An unfortunate, unintended bit of favoritism often comes into play when discussing documentaries, and that is the tendency to overlook films that are more whimsical or playful, that aren't grappling with the most charged social issues of the day. One of the services film festivals perform is to balance the scales, programming less heavy fare in such a way that it's in conversation with and given equal value as darker material. To that end, among the films playing in documentary competition at LAFF this year are portraits of vintage TV–horror hostess Vampira (Vampira and Me) and of the black American punk band Death (A Band Called Death).
Still, if time and money are short, competition films Call Me Kuchu and Sun Kissed, which simultaneously illuminate serious subject matter and draw tears, are must-see tickets.
Heart-wrenching and inspiring, Call Me Kuchu, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, jumps right into the fray of Uganda's media- and government-sanctioned homophobia, outlining its roots (leftover colonial laws from Britain; right-wing American evangelicals stoking the flames of bigotry) while also showcasing the complicity of contemporary Ugandans, in that bigotry (a homophobic reporter whose paper routinely outs gays and lesbians cackles gleefully as he boasts of the paper's destruction of lives).
The real power of the film, though, lies in its depiction of resistance, as gays and lesbians use both institutional tools (the court system) and powerful stories from their own lives (one lesbian's recounting of her "corrective" rape and its aftermath is especially horrifying) to effect social change.
Knowing in advance that gay-rights activist David Kato, the film's charismatic anchor and moral center, was murdered does nothing to diminish how devastating his death is in the film.
On the surface, Sun Kissed, directed by Maya Stark and Adi Lavy, is about the struggle of Dorey and Yolanda Nez, two Native American parents, to figure out how their children were both afflicted with XP, a rare genetic disorder where any exposure to the sun causes skin cancer and, in some cases, death. The film is suffused with a quiet but potent sadness; as it progresses, it becomes a moving, unforced meditation on history and culture, erasure and perseverance. It personalizes the ways in which the past lives in the present, and as the couple peels back layers of their personal history, the larger, grim history of the Navajo people and culture comes sharply into focus.
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Two nonfiction films playing out of competition also are highly recommended. Nimbly juggling small-scale intimacy with the big-picture politics of the "war on drugs," director Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In is an exhaustive look at the components of said war — its race and class politics; its origins in the late 1950s and the evolution of its goals and meaning; the big money it generates on a host of levels. Talking heads include law enforcers, drug dealers and addicts, medical experts, investigative reporters and hot media names such as David Simon (The Wire) and Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow). The film is both captivating and illuminating, even as it confirms the suspicions of many about the ignobility of the doomed drug war.
One comment in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's The Invisible War stops the viewer cold. It's when one of the ex-military women interviewed says, "I was drugged and raped for the first time...." You wonder if that's a slip-up, if she really could have been raped — by fellow servicemen — multiple times. She was, as were many of the women featured in this eye-opening look at the issue of sexual assault in the U.S. military.
Speaking to more than a dozen women of all races (and one male rape victim) from all branches of the military, the directors uncover a history of sexual abuse and sanctioned cover-ups that is staggering, and far more pervasive than the occasional scandal suggests.
With the finesse of a gifted novelist, the directors capture each victim's story with such care and depth that you're engrossed from the first frame, and care deeply about each subject by the time end credits roll.