Hot Docs: Day 2

Shadows of Liberty
(UK, 93 min.)
Dir. Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Rupert Murdoch at the World Economic Forum, speaks about his papers’ support for the Bush policy.
Hot Docs 2012 began with a strong start. Although I was unable to see the opening night film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, my first film on day two of the festival was quite good. First up was the world premiere of Shadows of Liberty, which delineates the decline of mainstream news media in American through deregulation and corporatization.

Based on the book The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian, Shadows of Liberty draws inspiration from a quote by Thomas Paine. Using the words of one of America’s Founding Fathers, director Jean-Philippe Tremblay approaches the subject of a free press as a fundamental aspect of American history and one whose distortion distances America from the ideals on which it was founded. The film proves this argument by using various examples in which the integrity of the news was compromised by commercial interests.

Some of the stories are quite revealing. For example, the film begins with the notable news story by CBS reporter Roberta Baskin, who exposed Nike for inhumane treatment of its employees in its overseas factories. Despite the array of evidence presented by Baskin, not to mention the initial support she reportedly received when she first pursued the story, her exposé was suddenly dropped when CBS scored exclusive rights to cover the winter Olympics and Nike offered to sponsor. (The film features an especially noticeable degree of finger-wagging at CBS over other networks.) As Baskin’s case shows, CBS took a stand on the Nike scandal and demonstrated that if given the choice between headlines and bottom lines, a network will choose the latter. CBS then sacked Baskin when she expressed her disapproval over the network's decision that all reporters sport Nike logos during their broadcasts. Human billboards, she says.

In addition to Baskin’s story, Shadows of War tells of the dangers of putting a stranglehold on information in a democratic society using a talking heads format. The film features over a dozen industry insiders, scholars, and experts, including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!; Bob Baer, whom George Clooney portrayed in Syriana, the film based on Baer’s book; Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks; actor Danny Glover; anchor Dan Rather; and former journalist/The Wire creator David Simon. Given the plurality of voices in Shadows of Liberty, all of whom essentially agree that American mainstream media is a cesspool for the systematic corruption of journalistic integrity, the film is quite persuasive in its essay that a free and impartial press needs to be restored. The film might have achieved such an objective just as easily without its voice-of-God narration or its inconsistent animation sequences, since both may make the film more susceptible to criticisms of its obvious left-wing agenda; nevertheless, Tremblay makes a very convincing case that the ideal press as envisioned by Paine et al has only been undermined by the successors of the Oval Office.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Invisible War

The Invisible War
(USA, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Kirby Dick

The Invisible War is this year’s winner of the audience award for Best Documentary Feature at the Sundance Film Festival. It would not surprise me in the least if it added another audience prize to its tally come May 6th. The Invisible War is an impressive piece of investigative documentary filmmaking, which shows that journalistic integrity still exists in the American media, except that it might be best served by cinema rather than by broadcast television.

This film by Kirby Dick (This Film is Not Yet Rated) offers a damning study of widespread cases of sexual assault in the American military. Using testimony from over a dozen women and men who were raped and/or sexually abused during their service, The Invisible War offers a sickening range of stories that tell of a battle for justice in a system that has designed itself to simply look the other way. Even worse, though, the reports and statistics in the film suggest that the military offers a prime breeding ground for sexual abuse: not only are recruits significantly more likely to have committed a rape than civilians are, but the military’s structured decision to bury the problem encourages repeat offenders. The efforts made to remedy the rampant crimes are superficial, with only cheesy little infomercials serving as the military’s preventative measures; moreover, these instructions often amount to a case of blaming the victim, and thus perpetuating the ideological problem that rape is a petty trifle that comes with having women in uniform.

While the investigative angle of The Invisible War echoes the case studies within Shadows of Liberty, the second documentary of the day is stronger in form and conviction.  The Invisible War is compellingly structured and makes greater use of the talking heads format: some testimonies serve to emphasize arguments made by one participant, or to have one person continue the points made by a fellow subject when the emotion becomes too much and the film must cut away. The effect creates a sense of collectivity between the women and men who testify about the horrific crimes. The structure makes the film emotionally, factually, and argumentatively compelling.

Much like 2009’s The Cove, The Invisible War offers one the sense that a film can truly make a difference. As the subjects explain the extent to which they were mistreated by their colleagues, friends, superiors, and the system itself, The Invisible War positions itself as the only forum in which the subjects have a voice. The film even shows the women take their case to court, only to be greeted with the verdict that rape is simply an occupational hazard within the military. If anything, said verdict only underscores the urgency of the film’s demand for change. An excellent film!

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Invisible War screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne from Oct. 17-21

Shadows of Liberty screens again on Sunday, April 29 at 4:00 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox

The Invisible War screens again on Saturday April 28 at 9:00pm at the ROM, and on Saturday May 5, 3:15pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

For more information on films and screening, see hotdocs.ca

***Note: all star ratings will be assigned at the end of the festival.