, and a kidnapping victim. They came home with 25 hours of film, cut together a trailer, got grants from Sundance and Brandeis, and found an investor.

As they worked on their thesis that corruption at the top breeds violence at the bottom, they came to realize that they needed more than the frog farm and some ear surgery to make a decent Robomentary. They went back to Brazil the next summer and shot 25 more hours of film. With that they had a feature film without an ending, as they put it. In fact, “ending” here might be code for “story,” “arc,” “compelling narrative.” They decided that they needed a kidnapper in the film and waited around with 10K in bribes to interview one that they had found in prison. However, a bookkeeping error dealing with the exchange rate meant that they were 20K behind, not 10K ahead. And, the kidnapper was transferred to a different prison. The interview never happened.

After finding, finally, funding for a third phase, Kohn went back to Brazil, hung out for six months until a taxi driver taking him to the dentist told him that he could hook him up with a kidnapper. Kohn met the kidnapper at a McDonald’s, handed over some money, was taken to the kidnapper’s home, interview him multiple times, and also got a brief interview with the corrupt politician at the center of the film. A final version of Manda Bala was cut together and finally, after five years of effort, the filmmakers had their film. Six months later it won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

So, young men make a movie and it is what it is. No, it isn’t what it is; it’s something else. It isn’t what Kohn says it is, exactly, and probably not what I thought I saw it was, but it’s in the neighborhood of what it is.

It really struck me how young these fellows were when my daughter, in her last year at Brown, mentioned that one of the boys from her high school, who is also at Brown, was friends with Joey Frank. Frank’s Facebook page is not exactly that of a graybeard, either.

After Manda Bala was released, Kohn and Frank in commentary and interviews seem to be finding their way a little toward an explanation of the movie that they had made. They represent Manda Bala as an impressionistic collage of scenes that, taken together, recontextualize the relationship of political corruption to street violence.

I, however, took the movie to be telling me, as if I might not know it already, that kidnapping is currently a growth industry for the poor in Brazil.

This was not Kohn’s intention. He well knows that street violence in general and the kidnapping industry in particular in Sao Paulo are not expose-worth in 2008. City of God was released in 2002. In Kohn’s view, while City of God (one of the great Brazilian films in his estimation) is a pretend documentary, Manda Bala is a pretend fiction. They make a nice pair. In fact, Manda Bala crew members claimed to belong to the City of God crew a time or two. Opened some doors.

So kidnapping for profit isn’t popular in the U.S. because there is too much risk for too little gain, penalties too stringent, and a strong law-enforcement focus on the crime. For example, my parent’s house was robbed twice before the two addicts across the street decided to go for a bigger payday and were immediately arrested for kidnapping a kid down the block and botching the ransom pickup. But on the other hand, kidnapping for ransom is now common in many parts of the world. In 2007, Baghdad was dubbed kidnapping capitol of the world by whomever it is that does that dubbing. Previous title holders include Mexico and Colombia. You’re also a high snatch risk in Haiti, Moscow, and parts of Africa. And in Sao Paulo. Manda Bala does get a little breathless over this fact.

In the U.S., selling drugs provides the standard entry-level employment opportunities for some of the poor who can’t get a job at Wal-Mart. We’re just not into kidnapping-as-a-business yet. I was visiting in Bogota last year and my friend’s daughter was crossing from her parked car to the front door of the apartment building one night and got grabbed on the sidewalk. A flash kidnapping. Her abductors drove her to a bank machine where she withdrew the max allowed. This was at 11:55 PM. They drove around for six minutes and then had her do it again. Then they drove her out to a dump on the outskirts of the city. She told them that she was a doctor working with the poor (which was true). Whether or not that was the reason, they let her get out of the car and drove away without shooting her. When the police brought her home, she went into her room and closed the door and didn’t come out for three days.

Meanwhile, the ear-cutter-offer in the movie tells us that his ill-gotten gains are spent helping the poor in the slums where he lives. A Hezbollah/Hamas/Sadr militia model of social welfare.

I’m guessing that the vogue in kidnapping in the past decade has something to do with technology: the spread of cell phones, the Internet, and the availability and affordability of an arsenal of new, powerful weapons. In Sao Paulo, kidnappings are running at a rate of one per day. In Manda Bala we see, first, evil faceless kidnappers. Then, the tough cops who hunt them down like dogs (81 cops in a city of 20 million, poorly paid and prone to accept bribes). As mentioned above, the filmmakers try to find a kidnapper to interview. They learn about one in prison but the bribes necessary to get to him would have busted the movie budget, so eventually, by luck, they hooked up, through that traditional source of connections, the cab driver, with a kidnapper in a ski mask. (Hard to find a ski mask in Brazil? Couple of the classic ski resorts in the Andes have closed because their glaciers have melted.) This man in the mask had killed and would kill again (but as he tells us in his defense, he’s mostly just killed policemen). He has robbed. He has kidnapped. He’s done ears. He’s probably instantly identifiable in that mask to anyone who already knows him, cop, neighbor, or victim, from his eyes, mouth, and voice. This is a man who has lived his life in the slums. Gives freely of his ill-gotten gains to his needy co-slum dwellers. Nine kids. Wife pregnant with number 10. For me, him talking about his family is the most affecting moment in the film. As he is interviewed, police snoop around nearby and the filmmakers are wishing that they had worn Kevlar vests for the occasion. Later, after the movie was completed, the police caught up with the man. He killed two of them and they shot him in the stomach and shoulder. On the way to the hospital, he acquired a third bullet hole, this one in the head.

Juxtaposed with the kidnapping material are scenes documenting a serious case of political corruption. That juxtaposition is the point of the movie, not the fact of the corruption itself, which has been endemic in Brazil from the jump in 1500. Europe’s relationship with the country was exploitive for centuries, as wood, gold, sugar, and coffee were carried off across the Atlantic. (And if memory serves, the pre-Columbian Native Americans were a shifty-eyed lot around those parts as well.)

Regrettably, as I did with the kidnapping segments, I took Manda Bala to be informing me of something that I already knew, not recontextualizing the facts being presented. As I watched, I had the thought that finding corruption in Brazil is like finding penguins in Antarctica. You can make an interesting documentary about your discovery, but the basic fact of it is not surprising. Just to say again, Kohn wasn’t finding penguins in Brazil, because he knows a hundred times more about corruption in that country than I ever will, for sure; just that it seemed that way to me as a first-time viewer of the movie.

