Monday, August 04, 2008

Bagdad High–HBO Tonight

Speaking of war and capitalism… for Baghdad High, directors Laura Winter and Ivan O’Mahoney gave four Iraqi high school seniors digital cameras and basic instruction in filmmaking. The result is a wrenching look inside a country tormented and destroyed by a war–not of their making, which has produced four million refugees. Each of the boys–all friends–belongs to a different religion or sect, including a Christian who must hide his affiliation. In-between bomb explosions, electrical outages and military-enforced curfews they listen to American popular music, talk on their cell phones, like ordinary teenagers, and do their best to prepare for their final exams, even as they must adapt to a daily world of “no good news.” But when two of the boys and their families (and half the students at their high school) flee north from Baghdad, it marks the end of their filming and the continuation of an uncertain future.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Behind the Curtain of American Elections: Nov. 2008

"We have every reason to believe that the 2008 election is going to be manipulated."

––Jonathan Simon, co-founder of Election Defense Alliance, a
national election integrity nonprofit
"Stealing America: Vote by Vote"

Everyone I know lugs around a low-grade dread, like an undetected virus invisible until the obvious outbreak, about the upcoming presidential election. Many of us (including a surprising number of non-partisans and Republicans) stoically retain the knowledge that something terrible happened during the 2000 and 2004 elections. And then there are others, myself included, who feel that nothing short of election-fraud occurred during both elections. But what exactly happened (okay, aside from a Court of five in 2000 throwing a victory party for GWB)? How can it be righted? And who’s going to do it? I mean, where’s the “Deep Throat” for “electiongate”? We are exporting democratic “ideals” to other countries, like Iraq and the Ukraine (with its Orange Revolution), yet they have a better voting system than ours. How can this be?

As increasingly they are wont to do, documentary filmmakers rush in where the media fears to tread. "Documentary" set out to discover as many election-fraud-related docs as we could find. By telephone, we interviewed two directors and an executive producer of the two most prominent efforts: "Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections" (dir., David Earnhardt) and "Stealing America: Vote by Vote" (dir., Dorothy Fadiman; exec. prod., Mitchell Block).

Personally, after screening these films, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to throw up my hands in despair and never vote again, or run out and organize a 21st century Weather Underground. One can be mad as hell, and swear she won’t take it anymore, but, realistically speaking, what can one person do? As frustrating and enraging as the revelations in these films are, fortunately, they also provide specific and practical plans of action for individuals and activist groups to increase vigilance and ensure election integrity. For, as Earnhardt, Fadiman and Block concur: it’s all about grassroots organization.

After the 2004 presidential election and the first comprehensive use of electronic voting machines, Earnhardt, a Nashville-based filmmaker, set out to unravel the mystery of why the election results were inconsistent with the exit polls. After three years of hearing “the election was stolen,” he said, “I wanted to find out how it was done.” Three years later, the answer is Uncounted, which systematically catalogs “the myriad of different ways the election was manipulated. It’s never just one thing,” Earnhardt told me. He has “linked the dots” of information seemingly randomly gathered by the media. The film makes a compelling case for election fraud by examining in depth the following issues:
• Exit Poll Discrepancies (“Nearly all the experts are in agreement that the exit polls could not have been so far off that they gave such distorted results. It’s far more rational that the voting process was compromised.” Rep. John Conyers, Chair, House Judiciary Committee)
• Systematic Purging or “Caging” of Voters (Purging of voters from the records before the election: 309,000 in Ohio in 2004. Bush’s winning margin in Ohio was 119,000 votes.)
• “Jim Crow” Voter Suppression in the 21st Century (According to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., blacks waited on average, 3.5 hrs to vote, while whites waited less than 18 minutes.)
• Undervoting (“When you see 42%, 70% and 80% undervotes in a precinct in this election, you know that’s not real. There’s something desperately not right.” 
Marybeth Kuznik, Pennsylvania poll worker)
• Vote Switching (Concentrated in certain areas, like–suprise!–Florida.)
• Illegal Behavior by a Major Voting Machine Manufacturer (Walden O’Dell, the CEO of Diebold, announced that he had been a top fundraiser for GWB. In a letter to potential donors, he wrote: “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president…” NYT Nov. 9, 2003)
• Electronic Voting 
(“With all these [electronic] machines, you can alter the outcome of a national election in a way that is just unprecedented.” 
Andrew Gumbel, Journalist & author, Steal This Vote)
• Privatization of Our Election Process (“The further you go into privatizing this activity of running elections, the more you lose control over the very core of our democracy.” 
Lowell Finley, Deputy Secretary of State, California)
• Provisional Ballots

