At the Documentary Edge Festival: counter-terrorism through the eyes of an informant; the life and times of Elliot Smith; and an unlikely Haitian presidential campaign.
Fresh off its recent American premiere, (T)ERROR embeds its viewer in the frontlines of the war on terror in the United States, a battleground that would be comically surprising for its lackadaisical nature were not the consequences so chilling. Here, the subject is Saeed Torres, aka ‘Shariff’. This blunt-smoking, cake-loving, short-tempered and defensive man makes for a surprising FBI informant, and one could be forgiven during the film’s slow-burn setup for thinking that the big reveal is that he’s not.
But he most certainly is. And as his efforts to ingratiate himself with theoretical threat Khalifah Al-Akiki (seemingly under suspicion largely for his pontifications on Facebook) in order to encourage him to join a jihadi training camp—thus allowing him to be charged under terrorism charges—fail to go as planned, filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe observe in real time not only Shariff’s comical bunglings but far more unexpected plot turns. It’s the back half of the film that catches fire, and may leave viewers debating documentary ethics long after the screening. Some have compared it to Citizenfour (presumably evoking the embedded second act of that film), but where Citizenfour plays like a real-life Bourne movie, (T)ERROR’s most salient fictional comparison would be Burn After Reading: a farce whose laughs curdle in your throat in the face of reality.
Musical biopics are always difficult to recommend for non-fans, and as someone who’s largely in the tank for Elliott Smith (one of the best shows of my life, remember where I was when I heard he died, et cetera), it’s hard to say how Heaven Adores You will play to the uninitiated. But even for a fan, it’s hard to unconditionally recommend. It goes deep when it should go shallow—one of a cavalcade of Smith’s featured musical contemporaries telling us that Heatmiser, Smith’s band, signed to Virgin Records at a Thai restaurant at the corner of 39th and Division in Portland—whilst staying shallow when it might go deep. (We have no idea if Smith is in a relationship at that time, what his emotional state is like, and so on.) Many elisions seem either tactful or legalistic, such as his unexplained move from Dallas to Portland as a youth, or the fervent denials that he wasn’t into drugs (well, until he was), or the cone of silence over the circumstances of the days before his death. (This Diffuser review is highly recommended for a more in-depth exploration of its omissions.) It’s a film in desperate need of an editor who’s not attached to the subject—and, perhaps, a more tenacious interviewer.
And yet, Heaven Adores You displays undeniable strength in its use of near-empty cityscapes (largely in Portland, Oregon) to accompany Smith’s radio interviews, music, and other talking heads. It’s very light on archival footage, preferring to fill the void with … well, other voids. Whether Portland’s puddles, railway lines, and bridges will command the attention of someone who didn’t live there, I can’t say; for myself, it was a surprisingly potent counterpoint to Smith’s halting voice and gentle songs. (I was not surprised to discover the director, Nickolas Rossi, lived in Portland; the passages in New York and Los Angeles seem to be photographed from more of an outside perspective.) This aspect may not be enough, but for this fan, it was sufficient to counterweight the film’s shortcomings.
Sweet Micky for President, despite superficial resemblances to a music biopic, couldn’t rely less on foreknowledge of the musicians. I went in knowing two things about the Fugees: 1) they existed and 2) one of them had a good solo track near the end of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. I thought it was by Pras, whose efforts to influence the Haitian election five years ago by drafting Haitian music legend Sweet Micky (aka Michel Martelly) are the subject of this film. In fact, ‘If I Was President’ is by Wyclef Jean, his co-Fugee of some years past (a relationship well and truly broken as the film commences) and a man with a surprising role to play in the election as it unfolds. The film is unapologetically told from Pras’s perspective—he receives a script credit—and while it’s competently made, this obvious bias and a tendency towards Wikipedia-esque recapitulations of fact initially left me thinking that a magazine article on the topic might be my preferred way to experience this story. As the drama unfolds, however, the access provided by Pras’s involvement sucked me in, and unexplored questions—such as how qualified Martelly is to actually lead the country, or whether expatriate musicians, Sean Penn, and Bill Clinton should be prime movers in deciding who runs Haiti—become not unfortunate omissions but questions that shape the viewer’s experience by their exclusion.