‘It’s a Girl’ Uncovers the Horrors of Gendercide

It’s a Girl opens with a field dotted with small mounds. There are eight of them.

An Indian woman explains, “I just strangled it soon after it was born.”

The “it” she refers to is her own daughter. The woman killed each of her eight daughters after birth and buried each in that field.

Directed by Evan Grae Davis, It’s a Girl offers a harrowing look into the problem of gendercide in India and China, two societies that favor sons over daughters. Instead of welcoming girls into families, girls are aborted, killed, abandoned, abused, and neglected. They suffer sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and child marriage.

Cultural practices, harsh laws, and ineffective policy enforcement reinforce the problem of “daughter avoidance.” Even though Indian law disallows sex determination, people still bribe doctors to perform the procedure. Poorer Indian women use multiple means to kill the child after birth, such as breaking the neck, suffocating, and poisoning.

The avoidance in India comes in part from dowry and familial roles. While the first son faces the obligation of caring for the family, a daughter becomes a double burden in taking the family’s resources and in requiring a dowry to marry. Daughters who fail to meet the expectations of their spouses, such as through bearing sons, face abuse and even murder. Those who attempt to keep their daughters face retaliation from spouses, extended family, and even medical professionals.

The “one child policy” reinforces the “son preference” in China. Under this policy, families with permission are allowed to have just one child. Most families prefer a son, and female children face the risk of being killed, aborted, or abandoned in order to try again for a male child.

The Family Planning Committee in China enforces these policies by encouraging people to spy and conducting raids on those disobeying the law. Women who have more than the allowed amount of children face forced abortions or sterilization. Some families attempt to work around these laws, but they face harsh punishments if caught.

Airy, abstract animations illustrate some of the more harrowing stories and statistics as the voiceover explains contexts and facts. While informative, these sequences sometimes get repetitive with the depth of interviews and the breadth of experts already appearing on camera.

The documentary offers a call for people to get involved with the movements to end gendercide. It adds the call to the end credits, mentioning organizations and the URL for more information. This approach works in that it takes no additional screen time and it redirects those interested to more information.

“Genocide,” a term coined by Raphael Lemkin, is harrowing enough. “Gendercide” is even more so because devalues half the population on this planet, and this documentary painstakingly shows just how that happens.

Passion is the Prize in ‘The Fruit Hunters’

The lingering opening to Yung Chang’s 2012 documentary The Fruit Hunters evokes a passion for the fruit it shows as the voiceover asks, “Is it strange that when I look at certain fruit, I find myself… a bit… aroused?”

Based on Adam Leith Gollner’s book, The Fruit Hunters follows these seekers as they search for rare fruits, to save fruits, to find forgotten fruits, and to join people through fruits. The documentary travels the globe, from Hondouras to Hawaii and from Indonesia to Italy, following these hunters in their pursuits.

While passion drives fruit hunters generally, they frequently have greater goals. Industrial farming practices and deforestation threaten some fruits. Juan Aguilar races to prevent bananas from succumbing to fungus. Richard Campbell and Noris Ledesma race to save mangoes from disappearing in the wake of industrialization. Actor Bill Pullman attempts to plant an orchard near his home in hopes of dissuading yet another housing development.

The fruits themselves play a starring role as well. The documentary introduces multiple kinds through the people’s passions and the closing credits. (My favorite was the cannonball fruit.) While the sequences with people offer proficient standard framing, the sequences showing the fruits become art.

The documentary also attempts to weave in elements of fruit and history and sometimes uses re-enactments to illustrate these events. While offering interesting information, these re-enactments felt out of place among the other elements.

Overall, The Fruit Hunters felt like “The Amazing Race,” but with fruit. The prize is not the victory, but the passion is.

Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa

Identity is a constant negotiation — among questions of sex, faith, and geography — in Marlene Booth’s Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa.

Yidl in the Middle is an autobiographical documentary about Booth’s experiences with growing up Jewish in what some might consider idyllic Iowa in the 1950s and 1960s. Booth’s narration moves us through the different layers of these identities and their contradictions as it moves us through the chronology of her and her family’s life.