The politician highlighted here, Jadar Barbalho, President of the Senate (or something), took millions – make that two billion, so greedy – from the government via public works programs, and sent it out of the country while in the process created over 400 businesses to wash the money, employing the poor of his state. Who knows how much he kept for himself, but enough trickled out into the community to get him re-elected. Naturally he never paid for his crimes. Compare and contrast this with a president of our own who takes a trillion or so for a bogus war, most of which finds its way into the pockets of the corporations of his buddies. Would he have been reelected in Brazil as he was in the U.S.? But no more snark. I’m just sayin. An oil man becomes president and the oil companies make more money than any business in history. As someone asked the other day, if Colonel Sanders were elected and the price of fried chicken went up 500%, would anybody ask why? But no more snark. Those of us who are Americans (as we blithely call ourselves in the U.S.) live in an environment that fomented the savings and loan debacle of the 80s, the tech collapse of the 90s, energy deregulation and Enron, and the current mortgage crisis. What do I care about a corrupt official in Brazil when the government here has turned me and my 401K over to a global business culture as immoral and rapacious as any fallen angel let loose in the Sacred Heart girls dormitory on the Night of the Dead? Nah, I’m just kidding. But there is a reason to care about corruption in Brazil, in addition to simply exercising our basic humanity, a reason which I’ll get around to in a second.

Brazil wants and needs foreign investment, but the country’s reputation for corruption is a problem for it. Lula da Silva ran on a platform to clean up the government, but whether he really meant that or not, he has encountered a bureaucracy designed, built, and endlessly refined over centuries to encourage and nurture bribery and all the other time-tested methods of fiscal chicanery specific to the human species. Voters hoped that Lulu’s election would bring change, but money laundering and manipulation of large government contracts in thousands of cases like the frog farm have continued to be reported. Public trust in the political system is poisoned. Although Lula da Silva himself seems to have remained clean, some of his closest political allies have been or are being investigated. He governs by coalition, and coalition means political bribery. A mensalão (‘monthly pay-off’) bought votes in Congress; scandal resulted in 2005. Polls indicate that a majority of Brazilians still believe that Lula is honest, but only 16% trust the political parties to be honest. The government may be one of the most corrupt in history and that corruption interferes with the government’s attempts to control the imbalance in economic status and the unrest and crime that it causes.

If it were just a matter of humans preying on humans, the situations in this movie could be applied to many different countries. But unfortunately, Brazil happens to be home to most of the Amazon rainforest. I’ve already pointed out once, when reviewing Out of Balance, that the world is going straight to hell. But since that is sort of a trippy concept and there are infinite engaging examples that adumbrate the approaching darkness and chaos, a few more words on the subject might not come amiss.

That is, forget about the kidnappers and their predilection for de-earing their captives. Brazil is busy tearing out the lungs of the world and has been for years. While Brazilian engineers tout the use of satellite technology to save the Amazon rainforest, loggers, miners, and farmers keep on cutting. 20% of Earth’s oxygen is produced by the rainforest (soon to be remembered only as that place down there that gave Amazon.com its name). Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister and an Amazon native, has developed a plan to stop deforestation, which is currently progressing at 1.3 million hectares a year. She breaks the problem down geographically into specific areas. However, in spite of Brazil’s struggle to implement her plan, the country remains the fifth-largest global contributor to greenhouse gases. It’s up there with the big boys: the U.S., China, and India. Deforestation is the second most significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the world, contributing 25% of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. In a major operation in 2005, nearly 90 public officials, businessmen, and loggers were arrested. Environmental protection agency (IBAMA) employees charged with protecting the forests from illegal loggers had been accepting bribes from logging companies in return for falsifying permits to transport timber to markets within Brazil and abroad. The illegal logging takes place primarily in Mato Grosso, where environmental organizations estimate that two-thirds of all logging was being carried out illegally. IBAMA has been reorganized in an attempt to eliminate corruption, but it’s too early to see if that’s doing any good. (Care to hazard a guess?)

I’m sure that you’ve read or heard factoids like “One square mile of rainforest can contain more than 50,000 insect species” or “One hectare (2.47 acres) of land can contain more than 480 species of trees” or “Amazon rivers contain over 2,000 species of fish.” 1.5 acres of rainforest is lost every second in the world – 78 million acres a year. At this rate, 85% of Earth’s remaining rainforest will disappear by the year 2020. 137 species of plants and animals go extinct every day.

Every so often, a ray of light gleams out, such as a recent conference of 11 Latin American countries in Brazil, with Indonesia and Congo as observers, held for and attended by leaders of indigenous groups in those countries. They explored carbon-trading policies that would compensate thier governments for conserving rainforest. In Brazil, indigenous tribes currently retain permanent rights to 12% of the country and 21% of the Amazon, plus 49 million acres of “extractive reserves” for rubber tappers, brazil-nut gatherers, and river communities. They pressure the government, which promises to get tough on logging. Deforestation rates in the country have been declining for several years (with a spike a couple of years ago). But the good news doesn’t stretch much farther than that.

So while Manda Bala doesn’t say much on the subject, here’s a toast to that ticking end-of-the-world clock. Brazil is another of America’s crazy brothers. When the awards are handed out for biggest environmental f**k-up, Brazil, like the U.S., could be jumping out of its seat to accept a gold statue in the shape of a dead planet. The sanctimonious super-rich in both countries are on their easy ride straight down to the hottest chambers of hell. Brazil, entrusted with the largest, most diverse, most important stretch of biosphere on the planet, contains the struggling yet increasing armies of the poor who are systematically reducing the country to barren baked red mud, so that “Amazonia” will in due course become a synonym for “Martian landscape.” Governmental corruption, taken to a degree that proves without doubt that humans, who learned to walk long before learning to think, are true experts at f**king up the world and each other with no hope for the obverse in sight.

A Brazilian friend told me the other day that at one point she was worried that the U.S. would send down troops and attack her country because of the way it is destroying the rainforest. I explained to her that we’re happy to attack a desert country with oil under it, but that the current E.P.A. wouldn’t know a rainforest if it found itself staggering around in one, or care.

Another angle to this is Brazil’s use of sugar-cane waste to produce ethanol, and the concomitant questions raised about the effect of this production on the environment – encroachment on the rain forest, the practice of burning the fields at harvest time, insecticide and fertilizer runoff, etc. We’ll save this for another time.

