I watched the following documentaries over the course of the past month or so. I was going to write about each of them separately, but since they all deal in one way or another with government—more specifically, with how governments serve the interests of the wealthy and politically connected over and above everyone else’s; how they downright neglect the interests of the poor and non-politically connected; and how they think nothing of killing or destroying the lives of people who, for whatever reason, have been deemed a threat—I thought I’d put them all together under one post. So here goes, in order of viewing:
The Art of the Steal deals with the private art collection of Dr. Albert Barnes, worth an estimated $30 billion, and how it was effectively stolen by “the city of Philadelphia” (i.e., the gaggle of wealthy elites who dominate the city’s cultural and economic institutions), with a little help from “the state of Pennsylvania” (i.e., Ed Rendell), using the Pew Charitable [sic] Trust as a front.
Barnes was a self-made man, coming up from a working class neighborhood in Philly, who became wealthy after developing a treatment for venereal disease. An outsider and a bit of a renegade, he loathed the Philadelphia elite, personified by Walter Annenberg, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and one of the main forces behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Barnes’s hatred of these folks was solidified when they panned his avant-garde (at the time) collection after its first public showing. He vowed to never let them get their hands on his art and, to make sure it never happened, he had what he thought was an ironclad will drawn up that not only prohibited the sale of the art, but also explicitly stated that it was never to be loaned out, or moved from the house for any reason.
But then he died, and one of the lessons of this movie is that if they can’t fuck you when you’re alive, you can be sure they’ll fuck you when you’re dead. Since Barnes had no children, his foundation passed into the hands of a personal friend, who ran it faithfully until her death some 30 years later. Next in line was Lincoln University, a local black college, chosen because of its natural status as an outsider to the Philadelphia establishment. Ironically, it was Lincoln’s involvement that may have sped up the eventual (and, honestly, inevitable) takeover by the despised insiders. A pair of Lincoln-appointed presidents, with political connections and ambitions of their own, succeeded in nullifying parts of Barnes’s will (the first in order to send the art on a world tour), and when the second cut a deal, unbeknownst to Lincoln, to allow Pew onto the foundation’s board, the takeover and eventual move to more tourist-friendly downtown Philadelphia was sealed. The final snag was Lincoln, understandably pissed about being pushed aside in such an underhanded way, so in stepped “Fast Eddie” Rendell with a nice grant to buy the financially strapped college’s cooperation.
Naturally, all of this maneuvering was done purely in the interest of saving the foundation, which, Pew claimed, was on the brink of insolvency, the only cure for which was moving it to the city (even though several million dollars had mysteriously appeared in the state budget to finance the proposed new building, money that presumably could have been used to “save” the old one). The fact that this is what the Philly folks wanted all along is just one of those unfathomable coincidences.
Aside from power brokers, there’s an interesting assortment of characters in the film—artsy-fart types, stuffy curators, eccentric neighbors of the Barnes Foundation’s soon-to-be-former Lower Merion location, and activists bent on preserving the collector’s original vision for his art. It’s pretty entertaining, too, playing like a whodunnit of sorts, and regardless of what you think about the importance of honoring the wishes of a long-dead crank sitting atop a trove of some of the most celebrated works of art in history, it’s hard not to see the naked venality and influence peddling on display in this movie as the way all political decisions are made, with the same predictable winners and losers.
At the other end of the socio-economic scale, there is Trouble the Water, about Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott, residents of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans who rode out Hurricane Katrina in their attic before making their way out of the flooded neighborhood and eventually (temporarily) the city. The film begins with footage that Kim herself took with her own personal camcorder the day before the storm. She walks around the neighborhood, while the sky darkens and the wind begins to kick up, interviewing people, asking them if they’re going to leave town or stay and take their chances. She asks a young girl, eight or nine years old, if she’s afraid; the girl says, with bravado, that she is not. She rousts a neighborhood drunk who’s passed out on a front step and tells him to get home before the storm comes. He struggles to his feet and staggers off. (Later, when Kim and Scott return, they go to the man’s house to see if he survived, and they’re met with the putrescent stench of his rotted corpse.)
The film jumps ahead and when it returns to the storm Kim and Scott are holed up in their attic with a cooler full of supplies while the water rises beneath them. At its highest point, the water reaches nearly to the second floor of the houses across the street and a nearby stop sign is almost completely submerged. After the hurricane subsides, they make their way to a nearby house with a dry second floor. They wait for rescuers but none come. At one point they call 911 and are told that there won’t be any rescue attempts until the waters recede further. Finally, they tire of waiting and begin wading through the flooded streets—now waist deep—and gradually make their way to dry ground. Along the way they meet the film crew that will eventually make this documentary (Kim thinks it’s a news film crew and approaches them with the hope of selling her footage of the storm and instead winds up starring in a movie.)