Booth sets up her identities as a Jew and as an Iowan almost as opposites in this short 1998 documentary. She grew up in a family that kept kosher at home, but then they ate cheeseburgers at restaurants. She celebrated Hanukkah, while her non-Jewish friends celebrated Christmas.

Booth’s story is also her family’s and her community’s story, and they faced different kinds of discrimination. She mentions how her father regularly was passed over for promotion. The local country club voted to keep Jewish members out with secret ballots.

While she faced pressures outside the home, she also faced pressures within the community to think and act in certain ways. Booth’s voiceover helps bring these complicated points together without oversimplifying them.

An abundance of home movies and old photos help illustrate this story, and Booth interviews family members, friends, and classmates as well. Oddly, she also appears on camera talking to us, but fortunately, Yidl in the Middle does not feel narcissistic or overly indulgent as many autobiographical documentaries tend to do.

‘Good Ol’ Freda’ Tells the Beatles’ Secretary’s Story

While the stories told by the band are interesting, sometimes the stories told by people associated with the band are just as interesting. Such is the case with Freda Kelly, the secretary who worked for the Beatles and ran their fan club during the group’s rise to fame and to after their disbanding.

At the beginning of Ryan White’s 2013 documentary, Kelly asks, “Who wants to hear the secretary’s story?” This modesty infuses the documentary with a certain charm as she recounts her experiences.

Through her tales, she shows how fame impacts everyone involved when a local group skyrockets to global fame. She recalls how the members’ parents reacted, specifically how George Harrison’s parents would invite fans in for tea.

You have to like Kelly. She was a Beatles fan long before the Beatles were a household name, and her affection for the members is genuine, not obsessive. The Beatles, too, shared that affection.

Kelly is respectful of what she shares, however. She refuses to divulge private information about the group, and she even dodges a question about her own personal involvements with them.

Her respect for the group shows in her treatment of their memorabilia. Her attic stores boxes of materials that might bring in enough money for her to retire comfortably. Instead, she continues working as a secretary.

While Kelly spends most of the documentary sitting and talking, lots of archival photographs, recordings, and footage help illustrate her recollections. The Beatles’ songs play throughout.

For a bit while watching this piece, I had wished the surviving Beatles had been interviewed for this piece. But I see now that their presence was not necessary. Kelly’s story is in part their story too, but what’s most important here is her telling of it, not theirs.

‘After Innocence’ Shines Light on Lingering Injustice for the Exonerated

DNA evidence exonerates the wrongfully accused but it doesn’t restore their lives, according to After Innocence, a 2005 documentary directed by Jessica Sanders.

After Innocence profiles eight men accused of murder, rape, and other crimes who had their convictions overturned after prison sentences. Former police officer Scott Hornoff served almost seven years in prison. Nick Yarris served more than 20, spending most of that time in solitary confinement and on death row. These situations happen all across the United States, from Massachusetts to Louisiana and from Pennsylvania to California.

While family and friends do make a difference, other challenges remain. The time spent in prison means no career development, no income, and no credit upon release. While those on parole or released after sentences receive assistance through job training, job placement, and transitional housing, those released on proven innocence struggle to secure apartments and find employment. Most job applications ask about convictions. With the convictions still on their records but not expunged, they must reveal the information.

As one exonerated man’s sister states, “People didn’t know that he’s out because he’s innocent. People just know he’s out.”

After Innocence also shows the efforts of The Innocence Project and others trying to change the situation for the wrongfully imprisoned and for those released. The Innocence Project in particular drives the efforts for DNA testing to prove innocence and to change laws to prevent these situations from happening to others.

After Innocence features extensive interviews with both the exonerated and the experts, giving equal voice to both and offering the personal and the system perspectives. The eight men profiled at length talk openly about their challenges and their hopes for the future — a job, a home, a family. Archival materials illustrate their situations as well.

Follow-ups at the end of the documentary offer updates on their stories. Sometimes, those updates feel tacked on when the profiles are superficial, but in this instance they are genuine.

