AGORA
: Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, the revered astronomer was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history. A kind of purge that was apparently big business back then.


CRITICAL WOMEN HEADLINES

5/19/09

Documentary Film In An Era Of A Battered American Psyche



The Rise of the Documentary Film in an Era of a Battered American Psyche: Theater of War, Body of War, Fog of War and Michael Moore

An Essay in Three Parts

By Penelope Andrew

Part III

A Body Is Finally Produced: Body of War


This film was not at all a darling of the critics. But the great mission of the directors is clear: Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro have defied the order to hide the bodies.


Of the five documentaries, Body of War (2007) may be the most painful to watch. The bodies of the dead and the living casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seldom been seen, and their stories have never been told at length. The tragedy of the men and women coming home is far from over and only just beginning. This film was not at all a darling of the critics. But the great mission of the directors is clear: Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro have defied the order to hide the bodies.

Tomas Young is a brave anti-war activist and a troubled war veteran. His body has been paralyzed from the waist down after being wounded on the fifth day of his Iraq tour, and his psyche is fractured with symptoms of PTSD. The audience can sense too that Tomas has a broken heart from the abandonment and betrayal by the U.S. military, the Veteran’s Administration, the legislative body known as the U.S. Congress, and his President.

The audience witnesses the promise of Tomas’ marriage to an understanding woman, whom he cannot accept and eventually pushes away leading to the agony of his divorce; a mother’s devotion so intense that it crosses the boundary of an Oedipal taboo—on a trip to an anti-war event, his mother handles her son’s penis while helping him change his catheter; and the conspicuous absence of his father made more difficult by the lack of any father figures he (and the audience) can come to believe in again.

Tomas finds many surrogate sisters, wives, and mothers—Cindy Sheehan among them—on his painful journey. There are scenes where widows, mothers who have lost their sons, and other women reach out to hold or just to touch him. They are excruciatingly beautiful and very painful images. They underscore the enormous burden Tomas carries on his shoulders—to represent all lost soldiers. His yearning for a masculine hero and a father figure in whom he can identify and be comforted by becomes more and more apparent as the film progresses.

Paralleling Tomas’ struggle is the story of the U.S. Congress—the legislative body--that gave extraordinary presidential power to rush to war. There is one dissenting voice louder and more eloquent than any other, and it emanates from Senate’s oldest member, Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Tomas finds a father figure and a hero in Senator Byrd and so does the audience. Never does the Iraq veteran seem more at ease and more comforted (even happy) than when he meets with the wise, dignified, yet humble silver-haired Robert Byrd. Next to Bush and the grey, bald-headed Cheney, Byrd is a dream come true.

This film forces the audience to come to terms with the fact that Tomas and all soldiers are used by the Fathers of War as human shields. In his development as an activist and in his use as a sculpture permanently cast in celluloid by Donahue and Spiro, he is elevated from an object to a symbol. He realizes the dream of Trumbo’s protagonist Joe Bonham to be displayed and used as an anti-war statement. In Body of War, we have not another war statue, but an anti-war monument in Tomas Young.


The Dark, Power-Hungry Soul of War: Moore Finds a “Reel” Job in Fahrenheit 9/11

“Fiddle-dee-dee? War, war, war! This war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this Spring! I get so bored I could scream!”

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara

Gone with the Wind


“Stay out of trouble, go find real work.”

President George W. Bush in a shout out to Michael Moore.


Like George Bush’s vacations, Scarlett O’Hara will not have her parties spoiled by real (reel) talk of war. Unlike Bush who traveled back home to Texas for many, many vacations and upon retiring from the Presidency, Scarlett’s ancestral home and way of life have been destroyed. Her mother becomes a casualty of war and refusing to ever go hungry again, Scarlett becomes Mother Courage herself.

How quintessentially American of Michael Moore to be so un-American as he dares to challenge a legacy begun in the McCarthy era run amuck in a doctrine adopted by Bush. In Fahrenheit 9/11, what is up is down, what is Right is wrong.

He is artful in documenting the stolen 2000 presidential election, the corruption and betrayal in using 9/11 to enter a dirty war, the use of tactics to frighten the American people into submission for untenable foreign policies and a loss of domestic Constitutional liberties, the shameful torture of prisoners, and other miscarriages of justice in the Bush era.

Moore was reassured by Quentin Tarentino that he won the Palme d’or for his artistry and not his politics. Fahrenheit 9/11 may well be Moore’s Guernica. He also unintentionally offers himself up as the anti-hero we long for--a bad-ass artist, outsider who holds the camera firmly on a larger-than-life mother figure we can call our own in the never less than magnificent Lila Lipscomb.

