Documentary Edge Festival: Life in the lens

By Peter Calder

This year's Documentary Edge Festival has issues ... lots of issues, writes Peter Calder

Of all our artists, documentary makers are the ones who bump up most regularly against the truth that everything is political. And the programme of more than 60 films from home and abroad in this year's Documentary Edge Festival contains more than its share of films that mount full-frontal assaults on power or orthodoxy.

Take the opening night film, The Island President, which charts the campaign of Mohamed Nasheed, the (now former) president of the low-lying Maldives to awaken the world to climate change; A Place at the Table looks at the 50 million people going hungry in the most powerful country on Earth; Trashed, a British doco, examines the looming waste crisis - there is plenty here to fire up the social conscience of even the most complacent.

The mass media comes under scrutiny in several excellent films. Certainly the slickest of them is Shadows of Liberty, whose portentously melodramatic tone and bad animations at times threaten to undermine the urgency of its message.

The film's French Canadian director Jean-Philippe Tremblay could hardly have hoped for a more auspicious debut for the film, which anatomises the takeover of US media, and in particular network television, by fewer and larger corporate conglomerates. Its world premiere, at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, North America's largest documentary fest, took place just as the tabloid phone-hacking scandal erupted in London.

The film, which takes its title from Thomas Paine's pronouncement that "when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon", does not cover any great new ground for anyone who has engaged in any critical reading of media, but it certainly provides a useful compendium of some of the more extreme atrocities of the past decade.

The most striking - and it was new to me - was the story of CBS News chief correspondent Roberta Baskin, who resigned in 1997 after her story on the conditions endured by workers at a Nike factory in Vietnam prompted network executives to give all staff Nike-branded clothing and require them to wear its logo on camera during coverage of the Winter Olympics.

At the other end of the size scale is Reportero, a downbeat, low-budget film about a newspaper you never heard of: Zeta, a Tijuana weekly run by a collective which tries to provide an independent voice in a state where drug dealers own the authorities. Its subject, journalist Sergio Haro, is an unlikely hero, whose self-effacing approach is compelling in the face of the murders of many of his colleagues.

Jonathan Holiff's My Father and the Man in Black is a heartfelt documentary that is, in essence, about a man searching for his father. Holiff, a Hollywood talent agent, never knew his dad, Saul, who was Johnny Cash's manager from 1960 to 1973.

The discovery that sets the film in motion, which should not be detailed here, makes for a fabulous set-up as the young man gets to know the older one several years after he has died. And it's fair to say that as a film-maker, Holiff has not really got the measure of his material. Cheesy re-enactments and overworked visual effects rob the extraordinary film of some of its emotional impact.

It also suffers from a failure of nerve: when push comes to shove, he addresses only glancingly the pain of his childhood at the hands of a deeply damaged man (his father compiled an invoice for the cost of raising him and "repaid" himself out of Jonathan's trust account).

But as an insider's view of the business it's absolutely fascinating: the life of a legend through the experience of one of the men closest to him, it comes highly recommended - even if you can't stand country music.

What: Documentary Edge International Documentary Festival
Where: Q Theatre, Queen St, Auckland
When: April 10-21


- NZ Herald

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