Peter Shelton

When filmmakers become their stories

Posted in At the Movies, Gas Pains, Watch columns by pshelton on June 3, 2010

Some documentary films advocate unapologetically for change. Gasland, for example, which screened last weekend at Mountainfilm.

Josh Fox’s personal journey of discovery through the natural-gas fields of Pennsylvania (his home state) and west to the Rocky Mountains is a forthright indictment of an industry largely unregulated, and stubbornly secretive, when it comes to the air and water pollution it creates. (In one harrowing scene, a Colorado man instructs his wife to dial “91”—and then keep her finger hovering over the final “1”—while he takes a lighter and ignites the stream of water from their kitchen faucet.) Fox’s film is designed to stir outrage and action.

Bag It is another one. The movie starts with the “paper or plastic” dilemma at your supermarket and swoops into an investigation—a surprisingly entertaining and gentle-spirited investigation—of all things plastic and their effects on our bodies, our babies and our fellow creatures. Bag It ends with simple recommendations for changing what has until now been unconsciously destructive behavior—bringing your own reusable bags to the grocery is just one.

But what about documentaries that, inadvertently perhaps, alter the realities of their protagonists? Mountainfilm screened a couple of films this year that begged the question: What responsibility do artists bear for their often vulnerable human subjects?

Waste Land is about super-successful artist Vik Muniz and a project he undertook in his native Brazil. Muniz, who lives in New York, wanted to photograph the poorest of the poor, people who pick plastic and other recyclables from Rio de Janeiro’s enormous, putrid landfill. He selected a dozen or so subjects and over the course of two years created oversize portraits of them using as raw material the very garbage the pickers worked in.

The resulting photographs are astonishing. And the pickers almost all gained a sense of pride—a self-image at least—through the process. (Muniz even took one of them to London where his picture sold at auction for $50,000.) But then near the project’s end Muniz’s wife starts a fractious discussion on-camera with the question: What now? What becomes of these people who have been opened to a broader world but now have to go back to the favelas, back to their jobs in the landfill?

At least Waste Land asked the question. Sons of Perdition didn’t get that far. Filmmakers Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten examined the plight of three “lost boys” who were banished from their Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints community of Colorado City, Utah. (The polygamist Mormon splinter group, now run from prison by iron-fisted president Warren Jeffs, suffers a mathematical flaw: there will always be too many men for the available women and girls; so some of the boys have to go.)

Cut off from family and lacking many “outside” skills (one of the boys is asked if he reads comic books, and he replies, “What’s a comic book?”), the teens, aged 15 to 17, are left to fend for themselves in nearby St. George. And here’s where the filmmakers cross a line between observer/recorders and active participants in their story.

Measom and Merten help the boys find places to stay (none of which lasts very long). They encourage them to sign up for the Job Corps or work toward their GEDs (neither of which work out either). They intervene in the boys’ relationships with their parents and siblings still out at what they call “the Crick.” And most astonishingly, they help one of the boys try to “rescue” his 14-year-old sister from the Crick, as they believe Warren Jeffs is about to marry her off to an older man.

The film opens with this tense night-time scene inside a car, with two of the boys in the back seat. The vehicle approaches a home in the Crick. “The van’s gone,” one of them says. “Dad’s not home. Let’s go!” They bolt out across the snow and inside the front door to get his sister.

We’re rooting for them. These kids are innocents from another world who have, yes, gotten a raw deal on both the “inside” and the “outside.” But then we realize that none of this would be happening if not for the filmmakers. Who’s driving the car? The boys don’t have diver’s licenses—they don’t have birth certificates; they don’t have permanent addresses. Who’s holding the camera?

Meason and Merten have entered murky legal and ethical territory. They’ve spent three years with the boys now. Their film is riveting, intimate and candid; you can’t take your eyes away. It was obvious in Telluride, where the five of them (the three boys and the filmmakers) attended the festival screenings, that there is shared affection all around. And yet I couldn’t help wondering (worrying, actually) as the boys stood uncomfortably on stage at the Opera House, squinting into the lights, not knowing what to do with their hands, as strangers praised their “bravery” and the audience rose to give them a standing ovation, what could possibly be going through their young minds?

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