Sundance London 2013 – Part Two: Far-flung documentaries provoke tears, anger and inspiration

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Muscle Shoals

“What they built there, you can’t see with your eyes,” says Bono at the close of Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s music documentary Muscle Shoals, named after the Alabama city and its legendary studio where prolific acts such as Lynyrd Skynrd, Etta James and Aretha Franklin crafted their greatest hits.

Bono speaks much sense; as the dozens upon dozens of vinyl records bearing the Muscle Shoals signature stack into a pile that threatens to tower toward the camera, one gets the impression there’s fundamentally no real substitute for these iconic sounds in transporting the audience back to that specific time or place.

Camalier nevertheless commits an admirable effort into compiling a visually comprehensive retrospective of this uniquely creative environment. Studio footage, live performances and archive photos collect around stories from the musicians that had the privilege to work there, spearheaded by FAME studio founder Rick Hall.

Hall’s mantra was, and still is, “make every record like it’s your last”; a simple, sensible motto for any aspiring musician to abide by. The idea of so much talent teetering over the edge evokes more than simply a sensory perception of a golden era. The amalgamation of joyful images and the sounds produced alongside them infer a professional camaraderie that bordered on spiritual kinship, especially considering the resonant soulfulness of the artistic output.

The studio was a haven for white and black musicians to come together and make art as the civil rights movement raged on outside their door. Camalier depicts not just this sanctuary but the  world outside, shooting unpopulated swamps and backwaters to illustrate the Mississippi environment’s fusion within the Muscle Shoals sound, and conversely demonstrates how this sound travelled outward to touch upon society’s pulse with rushes of enraptured revellers.

The momentum is dutifully carried by the music itself, with interviews from Greg Allman, Etta James, Clarence Carter and others providing separate albeit analogous perspectives on an environment that fostered their individual creative impulses. One amusing highlight features The Rolling Stones, hastening to admit that even their time spent at Muscle Shoals may have been graced with drugs and booze.

Even with all these big names, the film’s purpose is to highlight the enduring contribution of the pioneers who helped form the Muscle Shoals Sound. They are The Swampers, and they’re to thank for a vast proportion of the trademark sounds of hit records credited solely to household names.  By confining our experience of musical history to the musical artifacts alone, we run the risk of acknowledging a singular man or woman, and not their backing band (hello, auteur theory). To counter Bono: we do indeed need to see what they built, with our eyes.

The Moo Man

Dairy farmer Stephen Hook is a far less charismatic man than Mick Jagger, but that isn’t to suggest he’s without a story to tell. British director Andy Heathcote invites us into a year in the life of Hook and his cattle in The Moo Man, a cautionary campaign of support for local farms concealed as an affectionate observation of their processes.

The Moo Man is mostly process, documenting the highs and lows experienced by the family farm through the passing seasons. Smiles abound during one lucky heffer’s trip to the Eastbourne seaside, accompanied by a piano ditty of “I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside.” But as a microcosm for the passage of all natural life, each cow is a ticking time bomb, an animal born to serve and die. Some, like calf bulls, are doomed from the moment they drop out of the womb. Other, more serviceable cows, assured a prosperous life because of their ability to produce milk, simply fall ill and die. Such is life.

Again, it is all process. And the largest process of all is that which pushes – as the film claims in its closing lines – one family farm per day out of business. When Hook opens up midway about the struggle to sustain his enterprise, one wishes it had been mentioned earlier. Heathcote wants us to firstly warm to the farm and its intricacies, in an empathetic exercise of understanding, before learning about the threats faced. To do things in reverse order would result in more of a desperate plea.

The Moo Man is a no frills examination stripped of an aesthetic, focused on the daily grime of cow slop and birthing calves. The camera observes, but its hand is held at all times regardless by well-intentioned Hook, whose oppressive narration drowns the images with streams of explanations long after everything has adequately been shown. Hook talks to his animals an awful lot – maybe moreso for the sake of the camera – and explains more than is necessary his own physical actions. As such, the relationship between one man and his cattle, surrendered to television-like presentation, presents itself as heavily one-sided.

God Loves Uganda

In some circumstances, there is no requirement for a guide to illustrate a point. Actions speak louder than words, and some idiots do a perfectly good job of damning their own cause simply by acting upon its dubious ethos. This bare-faced imbecility applies to the cheery evangelicals of Missouri-based IHOP (International House of Prayer), oblivious villains of Roger Ross William’s documentary God Loves Uganda.

Impressionable youths are pumped to bursting point with spirited enthusiasm by their overexcited pastor, before being dispatched to Uganda to spread the gospel among vulnerable minds. Much like hell’s angel Mother Theresa (thank you, Hitchens), the evangelists are more adamant at third world civilians reading the Bible than they are in alleviating any of their suffering. A scene in which a young white male kneels down beside a starving mother and her baby boy to condescend her on scripture becomes an increasingly commonplace template for interaction as the film winds on, objectively infuriating to anyone with a modicum of human decency. The camera spends ample time deep in the company of these people, not passing its own judgement nor questioning them on their incredulous methods. It only needs to pull back and witness the audacity unfold, of a smirking man telling an impoverished elder they’re at risk of going to hell.

