October 17, 2007
The dramatic quotient skyrockets when the discourse switches from He or She to I. "I" makes it real. As a columnist I find the times when I risk writing about very personal subject matters only later to think that was TMI (too much information) are inevitably when I receive the most responses. It takes courage to speak your own truth and have everyone in the post office know the exact status of your love life or the details of your dad's death, but in a culture with so many manufactured experiences, "telling it like it is," has more value than ever.
The Hamptons International Film Festival beginning today showcases some brilliant uses of "I" in documentary films going from reel to real. We become numb to figures like the number of troops killed or wounded in Iraq or how many people were left homeless after Hurricane Katrina or statistics about the social lives of teenage girls. But it is an entirely different story and a compelling one when we see and hear, "I was paralyzed after being shot in Iraq," and, "That's where my family used to live and where my uncle drowned in Hurricane Katrina," and a 16-year-old girl talking dirty to a stranger on a chat line.
Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue's Body of War portrays Tomas Young, a wounded Iraq veteran who speaks out against the war. Of anyone participating in the debate, he has a real leg to stand on, although, because he was shot in the spine, now he only sits. Here is a young man with a new wife and a paralyzed body, baring it all, literally. You can imagine how different it was for his mother who, instead of watching the news about the war like the rest of the country, logged onto icasualties.org every day hoping not to see her son's name. The site actually quotes a statistic of average number of deaths per day, which is 2.48. Certainly Thomas Young despite his bravery and strength has lost more than .48 of his life and we bear witness to the reality of war behind the lines.
In Wade In The Water, filmmakers Gabriel Nussbaum and Elizabeth Wood bring cameras to students at a newly reopened school in New Orleans to teach a documentary filmmaking class. The candor and raw emotion of the footage the kids collected was so powerful that Nussbaum and Wood realized it was a film in and of itself. For students who find school "totally boring," the experience of being armed with a camera to tell the story of his or her own life is transformative for them as well as the audience. For these young people the reaction to a dead body is "I don't have time for this," and home is a bed in a mold-encased room.
And if you think kids aren't political you have to see the moment in which a small black boy plays George Bush in the aftermath of the storm. As well as the youngsters' definition for FEMA – "Fix Everything My Ass." These kids have been through it and have neither the polish nor the desire to be politically correct. After the media attention and Anderson Cooper withdrawal, they are still walking to school in a collapsed community.
There is nothing that makes people more uncomfortable than the sexual awakening of teenage girls. Pool Of Princesses, Bettina Blumner's docudrama about three teenage girls in urban Germany, presents us with the dilemma of girls who look and act far older than their tender young ages. The audience is in the role of a trusted girlfriend to see the uncensored views of sex, drugs and family life but also of the girls' dreams encased in an easily shattered crystal ball. Their need for love, support and affection is palpable and they quickly learn that their Lolita looks are a tradable commodity. We hope against hope for their happiness.
What each of these three films as well as others at the festival achieves is to reattach us to the humanity of what we see in the headlines. While we may be able to shrug off "they" we cannot turn a blind eye to "I."
You can find more of my writing at HamptonsHeather.com or drop me a note at email@example.com.