The first weekend of DIFF 2017 has come and gone, and though my eyes are a bit bloodshot, it’s been a lot of fun taking in quite a few interesting and thought-provoking documentaries and a few independent films from passionate filmmakers. While some festival attendees take some time off after a busy weekend, my plan is to see multiple movies each day until the festival ends. Below is the recap of the three movies I watched on Monday April 3, 2017:
With all of the remarkable advancements in the medical field, there are still gaps that can make a bad situation even worse. Jennifer Brea was once a brilliant, lively, active person whose dream as a youngster was to “swallow the world whole”. As a PhD student at Harvard, she seemed well on her way. When she was hit with a 107 degree fever, doctors were unable to properly diagnose, so they informed Jennifer that the resulting fatigue must be psychological in nature (aka ‘It’s all in your head’). Though she survived, her life has never been the same.
With the support of her husband Omar, Jennifer decided to document her journey – both medical and personal. During a doctor’s appointment, Omar coaches Jennifer with something along the lines of, “If you say too little, they can’t help you. If you say too much, they will assume you are a mental case.” The stigma attached to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome persists despite affecting more than one million Americans.
Officially chronicled as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has struck many athletes and other active, vibrant folks. Since 85% of those affected are female, and no clear cause or diagnosis is available, there remain medical professionals who lump this functional disorder into the same classification as “hysteria” from the old days. It can’t be easily identified so they assume it’s psychological. Because of this, many of these people suffer in silence with little treatment.
Despite being bedridden many days, along with a high sensitivity to light and sound, Jennifer has capitalized on technology to connect with other ME sufferers. They share their stories via Skype and YouTube, and a support system slowly forms for these people who feel so isolated and forgotten. Home remedies and theories of causation are shared. Mixed results occur, but these are fighters.
A global #MillionMissing protest is organized to bring attention to those who suffer in greater numbers than Multiple Sclerosis. Research is limited, though there seems to be a clear link between the immune system and the brain. Jennifer’s story and film are a reminder that those things we don’t understand deserve more than a shrug, especially when so many beautiful people are living in misery. She proudly proclaims, “I’m still here”, and we believe she will find a way to persevere.
WHAT LIES UPSTREAM (documentary)
“Issues” documentaries walk a dangerous line. If done properly, they can be informative, educational and even act as calls to action. On the other hand, they can be biased, manipulative and even blatant propaganda (Hello there, Michael Moore). Because of this, my defense shields are usually at high alert when I sit down to take in a film such as this latest from Cullen Hoback (Terms and Conditions May Apply, 2013).
Mr. Hoback identifies as an investigate filmmaker, and that’s a pretty accurate description of his process. He spent two years in West Virginia’s “chemical valley” after a 2014 chemical spill by Freedom Industries. It was only because of the smell and color of the drinking water that the public became aware of the spill identified as MCHM. Trucked in bottled water became the only safe source for drinking, cooking and bathing for the more than 300,000 who were impacted. As frightening as this seems, the true horror comes from what Hoback uncovers in his interviews and legwork.
It’s only once this network of government, industry and agencies begins to unravel that our eyes widen and we get an inkling of the real danger. Mr. Hoback never shies away from dramatizing a moment or event, but that doesn’t soften the frustrations we experience while being informed that companies and factories provide their own water testing results to agencies such as EPA, who then provide a review of the data as compared to “acceptable standards”. When the CDC is called in to examine medical records of those impacted by the polluted waters, a quick “no issues here” rubberstamp is provided and no further digging is done.
Two recurring players in this saga are Dr. Gupta and Randy Huffman. Mr. Huffman is a director of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, while Dr. Gupta is originally an outspoken caution flag waver who sees the obvious oversights and mistakes occurring in safety tests and communication. It’s interesting to see the transformation of Dr. Gupta from caring medical scientist to self-protective politician during this period; while Mr. Huffman seems to move from clueless government head to concerned leader. Of course, all of the specifics seem to fall into a gray area due to Mr. Hoback presentation style, but clearly something isn’t right.
The biggest takeways here are that it seems the agencies are more protective of their turf than of public safety. Industry and lobbyists are apparently more directly involved with actually writing bills than we previously imagined. Misrepresentations and outright fraudulent data (along with faulty testing processes) can put the public’s safety in peril … at least until the water smells so bad that everyone notices. Given that much of the details and data are sketchy here, it leaves little doubt that we should be vigilant in our questioning of those responsible for our safety.
Totally unexpected is a documentary on big game hunting that doesn’t come down squarely on one side of this argument. Co-directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz do an admirable job of laying out the facts and leaving the viewer to contemplate how these moving pieces create a blurred line between conservation and commerce.
Expect a couple of scenes that might be difficult to watch – after all, it is a documentary on hunting animals. There are plenty of facts and statistics provided, with one of the most staggering being since 1970, the world has lost 60% of its wild animals. Rhinos alone are down from 500,000 to 30,000, and we meet a rhino breeder who seems to have devoted his life and fortune to saving the species. On the surface, his stance seems difficult to debate, but African law prevents the sale of rhino horn, which means this breeder is sitting on millions of dollars of stored horns, while poachers profit by picking off his animals and selling on the black market. Not so clear now, is it?
Other stories involve elephants, alligators, and others. We visit the massive Safari Club hunting convention in Las Vegas, as well as stock auctions where breeders battle over the next generation. The safari clubs argue that much of the money big game hunters pay is distributed back into the conservation efforts of the country, though the corruption of politicians can’t be ignored.
The contrast between shooters and hunters, killers and sportsmen, is noted and legitimate information is provided. Focus goes to the “Big 5”: hunters trying to bag each of water buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion and rhino. The process is slow and expensive, and the industry has evolved to breeding that is designed to facilitate the future of the species and the industry.
Hunter’s remorse is admitted, as is a connection to the animals by the otherwise stoic and businesslike breeders. When one hunter quotes the bible in saying that man shall have dominion over animals, it’s a reminder that no matter one’s stance, there is a defense to be made. The big question is, can the industry be run in a manner that allows the animals to survive, the villagers to benefit, and the vendors to profit? In theory, this seems doable … but reality and self-interest often destroy best intentions.