AFI DOCS: Part 1

AFI Docs Day 2:

Ok, ok, I know. You’re wondering, whatever in the Sam Hill happened to Day 1? Well, I have a little story about calendars and check engine lights that will surely bore you to tears, so it’s best to just power through the mea culpa. Full summary of Day 1: I really wish that I could have seen Hooligan Sparrow, a doc about seeking justice for sexual abuse victims in China.

Astute observers of the AFI Docs experience will also wonder why I am not talking about the Opening Night Gala which featured a new documentary from Alex Gibney on that Stuxnet virus you’ve probably forgotten about called Zero Days. That has a much more prosaic explanation: Zero Days has a July 8th release date for the DC area and my full review will appear then. A short take on the film: If you know what Stuxnet is and who made, you were probably already going to see it and if you don’t know what that is, then you must see it. More on July 8th.

Now, Day 2.

Tempestad, a film that premiered to rave reviews at the Berlinale from Mexican-Salvadoran cinematographer and filmmaker Tatiana Huezo, is the story of Mexico. At this point, we are, or ought to be, depressingly familiar with the human wreckage caused by Mexico’s struggle to establish the rule of law in a country ravaged by cartels. It has been the subject of many films and told many ways, often with a focus on the intersection of drugs, kidnapping, and law enforcement (the good kind fighting the bad kind and generally losing think Sicario and Man on Fire). As a documentary,Tempestad is not able to use the traditional forms of investigative documentary filmmaking to tell the incomprehensibly tragic stories of Miriam and Adela. Miriam worked for the government in a customs office and was, out of the blue, arrested along with a number of her co-workers and sent to a cartel run prison. “The ones who pay” is how the phrase translated. In a bizarre caricature of justice, their arrest let the government claim it had busted a people trafficking ring (“See? These people were arrested?”) and then they made the cartels some extra (grotesquely acquired) income. Miriam’s story is harrowing and awful, especially when she describes what happens to those who don’t pay, and it is clearly impossible to track down this prison in Matamoros (which literally touches the United States) and stick some cameras around a place that the police know is run by the cartels (the charming phrase is “self-governing”). There is no way to document those images to tell Miriam’s story. Adela’s story is similarly un-filmable. Adela’s daughter, Monica, was abducted from her university campus by sons of policemen with the help of someone who claimed to be her friend. Considering the levels of corruption involved and the direct responsibility of members of the police for her disappearance, it is unthinkable to put a documentary film crew’s very lives at such risk. And so Tatiana Huezo and her team try solve this problem of representation another way, a way that demonstrates not the exceptional nature of these tragic tales, but rather how entwined in the fabric of everyday life such stories are. Huezo chooses to tell a completely everyday visual story while the women tell their tragic tales solely in voice-over. 

Miriam begins her story with the day of her release from the self-governing prison in Matamoros, far in the north of Mexico (like any further north and you would be in Brownsville, TX) all the way to her home in Tulum, 2,000 km away and her visual story is of that very long bus journey through Mexico. The predominant images are of people sleeping or people waiting, either for security checks to be accomplished or for the next bus. As riveting as Miriam’s story is and as beautiful as some of this footage can be (especially the final images when we see a silhouette of someone floating in a body of water who could be this woman who contemplated joining the cartel to prevent them from killing her once her family couldn’t afford to pay her quota), this particular representational problem is never really solved. The connection between the quotidian images of this journey and Miriam’s narrative is just too indirect and obscure.

Adela’s story is much more visually compelling, in no small part because we get to see Adela go about her life as she tells us about it. We do not see her talking head style, we simply see her and her nomadic life as a circus clown. I can’t even believe that I’m typing that, but this juxtaposition of her awful tale of agonizing grief and uncertainty and her current life full of children and other female performers as they build their tent and prepare for their performances produces a number of striking images and indelible moments, such as a little girl staring at the camera while the other children practice their elephant walk, or a languid child watching, bored to tears, from her perch in the ring to which she is attached by a seat belt or the final reveal of Adela’s gorgeous clown costume. Adela’s story is one of despair leading to fearlessness, but visually, it is full of mothers and daughters being with each other and growing together, a presence that draws attention to the absence of one particular daughter and it is utterly

Tempestad tells us stories of failure and terror that are altogether too common in Mexico, while connecting the viewer with evocative and beautiful images of the country as it struggles to cope. I might not have understood all of the connections between the images and the narratives, but this is a film that is well worth seeing and I will certainly be on the lookout for more work from Huezo and company in the future.

Haveababy takes its title from the a website, which is run by a fertility clinic based in Las Vegas. The documentary is about the emotional and financial trials and tribulations of trying to start a family with In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). That is a heady mixture of personal, private, political and financial stakes and it would take a long-running television show to unravel all of the narrative strands bound up in such stories. As it turns out, and this should come as no surprise to anyone who has to pay for medical insurance, IVF is both expensive and not particularly well-covered by insurance (it is considered an elective procedure akin to cosmetic surgery, rather than as a treatment for the medical condition of infertility). So, the Sher clinic, the people behind the website, sponsor a contest every year where desperate people submit videos to the clinic through YouTube and Facebook. There is a public vote which narrows the field to ten people seeking IVF treatment (this is modern America - they are not all couples and not all the couples are married - that’s treated as a subtext in this film, I mean it’s already got so much on its mind for Pete’s sake) and then the clinic chooses one person to receive one cycle of IVF for free at the clinic. The doc explains right up front what that means when the head nurse of the clinic lays it out: a cycle of IVF is like paying $20,000 to walk onto a car lot for a 50-50 shot at walking away with a car, but they keep your money no matter what. I’m already exhausted and that’s just the first 15 minutes of this 77 minute doc.

Haveababy has a really difficult tightrope to walk narratively. It has to handle the reality TV premise of the contest with some aplomb not to seem like it is pandering to the same base emotional instincts of reality TV, which it only sort of sometimes achieves. But the doc is not really about Sher or the contest or even these specific people that we follow on this devastating emotional roller coaster (the depths of the falls from the emotional peak of a false start on a pregnancy are very, very dark), the doc is about how people cope with infertility and how the medical industry profits from people’s need to procreate, a need so fundamental that it completely short-circuits their ability to make rational financial decisions (not that most people are good at that anyway, because they definitely are not). Amanda Micheli and company actually do a pretty good job of creating a holistic view of what the Sher and other IVF clinics do and why people bankrupt themselves doing it. They are honest about clinic’s qualms with the “I Believe” contest. They are honest about Dr. Sher’s business practices (as he is as well). We see these men and women cope with existential questions about themselves and their choices. The film is never too sentimental, nor overly clinical about this nexus of medicine, procreation, and money. The emotional stakes are very high and the film respects that. As a document, haveababy is quite successful as I think about it now, but I left it with an uneasy sense that the film had acknowledged the existence of major issues at the heart of American medicine without actually grappling with them; the film sticks too much with the personal story of men and women getting pregnant when there is a bigger narrative thread to tug on. As the film notes, reproductive medicine is expected to become a $20 billion a year industry over the next five years. There’s no heartstring to tug on in that story.