In addition to fine production values (especially the lack of the too-often-used invasive voice-over: when I mentioned this to Earnhardt, he said that he wanted to “let the story tell itself, unencumbered by narrative”) and a powerful investigative journalism approach, Uncounted–unrepentantly partisan–tackles the two voting machine companies–ES&S and Diebold–that electronically counted 80% of the votes in the 2004 presidential election. Both private, for-profit companies have extensive ties to the Republican Party. But, dig this, Diebold’s primary business is manufacturing ATM machines, which provide a paper receipt for transactions and has an audit trail. So why wouldn’t it supply the same paper trail for voting machines? Well, you probably don’t need three guesses.

But Earnhardt’s perspective extends beyond the relatively recent election debacles: “Historically,” he points out, “over the 230 years of this country’s past, [election manipulation] has been done both ways [by Republicans and Democrats]. But in recent years, it’s been in one direction–favoring Republicans.”

On this thrust, Dorothy Fadiman’s "Stealing America"–which highlights many of the same points and talking heads–adds an enlightening piece of information as expressed by Lynn Landes, Journalist/Political Scientist and former BBC Correspondent: “Even though the Republicans seem to control the voting technology and the corporations that count the votes, the Democrats have not exhibited a keen interest in addressing the situation.”

"Stealing America" hopes to appeal to a large college-age audience, and they’ve all but insured its popularity with these first-time voters by including segments from the zeitgeist conscience and mouthpiece: "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report." "Stealing" bends over backwards to communicate a non-partisan viewpoint by including interviews with “the bad guys”–people who unashamedly admit to redirecting an election that favored George Bush over John Kerry–and “would/will do it again.”

One of those is Allen Raymond, author of the appropriately titled How to Rig an Election, who reveals how he was hired by the RNC to “jam phone lines.” “Almost a prank,” he said smiling, on "The Daily Show." “A prank on democracy,” responds the quick-witted Jon Stewart. “In politics, there’s right and wrong; then there’s what happens in a campaign,” Raymond says, still smiling, in an attempt to justify his actions.

With regard to documentaries, one of the most hotly discussed topics these days speculates about how much “good” they do, if their only audience is the “choir.” At "Documentary" we were especially interested in the plans Earnhardt, Fadiman and Block had to distribute their films to a wider audience.

Earnhardt’s “grassroots approach” has included traveling to 36 cities since mid-Jan, where he rents out theatres and screens the film for local integrity voter groups, and moderates lively after-film discussions: “People show up, who empathize, or have a sense that, something’s wrong, but haven’t got the info; the film really fires people up,” he says. Their alliance provides the groups a “platform” and a means of then continuing to share the information on their own, a DVD of "Uncounted" in hand. He calls this a “non-traditional approach, with a geometric factor.” For example, earlier this spring, 203 “house parties” were organized in 23 states and the District of Columbia. On this evening–Feb. 13, which happened to be Earnhardt’s birthday (“Yes, it was the best possible present”)–he participated in a 40-minute conference call among all 203 sites.

In addition to the public events in theatres, churches, community centers and even individual house parties, blogs are providing a great deal of notice and “buzz” about both the film and the topic of election fraud. And the film’s website provides ideas of actions people can take. The DVD is doing well far beyond their expectations and, through the website alone, has sold units to people in 20 countries as well as in every state of the Union. Eranhardt also gives credit to bloggers, who, he says, have significantly helped spread awareness of election issues. He’s now taking “a more retail market approach” by aligning with the distributor Disinformation Company and making the DVD available through both Amazon and Netflix.

His approach has worked and Earnhardt admits that the process has “affirmed my belief in the power of what one person can do. When things change, it usually starts with one person and evolves into citizen activism. Then the leadership has to listen.” But the “number one defense,” he advises, is to vote: “If you don’t vote, it definitely won’t be counted.”

