by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 4: Procession, The First Wave, Cusp

Credit: Netflix

Procession

Certain films allow cinema to display its unbridled capacity for humanity. Certain films can truly change lives, as hyperbolic as that may sound. Robert Greene’s new documentary Procession is one such film. A collaboration between Greene, a “drama therapist,” a young actor, and six men who were sexually abused by members of the Catholic Church, Procession channels the documentarian’s proclivity for reenactment into a ferociously emotional project. Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano, victims of the same horror, subjected to the same failures of justice, here write and direct short films inspired by their trauma, starring each other and the young actor, Terrick Trobough. 

The opportunity to situate these experiences within the realm of fiction or fantasy provides a secure amount of distance for these men, but each individual utilizes their role as director to communicate to their actors the specificities of their pain. “Can we threaten Terrick?” Joe Eldred suggests softly from behind the camera while filming a scene taking place in a confessional. Meanwhile, Tom Viviano, playing the priest, notices something unsettling about the construction of the space: “They’ve got a fucking lock. Why do you need a lock?” He punches it in anger. Procession is, among other things, a compelling examination of masculinity’s different tones. Most of the men are largely reserved in their emotion, save for their trembling and their tears, but flares of furor occasionally do spark up. Mike Foreman is certainly the most outspokenly pissed off – his base vocal register drips with gruff disdain, swears accentuating his every sentence. Elsewhere, in one startling moment, Ed Gavagan calls “cut” with a fierce scream. These outbursts of intensity hold tremendous power, glimpses at the storm of turmoil that has plagued each of these men who had previously felt as if no semblance of relief might ever find them. 

By listening to each other’s stories, starring in their memories, standing together in solidarity, these men become brothers. By sharing in a collective pain and a process of facing and hopefully overcoming their harrowing circumstances, the men of Procession exhibit a patience and generosity that feels profoundly and quintessentially spiritual. Whether the making of this film could result in the swift application of justice that some other documentary subjects have managed to win is uncertain at best, and truthfully unlikely. But it is in the making of the film itself that a reward of another kind is evidently shared: through the strength of one’s bravery, the cleansing of the soul.

Writer: Conor Williams


Credit: Neon

The First Wave

The compartmentalization that contemporary documentary tends to engender — divorcing thematic intent from aesthetic misguidedness — is undoubtedly exacerbated in the time of the COVID-19 film. Considering everything that has transpired since March 2020, the prospect of viewing Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is reasonably and understandably demanding, a reiteration of the unknown capabilities of a virus that is still running rampant, all telegraphed from within Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York during the first few weeks of the pandemic. It’s a never-ending avalanche of new patients, of resorting to last-measure equipment, of rushing between rooms as varying alarms go off. Heineman occasionally cuts to drone shots of a depopulated New York City: an unnerving contrast of portent-laden stillness and frenzied, exhausted activity.

The sacrifice of generally everyday contact is made resoundingly painful: not only are family members only allowed to see their hospitalized loved ones via video, the iPads and tablets themselves are sheaved in reams of plastic. The pandemic has necessitated barrier upon barrier between human contact. The patients that are subject to the most focus are what have been termed “essential workers,” and Heineman is admirably intent on outlining how the virus worked its way through different working-class communities, how it could infect an entire household within only a matter of days. It’s impossible to deduce a pattern from both the recoveries and the deaths, as numerous doctors and nurses make clear, and it’s this uncertainty that colors much of The First Wave.

Heineman operates neither from a vantage point of hindsight, nor does he attempt to neatly cap off the pandemic at the end of his documentary (the title itself implies the continuing series of peaks and valleys we’ve witnessed). The time-capsule properties — the evening banging of pots and pans briefly makes its way in sometime around April; the protests of early summer rightfully occupy much of the last third — are the most intriguing, but much of the documentary otherwise buckles under the passage of time. One can’t chide Heineman for being attracted to his chosen handful of hopeful stories, but the subsequent aestheticization of Brussels Jabon and Ahmed Ellis’ recoveries sours the produced feeling of optimism. Uplifting music, incongruous slow motion, invasive closeups: it’s as if The First Wave doesn’t trust us to untangle the victories from the losses, though that’s what the entire world has been left to do these last two years. This unprecedented climate is crammed within a conventional framework. Even just excising some of the distastefully ominous soundtrack cues would’ve set The First Wave a few notches above its current placement. It should be said that it isn’t too soon to take the pandemic head-on in film, although it is untimely to render the resulting project as an ornamental object, one that is so pointlessly self-assured in its aesthetic manipulations.

