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True/False Film Festival 2011: Hula and Natan, The Interrupters, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, & Project Nim

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True/False Film Festival 2011: <em>Hula and Natan</em>, <em>The Interrupters</em>, <em>The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975</em>, & <em>Project Nim</em>

One of a few True/False features so amusingly foul-mouthed it becomes, in part, a study in the art of the comedic argument, Robby Elmaliah’s Hula and Natan is a suitably absurdist portrait of two middle-aged brothers who run a small junkyard in Sderot, an Israeli town on the Gaza border. Beginning on Israeli Independence Day 2008, and ending the same day in 2009, the brothers spend much of their time dwelling in fatalism rather than freedom. Some zingers typical of the duo: “We’re alive just waiting to die”; “All our neighbors are dead…The one who complained about us, died”; “This whole country is full of bastards”; and, after a rocket lands within earshot of Hula, “I think they’re giving me back all the iron I sold them.”

For a stretch, it seems like Elmaliah is after little more than watching these two guys bicker in their yard overrun with scrap metal, cats, and dogs, but as he literally gets closer to the characters (his camera watches from the edge of broken vehicles early on) the director weaves some resonant themes into Hula and Natan. Some are obvious (the first “COLOR RED” rocket warning is jolting), and all the fatalism and subsequent behavior (Natan pathetically attempting and sometimes failing to blow his profits on prostitutes) starts to make sense. The film’s larger theme, however, emerges almost imperceptibly. It begins when the government threatens to seize much of the brothers’ land, over which they’ve claimed squatters rights for years. As the battle escalates, the rocket attacks become more regular. Hula in particular becomes indignant about his government’s failings, expressing pity for the settlers in Gaza (“The whole state of Israel is Arab territory”) and expressing disgust at the Israelis reveling at a carpetbombing of Gaza from a scenic perch. It’s a heavy emotional shift, but Elmaliah handles it with tremendous grace and tonal consistency; his film is ripe for an Off Broadway adaptation.

About twice as long as the average documentary at True/False, The Interrupters is a worthy successor to Steve James’s masterpiece, 1994’s Hoop Dreams. Tracing a year James and his crew spent with the Chicago nonprofit CeaseFire (a neighborhood watch program writ large), the doc is a work of advocacy expressed almost entirely through character development.

Aside from a centerpiece montage of crime-scene memorials, James is essentially an invisible hand through out his 160-minute film. He hands off storytelling duties to three of CeaseFire’s many “Interrupters,” former gang members who have served time and now devote their lives to mediating conflicts between adolescents in an effort to curb the street violence which has degraded many Chicago neighborhoods. The minefield they’ve bravely hurled themselves into is treated like a war zone: The Interrupters “intercept whispers,” as “disease control workers” combating an “epidemic.”

The most charismatic of the trio is Ameena, a former “enforcer” who, perhaps because of her sass and gender, has a knack for diffusing tense encounters. Another, Cole, seems to excel due to his serenity. The third, Eddie, has more to atone for than his colleagues (he’s committed murder), and works with grave seriousness.

Thanks to the empathy of his proxies, James captures some remarkable, wrenching stories: that of a woman who has moved away from her two teenage sons to a secret location, because they cohabitate while rolling with rival gangs; tense mediations between CeaseFire workers who have similar beefs to settle; Cole steadily winning over a hot-headed, drug-abusing hood; and, in a thread that carries through the film, Ameesha’s repeated attempts to soothe a young woman whose Achilles heel is any perceived threat to her honor.

Somehow, James conveys the enormity of the task CeaseFire faces without succumbing to numbing repetition. His only misstep is to wait to fully introduce his third protagonist, Eddie, into the picture until it’s near the halfway point. Eddie’s slightly abrupt entry (and less engaging personality) gives the impression that James’s editing lacks restraint; I think The Interrupters could have only improved if it were longer. Even scenes that digress from directly observation of its protagonists, such as a large-scale mediation between dozens of rival gang members in a public school, contribute much to The Interrupters’s steadily accumulating heft. Peripheral glances of children yawning and sleeping through CeaseFire’s presentation are heartbreaking. A moment like that does more to reveal the danger of learned behavior than any adult trying to unteach it.