A frame is also put around The Congressional Black Caucus as a dozen of its members and an Asian-American Congresswoman step up to protest the falsified election of George W. Bush. These women and men—whose illustrious membership has included the late Shirley Chisholm, the late Barbara Jordan, feisty Maxine Waters, its current chair Barbara Lee, James Clyburn, Charles Rangel, Jessie Jackson, Jr. and the irrepressible John Lewis--have been unsung heroes in the U.S. Congress for too many years. Their objections to the legitimacy of the votes counted in Florida that lost Al Gore’s election to the presidency were raised on January 6, 2001 and dramatically documented in this film.

They rise one by one to register their frustration and outrage at not finding one Senator to co-sign their petitions. Each of the twelve distinguished members of Congress is shot down. The images of Gore—whose election they sought to secure--ruling them out of order are stunning in their irony.

How different history might have been if they had secured a single Senator to sign their official objections.


Artists and Art Capture a Greedy Business in Theater of War


“Who worked for nothin’ in the war?

It’s dollars and cents, nickels, and dimes. What’s clean? Half the Goddamn country is gotta go [to jail] if I go!

Why am I bad?”

Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller

All My Sons

Directed by John Walter and theatrically released on Christmas day 2008, Theater of War fuels a philosophy and exposes an important, forgotten mission of theater (and, by implication, of film as well).

It explores the brilliant, colorful, radical, anti-war playwright Bertolt Brecht, and what many people consider to be the definitive anti-war (also anti-business) play, Mother Courage and Her Children. More specifically, it documents the 2006 production of Mother Courage produced by The Public Theater, in a new translation by playwright Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe, and starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Austin Pendleton.

Unlike Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Mother Courage has never successfully been adapted as a narrative film (there is a 1961 German film with no DVD that has vanished into relative obscurity). This documentary is a chance for the masses to be exposed to Mother Courage, Brecht as playwright, artful dodger, and anti-hero replete with photographic images of him in a leather jacket looking quasi-punk in his youth.

This celluloid document drives home the genius of Bertolt Brecht. He is shown appearing before the HUAC where he literally waltzes his way through with a performance of very broken English in a snappy German accent. Also, one is treated to a large dose of Mother Courage by way of a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the artistry of Meryl Streep finding her character in a fascinating rehearsal process. It also offers rare commentary on Brecht’s personal life and work by his daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall.

Theater of War resonates with a current, enthusiastic, growing appetite in those who believe that art matters. It also elevates art’s practitioners to quasi-hero status: Brecht, Wolfe, Kushner, Streep, and Walter.


Can A Film Be Like Therapy? Waltz With Bashir

Ari Folman’s personal journey into the dark recesses of his own memory, the memories of his fellow war veterans, and the collective memory of Israel, the country they served bears a striking resemblance to the work of Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone, his platoon, and the United States.

Waltz With Bashir (2008) makes traumatic memory truer in its use of the surrealism of animation, which so effectively and powerfully portrays the nightmare of war and genocide witnessed and aided by a group of confused, very young soldiers. To see the animated version of the dark grandfather of war, Ariel Sharon, is to look deep within a dark, creepy, detached soul of war.

What happens to memory when the psyche has been assaulted and overwhelmed? Waltz with Bashir is a study in this too. Two psychotherapists, one a friend and colleague and another, a trauma expert explain. They are the quiet, behind-the-scenes heroes of this story. This is a film where one of the main characters—Folman’s fellow vet has a terrifying recurring nightmare from the war and asks the director, can’t a film be like therapy?

Another important question is: When will societies and governments, individuals and groups embrace the wisdom of empathy, the merit of deep excavation, and the answers to be found in artful interpretation, which are the tools and techniques of psychotherapy/psychoanalysis and great filmmaking?

This extraordinary film traces the traumatic, repressed, and nearly forgotten memories of the veterans of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon when Bashir Gemayel was assassinated shortly after he was elected president. The “waltz” refers to a description of one of the soldiers who dances (representing the collusion of the Israeli army with the Christian militia responsible for the massacre of Palestinian civilians trapped inside the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps) while spraying ammunition from an Uzi-style weapon.

The confluence of several tragic circumstances mounted upon a heap of traumatic history that began with the death camps of WWII through the eerily similar slaughter of innocent Palestinian civilians in refugee camps is another example of atrocities that are doomed to be repeated. The level of brutality is as obscene and perverse as the Nazi exterminations of the Jews decades before.

Waltz With Bashir is a story of transgenerational trauma,13 survivor’s guilt, identification with the oppressor and the oppressed, and all the psychological damage that war, violence, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities cause, which is the essence of PTSD. This film really begins in Folman’s psyche—in his knowledge as a child of the atrocities of the Nazi death camps where his family was interned. His close friend, who is a psychotherapist and a filmmaker, explains how memory and trauma operate and posits that at about age six, Folman was deeply affected by the stories of the atrocities his family suffered.

Folman’s film exemplifies the deeper truths that are to be found in art and in therapy; in the vicissitudes of memory; in trauma and recovery; and how one traumatic event is often related to another and doomed to be repeated if the lessons of history—no matter how ugly and painful--are not heeded.