Anyway, do you believe that the Amazon will be saved? We can now see the scars on it from space.

But I digress.

In addition to the kidnapping and corrupt-politician threads, there are threads for the frogs and Mr. M. I know that the frogs are part of the corruption story but as I watched I just took them to be frogs. I know that they are an in-your-face unsubtle metaphor for the Brazilian people or the Brazilian poor or the Brazilian rich, or whatever, at least until they get eaten, but I remained oblivious to this idea while watching the movie. The frogs remained frogs. At what point in the making of the movie did Jonah, Joey, Jared, and Doug appreciate the metaphorical character of the frogs? Surely not before Jonah and Joey went down to shoot them for the first time?

Mr. M, I know now, was meant to show how the current social situation in Brazil can engender a kind of paranoia in its citizenry but unfortunately, while watching the movie, I took Mr. M (originally from Tel Aviv) to be a sort of spokesman for the film’s theses. Given my mindset, his exposition of the dire situation in the country went over the top to the detriment of the movie.

So is this user error? Missing the expressionist vibe? Merging instead of contrasting the frogs and Mr. M with the kidnappers and the corrupt politician?

Because Sao Paulo is huge. Skyscraper gardens. More money than the rest of Latin America. 20 million people is a whole lot of people, poor, rich, and otherwise. Within city limits, only Mumbai, Karachi, Istanbul, and Delhi are larger. (NYC is 9th.) For whatever reason, the sheer size and diversity of the city makes me want to take everything I’m seeing literally. The complexity seems too large for metaphor, too complicated to submit to Mr. M’s simple paranoia.

The first time in Sao Paulo, I was alone. I walked down to the edge of Paraisópolis, the city’s largest favela, and sat down and watched the activity in the street. There was a street game of some kind going one, played by a gang of young boys. One of them, small but intense, was obviously their leader. When in due course they made their way over to me, I hired that boy as my guide for a week, paying him a lot even by U.S. standards. He turned his gang over to his second in command and took control of my stay in the city. By the time I left at the end of the month I was almost dead from exhaustion.

By the way, Sao Paulo’s U.S. sister city is Miami.

Before finishing here, we must deal with the charges of sensationalism lodged against Manda Bala by various reviewers. The filmmakers dismiss the charges by pointing out that: (a) They’re exhibiting reality. Calling it sensationalism is snobbish and elitist. It’s the movie’s responsibility to portray reality. The viewer needs to know that what they are seeing and hearing about is real. (b) The filmmakers are themselves curious. They want to see how things are, what things look like. (c) Kidnappees suffer. It’s necessary for you to see that suffering, not just listen to descriptions of it.

Regarding the surgery scenes, which were storyboarded, lit, shot using a dolly, but fortunately not rehearsed, I refer you to Nip/Tuck. Regarding the ear-cutting-off footage, I refer you to Fox News any night of the week and to my Abu Ghraib album. Regarding the guns, I refer you to The Wire.

Rebuilt earlobes are hard because they’re made out of rib.

“I watched The Birds the same day they cut my first ear off. That night I dreamed the birds pecked my ear off.”

Jars of ears cut off with knives, scissors, teeth.

“I said to him, How could you sleep? You cut my ears off last night.”

The filmmakers left out the footage of a frog eating an ear.

They did not leave out the footage of a frog eating a frog.

And that frog abattoir… the slaughtering and skinning and dressing out and carving up and flouring and deep-fat frying and eating of the frogs. Is this Fast Food Nation, or what? Didn’t make me want to buy a bag of Frog McNuggets.

Car paintball.

Weener dog on pool slide.

Wait a minute. Which way am I arguing here?

Point is, the scenes in question don’t rise to the level of sensationalism, not in today’s suicide-bomber-a-day world, nevermind true docuporn. I remember sitting in Symphony Cinema II in Boston watching Mondo Cane in 1962. The guy getting hair plugs – that stayed with me.

Would it be so wrong to put in at least one scene at a topless beach?

What’s wrong with the Sundance awards? We’ll deal with that question another time.

Is the film fair and balanced? Is it too dark? Is Kohn afraid to show anything positive because it might diminish the points that the movie is attempting to make. Does the lack of good news weaken the film’s arguments? Just saw a headline in Drudge: “Global Temps Have Not Risen Since ’98.” See?

From the NYT: “Good News From Brazil. The global economy may not be the happiest of stories these days, but it would be a far more tragic one had Brazil suffered a financial implosion in the past year, as many had feared. If Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, had defaulted on its $250 billion public debt, as neighboring Argentina had done, the consequences would have been catastrophic. The resulting panic would have affected not only Latin America, but all emerging markets.” More good news. The rich are not getting poorer.

And that recent epidemic of dengue fever, causing many deaths? The good news is that it wasn’t the hemorrhagic variety in most cases, which causes a much higher death rate.

Manda Bala II: The Good Politician, The Kidnapper Who Found God, and Frogs As Pets.

The music track is excellent.

So Jonah, Joey, and Jared worked hard and did good and I congratulate them. As Jonah says, “Making the first one is about making the second one.” He’s currently working on a screenplay. Winning a big award the first time out can be both blessing and curse. Let’s hope that it’s more of the former and less of the latter for these three. And if you haven’t seen Pixote or Cidade de Deus, please do so.

Woof (Sun Dogs)

Before beginning this review, a tip of the hat to sun dogs, aka parhelia, those common bright circular spots on a solar halo. Sun dogs are “an atmospheric optical phenomenon primarily associated with the reflection or refraction of sunlight by small ice crystals making up cirrus or cirrostratus clouds.”

Also, a little love for the Arizona Sundogs in the Central Hockey League and for a few favorite dog movies: snow dogs, rain dogs, desert dogs, moon dogs, straw dogs, stray dogs, reservoir dogs, dish dogs, lawn dogs, dead dogs, rabid dogs, chilly dogs, sleeping dogs, miracle dogs, road dogs, old dogs, dealing dogs, tap dogs, angry dogs, war dogs, catwalk dogs, deck dogs, top dogs, lost dogs, trinity dogs, urinoir dogs, bad dogs, barking dogs, fence dogs, devil dogs, gift dogs, good dogs, hot dogs, performing dogs, sea dogs, restricted dogs, society dogs, trained dogs, tokyo dogs, training dogs, wild dogs, zombie dogs, prairie dogs, and a dog’s dog.