Saner perspectives are sought. Ugandan priest Christopher Sengonjo leads his own young flock on the appreciable virtues of love and acceptance in a bid to counter deadly homophobia in the region. Gay activist David Kato offers his perspective, and later pays for it with his life at the hands of bigoted hatemongers.

But it is Reverend Kapya Kaoma who provides the best outlook on the slippery slope that led Uganda to its nadir with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, still moving through its parliament. Kaoma resides in the US and refuses to return to Africa, though his journey from one continent to the other has opened his eyes to the inverse projection of one culture onto another.

“Africa became a dumping ground for his extreme ideas,” he says of Scott Lively, one of many hate-filled Christian pastors, who has now been persecuted on grounds of human rights abuse. Kaoma’s elucidation of a cause-and-effect between the theory of social conservative values and the resulting destruction of civil society in Uganda helps to proportion the film’s structure. We’re taken “back to the roots” of the IHOP church in the US, to see the breeding area for these poisonous beliefs. From here, we travel through a history of cultural intervention into Africa, involving the promotion of abstinence that placed pure sanctity above safety. At the endpoint of this tragic escalation is the ongoing war against homosexuality raging through Uganda, propagated and encouraged by evangelicals with little regard for the human lives at stake.

The structure of the film compensates for its lack of discernible form, because it presents to the viewer a dark seed – far more destructive than “the seed of homosexuality” – that travels from an origin to an end point whereupon it blooms into something nightmarish and devastating. It begins with the unbridled hatred of the pastors’ ideology, prioritising intolerance over the love preached by their messiah. It travels into the hearts and minds of well-intentioned young people, encouraging them to depart from a Western land where the culture war is all but lost and embark on what they perceive as an idealised “adventure”. It ends, though not definitively, with the indoctrination of African minds. This sorry manipulation is hopelessly embodied in two poor Ugandan souls at the film’s end, recruited into the fold and sent off “to places they don’t know, to people they don’t know”; to somehow connect with others in the name of unholy division.

Blood Brother

The religious bigots swarming through a foreign land unbelievably appear even more loathsome when compared to the face of Blood Brother, a fitting partner for a double bill with God Loves Uganda. Director Steve Hoover travels to India to visit newly dispossessed best friend Rocky, who lives among and cares for an orphanage of HIV-infected children. The film won the US Grand Jury Prize for Documentary and the Audience Award at Sundance 2013, and it’s sure to go down similarly well with UK audiences with a penchant for uplifting moral triumphs.

As a leading man, “Rocky Anna” (“Anna” means “brother”) is brimming with charisma, and his magnetism is helpful in drawing us into the harsh world of these afflicted children. Their suffering is undeniable, but you wouldn’t know it from the looks on their faces. They run out into the fields with beaming smiles, privileged to be alive even when staring death in the face.

Hoover peppers the film with dozens of diverse stylistic shots, none too obtrusive to the verisimilitude of the subject matter, but the images that stick in the mind are those of nature’s polar extremes untainted by a superficial stylisation. The first is the sheer majestic sight of these children, every one of them beautiful beyond measure and a testament to the vibrancy of human life. Their bravery is astounding, accentuated by Hoover’s continual framing of their bold temperament, their big brown eyes staring into the camera to forge an unlikely connection with the viewer.

Then there are the uncompromising images of death. One child, Surya, has his skin burst into sores. His lips fall off, his eyes crust over and he spews up blood. In another scene, a father breaks down when looking through images of his daughter, who we have just seen pass away en route to the hospital.

We also bear witness to the quality that endures over death. Rocky tends to a fatally ill Surya for four days on end, dabbing his wounds and tending to his sores at the risk of contracting HIV himself. The force of love and compassion displayed is powerful and palpable. It’s a cliché for films especially to extol the virtue of love – so saturated as Hollywood traditionally is with sentimental hogwash on the matter – though it’s refreshing to see it practiced with the capacity to increase the viewer’s empathy into a greater sense of compassion.

It’s difficult for a film like Blood Brother to present Rocky’s journey and not accidentally profile him as a “white man saviour”. Rocky is aware of the misconception and addresses the human flaws and vulnerabilities that threaten to derail his life’s mission. Even so, at his own eventual wedding to a beautiful Indian woman, his speech bizarrely emphasises the fulfilment of his own desire to have a wife and child, reinforcing the sentiment that he is indeed the problematic star of this one-man show.

Rocky is not our empathetic point of entry, after all. As the director and secondary narrator, Steven Hoover gives his input before handing the stage over to his friend and settling himself into a largely observational role. His drawing  away from the frame leaves us to occupy his space and thus share in the discovery of this incredible community. As he is blown away, so too are we.

Sundance London 2013 takes place at the o2, Greenwich, London from 25-28 April.

Ed Doyle

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