Review of Films from World's Largest Documentary Festival
A selection of films from DocFest
Review of Films from World's Largest Documentary Festival
Hooligan Sparrow poster detail
By Richard Swift /

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

Still from Norman Lear film [Related Image]directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. (91 minutes)

This is a polished documentary biopic of one of the great innovators of mainstream UStelevision. Lear is now a dynamic 92-year-old, still full of energy and ideas. The film strings together some fabulous music with often amusing footage from Lear’s youth (he grew up in a poor and broken Jewish New York family) to later public appearances on talk shows. Throughout, Lear is the very model of wit and grace.

Back in the day, which for Lear was from the late 1960s into the 1980s, he worked 75-hour-weeks to create and write sit-coms such as All in the FamilyMaudeThe Jeffersons – bringing issues like racism, reproductive rights, national chauvinism, violence, sexual orientation and drug addiction centre-stage on US network TV. For the fundamentalist Right he was the anti-Christ and they vilified him wherever and whenever they could. He finally quit Hollywood and set up People for the American Way to defend cultural space against their incursions.

Rating: ★★★★

Hooligan Sparrow

directed by Nanfu Wang. (85 minutes)

Ye Haiyen (‘Hooligan Sparrow’) is a Chinese sex-rights activist who, with great humour and resilience, challenges her country’s hypocrisy, puritanism and exploitative practices. The film opens on the tourist resort island where the irrepressible Ye previously antagonized brothel owners by, as part of her campaign for sex workers’ rights, offering free sex to migrant workers. Now she is on the trail of a local school principal who has been taking 11-year-olds to a resort hotel for sex. (Ye claims it is a widespread practice in China for principals to offer young students to local party officials as bribes.) The publicity forces reluctant police to arrest the teacher and as he is hauled off, Ye, surrounded by fellow activists, sports a sign saying: ‘Hey, principal, get a room with me and leave the kids alone.’

The authorities are not amused. Soon Ye, accompanied by young filmmaker Wang, are fleeing police and assorted pro-government goons. Ye is impressive and so is Wang, who braves smashed cameras to smuggle her footage out of China. Her first film, not the most polished of pieces, is a raw effort to expose injustice under perilous circumstances.

Rating: ★★★

Fireflies in the Abyss

directed by Chandrasekhar Reddy. (88 minutes)

Eleven-year-old Suraj and his friends and family can barely survive as rat-hole miners, scraping coal from rock in a dangerous pit mine in northeast India. Filmmaker Reddy took months winning the trust of these Nepalese migrants by living with them and sharing the risks of going down into the unstable coal pits, his camera perched on a rickety trolley. It makes for a slow and thoughtful documentary.

This is much more than a standard exposé of child labour and appalling working conditions. Reddy captures the rhythms of life in a marginal mining community, and in the laughter and tears of the Nepalese workers themselves. We are immersed in their intersecting personal stories that give a sense of individual hopes and fears against the backdrop of often bleak, at times beautiful, countryside. The kids here grow up too fast, with a stubborn smile and a determination to survive.

Rating: ★★★

A Revolution in Four Seasons

directed by Jesse Deeter. (90 minutes)

The Arab Spring’s one fragile success story is Tunisia and this film seeks to explore its dynamics through the stories of two women. Both sympathize with the aspirations for freedom, but in radically different ways. One is freelance journalist and blogger Emna Ben Jemaa who craves a secular freedom that fits her cosmopolitan roots in urban Tunis. The other is Jawhara Ettis, a star of the youth movement of the Islamist Ennahda Party, who sees her country’s future in tolerant but decidedly religious terms. She is elected to the Tunisian Parliament after the overthrow of the country’s corrupt leader, Ben Ali.

Deeter resists arranging for the two activists to meet. Instead, she draws from their parallel stories and reactions to the vicissitudes of a revolution in which they invest much hope. Both women marry and have their first child against the backdrop of demonstrations, assassinations and political intrigue. It’s not an easy ride. Tunisia has been scarred by fundamentalist terrorism that threatens to derail the precarious consensus, presenting a cruel challenge to both the women’s perspectives. This is political documentary-making at its best, delivering gripping human drama that provides understanding without sacrificing complexity.

Rating: ★★★★

Do Not Resist

directed by Craig Atkinson. (70 minutes)

From Ferguson Missouri to small-town USA, this is a harrowing exposé of the militariza­tion of police tactics and technologies. We see a system of profiling and surveillance way beyond the imaginings of the most paranoid activist. We meet the ideologues of this dystopian police state: training cheerleaders who preach the gospel of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ to uniformed superheroes, ‘criminologists’ who champion drones killing without human orders, and the pre-crime profiling of ‘killers’ (mostly people of colour) not yet born.

Modern US policing is organized around highly militarized SWAT squads driving to the homes of potential ‘perps’ at unexpected hours and smashing up their houses and belongings. The tactics and technologies have been road-tested in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Director Craig Atkinson captures the gung-ho enthusiasm of these frat boy cops with very few discordant or critical voices to puncture the night­mare. It makes for an important document that we ignore at our peril.

Rating: ★★★★

Chasing Asylum

directed by Eva Orner. (96 minutes)

Clandestine footage from the Australian refugee gulags on Pacific islands provides an unflinching examination of one of the most draconian anti-migration systems in the world. The Australian political class has constructed this system of camps to send out the message that no illegal migrant will ever be welcome on the shores of the sub-continent. Refugees (mostly from Asia) are left to rot in stifling prisons where lives of regimented boredom are leading to an epidemic of despair and self-harm.

Orner’s footage is striking in that you rarely see the face of camp staff. This is due to fear of the government’s repressive legislation that could mean job loss, hefty fines, even prison for whistleblowers. This contributes to the film’s claustrophobic feel, deriving both from prison bars and the camera playing on the wrists or shoulders of anonymous interviewees. The effects of this refugee policy are intercut with clips of the political elite mobilizing fear and xenophobia to justify the unjustifiable. Orner puts Australia’s shame on display for all to judge.

Rating: ★★★

This column was published in the July 2016 issue of New Internationalist. Trailers added by FFA editor.

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Review of Films from World's Largest Documentary Festival