I have now seen all five of the films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. My reviews of An Inconvenient Truth and Jesus Camp are already available. A few months ago I saw My Country My Country, and didn’t get a chance to write about it, and then this week I viewed Iraq in Fragments and Deliver Us From Evil.
When Jerry Seinfeld presented the Oscar (to An Inconvenient Truth, it turned out), he joked about all the films being depressing. He probably didn’t even know what they were about–documentaries seem to have a rap of being bleak films about desperate people or situations. And this year’s crop was pretty close. Two films are about the mess that is American-occupied Iraq, two are about religion run amok, and the fifth is about a looming global climate crisis. When judging a non-fiction film, I think that often it is the cause espoused that is judged as much as the filmmaking technique (and a good box office doesn’t hurt, at least not anymore, since the committee was revamped). An Inconvenient Truth had a hot button political issue that Hollywood lefties could get behind, as well as the star-power of Vice President Al Gore. But was it the best film of the five?
Before I choose the winner, I am confronted with my attitudes about non-fiction films. I’m certainly not an expert on the subject, but I’ve noticed that there is a distinct difference between the documentaries that are celebrated and the kind I’m used to, the sort that were shown to us in school or are still made today for outlets like the History Channel or PBS. These typically have a narrator (keeping people like Edward Hermann and David Ogden Stiers working), a slew of academics or other experts used as talking heads, and slow-panning over photos and documents, a style best exemplified by Ken Burns. None of the five films in this crop fall into that category. An Inconvenient Truth is a filmed lecture/slide-show, with some biographical material about Gore (narrated by Gore himself). Both My Country My Country and Iraq in Fragments are free of narration, and have the camera simply observing behavior, the same with Jesus Camp. Deliver Us From Evil is the closest to a conventional documentary, in that it has the participants of the events depicted giving testimony, as well as experts, though there is no narrator.
Of the two Iraq films, Iraq in Fragments is more dynamic. My Country My Country follows a Dr. Riyadh and his family. He is a Sunni physician who runs for office in the first Iraq elections following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. He is both hopeful and cynical about the process, The film is very dry, the kind of thing you might see on an Iraqi version of C-SPAN. Only one sequence really kicks into high gear: a cousin of Riyadh’s is kidnapped by insurgents. There is a tense moment when the boy’s father negotiates with the kidnappers on the phone, and makes a mistake by making an aside without covering the receiver of the phone. It’s like something out of Hitchcock, but it’s really happening.
Iraq in Fragments tells three stories. The first is from the viewpoint of an eleven-year-old Sunni boy in Baghdad, who is raised by an uncle who is alternately kind and cruel to him. He goes to school, but doesn’t learn much. All around him men complain about the occupation. “They came as liberators, but now they are occupiers,” we hear. They are happy Saddam is gone, but are not thrilled with being occupied. It’s reminiscent of the line from the Who song: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” The second third deals with the Shia radicals in the south, who follow Mohammed Al-Sadr. They are into self-flagellation and rounding up anyone suspected of being blasphemous. Finally, the Kurds are represented in the third segment. The Kurds, who were long mistreated by those in power, are the most hopeful about the U.S. involvement, and hope to have their own country. A certain amount of knowledge about the situation is needed to appreciate this film fully. I try to keep up with the news, but even I was lost in some scenes, and was filled in by the interview with the director, James Longley, in the supplemental material. However, Iraq in Fragments is the most interesting visually of the five films. Longley, who was a one-man camera crew, captures some beautiful images.
If I had a vote, I would have probably cast it for Deliver Us From Evil, which was directed by Amy Berg. I think it’s the most gripping of the five and has the best structure. It tells the harrowing story of a priest who molested hundreds of children, but was moved around from parish to parish by a diocese that knew what he was doing, but did nothing to stop it, and still resists any efforts to confront the huge problem the church has right now. Berg interviews a few of the victims, who are emotionally scarred by the events, as well as their families. It’s heartbreaking to watch as a father relates how he confronted his daughter and learned she was raped by the priest when she was five years old. These parents feel a horrible guilt over letting this monster into their lives. As one mother puts it, “He was the wolf, and I was the gate-keeper, and I let him right in.” The priest, Oliver O’Grady, was finally arrested, convicted and deported to Ireland, where he now roams free, without anyone in Ireland knowing his past. He participates in the film, but he’s not the real villain, and as he admitted to his crimes thirty years ago. The film has bigger fish to fry–the bishop who turned a blind eye (he is now the Cardinal of Los Angeles) and even the current Pope, who was the head of the Vatican office that deals with this sort of thing (President Bush, at the request of the Vatican, made Pope Benedict immune from any prosecution, a news item I somehow missed).
The film is not anti-Catholic, it is anti the hierarchy that has made for this kind of institutional nightmare. There are theological experts who comment on the causes that has led to this. Certainly the medieval insistence on having celibate priests will always lead to those who are sexually aberrant toward the calling. And this insistence is not found in the Bible, in fact, the opposite is true: in the Book of Timothy, the ideal qualities of a bishop include being married. It was not until the fourth century that the new rule was invoked. One expert speculates that it’s because priests with children bequeathed their property to their sons, but if priests were unmarried, the church could get all the property back. So it’s once again all about money.
The film suggests sexual molestation by priests is a huge problem. Over 100,000 cases have been reported in the U.S. alone. I think this image has forever stained the priesthood. I can’t look at a priest without wondering if he’s a pedophile. Who in their right mind would trust their children in the care of a priest? But the church hierarchy continues to do nothing.