Dorothy Fadiman, director, and Mitchell Block, executive producer, of "Stealing America," decided to approach the distribution issue through a “vision of college campuses.” As such, they have set up 1,000 screenings on campuses across the nation. There are two primary reasons for this, as Fadiman points out: to inform and educate (“it’s important to give college students a perspective on history”) and to increase the number of voters, “so the results are clearer. There’s a generation coming up who are not registered,” reasoned Fadiman. “The only way to head off a suspicious election before the votes are certified is to have a large lead going in.” Because younger voters tend to vote more liberally, she worries that her motivation may not be necessarily “a nonpartisan act.” But, in our conversations, both she and Block stressed the importance of “reaching out to people in a nonpartisan way to make them aware of voting issues.” As Block put it, “It’s important to understand that if you are making a film about something as important as voting, you’ll turn off half the audience [if it’s approached in a partisan manner]. On an issue as basic as voting, you don’t serve any purpose in speaking to only one party.” Their goal is for viewers to see the film, “not as an attack, but as a plea to protect our votes.”

The team is working with publicists in LA and NY and in Santa Fe and other cities, “so it gets high visibility,” Block explained. They are screening the film at 100 theatres and, like Earnhardt, working with field people to do outreach and activities groups, to build grassroots, and to help those groups. “It’s a good mix of not-for-profit and nonpartisan,” he continues, “mixed with traditional for-profit marketing.” Block also credits the blogoshere with advancing notice of the film. (

Fadiman spoke at length about Matthew Segal, a recent college graduate and the founder and executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), a student-led, non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to removing access barriers and increasing civic education for young people; he is also a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute–the nation’s first student-run think-tank. Segal’s vision for what he will be doing with "Stealing America" on college campuses and with related activities includes 12-point program. Segal hopes to:
provide a college tour of film screenings at SAVE’s 35 (and growing) college chapters (inviting a panel of speakers for discussion afterwards when possible)
disseminate an election reform package at each screening focusing on issues to protect student voting rights such as: voter ID reform, registration access, proportional voting machine allocation, voter verification, absentee ballot access
organize screenings throughout Ohio and other states with the help of Common Cause, People for the American Way, and the NAACP
provide access to many politicians, coordinate lobbying efforts, political meetings in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill
blog about SAVE on Huffington Post and on SAVE’s own blog
use new media such as Facebook, Myspace, Digg, Stumbleupon and Youtube to create more hits for the SAVE website as well as spread more info about the film
create a website for young people to report their question/concerns/stories about registering and casting their votes
reach out to political science and government professors to screen films and hold class discussions.

Segal’s fine ideas fit Fadiman’s objective, which is “to make people alert and aware that the election systems we have in place, are not secure, and not be afraid or shy to raise our voices.”

Admittedly, this is an uphill battle, as David Earnhardt cautions: “Election manipulation rarely even makes a top ten issues list. But think about it–if your vote doesn’t count, then nothing else really matters.”

Other DVDs available on the topic of Election Integrity

"American Blackout" (Ian Inaba, director; Anastasia King, producer; GNN Productions)

"Free For All" (John Wellington Ennis, director;

"Recount Democracy" (Danny Schecter, director; Faye Anderson, producer; Pathfinder Pictures;

An excerpt of this article was first published in the Fall 2008 issue of DOCUMENTARY Magazine.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Interview w/ Lisa Jackson, Director: "Silence in the Congo The Greatest Silence"

From Lisa Jackson's The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which airs April 8 on HBO. Photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
“Why use sex to humiliate and defeat someone?” asks Dr. Denis Mukwege, who specializes in treating hundreds of female victims of sexual violence at an understaffed eastern Congo hospital in Bukavu. That question serves as the subtext of Lisa F. Jackson’s "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" as she encounters face-to-face the physically brutalized, soul-wounded survivors of a dark force that has assaulted 250,000 women and girls. Jackson’s approach is political and humanist and at the same time profoundly personal, given her own survival of a gang-rape in Washington, D.C., when she was 25 years old. This personal/political confluence serves her well in building up a sense of trust among the women she meets and interviews, especially given her willingness to share her story with photographs and newspaper clippings with the film’s participants. But, perhaps the most chilling aspect of the film is Jackson’s interviews with members of the Congolese army in the bush, who unabashedly admit to raping and torturing women. Jackson performed all the production functions (producer, director, DP, sound, and editor) on "The Greatest Silence," which won a Special Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance this year and premieres Tuesday, April 8, on HBO at 10 PM. I sat down with Jackson in Park City’s Yarrow Hotel during the Sundance Film Festival.

Cathleen Rountree: First of all, I want to commend you on your courage in addressing this horrific issue. How did you decide to include yourself and your own experience with rape in the film?