Conclusion

Only time will tell how this unique yet eerily reminiscent period of American and Middle Eastern history beginning with September 11, 2001 will transition or end with the election of President Barack Obama, our most Capraesque of political figures. He is the condensation of a dream symbol comprising Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Sidney Poitier, among other film icons. His extraordinary campaign exemplified Bazin’s theory of filling in “the dream desires of the masses.”

The documentary films made during this confusing period in our history may well have—at least in part—paved the way to be able to embrace such a figure Barack Obama.

These films have not only informed and moved us; they have mirrored and defined us in showing us our darkest, worst natures, while providing flickers of a hopeful return to our better selves, which Mr. Obama represents. They have helped us find our way back from the distortions, terror, lies, and atrocities of the Bush years and provided necessary cathartic, therapeutic, and other transcendental experiences—“allowing the ‘realization’ of the marvelous.”14

As we emerge from the fog, the vertigo, the hangover, and the shame of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rove era, it will be fascinating to witness how documentary films and narrative features will evolve during the Obama years.

We are certain to move on to other subjects, but not before one more unflattering close-up. Mr. DeMille, roll the cameras: We Shall Remain, the documentary series on the history, culture, and diverse experience of Native Americans from American Experience has just premiered. We hold up a mirror to reflect another chapter of American shame. Perhaps now, stronger and a little less confused, we can embrace this even older, painful Truth.


NOTES

1. Joe Bonham is not the average Joe that Sarah Palin nauseated the American public with, but an extraordinary Joe. Trumbo’s narrator and protagonist is one of the most powerful anti-war heroes ever written. One could hear a pin drop in the audience as Donald Sutherland clutched his beaten up copy of Johnny Got His Gun and recited the part of this maimed soldier. His riveting soliloquy drew cheers from the audience at the recent screening at the IFC Center and shouts of “Go Donald!”

2. Why would anyone choose the subject of war? It is perhaps to complete psychologically my own “tour of duty” as a social work intern and honor the Vietnam Veterans with whom I worked. This article is inspired by them and dedicated to all my patients who have survived trauma.

3. Trauma—an event outside or beyond everyday events or daily reality; the breakdown that occurs when the psyche is exposed to stimuli that are too powerful to be processed in the usual way.

4. Sontag, Susan, Updike, John, et al. “The Talk of the Town,” section devoted to 9/11, The New Yorker (September 24, 2001).

5. Truth—property of being in accord with facts or realities; sincerity in action, character, and utterance; fidelity, honesty, actuality, etc. Truth—when capitalized: often means transcendent, fundamental or spiritual reality; sometimes synonymous with God.

6. The extent to which the American psyche and system have been traumatized and twisted to fit so well with the Neoconservative agenda is outlined in: Naomi Kleins’s, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto: Knopf, 2007).

7. Elected, of course, foreshadows and refers to the ultimate election of Barack Hussein Obama.

8. Beauty—quality or group of qualities of a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or exalts the mind or spirit; brilliant, extreme or egregious example of something; particularly graceful, ornamental or excellent quality.

9. Bazin, Andre, “Every Film Is A Social Documentary,” translated by Paul Fileri. Originally published as “Tout film est un documentaire social,” Les Lettres Francaises, No. 166, Vol. 5 July 5, 1947.

10. Should I have to justify placing Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner in the company of Capra, Ford, Wilder et al, I will (with pleasure). By Arzner’s very nature as a gay woman and one of the few artists who chose not to marry for convenience in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, she is a quintessential anti-heroine. Her films took on taboo subjects for their time, such as marital infidelity and questioned traditional institutions such as work and marriage. Lupino dared to tackle the subjects of rape and bigamy. They focused on serious subjects on domestic and institutional fronts, just as Capra took on greed and political corruption; Ford looked at the shame of the Great Depression and poverty; Chaplin focused on fascism; and Wilder exposed phoniness and shallowness everywhere.

11. An original invention of Morris’s, aptly named by his wife.

12. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a psychological consequence and casualty of war and other catastrophic events, those that occur outside the “normal” range of human events.

13. Transgenerational trauma—psychic damage passed from one generation to another; the most often used example are the children and grandchildren of Nazi concentration camp victims and survivors.

14. Bazin, Andre, p. 1.

Penelope Andrew, a NYC-based writer who contributes to The Huffington Post and Critical Women on Film, is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle. Her article: “Trauma & Recovery: A Review of I’ve Loved You So Long,” will appear in the next issue of the Newsletter of the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work. A certified psychoanalytic psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, she maintains a private psychotherapy practice in NYC. Her second-year internship as a social work graduate student involved working with Vietnam Veterans.

Part I: Introduction To The Documentary Phenomen

Part II: Way Beyond Journalism or It Takes a Documentary

This article also appears in The Huffington Post

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