And to note that Kingston is overrun with dogs. Dogs of all colors but of similar size. Dogs tough in body and in spirit; wary dogs, but not as wary as the cats; and hungry without exception. No other Caribbean island that I know of, and that includes the DR, has such a wealth of stray dogs. I don’t remember seeing any at all on Trinidad or Barbados. There might be a thesis for someone in this.

So. Sun Dogs. A documentary filmed in Jamaica, Minnesota, and Scotland. Stray dogs and huskies. Scenery. Socially responsible slum scenes. More scenery. Talking heads. Easy-listening and upbeat get-the-juices-flowing we’re-having-fun it’s-sunny-and-warm-down-here trust-what-you’re watching Jamaican music. Accents. When is the last time you heard white folks talkin with heavy Jamaican accents? It’s fun. More scenery. 90 minutes.

First time out for the director of the film and for the director of photography. The director of photography did a swell job.

About cynical movie reviews: The world is full of cynicism. It leaks into our lives. We can’t avoid it. The demands of the 24/7 newscycle breed it, for example. In the world of cinema, a director starts out to make a movie – something caring and responsible, but also fun – a movie about saving a few strays, canine and human – a movie that might give Jamaica a little boost that it can surely use – and invariably some sorehead comes along and eyeballs the whole project and all the good work that it entails, and treats it as if it were some hack job with a (barely) hidden personal commercial agenda. If this sort of thing disturbs you as much as it does me, read no farther. Or further.

But again, that beginning: Jamaica. Lush. A paradise. Happy tourists. But lots of poor Jamaicans. One of the poorest countries in the world. Wouldn’t it be cool to gather up some stray dogs from the slums of Kingston and train them as sled dogs?

There is a line between silly/stupid/entertaining and silly/stupid/toxic. Which side of that line are we on here? Assorted talking heads ensue, alternately dour and avuncular. “No harm done, no humans or animals injured during the making of this documentary. You will be entertained.” Or, “Brudda, if you want a movie about the social ills of Jamaica, don’t queue up a movie about dog sleds on wheels.”

Or is it that the first ten minutes of this movie are just utterly wrong? Is the director tone deaf? Is she oblivious to the dissonance created by juxtaposing a bunch of comfortable white guys talking about a crazy-but-fun idea with the sights and sounds of a nation of seriously freeped-up black Jamaicans? Saving a few strays who are left to represent the poor of the island by doing a little cart-pulling? Is this film like a movie made in a veteran’s hospital, forgetting the amputees and brain-damaged patients while focusing on the pigeon-racing project out back? Is it like working for PETA in the middle of a holocaust? That is, is this a priority thing? Not to say that you can’t collect stamps during a genocide, but if you want to make a philately documentary, please leave the death camps out of it.

Whoa. Let’s not go off the deep end here. Instead, let’s just ignore the intro and restart 10 minutes in.

But, no. At 20 minutes, we’re back into it. The dogs go to school. Segue to problems with the education of children in Jamaica. Talking heads. But, hey, a lot of great closeups and, as mentioned above, I realize that I can’t remember ever hearing heavy in-country Jamaican accents falling from Caucasian lips. It’s like grandma acting rasta. Different. And horseback riding. Diverting. So just watch the damn movie and worry about the poor later? Take the ride? Dog interest, musher training, social conditions on the island, sledding as sport, Carribean history. A Jamaican pu pu platter of subjects.

Sigh. I paused the movie to take a minute to find out who is who or whom here and why I should care, and why instead of righting social wrongs these old white guys are fooling around with dog sleds on wheels. In other words, sadly, I decided to follow the money.

Some years ago, businessman Danny Melville (a guy with a John McCain vibe, I thought), the first old white guy to speak in the movie, tripped over a metal frame with wheels in a fabrication shop in Edmonton, Canada, while shopping for dune buggies. An employee in the shop told him that the thing was a snowless dog sled. Warm-weather dog sledding is picking up around the world because of global warming – rig racing, canicross, dog scootering, bikejoring – an ecological silver lining. Refer to my reviw of Out of Balance for more good news along these lines.

Anyway, the notion of a Jamaican dog sled team came to Melville on the spot, as he tells it. With the success and noteriety of the Jamaican bobsled team in mind (Cool Runnings, the Calgary Olympics), Melville swung into action. We see him for the first time in Sun Dogs at the beginning of the movie, his idea implemented, dogcarts in action. Following that quick, upbeat, life-is-good montage of beautiful scenery and happy poverty-stricken island inhabitants that I noted, with a rousing Jamaican beat urging us to jump up and dance, Melville speaks with great earnestness about this crazy sled-dog idea of his, and then Jimmy Buffet pops up to endorse him, with a quick cut to Buffett performing in front of a crowd of ten thousand or so, to remind us that this isn’t some washed-up bum we’re listening to, so pay attention. Then quick shots of endearing mutts in harness, with folks cheering them along in some unknown sunny context, a woman getting her shirt autographed by Buffet, dog urinating on tourist, so forth. Melville, sitting by the dog pens in a casual open-necked shirt, a personable sincere old duffer with a neat white beard, tells us that his plans include touring dog teams, sled racing, and promoting Jamaica to the hilt. “Sustainable” teams, that is, which means that they’re to pay their own way, mutts or not.

Melville tells us that he also had the idea of making a movie about the dogs, the day after he had the idea of starting the sled dog project – a feature-length cartoon, maybe, with Jamaican mutts racing against Russian Mafia huskies, something for Disney Pixar to implement. That would work! Samples of such a cartoon are cut in throughout Sun Dogs. Behind Melville in the frame, folks mill about in a country setting. Jamaica must project itself into the world, the dog sleds will help, so forth, Melville tells us. He’s a loquacious guy.