Writer: Patrick Preziosi


Cusp

The myth of that one perfect summer, cemented in popular thought as the horizon of youthful whimsy — where the binate orders of innocence and experience find alignment and prime their flighty subjects for adulthood’s greater domain — has always corresponded closely with the analogy of exorcism. A subtractive rather than constructive process (as implied by common associations with personal growth), it typically unfurls like a treillage of spiritual and mental baggage, the source of which is a strangulation of one’s rational faculties that must sooner be yielded; this perpetually arrested development being dissolved in either celebratory indulgence or a flush of life-altering wisdom. As alluded to by its title, Cusp inheres within the liminal territory attendant to these preoccupations, though its conclusions are neither arrived at through such restrictive channels as libertine abandon and awareness ex nihilo, nor telescoped toward eventual wholeness, for that matter. Parker Hill and Isabel Bettencourt’s chance meeting (described in press notes) with the teenaged trio at the film’s core — Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni — provides some indication of the schema according to which their documentation adheres: at a Texan gas station in the wee hours, presaged by little more than a few desultory reminiscences of the filmmakers’ high school years beforehand. Idle conversation leads to considerable rapport between both parties. And so it is that a private world of ritually-scheduled parties, heart-to-hearts, and creek adventures elegantly reveals itself.

Accompanying the girls over the course of summer vacation, the film renders both their rugged dwellings and the paradisal wonders that underlie these conditions; a regular procession of hyaline dawns and amethyst dusks, pasture sprawl and wooded trails, all garlanded in the infamously prestige-conferring, mandala-like clouds of haze popularized by the likes of Korine and Malick. Skewing closer to dramatic accessory than thoroughgoing framework, though, these features never impinge on the film’s essential, wandering nature, favoring passing survey of sundry idylls over a concentrated sedimentation of their beauties, foregrounding self-evident prettiness to the exclusion of all else. As it happens, the documentarian duo refrain from mediating their filmed excursions more than strictly necessary to scaffold viewers’ access to this community. While the various gossip sessions and fireside anecdotes that enliven the trio’s daily meanderings admit more privileged context to their deciphering than can be realistically expected from the patchy recollections and references that comprise teenage conversation, alongside the knotty language-games crucial to the flavor of its general parlance — therefore, also raising the question of how much the perks of authorship, intentionally or not, explicitly leveraged or not, influence the behavior of individuals necessarily subordinate to it — there remains an underside viewers are never privy to.

The teenagers are certainly pleasant and amiable enough, whether it’s carping animatedly about boys, sifting through and selecting party dresses, or demonstrating for filmmakers their morning routine, but a perceptible guardedness undergirds even their first interactions; one always indicative of the fact that we’re merely outsiders to this particular cloister, regardless of any perceived understandings of them formed in response to the vulnerabilities shared on screen. Indeed, these vulnerabilities are uttered with significant frankness; two of the girls are survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend and ex-partner, and at 15, they’ve endured more than most could imagine across a lifetime, gravitating instinctively to each other for the mutual affirmation that their friendship provides in a male-dominated environment, and taking precautions against lone encounters with others. Still, the threat of violence and assault anchors itself to situations wherein they are surrounded by older guys, some of whom are clearly enticed by their young age but feign concern in questioning it anyway; this practice is remarked on later as a mere pretext for luring obvious minors into compromising engagements. Though prudent to question the specificities of Hill and Bettencourt’s prior arrangements with their young subjects, moreso as they apply to scenes where Autumn and Brittney share traumatic memories of abuse on camera, it’s also admissible that perhaps this is the only means of reaching an audience with their experiences, and the freedom afforded to them in the act of expressing and objectifying, in some small form, such inconceivable pain must have partially justified their decision to do so. Even so, the film’s final montage of imagery featuring group photos of the trio and their exploits captured over the period of Hill and Bettencourt’s stay with them scans as a woefully miscalculated decision in light of its assemblage as a series of motivational vignettes, following a voiceover by Autumn about the value of confidence and self-validation; this choice, well-meaning as it may be, unwittingly conceals the irresolvable contradictions that often figure into the emotional labor of recovery in real-time. Coming as a slab of palliative reassurance at the tail-end of a film so attuned to the strength that comes from female fraternity and compassion, both linchpins of a lengthy process of communal healing independent of personal will and resilience, this decision risks attributing this process as one composited solely by the former, as well as a function of the latter’s intractability.