Comprised of archival footage unearthed at a Swedish television studio and commentary from black musicians and intellectuals, Goran Olsson’s The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 is a montage of Swedish news stories about the American Black Power movement. Proceeding in year-by-year chapters, the film presents a refreshing and sympathetic portrait of the aftermath of the debatable peak of the civil rights struggle.

Some of these stories were controversial enough that Richard Nixon broke diplomatic ties with Sweden after one official there compared government oppression of black leaders to Nazi actions. (In 1971, TV Guide ran a cover story calling Swedish news coverage “anti-American.”) Olsson shows, at great, gripping length, the first television interview with Angela Davis after her unjust imprisonment as an accessory to murder, which plays out as a comprehensive refutation of the movement’s supposed embrace of violence. He also gives as much time to the rise of the Black Panthers as to their gradual demise as the crack epidemic takes hold in the early 1970s.

A fascinating, valuable bit of revisionist history, The Black Power Mix Tape only suffers from a lack of momentum. The soundtrack, produced by Questlove of the Roots, starts with infectious, blaring Motown but quickly reverts to quieter interstitial sound collages. Olsson’s academic approach is sturdy and successful, but its early flair is quickly missed.

A couple of times each year, True/False is a cruel place to have a press pass. Its demands—that one arrive an hour (or more, this year) before a given screening to secure a numbered “Q” pass, with which non-passholders are placed in any empty seats—require careful planning, particularly during the universally packed Friday and Saturday screenings. Knowing that James Marsh’s follow-up to Man on Wire would be the hot ticket of Saturday night, if not the festival, I arrived in line to receive a Q number in the mid-100s for a spot in the 1200-plus seat Missouri Theatre.

Defeated (I doubt that more than 100 people without tickets to the screening would have missed it), I idled on a street corner scouring the program for a suitable alternative, when a big guy on a cellphone in a major rush blew by me, dropping a piece of paper. “It couldn’t be,” I thought. I stared, it rustled flirtatiously, I crouched, and I saw Project Nim.

The documentary, which recreates a long scientific experiment about the first major attempt to make a chimpanzee communicate (via sign language) like a human, is as frustrating as it is captivating. Marsh recycles the Man on Wire formula (dramatic recreations, interviews with subjects, archival photography and videos) for this story, and if anything, does a better job with it here. His embellishments can be as obnoxious (Errol Morris-y shots of phones ringing and dogs barking viciously at them) as they are ingenious (the patter of rain during a photo or video set in a storm), but they are utterly immersive. That said, what follows gives a somewhat false impression of how much I enjoyed Project Nim, which is swift, fun, and engrossing.

Unfortunately for its audience, though, most of Nim’s handlers are a diverse but unbearable array of assholes—or, if you will, nimrods. There’s Herb Terrance, the leader of the Nim study, who hands the young chimp off to an attractive hippie named Stephanie (there’s some history there) and becomes so frustrated with her lack of scientific discipline that he finds a new, equally attractive but uptight student (Laura) to take the reins. Herb then starts and quickly ends a romance with her as they teach Nim to speak on a 20-acre estate. All three of these characters speak, ad nauseam, in trite, retrograde platitudes about power and freedom: Nim deserves to romp around (Stephanie); Nim needs discipline (Laura, Herb); Herb slept with me to assert authority over Nim and me (Laura); Nim was happier when I took care of him (everyone). The film deflates during a series of catty interviews like this.

Project Nim’s other problem is how long it takes to address a glaring question: Is Nim communicating with his handlers, or just engaging in rote memorization of the signs he’s taught? One would assume the answer is obviously the latter, particularly if one assumed that a so-called scientist could exercise some shred of professional detachment, but this issue isn’t raised until the film’s final 20 minutes or so. While reliably gripping, Project Nim might have made a better film about scientific ineptitude than one about a monkey’s powers of seduction.

True/False ran from March 3–6. For more information, click here.