Lisa Jackson: This was a difficult decision and it didn’t happen, I’d say, until halfway through the edit. In fact, I shot for two months in May and June in ’06, then I went back in November to film the rapists. In between I’d assembled some cuts, and people who saw it, kept asking, “How did you get these women to open up to you?” and “What did you tell them about yourself?” I had intentionally gone over my story with the women, using the photographs, the newspaper articles and all the background information about myself. When I told people this, they said, “Well, why don’t you put that in the film? And why don’t you put yourself in the film? You have this incredible journey.”

Then it occurred to me that it was also a way of making these amazing stories I was getting a lot less voyeuristic. So I shot some recreations of me showing the photographs to women and, actually, those reaction shots of the women (when they’re looking at me kind of baffled early on) are when I was telling them what was going on and the translator was relaying it to them. So there were some very authentic moments and, obviously, they could see that my photographs were real.

So, it wasn’t a conscious thing from the beginning, but it seemed to me as an appropriate narrative device. And also a way of making the film more accessible, because the whole point of the film is that these women are not “other.” That we [in this country] experience the same things they do. Within the gradation of human experience, the overlap is a lot more profound than you might think.

CR: How do you feel when you see yourself in the film?

LJ: It still makes me a little squeamish to see myself on the screen, but in the end I think my friends persuaded me in the right direction.

CR: The sections of you do have an organic feel to them.

How frightened were you when you were traveling in these dangerous war zones, especially when you confronted the rapists? I guess there was a period when it was just you and the translator?

LJ: Oh, I was alone the entire time. I mean Bernard [Kalume, a Congolese man who works with the UN peacekeepers as a translator and liaison] came with me for my first trip into the bush, but for the second one, I was pretty much on my own, because the U.N. was completely preoccupied with the election and the count. And … how frightened was I …. You know I’ve done a lot of traveling in the third world and you get into this zone where you’re just so into the moment, you’re not really thinking about what’s going on around you. People have asked me at the screenings, “Weren’t you afraid of getting attacked? Well, people get attacked on the streets of Manhattan, so you can’t not leave your apartment because you might be attacked.

CR: Yes, but you were in the midst of known rapists.

LJ: Yes, that’s true, and there was a moment when I was heading up into the mountain when I went Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into? And suddenly I was just drenched in sweat. Again, it was just putting one foot in front of the other. And then it occurred to me that these guys were such narcissistic, preening, arrogant assholes that they really wanted to be filmed, and that my camera really was in effect a weapon. If anything were to happen to me, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to brag about their accomplishments.

CR: I’m sure that you had already dealt with it in depth, but I’m wondering if making this film had any kind of healing effect on you?

LJ: Well, I’d dealt with it pretty thoroughly, and I’ve made other films about women and sexual violence, and I’ve told my story and written about it. But what was poignant to me is that I had been able to move on, and I’ve actually been able to use that experience to inform a lot of what I do. But the majority of women I met will never be able to move on, they will be stuck in that place.

CR: They’ve also suffered severe lasting physical effects and many of them have children produced from the rape, which leads me to the question: How are the women dealing with their offspring. Is there any resentment toward them or have they transcended their anger?

LJ: No, there’s something about the women I met … I had an interesting question at the Q&A last night: Have I heard anything about these women committing suicide because their lives are at a dead end? There is still an incredible love among these women and a commitment to family and their children. They have such resilience and a grace and strength that shine through. Even that young Immaculate, who had a child by rape, you know she’s going to stick with that child. She may resent her and she may remind her of the rapist, but the maternal instinct trumps everything.

CR: Did you come away with any sense of forgiveness or compassion for these men, who themselves are products of a horrendous culture of violence.

LJ: Pretty much zippo. If I had seen any sign from them that showed the least bit of contrition or even an understanding of what they had done, I might have been able to see them as something other than callous assholes of the first magnitude. They actually seem kind of familiar to me, you know, I see them on the A-train everyday –– and they can be white, too.

I found myself –– in the interviews with them –– being extremely polite with them, and not pressing them on questions they didn’t understand, so I was obviously intimidated by them. I mean I did feel sympathy for them in the sense that they are part of the culture and were raised in the same cycle of violence. They were probably raised in conflict zones as kids and saw a lot of violence. And you wonder, did these guys ever respect a woman? Maybe that’s the source of their contempt for women.

CR: The level of atrocities perpetrated on those women is unimaginable. I mean, some of the torturous acts are things I’ve never heard of. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around them, like the men forcing a pregnant woman’s child to trample on his or her mother’s stomach to kill the fetus.

