Searching for 5 Broken Plagues: 3 Superb Documentaries That Showcase the Value of Archival Footage

It is, truly, an embarrassment of riches this year, as far as the Best Documentary Oscar Nominees go. To recap, they are:

Unfortunately, unless my local arthouse cinema plays The Gatekeepers before the Academy Awards ceremony on February 24, I will have missed that one. But the other four are all quite remarkable in their own unique ways. I have my preferences for the one that should win, but those change depending on my mood. So hard to decide when they’re all so strong. In December, I reviewed The Invisible War.

Let’s start these reviews with my current favorite, which I just finished watching this week.

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)

Was it a huntsman or a player
That made you pay the cost
That now assumes relaxed positions
And prostitutes your loss?
Were you tortured by your own thirst
In those pleasures that you seek
That made you Tom the curious
That makes you James the weak?

And you claim you got something going
Something you call unique
But I’ve seen your self-pity showing
As the tears rolled down your cheeks

Soon you know I’ll leave you
And I’ll never look behind
‘Cos I was born for the purpose
That crucifies your mind
So con, convince your mirror
As you’ve always done before
Giving substance to shadows
Giving substance ever more

And you assume you got something to offer
Secrets shiny and new
But how much of you is repetition
That you didn’t whisper to him too

– “Crucify Your Mind” (1970), lyrics by Sixto Rodriguez

The poetic words, above, are from just one of the many terrific songs that I discovered while watching this surprising film. I am all about Sixto Rodriguez and his music these days.

Searching for Sugar Man tells the heretofore unknown story of Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez, born in 1942 of working class Mexican immigrant parents (and the sixth child, hence his name). In the late 1960s, Rodriguez – who, to me, sounds like a combination of Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Jim Croce, with a little bit of Paul Simon thrown in – was discovered by local music producers, and thereafter released two albums: Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. Unfortunately, neither album achieved anything even remotely resembling commercial success in this country (in other words, they bombed), and so his label dropped him, in spite of the high hopes of the men who had promoted him. And so Rodriguez faded from view, not even a has-been, since he’d never arrived.

Except that, somehow, his music made it to South Africa where he became an enormous success, on par with the Beatles, and something of an underground symbol for the white youth anti-Apartheid movement. But he never knew about it, and no one there knew anything about him, though rumors were many.

Such is the departure point for the film, and I will not write any more about it, as the pleasure is in the experience of watching it for yourself. As the title of this blog post indicates, it could never have been made without the use of an extensive library of archival footage, and it is this footage which lends the film its power.

I will admit that I was bored at first, and did not take to Rodriguez’s songs right away.  But slowly, the music and the story grew on me, and after 30 minutes I was absolutely riveted.

Manohla Dargis wrote an interesting review of the film in The New York Times, and in it she points out an additional strangeness to the story, which is the question of how a dark-skinned man of Mexican heritage became such a figure of worship for WHITE South Africans. The only visible African face in the film is that of a female newscaster. I agree with her that I kind of wish the filmmaker had explored that thread, but the fact that he didn’t does not detract from my high opinion of the story.

This is the most directly moving and affecting of the 3 other Oscar nominees I have seen, perhaps because the story was so unexpected. It’s also the least epic in its scale. If the Academy decides to go the feel-good winner, then this film will win.

Five Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi)

Until I had seen Searching for Sugar Man, it was 5 Broken Cameras that I was rooting for to win. I actually think it is the film that WILL win, since it’s topic is of greater worldwide epic significance than Sugar Man. What we get here is five years of the travails of the inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Bil’in, as seen through the home video footage of Emad Burnat. The title comes from the fact that, one at a time, each of the video cameras he was using gets broken in various ways (including gunfire). In 2009, Burnat was approached by the Jewish Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, who shaped the finished film from the hundreds of hours of tape, and wrote the voiceover that Burnat reads over the course of the film.

Burnat, a simple farmer, begins his filmmaking odyssey at the birth of his youngest son, as a new Israeli settlement is begun across the valley from his home village. The film therefore chronicles the growth of this child in parallel to the growth of the settlement and its encroachment on his village’s land. Given the events that he records, it is impressive how even-handed the narration ends up being (Davidi is a smart man), since the film is much more of an indictment of impersonal army tactics than of Jews or Israelis. It helps that, beyond Davidi, there are Jewish activists on the side of the Bil’in residents who feel the same outrage that they do. It is anti-authoritarian and anti-oppressor. It is also very sad, since we see governmental forces acting with impunity and apparently suffering no consequences for their actions. And we see young children destined to grow up and hate their oppressors. The cycle of violence continues.

And yet – the very fact of the collaboration between Davidi and Burnat provides hope for the future. Whether or not the film wins an Oscar, it is a must-see.

How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)

Finally, there is this film, which tells the tale of how a group of determined (mostly gay, but not exclusively) activists succeeded in discovering a workable set of medications and medical procedures to combat the AIDS epidemic. It chronicles the birth of Act Up and other groups that tried to channel the fear and outrage provoked by the rise of HIV, and the lack of governmental action to combat it, into something positive. Hats off to these courageous men and women – many of whom died – as their actions saved the lives of millions.

How to Survive a Plague, like Searching for Sugar Man and 5 Broken Cameras, is told almost entirely through archival footage. It’s amazing that all of this old video from the 1980s and 1990s exists – what a triumph of preservation! It’s also interesting for filmmakers like me to watch the quality of the footage improve over time, as we get closer to the present.

The non-archival footage consists of present-day talking heads. And since we see many of the people in the film die, I liked the device of holding off revealing who had survived (which we know when we see their talking head), as it created an additional layer of drama to the already compelling narrative of the terrible AIDS epidemic.

This is also a must-see, even if the story is better known than that of the other two films in this blog entry.

Again, so hard to choose. For now, my heart is with Searching for Sugar Man. But I would be happy with any of the nominees (that I’ve seen). As would Peter Knegt of Indiewire, as witnessed by the final line in his prediction blog.

If you’ve watched any of the documentaries, let me know your thoughts.

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