Brand Jamaica. 2.5 million visitors a year. More shots of happy people, turquoise water. But then serious talk by the government’s national image-and-identity advisor: the country and the people don’t benefit from the tourist proceeds; annual revenues are funneled into the pockets of others, others who remain unnamed by the advisor onscreen; we presume that offshore leisure-based corporations and the upper-tier Jamaican rich figure into this. Next a serious word from the executive director of Jamaicans for Justice, Dr. Carolyn Gomes. “We’re the best at what we do, be it criminality or murder.” Deadpan. Next a serious word from a member of the bobsled team. Then serious words from Wilmot Perkins, talk-show host and perhaps the strongest public voice regarding the dysfunctional understanding, behavior, and social problems between races on the island. Gist: Jamaicans are bright, energetic, full of promise, but led astray. Shots of bright, energetic, but glowering poor citizens in the slums. Then all of this again, with similar but different words. Melville deplores the situation along with the rest. The music has become exceedingly somber by now. Somber. Then Melville explains that the dog sled project is just another zany idea of his, so that people will shake their heads and say Jamaica! (Ok, this makes no sense, but the man is just riffing.) And people will say, Why didn’t I think of that! (That is, “Melville has scored another win.”) Now the music picks up again. Jamaica! And with the music appears a shot of the sign at the entrance to Melville’s Chukka Cove. Adventure Tours. Experience the Real Jamaica!

Danny Melville’s dad bought Tropical Battery back when Jamaica was protected from U.S. companies by high tariffs. The company manufactured vehicle batteries and enjoyed a monopoly on the island. When the tariffs began to be removed, the Melvilles left the island, with only Danny remaining to run the business, which in due course went downhill as the competition moved in. Melville also purchased 50 acres of undeveloped land in St. Ann in the early 80s and subsequently started an equestrian center at Chukka Cove. He hoped to lure dressage and polo enthusiasts away from Argentina and the UK, but failed. At this point he contacted his sons, away at school in Florida, and told them that he could sell everything or they could come back and help him try to save the businesses. Andrew and Mark returned to the island and joined the company.

Long story short: the battery company switched from manufacture to import and bounced back, and the family got into the soft adventure business. If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you’re familiar with soft adventures. You get a great price on the cruise itself, but hopefully you’ve factored additional costs into your vacation budget, because at each port you’re confronted with a variety of extra fun activities, each at a sometimes-fancy price. If you’ve tubed or taken a canopy tour or rode a horse on Jamaica or in the Dominican or Belize or various other locations, there’s a good chance you’ve paid the Melvilles something for the privilege. Expansion. Gaming machines. Evolving relationships with cruise lines. 500 or so horses. 500 or so employees. Over a billion a year in revenues from a number of interlocking companies shared with long-time business partners, and that’s not counting the auto-supply business.

See, the thing is, I’m sitting here remembering the ruined wreck of a home at the edge of the Yaque river where it curls through Santiago in the Dominican Republic. Santiago is the DR’s second-largest city. On December 11 in the early morning, as hurricane Olga brushed the island, Tavera dam workers upriver decided to open all six floodgates, fearing a dam failure that could kill thousands in Santiago. This sent 1.6 million gallons of water/second into the river.The lives of the family of ten living in the house that I visited were snuffed out by the water roaring downstream in the dead of night. And the members of that family weren’t the only casualties. For months after that night, folks have come to the edge of the cliff above, standing along Av. Mirador del Yaque to look down on the wreckage below. For many of the poor, it was no more than luck that they lived far enough from the river’s edge to escape drowning. This was the second time in the year that this happened. I spoke to more than one upper-class resident of Santiago who, privately of course, were not sorry to see the mostly ramshackle buildings along the river washed away, along with the poor living in them.

If a movie, documentary or otherwise, wants to add footage meant to raise the consciousness of viewers about the plight of so many in the Caribbean, whether the film be documentary or drama or cartoon or science-fiction flick about life on Venus, I for one will cut it some slack. I will not say “Ok, I get it. Move on.” However, if the footage is doing no more than wrapping one more big-business vacuum cleaner for middle-class dollars in a flag of righteousness, then burn the film.

I found plenty to savor in Sun Dogs: young men conversing quietly in a lilting Jamaican English that almost required subtitles; the enlistment of Newton, a poor young man living in a tin shack, to be a musher; Newton applying for a passport; Newton visiting Twig, Minnesota in the winter, to see snow for the first time and to learn about real dog sleds and sledding; Newton eating a fig newton; Jamaican  music in the snowy north; Newton learning to drive and later taking his boss’ car without permission, totaling it, and being banished, sent back to sit on the plank in front of his shack; the enlistment of Devon Anderson, then, to train as Jamaica’s first musher, getting the dog sled 101 crash course from sledding experts from Twig; serious Scots commenting seriously on Anderson, over to Scotland from his island to theirs to compete in his first sled race and to win the “Came the Farthest” prize; Anderson at the end of his race exhausted with one dog from his team out of harness and on the sled tucked into an emergency dog bag; first class photography, great color, great closeups; driving around Jamaica on the wrong side of the road; a call to renowned dog sled trainer Alan Stewart in Scotland;  and, of course, the recruitment and training of the dogs. Several dogs picked out at the pound. The dogs’ names appear onscreen in big yellow letters – so that you can remember to ask for them when you come down? Scenes of the dogs being introduced to the dogcarts and other wheeled conveyances that they will pull. Benji the scared hound. The biggest dog, who doesn’t relate to the other dogs. I remember hearing once that if a dog doesn’t learn social skills early, it can’t learn them later. Guess that doesn’t apply to this big dog, because apparently he does, after first gnawing one or two of his mates.

The last movie that I reviewed as a Spout Maven was Africa Unite, a Palm Pictures documentary in which the Marley family journeys from Jamaica to Africa in search of peace and/or treasure. Sun Dogs is also a Palm Pictures documentary, wherein stray dogs replace the Marleys but remain in Kingston. Chris Blackwell, the founder and head of Palm Pictures, and David Koh, head of acquisitions and production, negotiated the financial terms of the movie with Andrea Stewart and Danny Melville. Stewart produced as well as directed. Blackwell, Koh, Leigh Ingleby, and Melville were the executive producers (i.e., they put up the money). Palm Pictures nailed down all worldwide rights to the movie. The rumor is that the third film in this Jamaican documentary trilogy, nearing completion, is Spawn of Love, about the homeless illegitimate children fathered by rich white men vacationing at island resorts and sneaking away from their spouses at night for a few moments of forbidden love. Sign me up for the trifecta!