The more official voices include The Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck and even former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who commuted all the death-row sentences in the state to life sentences before leaving office.

Overall, After Innocence brings insight into the continuing injustice for the wrongfully accused and the efforts made to change that situation.

The Funk Brothers Lay it Down in ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’

Watching 20 Feet from Stardom inspired me to check out Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Paul Justman, 2002), which is based on the book by Alan Slutsky. Both documentaries offer homage and share themes and topics related to supporting musicians in the music industry, but they differ in visual style.

Both documentaries tell overlooked stories of underappreciated artists who shaped the music industry. Standing in the Shadows of Motown tells the story of The Funk Brothers, the musicians who helped create that distinct “Motown sound.” The Funk Brothers’ contributions to the sound is key to what makes it memorable.

Through interviews, members of The Funk Brothers recount tales of working in the studio, going on the road, and struggling to make ends meets. They touch on some of the restrictions placed on them by the studio and some of the amusing ways they worked around them. To supplement their studio earnings, many of them would play in bars and clubs at night. Motown spies would follow them and fire them — as if the artists didn’t face enough troubles already with getting paid.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown uses voiceover, reenactments, and a reunion concert for a different visual style than 20 Feet from Stardom, which relies more on deep archival footage. The narration, written by Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange and spoken by Andre Braugher, is poetic in its explanations that situate race records, the Motown sound, and these artists within recording industry history. Re-enactments illustrate some of the band members’ more elaborate and amusing stories.

The reunion concert is mixed with the band members’ stories. The concert features singers such as Joan Osborn, Bootsy Collins, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ben Harper, Gerald Levert, and Chaka Khan covering such famous tunes as “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Cool Jerk,” “Grapevine,” “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted,” and “What’s Going On.” The camera pays special attention to the band members as they perform the songs. I also couldn’t look at the backup singers the same as I would have before watching 20 Feet from Stardom.

The Almost Unwriteable Review of ‘The Act of Killing’

Some of the most unwatchable docs are also some of the most unwriteable. I refer not to the documentary’s quality, but to its subject and the emotional punch in the gut it delivers.

Two older examples come to mind. First are the animal slaughtering scenes in Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (Le sang des bêtes, 1949). Franju’s short film juxtaposes scenes of serene suburban Paris with extended shots of animals being killed and dying, from sheep to pigs to a white horse. This film represents a documentary version of a horror film for me, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the director.

Second is the onslaught of footage found in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955): the mass graves, the emaciated and naked prisoners, the “products” created with or extracted from them. The most disturbing shots are the ones that seem still but actually are motion pictures. In one the camera focuses on a man sitting still until, suddenly, he blinks. That small motion is a powerful reminder of the man’s living and suffering.

The Act of Killing falls into this almost unwriteable place for me, as it has taken me almost a month to compose this response. At its core, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is about trauma, but it inverts the usual traumatic testimony. Instead of giving the survivors a voice, this piece gives it to the perpetrators who killed an estimated 1 million people in Indonesia suspected for being Communists, their sympathizers, Chinese people, or Christian.

These men recount their experiences in committing this genocide, and almost none of them show remorse or other emotional disturbance for what they did. They re-enact their experiences through both simple and elaborate stagings. In a simple one, the perpetrator shows how to garrote someone efficiently without as much blood loss as other execution methods. More complex stagings use costumes, sets, and even extras in supporting roles. The perpetrators re-enact these scenes with relish, while some of the extras appear frightened to be there.

Some critics question the decision of giving these perpetrators a voice about this situation and in this documentary. Documentary ethos is strongly tied with giving voice to those who would not have it otherwise, and yet The Act of Killing gives voice to those who already retain power. Had this documentary used talking heads to explain what happened and why, the results would have been … I can’t find a word here.