Writer: Nicholas Yap


Credit: CBSN Films

Bring Your Own Brigade

Filmmaker Lucy Walker’s new documentary Bring Your Own Brigade is a large, unwieldy film, bursting at the seams with ideas. While occasionally unfocused, Walker deftly navigates a tangled melange of tangential threads that eventually coalesce into a tapestry of human suffering brought on by neglect and political intransigence. A British native who had moved to Los Angeles several years prior, Walker explains via voiceover that she was fascinated and disturbed by the prevalence of forest fires in the area and set about to research the topic. The film begins in earnest in Malibu on November 8, 2018. As part of her ongoing project, Walker and her camera crew happened to be embedded with the local fire department on the day the Woolsey fire broke out, razing large swathes of Malibu and Ventura County. This happened on the same day and only 500 miles away from the now-infamous Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, CA. It’s a collection of remarkable, visceral, heartbreaking footage, perhaps the closest many viewers will ever come to experiencing this kind of hellish scenario. Scenes of people trying in vain to protect their homes, or attempting to evacuate on clogged roadways while surrounded by flames induce white-knuckle terror. But Walker is trying to get at something more than just the experiential horror of this tragedy. Instead, the film gradually transforms into something else entirely. 

Unlike Eva Orner’s Burning, which sections of Bring Your Own Brigade superficially resemble, Walker doesn’t build her film around a handful of repeating talking heads. Instead, she creates a kind of cacophony of voices; if the film loses something in its lack of specific focus, it makes up for it in its sheer breadth of inquiry. Ultimately, the film isn’t about climate change — while numerous commentators admit that climate change has exacerbated these kinds of fires, the real problem is human intervention in what are otherwise naturally occurring cycles of destruction and rebirth. Or, as one talking head puts it, these fires “are not acts of God but of human error.” Walker offers a brief history of the settling of California, a series of gold rushes and decentralized growth that culminated in a libertarian mindset that abhors regulations and prizes personal freedoms above all else (a fitting enough conclusion to draw about America as a whole, too). Generations of European colonialism fundamentally altered the landscape, removing trees and introducing types of grasses and saplings not indigenous to the region. There’s a quick detour that takes aim at local timber barons Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest landowner in California whose own holdings align with maps of the burn zone of the Camp fire. Experts testify to the legacy of clearcutting and deforestation, and how planting new, young trees to replace what’s been cut down actually creates a new, more combustible fuel load for fires. Or, as we are told, “logging takes the big stuff and leaves the little; fire takes the little stuff and leaves the big.” Once the big stuff is gone, the little stuff burns quicker and hotter than before. 

Further complicating matters are local fire departments and environmentalists attempting to convince citizens that some fires are actually necessary, and in some cases that they are living in areas that never should have been developed. Builders and local regulators have seemingly no interest in avoiding certain areas prone to naturally occurring blazes, instead assuming that fire departments will always be on hand to put them out. This is at least partially true, at least for the richest amongst us. The title of the film is explained as a joke about rich homeowners being able to afford private firefighters. They can “BYOB” — bring your own brigade. Walker takes her camera into local city council meetings and captures a citizenry and its elected officials that are totally unwilling to make even the smallest changes to their lifestyles to stave off future catastrophes. It’s infuriating, a glimpse of humanity at its most craven and ignorant, specific in its context here but speaking to failures of our larger cultural conscience. Walker tries to end on a hopeful note, checking in on a local man, Brad Weldon, who has created a commune of fire survivors who live in harmony with the land. He’s a charming eccentric, and the small community he’s amassed offers a roadmap of sorts for how to coexist with a volatile natural world. Unfortunately, the rest of the film offers ample evidence that Weldon and his type are outliers, and the rest of us are doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes. Less a teaching tool than a brutal slap in the face, Bring Your Own Brigade is a wake up call that depressingly might already be too late.

Writer: Daniel Gorman

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