Blackwell also founded Island Records back in 1960 (he’s 71) and signed up an unknown Bob Marley, earning a reputation as the man responsible for the popularity of reggae. I didn’t deal with the question of personal financial gain in the case of the Marleys and Africa Unite, although some other reviewers did. At the time, I was more interested in the dynamics of holding a conference meant to be liberal and democratic in an illiberal country. If I had examined the financial aspects of Africa Unite and the movie’s effect on future iterations of the event, I might have mentioned that after the first edition of it in Addis Ababa, in October, a Ghanaian delegation came to Jamaica to discuss business opportunities between the two countries. Alexander Melville attended the talks and the second Africa Unite was held in Ghana four months later. However, I’m not aware of any other particular connections between Melville and Blackwell, which might argue for taking Sun Dogs as a fun movie and letting it go at that.

Danny Melville started Chukka Caribbean Adventures in 1983.  It’s now the largest land-based nature adventure tour provider in the region, offering more than thirty tours in Jamaica, The Bahamas, Belize, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The business sells more than a quarter of a million adventure tours to cruise and hotel guests every year, including canopy tours over the jungle, mountain-to-sea cycling, river kayaking, a horseback ride and swim, and a Bob Marley retrospective bus trip. Plus, of course, the Jamaica dog sled Experience. “With a commitment to deliver the highest quality tours with well-trained guides and stringent safety standards, Chukka takes pride in showcasing the natural beauty of the Caribbean through unique and sensational experiences and providing opportunities for local residents and businesses.” (chukkacaribbean.com)

Chukka Cove, where it all started, caters to horse lovers who stay on the estate’s landscaped grounds, near the stables. There are six two-bedroom villas, each suitable for four guests, each with a veranda, plank floors, and the feel of Old-Country gentry. Meals are prepared for you on-site. Nickering, and presumably barking, can be heard through open bedroom windows in the moonlight.

The Melvilles are businessmen and make no bones about the fact. When Danny had the sleddog idea, he approached the thing as a money-making proposition from the start and is clear about that throughout the film. “It’s good business,” he says. (N.b., I’m paraphrasing these quotes from memory and notes.) “We’ve got an unexploited brand.  If we can be successful, like the Jamaican bobsled team, the tourists will become ambassadors for us.” (Here in the movie a quick clip of the bobsled team, stars of the 1988 Calgary Olympics.) “You know, you have to believe in it and dive into it wholeheartedly. Tourists will go home and say, ‘I went dog sledding in Jamaica!’ Of course I hope to make a profit: the Jamaica Dog Sled Experience. Our dogs come from the local pound – because, you know, if Jamaica didn’t have the image of being crime-ridden, violent, and poor, it would fly. So, dog sleds pulled by strays, after they’ve been neutered and vaccinated for rabies, that’s the good news. Listen, after Devon’s first race, we were in the Indian newspaper. We were in the Australian newspaper.”

Tourists trot past on Melville horses.

Guests first receive an orientation on sled-dog racing and how the Jamaican team was formed. They also get a lecture on the stray situation in Jamaica. (A percentage of the tour fee goes to the JSPCA.) Finally, visitors get to meet, hug and pet the dogs and learn their personal stories before receiving instruction on mushing technique and heading out on the three-kilometer trail around Chukka Cove Farm.

“This is going to help the dogs because you’ll soon have everybody wanting to get a dog to train them to pull a sled or cart,” says musher Anderson, standing with dogs milling around his ankles. “And eventually, we’ll get rid of the stray dogs on the street.” 20 down and 35,000 to go.

“The Jamaica Dog Sled Encounter at Chukka Caribbean Adventures, home to the only dog sled team and dog sled tours in the Caribbean, is offering children between 6 and 12 years a complimentary Jamaica Dog sled Encounter, with one child free per paying adult. The tour includes a visit to Dunn’s River Falls, and to Island Village for shopping, plus complimentary lunch at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.”

Bottom line on the movie, if not the tour: If you’re more interested in the dogs in particular, or the mushers learning about and training with the dogs, or social and economic conditions on the island, or the physical aspects of the island itself, or the sport of dog sledding, or Caribbean history in general, to the exclusion of interest in the other elements of the movie, then you will not get much of what you crave and will probably feel impatient, dissatisfied, and that your time has been misspent. On the other hand, if your interest runs to the conception, inception, nuture, and support of a fledgling business, then the dogs, mushers, and scenery provide a little spice, or spoonfuls of sugar, to the business; that is, as aids in getting you to hear, learn, and internalize the root message, or hook. Stewart might have been making her first feature-length film, but her backers knew exactly what they wanted and what they needed from the film and there is no doubt that they vetted her work every step of the way to make sure that they got what they wanted. A little local color; a story line that takes you out behind your resort hotel room and not to the Iditarod; a little upbeat music; a break from the intensity of Rick Steves; a story arc of “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Come down and ride on one,” not “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Compete and win/lose.”

I thought about calling the director about this movie and asking her where her head was at when she made it, and how much “input” she got from  Melville and Blackwell and Koh, and Leigh Ingleby (audio-visual interests and arts funding), but I didn’t because I’m conflict-shy and a question like that might really piss her off. Instead, I called Dr. Gomes at Jamaicans For Justice. She impressed me in the movie and I felt that I could trust her answers. I missed her twice at her office but she was kind enough to return my calls. After a few introductory niceties, I asked her if she had seen Sun Dogs. She had. I told her that I was calling with one question in mind, namely, that although the film raised some questions about social justice and poverty in Jamaica, it struck me more simply as a commercial for one more “Caribbean adventure” from a large leisure company, an adventure which, so far as I could tell at present, hasn’t materially aided the poor of the country. So, Were the sun dogs in fact, in her view, of some use as a pro-social force on the island? It took a while for me to get all that out. She listened in silence and her reply, as it struck me, was stony. She said that she had consented to be interviewed for the film and that she had answered the questions put to her to the best of her ability. Period. No love shown by Dr. Gomes for the sun dogs.

So come on down for a ride ($100 adults, $76 children, or $352 plus tax for a family of four if you don’t find a coupon to use in advance, or buy a package of adventures). The dogs pull in, say, $1000 an hour, ten hours a day, 350 days a year, two sites. A modest $7 mil a year. Overhead costs: kibble. An unknown percentage of the net returned to the JSPCA, which from the looks of it hasn’t been spending it on glitz at the pound. The ride is a nice addition to the many adventures in many locales that help put the Melville enterprises over the billion-a-year mark.

We can hope that Newton is not still sitting on his plank down at his tin shack.

