Four new documentaries at the New Zealand International Film Festival showcase plenty that’s grim, and more than a little bit that’s not, in contemporary United States. While all fairly conventional and aesthetically conservative, they prove that a good hook goes a long way toward delivering a solid piece of documentary-making.
The American public defender system came about from a US Supreme Court ruling, essentially arguing that the cost of defence in a criminal trial was acting as an unconstitutional limit on individual rights to a fair trial. Gideon’s Army shows that despite this guarantee of access, the overworked lawyers, the poor pay, and the skewed legal system tell a different story—that justice isn’t being served. Given New Zealand has recently adopted this American model, because legal aid lawyers were an easy political target, this documentary will have obvious resonance at home.
Produced by HBO, the documentary primarily follows two lawyers, Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander, as they work through hundreds of cases at a time, and deal with the vagaries of criminal law. They also work in the deep South, and have to deal with the “guilty until proven innocent” system that operates for the poor. Their personal lives form part of the story too, and a specific individual case is used to add drama. Williams and Alexander are winning; they’re plucky and candid, and they’re also human enough for an audience to understand their motivations.
A few other lawyers’ stories are thrown in, with varying effect—the narrative becomes a little too clogged as a result. There was a sense that the overall theme in the story was already clear, and that it needed a little padding out around the edges. The result is slightly inconsistent and a little scattershot. But given its well-hit targets, it’s a compelling watch nonetheless.
A more successful HBO documentary is the powerful Valentine Road, recounting the murder of 15-year-old Lawrence King in a small South California town. The murder was quite clearly a hate crime, but the case also threw up a bunch of other factors given the murderer Brandon McInerney was only 14. Cunningham spent three years in the community filming the documentary, and she comes up with a rich and disturbing account of a horrible crime and its equally horrible repercussions.
The crime itself was shocking—that in itself is never in doubt. McInerney, taking exception to King’s Valentine Day comment, brought a gun to school and shot King point blank. But Cunningham digs deeper, and brings up issues relating to the treatment of minors in a punitive criminal justice system, structural homophobia, victims’ rights, and the fallibility of the juror system amongst many others. Cunningham adds enough hope to the story through supporting characters, to suggest a way forward. A dense portrait of a country at the crossroads—individual freedoms progressively more and more at risk by prejudice and other “competing” freedoms (gun laws, “self-defence” etc.)—Valentine Road slots straight into the zeitgeist of Trayvon Martin and marriage equality debates in the United States. The overall result, coupled with Gideon’s Army, indicates that there is more than a little rottenness in the American judicial system. And the powerful effect of Valentine Road suggests that there’s more than a little wrong outside of the courtroom too.
On the more uplifting side of the ledger is the energetic Lucy Walker documentary, The Crash Reel. Kevin Pearce was a talented half-pipe snowboarder, who was considered a real chance in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. A training accident weeks before the Olympics, however, throws Pearce’s life into complete disarray. He spends weeks in a coma and struggles to cope with being unable to do the thing that had given his life meaning.
Walker gets great adrenaline-inducing footage of Pearce as we witness his rise in the sport. You get simultaneously the rush of the sport alongside fearing its obvious dangers. The documentary points out that in pursuit of audience ratings, the jumps and therefore the tricks in the sport have become bigger and riskier. Pearce’s accident (and many others since) was an obvious result.
The film focuses on Pearce’s rehabilitation. Like most things when we witness the crash or the explosion, it’s easy to forget the slow process in things coming back to normal. Pearce wants to return to the slopes; his family and his doctor warn him that any further head knock will kill him. The documentary’s conflict is internal—Pearce’s family unit is essentially good and supportive—and we wonder if Pearce is going to, and should, return to his old life. It’s an old-fashioned kind of narrative of rising above adversity, but not in the way that one would expect.
This Ain’t No Mouse Music! highlights a part of the United States that has made it so dominant globally since World War II: the music. As is obvious enough, the music that has become so iconic was made by those on the fringes, and, often picked up by those new to the country. Most of the major record labels of the ’50s were driven by new immigrants from places such as Turkey or Poland, who arguably weren’t tied into the same stereotypes that had resulted in such great music relegated to backwater pubs and ‘race-based’ radio stations.
This documentary looks at a Polish-German wartime refugee, Chris Strachwitz, and his obsession with cataloguing some of the music he fell in love with upon arriving to the States. The music? Anything that wasn’t “mouse music.” He set up a record label, Arhoolie Records, and set about wandering around the country recording anything that took his fancy. He captures everything from Appalachian to zydeco—music that for many was a simple solitary pleasure, and for others was a genuine and unsuccessful career. Within this, he recorded some well-known or at the very least, underappreciated names: Big Mama Thornton, Clifton Chenier, and Country Joe and the Fish. The live music and the primary footage is the film’s highlight—everyday people expressing whatever it is they feel like. And that, when you scrape away the music industry’s mediation, was as far as Strachwitz was concerned all that really mattered.