LJ: Yeah, well, there was a lot that I just had to edit out. One woman talks about being forced to eat her own feces that was mixed with the flesh of her child who the men had murdered. Acts that you really cannot imagine.

CR: My god . . .

LJ: It’s on a Nazi level.

CR: It’s beyond that –– it’s pure evil.

LJ: Yes, it’s pure evil.

CR: I mean the Nazis were a calculated machine, but this is raw and primal.

You know, I can’t help but wonder how documentary filmmakers, such as yourself, who encounter these atrocities (last year’s "The Devil Came on Horseback" also comes to mind) –– how does Lisa maintain the filmmaker’s point of view and maintain a human presence, an emotional equilibrium, without being entirely overwhelmed by what you’re hearing and seeing? How do you walk that line?

LJ: Well, as a documentarian, part of your job is to probe the soul, if you will. And, I’ve had –– I can’t tell you –– countless, countless interviews where my job is to get that person to return to that dark place, to remember it and to feel it and to share it.

CR: How do you do that?

LJ: How do I do that? [Hesitates] I don’t know how I do it. Well, I don’t just sit down and start talking to them, first of all. There’s always that long, slow approach so that we know each other and trust each other. And I let them take their time. And, of course, so much of it was in another language. I had a female translator for the majority of the time, but for the rest of it, I didn’t have a translator at all. And these stories didn’t come out until later. Like in the church group, for instance, Bernard was there for the very beginning, and when the old woman started telling the story about being raped by the seven soldiers, you know, he couldn’t take it anymore. He fled, and spent the rest of the three hours sitting outside, while I was inside. I had a sense of this incredible passion and this truth-telling, and also felt this incredible privilege. That was just a spontaneous moment and I kept filming.

CR: You must have been a wreck by the end of each day.

LJ: Yes, in terms of the interviews, by the end of the day, I would just be shaken, just destroyed, particularly out in the bush. At night I would just weep. I still find it hard to watch. I feel such an incredible responsibility to these women. You know, they said to me: “We’re telling you, so that you will tell other people.”

CR: What do you hope this film will accomplish?

LJ: Well, that’s what’s been so gratifying about these screenings [at Sundance]. After the second screening, I was overwhelmed with people wanting to know what they can do. So we cobbled together a one-pager with a website of where they could go for further information []. Also we’re building a huge outreach campaign for when the film airs on HBO.

CR: So did you pre-sell the film to HBO?

LJ: Yes, they bought it on second rough-cut, back in the spring.

CR: Is there anything else that you’d like people to know about your film, Lisa?

LJ: Well, yesterday we were up skiing and a couple of women who’d been at the screening the day before came up to me and said, “We’re a group of six women from Phoenix and we all had tickets to your film, but at the last minute, four of the women said, ‘I can’t take it; I don’t want to see those stories this early in the morning.’” But people, I think, have a moral obligation to listen. Particularly because there’s a certain complicity the first-world has in the destruction of a lot of third-world countries; and the Congo is very much an economic war. You know, our cell phones literally have the blood of Congolese women on them.

I just hope that people aren’t turned off by the title, and that they’re driven by a sense of compassion and by a sense of our common humanity, and also by a sense of curiosity about an invisible war and the invisible victims of this invisible war, and that they will want to know, and that knowing, they will do something.

CR: Do you have any sense of hope about the condition of our world?

LJ: In general, not much, but in the specific … I’ve started shooting a film in Columbia, kind of on the same subject, where the war has been going on for almost 60 years, when the presidential candidate was assassinated by the CIA –– very much like Lumumba in the Congo.

CR: And Allende.

LJ: Yeah, and Allende. They say that at least half the women in the country have been personally affected by the sexual violence –– either through rape or physical assault. One 11-year-old was raped by the para-military, and when her mother denounced them, the threats began. They have all left their homes because of the violence and have found each other. So, I’m just going to follow them over the next year. When you look at the aggregate of Columbian women, you just think, How has this country kept going? That country is our [the US government’s] personal embarrassment; it’s a disaster.

But when you talk to the individuals and you see that, despite it all, they want to start a beauty salon or they want to get their daughter back to being the champion rollerblader that she was before she was raped, you know, they have hope and they keep going. They’re living in slums with no running water, but they still have this dignity. And it’s the same with the women in the Congo. It’s the women who are going to save that country, and we have to save them.

[This interview was first published in the IDA e-Newsletter on 4/3/08 with permission to reprint.]

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