If you do decide to go on down and stay at Chukka Cove Farm, you’ll know what to expect after watching this movie. The north-central coast of Jamaica. Turquoise ocean. Lush hills. Magnificent waterfalls. Cool mountain rivers. The poor of the island changing your sheets and refilling your wine glass at dinner.

Good. I got all the way through the review without using the word “infomercial.”

Win big $$$ playing games: E-@thletes (2008)

Jonathon Boal and Artem Agafanov made the documentary E@thletes at a time when competitive team-gaming seemed ready to expand into a new world of professional competition. The film presented, at the time they released it, a cutting-edge view of two teams out on the road, just before both teams joined a new league. By the time I watched the movie, league play was already into its second season and the film had become, for me, a how-it-all-happened tale. By the time I began writing this review, the league was out of business and team gaming had returned to the state it occupied before Boal and Agafanov began their documentary. And now, much later than that, in the midst of an economic slump, I have no idea how electronic gaming, competitive or otherwise, is faring. Holy cow. Will anyone ever see the movie? Will anyone ever read this review? If I fall over in the woods, will anyone ever hear me go?

Whatever. Video-game revenue outstripped cinema ticket sales long ago, and then passed DVD rental sales. Companies spend millions developing new games, betting that one hit will pay for all their flops and make a profit for the company. Innovation is somewhat restricted these days by corporate rules, but it creeps in once and a while anyway. Amateur developers can now create new games using free tools, and deploy them to consoles and handhelds, not just desktops. Prize-winning opportunities for kids playing video games began to increase as gaming revenues increased. Even with the huge dip in revenue during the 08/09 recession, year-to-date totals at the end of July, ’09, stood at $8.16 billion. A huge, young demographic with plastic in its back pocket is whiling away the Generation Y hours in cyberspace, guns and other weapons in its paws.

e-@thletes highlights one consequence of the sloshing about of gaming dollars back in 2006 – the growth in pro gaming. The film follows two teams of young men paid to hit the road and compete at tournaments offering cash prizes to the winners. Ever been on one of those 5-day, 32-country tours? The movie includes a team tour of China with a film montage of, say, 10 cities in 100 seconds. (More than 100 Chinese cities have a population greater than one million, by the way. America has 9. The 100th largest city in the U.S. is Boise. Lot of folks living in China.) And speaking of seconds, the filmmakers shot something like 20 hours of film at a tournament and cut it down to less than 60 seconds for an opening clip in the movie. The filmmakers were in their early twenties when they made the movie; Boal began it as a final film-school project. Micro budget: some money from Intel for services rendered; travel and motel costs picked up by one of the teams; some money from dad. In seventy zippy yet professional minutes, the film interleaves interviews with the members of two Counter-Strike teams, their parents, scenes of team travel, competitive gaming action, and the obligatory talking heads – six of them.

Counter-Strike is a first-person shooter video game that pits a team of counter-terrorists against a team of terrorists in a series of rounds. Each round is won by either completing the mission objective or eliminating the opposing force. First-person shooter (FPS) games are a genre featuring weapons-based combat viewed as if seen through the eyes of the player.” That is, on one level, E-@thletes is a frag movie that features shooting, bombing, and killing. We don’t see enough of it to get excited, however.

e-Athlete: Someone who enjoys computer games (too much). Often possesses a grandiose sense of self. “I don’t get out much. I pwn noobs on the net because I’m an e-athlete.”

The two teams: Team 3D, the well-funded top-dogs, and CompLexity, a diverse bunch gamers brought together by a lawyer with a gaming vision and some personal money to invest in the future of the sport. A climatic match between the two teams awaits us at the end of the film. When the filmmakers chose these two teams to follow, they chose well. The movie has a nice arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Intel-sponsered Team 3D was the first professional Counter-Strike team outside of Europe and Asia. 3D’s motto: “Desire. Discipline. Dedication. Intel.” A 3D team manager keeps the boys in line as they squabble and mostly beat other teams. Squabbling teammates are always of interest in sports, but hard to get on tape in a documentary, including this one. At one point, a team captain is deposed and replaced, but nobody dishes for us onscreen. I was reminded of the 70s documentary An American Family, wherein we follow the Loud family for hours and hours and then, in a hard-to-hear couple of minutes in a restaurant near the end, the mom and dad suddenly agree to get divorced, and I’m like, What? Where did that come from? But no tape to rewind in those days.

You can find E-@thletes on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and its own site but it isn’t mentioned in IMDB. Boal told me that when the movie was finally finished and ready for release (post-production took a year), he and Agafanov decided to focus their distribution efforts on the gamer community and its various websites. I’m guessing that, based on the google hits for the movie, as befits a gamer flick, most viewers downloaded it via one torrent or another. When Boal and Agafanov submitted it to IMDB, it wasn’t accepted because of its limited distribution, but the film added the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival to its resume after that and if the makers ever take the trouble to resubmit, it’ll probably get listed.

As I mentioned above, even though, at this point, the movie is way past being stop-the-presses current, it’s structured with a narrative that suggests we’re getting the current poop – perhaps an error in the director/editor’s emphasis when applied to such a a fast-evolving environment. To wit: the two teams are introduced as the best, the cream of the crop, the only two sponsered teams in a world of gamers. We are told that it’s becoming possible to earn a living playing video games. As the movie comes to an end in 2007, a gaming league is created and we watch a draft of gamers at the Playboy Mansion to populate it. The league, The Championship Gaming Series, was owned and operated by DirecTV. This was an international electronic-sports league based in the U.S. and then “expanded to every continent except Antarctica for Season Two.” The league expired suddenly after two seasons. compLexity went away, came back with different players, drama ensued, the founder retired, all ancient history now. At the end of the movie, the founder of compLexity is quoted as saying that if the league fails, there won’t be another to follow it. I’m no expert on gaming, but I think that various leagues did follow the failed CGS, but they’re all gone, too, now, I think, except for Major League Gaming. Gamers making six figures have come and gone… though by the time you read this, who knows? With gaming generating billions, somebody is still getting rich, I presume. My mom’s lifelong best friend was Nolan Bushnell’s mom (Nolan created Pong, the first video game, and Atari, and Chuck E. Cheese, and something else after that, and lives about two billion dollars up the hill from me here). As girls, his mom and my mom grew up on adjacent farms. Shouldn’t that be worth a few million to me, Nolan’s mom’s best friend’s kid? Even just a lousy million? But no. Nothing has rubbed off on me but a plate of potato salad that his mom insisted I eat the last time I saw her in Utah. Tasty!