But understanding the mind of the perpetrator is just as important as understanding the experiences of the survivor, if anything to prevent these atrocities from happening again. Oppenheimer’s use of the re-enactments provides a necessary layer of intervention, which renders their acts both watchable and ridiculous at the same time. The excess of their fun in remaking the scenes shows both their humanity and their forgetting of others’ humanity. These events seem fantasy to them, not reality, but to others watching those supposed fantasies it is a horrifying reality. And that reality needs to represented.

Back-Up Singers Face Long Walk in 20 Feet from Stardom

20 Feet from Stardom tells a compelling story while glossing over music industry issues.

The story in Morgan Neville’s 2013 documentary is of the back-up singers who sing aural life into songs, such as pioneers Judith Hill, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, among others. Consider it this way: Just think of what Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side” would sound like without the “doo doo doos.” Or the Rolling Stones’s “Gimme Shelter” without the “rape, murder” cry. Or even Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” for a more recent example.

Yet, these singers remain 20 feet from the lead singer, the one who gets the most attention. Not all back-up singers seek center stage, but the ones who do face a long walk in getting there. In the end their singing talents will blow you away.

Interviews with these singers reveal their experiences with recording the songs, touring with certain groups, and changing to lives outside the industry and the spotlight. Merry Clayton, for example, describes how she reached for that higher octave in “Gimme Shelter” and blew the Stones away.

Other interviews feature established musicians, such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Chris Botti, and Bette Midler. Experts round out the mix.

The use of interviews reflects the expected gendered divisions. The women speak from their own experiences. Springsteen and Sting speak as authorities about music itself, with Springsteen explaining the functions of “call and response” within blues and gospel music.

20 Feet from Stardom represents the unfairness of the music industry when it comes to respecting these artists, who get exploited for their talents and get cheated out of pay, credit, and respect. The documentary holds up Phil Spector as part of the problem, but his actions only hint at the deeper institutionalized practices of the industry, which could have been explored a little further in this documentary.

‘Dirty Wars’ Uncovers a New Battleground: The World

The title of Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars suggests not one, but two, covert wars. This 2013 documentary has been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, and it is based on the book by Jeremy Scahill.

Adopting the role of investigator, Scahill sets out to find out more about the “dirty wars” — the secret attacks on people carried out by night raids and drone attacks happening more and more frequently throughout the world.

Scahill uncovers information about the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a covert unit started in 1980 that reports to the White House and is run by William McRaven. He notices the increase in the unit’s activities as the target list grows longer and longer, but he wonders about the chosen targets and their locations.

In addition to interviewing people who know a little about the unit and the covert attacks, Scahill interviews victims and surviving families of night raids and drone strikes, which happen in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and others. The United States has no war declared with Yemen, so why the strikes there? Scahill wonders.

His interviews with surviving family members reveal the traumas and losses from the raids and strikes. They share their photos, videos, and memories of the events. The pictures show the bloodied dead, including pregnant women and children. The videos show the fear and confusion over what is happening and why. The memories show the same, along with the grief for their losses.

“The world is now a battlefield,” Scahill observes in his contemplative voiceover. As he continues looking for information, he asks, “What was hidden in the shadows right now? What was I missing?”

This voiceover, along with the visual style and premise, make this documentary feel like a dramatic spy thriller, maybe even film noir. The style creates an interesting framework for what is otherwise shocking information. While some might prefer a more straightforward presentation, I found the style and the Kronos Quartet performance of David Harrington’s music quite compelling.

The other covert war is on journalism and information. Scahill repeatedly faces stonewalls when trying to get more information from official sources. Through archival footage, we see mainstream media reporters deny the validity of his claims though they offer no grounds on which to critique him. Freedom of Information Act requests stall. Scahill mentions getting threats as well. A reporter who uncovered the raid in Afghanistan was discredited. A journalist who covered the events in Yemen was jailed.

For me, this documentary (along with the book) demonstrates why long-term investigative journalism is important and requires more support. Mainstream news frequently present one perspective, and separating the facts from the perspective can prove difficult. Even then, the perspectives often remain firmly rooted in the present, the recent. Long-term, in-depth reporting gets to the bigger picture, finds the larger patterns, just as many documentaries such as this one do.