Wednesday, March 5, 2014

True/False Films: Killing Time & Big Men

The best documentary films often take a serious, prevalent issue and are able to explore it from an angle that has been silent. In the case of Killing Time, Dutch filmmaker Jaap van Hoewijk visits a Texas town where he follows the family of a convicted rapist & murderer days before the criminal is set to be executed. Whereas Big Men looks at the multiplicity of humans behind the oil market, mainly through the eyes of a small Texan company on the verge of tapping into a huge oil field and the African countries these types of operations devastate. Both films are very different but both give a new voice & perspective to very old, very controversial, and very sweeping issues.

The director of Big Men, Rachel Boynton, introduced her film at True/False by saying she began making it about nine years ago "with a plane ticket to Africa and a few phone numbers in her pocket," the result a startling slice of greed that slowly unfolds around a series of candid interviews and immersive scene setting. In Africa she brings us on the boats of Nigerian rebels brandishing guns as they break & set aflame pipelines, pirate ships that siphon oil from others expensive drilling operations, entrepreneurs & governments who try to work with American companies but who become lost in the potential for greed or the in attempts to protect their fragile countries. In America, Boynton brings us to the offices of drawling, small time oil men trying to navigate their potentially huge investment against larger companies, tempestuous African governments, and a general confusion brought about by their sudden status change. Even though it is easy to portray the perpetrators of oil drilling as evil, Boynton's film had an unexpected sadness, capturing the grief & emotional response to thoughtless acts on both the American & the African sides. The film leaves you with the feeling that no one actually wins in the oil industry, even those profiting are often deflated to the point of being inhuman, and not in a demonic way but in a pitiful one. By physically embedding itself into the dueling sides of the oil industry- those who want the natural resources and those who have them- Big Men was able to show a story of people providing a face to an inexplicable, enigmatic industry usually only profiled in terms of money, barrels, and a fluctuating stock market.

Killing Time followed in the same vein as Big Men, taking a personal lens to a huge, socio-political issue. So often documentary filmmakers give us the story of the prisoner to illustrate the issue of the death penalty (Into The Abyss, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, The Thin Blue Line), using a speaking, thinking person- guilty or not- to evoke an emotional and instinctual response from the audience: killing a human, this human or any other human, is wrong. Yet Killing Time took an alternative approach, profiling the days leading up to an execution from the perspective of the people balanced on the fulcrum of the event; the ranging emotions of the prisoner's family, the religious house that acts as a sanctuary for relatives prior to the killing, the lively, make-up wearing media troupe acting for the cameras, even one of the victims and her unexpected response to witnessing the final minutes of her attacker.

When I asked the director what it was that he took away from this film, what was an unexpected something that will stay with him forever he spoke of a very distinct image that will now, like his film, haunt me every time I think of the death penalty. Jaap van Hoewijk said that when he arrived outside the prison to film on the day of the execution there was a large ball of crumpled, weatherworn yellow caution tape being unfurled by policemen to hem in the mix of protestors (those for and against what was about to take place) and media. It wasn't the bright, yellow, American tape that struck him, or even the blaring words of caution, it was the fact that this same large clump of tape wadded up on the dry Texan lawn of this prison was unrolled and rolled, again and again and again. This mass of tape was reused each time an execution was to take place, the death penalty a matter of simple routine,  the tape a small symbol of the complete and utter disregard surrounding the taking of a life, the taking of a life that was anything but routine for the survivors of the prisoner's family.

The death penalty and oil industry are two issues that I repeatedly feel a personal shock and embarrassment about as an American, two issues that continue to unnecessarily, and often indirectly, take lives. Killing Time and Big Men did not exactly dive right into the vast complexity of these issues, they focused on the stories of people swimming within them. These films created humanizing portraits of controversial social, political, economic, even religious points of contention in hopes of making these daunting subjects seem less so. It seems easier to take action in the name of a face, a family, a child, a life and I hope these films inspire audiences to do so.

Labels: ,