Anyway, my only negative about this well-made film: the documentary is structured, on one level, as a genre sports film. The established corporate team of winners, touring the world, idolized, pulling down the $$$, is challenged by the upstart misfits, who come together and begun to win. As is traditional in this type of movie, the rivalry is hyped throughout and brought to a climax with a major showdown at the end of the film, just at the dawn of the new era of league sports. Then, unaccountably, as the two teams engage in their final struggle, instead of descriptions of the match with on-screen illustrations, the docu’s talking heads pipe up and tell us… well, I have no idea what they were telling us because I was trying to watch the frigging match! (I consider this not a spoiler, but a warning of impending disappointment), which was 1-0 and then, all of a sudden, 9-5 (a match can take hours) and then, oops, it’s over. This is a climax? But I took consolation in the fact that the extras disk had a feature on this final match. When I watched it, however, it consisted of shots of all the players sitting at their keyboards, no shots of the screen action, what they were seeing, what they were doing, how the match was progressing. No final-game narrative.

None of the detail and tension experienced while watching the Dynamo and Itkakuskaya National Chess teams battle it out over 20 boards in Oblasteskva Stadium.

Five talking heads appear rhythmically throughout the movie, explaining, as experts, that… well, I can’t remember what they explained. Something about kids and video games? Are video games still called video games? 137,000,000 Google hits. Electronic games = 74,500,000 hits. I wonder what single search term in all of English garners the greatest number of Google hits, and how many hits that is? What’s the hit limit, if any, for Google? More than one trillion pages are registered. Anyway, the talking heads comprise authors and the editor of GotFrag Magazine (http://www.gotfrag.com/portal/story/36956/ Don’t believe anything I say about gaming; read GotFrag instead), all the heads serious onscreen but none dour. Serious because they’ve got books for sale on the subject; not dour because, after all, the subject is video gaming. I have not read any of their books, though I did trouble myself to price them all on Amazon (“Smartbomb,” “Gameboys,” “Got Game,” “Everyting Bad is Good For You”), and could have had the lot, used, for a mere $16.76 plus shipping. I subscribe to “To The Point,” “Left, Right, and Center,” “Planet Money,” and sundry other talking-head podcasts, and listen to them daily. From this I infer that I like talking heads. So why can’t I remember word one of the offerings of this E-@thlete bunch (Aaron Ruby, Mike Kane, John Beck, Steven Johnson, and Heather Chaplin)? Hmm. I haven’t read any of the books written by the talking heads I listen to every day, either. Or remember in particular what they’ve said. In fact, I’m reminded of what happens when I am made to sit through a sermon in church. I understand the words that I’m hearing, assuming that the sermon is spoken in my native tongue. I understand the concepts. The meaning of the sermon as a whole, however, the import, usually eludes me; or perhaps I elude it. Sermons. They’re meaningless to me. I don’t forget what I’ve heard; in some sense or other I just don’t hear anything in the first place. A sermon is something that comes between the songs – often occuring annoyingly at the same time as a ballgame on TV. From this I gather that talking heads must be talking to or arguing with each other, as in the podcasts that I listen to, for me to hear and understand and remember what they are saying. I will listen to and ponder the pronouncements of conversing talking heads, but not to a lone talking head talking at me. I might also still be annoyed at Sun Dogs for using a legitimate people’s activist talking head in an infomercial designed to further enrich the rich at the expense of a couple of poor dogs.

I was in a documentary once, by the way. Up on the big screen. High on a rock wall, free climbing, facing death, sweat running off my back, muscles on the verge of failure, blue sky above and thin air below! I checked out the audience during a screening and spotted a few mouths hanging open. Wow! And then, wtf, the rock wall, with me on it, was suddenly replaced by my parents’ kitchen with my mom standing in front of a sink full of dishes, brow knit and her going on about how I was raised to be responsible and how much I meant to the family and what was I doing taking my life in my hands when I should have been out in the shantytowns going door-to-door proselytizing and converting the inhabitants of Burkina Vaso (formerly Upper Volta) instead of traumatizing her and my dad and my sister by climbing without a rope, without, well, without a net, after all that she and my dad had done for me. Then my dad, down in the rumpus room behind the bar, just shaking his head, doleful, pointing to my trophy from the debating-society championships, pointing to the family Bible signed by Billy Graham himself, dad taking a drink from his highball glass and clinking the cubes. So the parents that appear in E-@thletes? They support their kids; but conflict being the essence of drama, this means – no drama. One dad, a Canadian documentary maker himself, does intone “Some nights when Griffin didn’t come home at all, I’d go looking for him, usually ending up downtown in his favorite video game place. In these, the opium dens of the 21st century, an elctronic hook deep in the brain of harmless killing…” Spoken like a true parent! Let’s keep in mind that these young adults are sitting in front of a screen for, say, five hours a day, clicking a keyboard with their left hand and moving and clicking a mouse with their right in order to win a kill-or-be-killed video game. Where’s (where’re?) the sunlight and fresh air? Where’s the vitamin D and exercise? Where’s the organic Vegan cooking instead of pizza? The good news: the rooms aren’t smoke-filled. Steroids don’t enhance performance. Or, wait a minute, what about drugs? Are these young men (no sign of a female gamer from start to finish) all jacked on some pill I’ve never heard of? That kid who chewed a hole through the linoleum floor when he lost – was that drug-induced behavior? We don’t know.

If you enjoy shooter games and, watching these young competitors, feel a sudden urge to spend some time sharpening your skills with a view toward winning a little prize money, permit me to remind you that even if you don’t currently play tennis, for example, if you’re in reasonable shape you can go buy a racquet, take a few lessons and shortly become the best tennis player on your block. Dedicate your life to the game and you might, in time, become the best player in your town, if your town isn’t too large and you’re not already too old. But that’s about it. You can eat, sleep, live, dream, and pray about tennis 24×7, juice up, study with John McEnroe, bribe the line judges, and still, somewhere in your county, nevermind your state, you will encounter a 13-year-old of either sex who will clean your clock. That is in the nature of the human body, the psyche, and sporting competition. So is it also with e-gaming.

End note: The movie does not deal with cheating, a fact of gaming competition that could command a documentary of its own.