Alongside the personal story, there’s the parallel story about government neglect. There’s the press conference in which Mayor Nagin announces a mandatory evacuation of the city. When a reporter asks how many people he thinks will wind up staying, he just says, “I hope they all get out.” (Some text appears onscreen telling us that there was no plan to use public transportation to evacuate people.) In the days immediately following the storm, there are plenty of cops guarding the Harrah’s casino and the downtown business district, but none in the Ninth Ward; and when the cops do reappear in the Roberts’ neighborhood, they seem to view the residents more with indifference or outright suspicion than as people possibly in need of help (the National Guard isn’t much better).
But the most telling scene is the one in which Scott and Kim return to the nearby Navy base where, in the aftermath of the storm, they heard that they might be able to find a room since many of the housing units were empty. When they (there’s a group of them now) approach the front gate to see if they can come in, they’re told, with M16s pointed at them, to leave. An officer being interviewed for the film admits, obviously without first being coached by the Navy PR department, that they were just doing their job, “which is to protect government property.” This leads Scott to wonder (rhetorically?), “If the government’s not going to take care of the people, what good is it?” Later, in Tennessee, a relative tells Kim that she’s not going to let her son join the military because she doesn’t want him fighting for a country that doesn’t care about him. Too bad more people don’t come to this conclusion.
Throughout the entire ordeal, Kim and Scott maintain a level of generosity and good humor that should put the average pampered American to shame, and the movie does a nice job of showing what people do when they’re abandoned by the government that allegedly serves them: they take care of each other and themselves.
The final movie is Restrepo, about a platoon of US soldiers doing a tour in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, from sometime in 2007 to 2008. Reputedly one of the more dangerous areas in the country, the soldiers go on patrols, or hang around the base, and engage in the occasional firefight with a mostly invisible “enemy.” One night they sneak into enemy territory and set up an outpost (“OP Restrepo,” named after a platoon member who was killed earlier in the deployment). This is portrayed as a great coup by the platoon sergeant, although it’s difficult to tell what it actually accomplished.
Once a month or so they meet with the local village elders to discuss whatever issues have arisen between the military unit and the people who actually live there. In their first meeting, the sergeant, coming off like a cross between a car salesman and an asshole cop (a uniquely American mix, to be sure) and complete with Cro-Magnon forehead, talks while the village elders, a collection of gnarled and withered men with long scraggly beards, most of whom look to be in the vicinity of, say, 150 years old, listen in silence.
The sergeant tells them about a road that’s going to be built, which, he promises, will bring prosperity to the area. Not one of the men so much as blinks. Then one of them pipes up (through an interpreter) about villagers getting shot on their land. The sergeant bristles. This is clearly not part of the script. He reminds the village men that whatever problems they had had with his predecessor are no more and that they’re working from a “clean slate.” He’s impatient with all of this diplomatic bullshit. It’s obvious that he views these little get-togethers as more of a one-way affair.
The regular soldiers, meanwhile, seem like a fairly ordinary assortment of young men with more energy, sexual and otherwise, than acceptable outlets. There are the impromptu wrestling matches and the faux-homoerotic grab-assing and simulated butt fucking, along with various other forms of “manly” behavior, that anyone who’s spent any time in a high school locker room would recognize. They’re like a football team with explosives and automatic weapons, a notion that doesn’t inspire much confidence. In one-on-one interviews recorded after the tour was over and they had returned to their permanent base (in Italy, I believe), they talk about what it was like to be shot at and recount firefights in which friends were killed or wounded and try, mostly unsuccessfully, to put their emotions into words.
The sense of the overall “mission” given by the film is one of aimlessness punctuated by machine gun fire and bombs dropped from airplanes exploding in the green hills, with the latter producing the inevitable “collateral damage.” But the incident that best epitomizes the tragicomical farce of the entire situation—not just this particular unit’s tour, but the entire US occupation of Afghanistan—is when one of the villagers comes to the platoon’s camp asking to be compensated for his dead cow, which some of the soldiers had killed after it had gotten snagged in a barbed wire fence and they had been unable (or perhaps unwilling) to free it. Earlier there was a scene in which the soldiers, laughing, talked about what a great meal it had made. Now this poor farmer comes asking to be paid for his loss and he’s told that they will not give him money, only the equivalent in rice and beans. The man is not happy but the soldier just shrugs: sorry, take it or leave it, old man. I believe this is what they call “winning hearts and minds.”