"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


three films

Between Miami and SXSW, I've seen three documentaries in the last four days. Friday night, S, her friend So, and I caught a screening of Cocalero at the Miami International Film Festival. Cocalero tells the story of the election Evo Morales, a union organizer who is now president of Bolivia. Morales organized the cocaleros, most of whom are indigenous ("indians") people living in the country's remote regions. Cocaleros grow coca, which is a plant that can be used to make tea. Unfortunately, its new leaves also contain cocaine, which used to make it a very profitable crop. The U.S., in conjunction with the Bolivian government, organized a fight against coca growers by destroying their crops, beginning in the 1980's. The cocaleros, led by Morales, organized a union against this threat to their livelihood.

Cocaleros are very improbable types to not only run a candidate for president, but also to actually win the election. The film shows the union and party's organization, much of which is led by peasants who live in traditional shelters in the forest. Many lack formal education, and, as both S and So pointed out, a government run by uneducated peasants has the potential for disaster. The film didn't go into how Morales and the cocaleros have done at governing, but it made clear Morales' ties to radical leftist parties and politicians in Latin America. So, who is part of Bolivia's elite, also noted the class tensions between peasants and the elite, which has always ruled in the past.
Cocalero raised some very interesting questions: how do you help people whose livelihood depends on a crop that has been criminalized? They don't know how to grow much else. Can a government of the people actually govern? How do you deal with class conflict writ large?
While it raises great questions and tells a fascinating story, the film is difficult to watch because the cinematography is terrible. When asked after the screening, the director said that he was going for cinema verite. My feeling about that is that while you can certainly put a fancy French name on it, that doesn't make up for bad camera work. The film almost makes you sick becuase the cameras shake so much.
It was also difficult for S and I to watch for reasons having nothing to do with the filmmaker's approach. Our friend Ken was part of the American response to the drug war in the region. About 3/4 of the way through the film, the camera closed-in on Mount Ilimani, which towers over Bolivia's capital city, La Paz. Ken died in a horrible accident on Ilimani. We talked on the way home about what Ken thought about the war on drugs and how it affected the region's peasants. Ken was one of the best people I have ever known, and the peasants of Bolivia would have benefitted from his intelligence and compassion.
Sunday, Steve Not the Lawyer and I saw the premiere of What Would Jesus Buy? at the Paramount as part of SXSW. The film is fantastic and will certainly get a distributor, so you should be able to Netflix it eventually. It features Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir (as well as the Not Gonna Buy It band) as they travel across America encouraging consumers to stop buying unnecessary things and amassing debt during the Christmas season.
Part performance art and part crusade against the rampant consumerism that is destroying our country, Rev. Billy and his group's work is meaningful - and hilarious. I'm not sure what my favorite part of the film was. Maybe the exorcism of the sign at Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas? Or when Rev. Billy and the choir step into a New York subway car carrying a pulpit and two large crosses - on which Mickey and Minnie mouse are crucified? Or when an Anaheim police officer informs Rev. Billy that, in Disneyland, "It's not like the rest of America, where you can stand on a street corner and...sing," before proeeding to arrest him on Christmas Day? Watching Rev. Billy wince every time he applies hair spray to create his sanctified hair?

I don't know. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film occured when the Reverend Jim Wallis said, his narration juxtaposed over a scene of a shopping mall, "This isn't what Jesus intended for us." And that really sums it up: there's something immoral about how much we waste, how our consumption is destroying our environment and our souls. What Would Jesus Buy? is definitely worth your time. If you're in Austin, it's showing again on Saturday night.

Monday morning, we saw Audience of One, which is a beautifully shot piece about a Pentecostal preacher in San Franscisco who believes that God has commanded him to make a futuristic science fiction film about Joseph that somehow involves a threat from invading aliens -- despite the fact that the pastor and his followers know next-to-nothing about filmmaking. This movie was the most fascinating of the three. Despite financial and technical setbacks (including completely running out of money and only being able to shoot two scenes), the pastor presses on with the goal, and calls his congregation to an even broader vision that involves owning an airline and colonizing another planet.
The pastor, Richard Gazowsky, and his family were present for the screening and he and the director answered several questions about the film, what it was like to be seen on screen with a theater full of people who think you're crazy, and why he felt called to pursue the vision in this way.
What was most fascinating to me, though, was the fact that his crazy vision, in which his church members seem to almost blindly follow him, despite bankruptcy, embarrassment, and near-ruin, is that what Pastor Gazowsky is doing isn't really all that different from anyone who has a dream. Whether you're an independent filmmaker who has a story to tell, a person deeply troubled by our society's focus on money, a peasant coca grower who wants to make things better for his people, a loyal soldier who recognizes that a policy hurts ordinary people, or a graduate student trying to write a book about an horrific situation, you have to be a little bit crazy to see a dream through. You have to believe against all odds that your story is worth telling. You have to believe that someone, somewhere will carry you through. You have to believe that, despite all the odds against you, eventually it will work. You have to...believe.


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