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Nature and Society

For many growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s the nature documentary often meant soporific shows on birds and the African plain narrated by an upper-crust Englishman that you were forced to watch as “good for you” TV. In retrospect, it’s now easier to appreciate these meditative and sober films when compared to newer classics likeFox’s When Animals Attack! and the kinds of series that have crowded cable channels in a pointed attempt to energize the form. These new takes on the nature show often include lots of danger, slick graphics, and shocking video of bad weather and gross-out nature—but not much analysis of anything. Yet while Winged Migration and The March of the Penguins has certainly elevated the nature film to a narrative and aesthetic suitable for theatrical release, thankfully the last decade has also brought several epic TV nature series that build on classics such as David Attenborough’s The Shape of Life and The Blue Planet.

But of increasing importance is the role that the well-funded nature series takes in the diagnosis and analysis of nature in the broader sense. First, there is the possibility of a seven-part series like Evolution (or for that matter Carl Sagan’s Cosmos) coming under fire from the “intelligent design” crowd increasingly in control of funding for public TV; and second, there’s also the need for shows that dare to go outside a hermetic box of “nature” to consider what humans have wrought. From the global crisis in overdevelopment, pollution, global warming and water there is an increasingly fine line between the elegant description of the natural world (though most programs have always implied the fragility of it all) and the unavoidable exploration of sociopolitical causes and their consequences in nature.

<em>The Fire Next Time</em>, POV Film. Photo Credit: Jackson Hill
The Fire Next Time, POV Film. Photo Credit: Jackson Hill

While good recent examples—PBS’ POV films like Thirst about water and The Fire Next Time about community conflicts over the environment vs. the economy—come to mind, the disaster of Hurricane Katrina could be the turning point. Once the films and TV start rolling out, will we simply see the images we’ve already seen recycled on Killer Weather? Probably. But the worst natural disaster in US history has revealed unavoidable political missteps, severe irresponsibility in sustaining the coastal wetlands, an unbelievable lack of disaster preparation, not to mention racial and class disparity—all of which are very un-nature program topics. Will such a comprehensive disaster force those who dare to make a doc about killer hurricanes to cross into heavy socioeconomics? Perhaps this will happen if Michael Moore, as rumored, does take on Katrina in his next film. Then, as it may turn out, nature films—be they about science or the weather—may end up being not only challenging but highly controversial.


Rated “R”: Republicans in Hollywood (DVD available from

Who says Hollywood is a liberal bastion when you’ve got luminaries like Pat Sajak, Drew Carey, Ben Stein, and Vincent Gallo whining about feeling like a “persecuted minority” because of their conservative beliefs. Jesse Moss’s journey into Tinseltown is interesting not only for a hit list of those you didn’t know were right-wingers (The Rock? But I thought he was so cool!) but because its thesis indicates that the under 40s in the entertainment industry are more conservative and their time is coming soon. But the best line is the news that Vincent Gallo is now “the GOP’s most recent heartthrob.” Ouch.


Stranger Than Fiction
Tuesdays at IFC Center)

This series for doc fans that shows hard to see films theatrically, and usually with the filmmaker present, starts off the with August in Empire State about the 2004 GOP convention though the eyes of four activists, one who tries to ingratiate himself with the Republican party and continues into the month with Abel Raises Cain about notorious media hoaxer Alan Abel. On November 15 is Marjoe, a film about a child evangelist on the “church tent” revivalist circuit that won the 1972 Academy Award.


La La Land?
Docs at the Hamptons Film Festival

by Williams Cole

Apart from the silliness of a red carpet party with Alan Cumming and a surfeit of “producers” with young girlfriends, there was a substantial group of films and documentaries with serious international social and political content at the 13th Hamptons International Film Festival.

Favela Rising is the story of Anderson Sa, a former drug soldier turned community leader/musician in one of the ghettos of Rio de Janeiro. Sa uses his group Afro-Reggae to create positive messages to get youth away from the incessant lure of drug dealing. More than the story, which has some fine dramatic turns, the power of the film is its exposure of the breadth of poverty and police corruption in Rio. The footage of police violence alone is like a hundred Rodney King videos, but even more graphic. The aesthetic of the film is close to City of God, a saturated color process done to the footage in post-production that is effective but has the ironic effect of making such a scale of poverty and violence seem almost warm and cozy.

Protocols of Zion is Marc Levin’s personal journey investigating anti-Semitism post-9/11 and how the false and absurd Protocols are still disseminated in many parts of the world as proof of a long-term Jewish conspiracy. Needless to say, there are many ignorant kooky voices here, from the head of the National Alliance who insists Rupert Murdoch is Jewish, and who casually shows his Nazi paraphernalia to Levin, to a man on the street who explains how NY has always been run by Jews (“What about Giuliani?” Levin asks. “Yes, Jew-liani! He’s a Jew!” the kook replies). Protocols begins with Levin talking about hearing an Egyptian taxi driver say that no Jews died on 9/11 because Israel was behind it. While it’s unfortunate that Levin feels the need to add a NYC Medical Examiner testifying that Jews did die on that day, after hearing some of the voices of anti-Semitism, it’s not surprising that he did.

Diameter of the Bomb looks at the lives that intersected in one 2002 suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem. It’s a sad and restrained film that goes into some detail on what happens physically during such a bomb attack and tries to capture the insurmountable pain of family members while trying to also give heed to the context of the Palestinian bomber. Supposedly you can always find the head of the suicide bomber and for proof the film showed a shot of two examiners prodding what looked like an old beat up rubber Halloween mask. That image stuck with me as I walked out past many police cars in the crisp autumnal air to a screening of Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, a film that won top doc prize at Sundance and is to be released on 200 screens in January. Taking its cue from President Eisenhower’s sleeper farewell address, Why We Fight is nicely timed with the rapidly increasing discontent with the war in Iraq. It’s a nice summation of the growth of the military industrial complex and its connection to the rise of the neo-cons in the Bush cabal. Jarecki manages to talk to the F-117 pilots who dropped the first bombs of the war, to an angling John McCain, and to a former NYPD officer who lost a son in 9/11. The father gets his son’s name put on a bomb in Iraq but then has a revelation that, in many ways, makes the film. Sir, No Sir! a much-praised film about how some of the most dedicated troops during Vietnam transformed into hardcore protesters that helped end it won the top documentary prize, no doubt a sign of its relevance to the current war.

In sum, the Hamptons Film Festival seems a victim of the relatively new profile of the area’s East End—an area I grew up in year-round for a long time—that celebrates the rich and famous (who often translate into the rude and ostentatious). In actuality there is a long history of low-key literary and artistic tradition in the area. But due to what seemed like deference to the moneyed elite’s expectation of what a film festival in the Hamptons should be like, the festival was often an unorganized display of badge holders bumping out ticket holders who had waited in the rain for half an hour, along with an unwarranted overweening police and security presence. While many of the films were excellent and important, they were often buried in the rush for some sort of Hollywood sheen. While film festivals often have “something for everyone,” the overarching presence of this attitude in such close proximity to films about war, suicide bombing, intense poverty and anti-Semitism just makes it seem all that more tawdry.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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