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Dark Days (2000)

14 Apr

dark_days

Documentaries run the gamut from silly bio-docs about video gamers (i.e. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters) to change-the-way-you-live-or-die guilt trippers (Food Matters, Food Inc., Forks Over Knives, etc.). There is a place and time for each kind on the spectrum of documentaries. Sometimes you want to learn how to make a change in the world, or learn how your behavior impacts the environment, international relations or the political climate. Sometimes you want to gawk at some unusual people who are not fictional characters. Dark Days is one of those docs that falls between the two categories. It won’t make you hate life, and it’s not just a voyeuristic romp through someone’s life. This is one of my favorite documentaries to date, due, in part, to the beautiful score composed by DJ Shadow. This haunting soundtrack paired with the black and white (though mostly black) film brings an eerie feel to the whole picture.

One of the NYC underground tunnel-dwellers of Dark Days

One of the NYC underground tunnel-dwellers of Dark Days

Dark Days takes you into the humble lives of the marginalized and forgotten citizens of the New York City underground. Not some underground “scene,” but literally under the ground in the abandoned tunnels of NYC’s subway system. The living conditions of these people are unbelievable. They live in complete darkness in small makeshift shacks. Yet some of them have carved out a nice little niche for themselves, complete with meager appliances and the electricity they use to run their naked lightbulbs and small hotplates. Many aspects of this life mirror the social structure that we above-grounders enjoy. There are feuds and relationships, people have pets and set up security systems around their homes. But as you might guess, this kind of living is illegal, and many of these people are driven out of the tunnels by law enforcement.

Some more tunnel-dwellers who take us into their homes

Some more tunnel-dwellers who take us into their homes

I was happy to see that Dark Days made its way back to the Netflix Instant Streaming list. Do yourself a favor and check this one out before Netflix pulls it again. (Actually, I just found it here, on YouTube, but sometimes those get taken down as well).

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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2002)

8 Mar

VZ movie posterI have a particular interest in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, and revolutionary movements of Latin America, as you may already know if you read my review on South of the Border, an Oliver Stone documentary on the topic of Chávez and Venezuela. In that review I also mentioned that there is a better doc out there that gets a little more down and dirty into the details of Chávez’s rise to power, from the 1989 Caracazo (Chávez’s failed military coup) to the 2002 political and media climate surrounding the now-deceased Hugo Chávez Frías. That documentary is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (a.k.a. Chavez: Inside the Coup). This movie is a must-see for novices and experts alike, especially in light of Chávez’s death, and the inevitable turmoil that will come of this.

I would like to do something a little different in this post. It is less of a movie review and more of a reflection on Hugo Chávez. Just know that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is, in my opinion, the best documentary out there on Hugo Chávez, and it is available online for free (link below), so there is absolutely no excuse not to see it. Of course as the holder of a Latin American Studies MA, I am somewhat partial to keeping yourself informed with Latin American politics. But Hugo Chávez has reached throughout Latin America and beyond, right to the US and George W. Bush’s dumb face to deliver a bitch slap. His death spells uncertainty for the future of not only Venezuela.

Our Witness for Peace delegation in Venezuela 2008

Our Witness for Peace delegation in Venezuela 2008

I traveled to Venezuela on a Witness for Peace delegation. That short, 10-day trip, was an eye-opener and, dare I say, life-changer. We spoke to Venezuelans from both ends of the political spectrum, to Chávez supporters and dissenters. My overwhelming conclusion was that Chávez has done much more for Venezuela than any other president ever has or could. I will try to keep this brief, but I want to throw my two cents in on an on-going and heated debate between the pro- and anti-Chávez masses…

Venezuela is an oil-rich country. The political elites of the nation had enjoyed the profits of this wealth for decades, leaving the majority of the marginalized poor in the mire of poverty. For the most part, these old school elites are the ones who speak out against Chávez because he messed with their money, and they didn’t like that. What he did was use this oil revenue to help bring the poor out of their horrific conditions. This money was filtered into Chávez many “Misiones” or Missions, social programs that were benefactors of the Venezuelan poor. These

Hugo Chávez Frías, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela 1999-2013

Hugo Chávez Frías, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela 1999-2013

missions have provided free education to children, the illiterate, and college students. They have reforested areas of the country, built and re-built ramshackle settlements in the mountains of Caracas, and brought FREE healthcare to anyone and everyone in the nation. One sight that will stay with me forever was the in-progress mission involving the lighting up of the poor hillside neighborhoods of Caracas. We landed in Caracas at night, and on our trip to our hotel we could see these communities in the distance. They started out as a speckle of yellow lights nestled in the hills. As we approached the city center, the lights became bluer and denser. The government had been providing free compact fluorescent bulbs to these communities, and along with that, electricity to many houses that did not have it previously. It was a beautiful sight that summed up the changes happening because of Chávez.

We spoke to those who had been helped by Chávez, many of them in La Bombilla, one

Venezuelan Barrios. Photo credit: Melissa Wales 2008

Venezuelan Barrios. Photo credit: Melissa Wales 2008

of the poorest communities in Caracas (much like the favelas of Brazil). Many of these people had framed and hung photos of the President in their homes because they loved him so much. They spoke of him as if he were family. They showed us the parts of their house that used to be made of cardboard, homes that just recently received plumbing and electricity. We visited the schools and health clinics in these neighborhoods which helped keep the community healthy and children off of the streets and put them into the classroom. I heard them sing the praises of Chávez with tears of gratitude in their eyes. Compared to the elites who spoke out against Chávez, these people seemed so much more thankful for their happiness, for what little they had all thanks to government assistance.

I always keep my souvenir Venezuelan flag in my window.

I always keep my souvenir Venezuelan flag in my window.

Conclusion: Critics of Chávez were (and still are) afraid of him NOT because he is a heartless dictator who stole elections and power in Venezuela. They fear him because he took away their access to oil wealth and reallocated these riches to the nation’s poor. The US fears him because he refused to be a third world puppet to their demands. They fear him because he is not afraid of them, not afraid to call them out. I will conclude with some of my favorite Chávez quotations. Que descanse en paz, Comandante Hugo Chávez Frías.

In a 2006 speech at the UN, he said the following of George W. Bush:

“The Devil is right at home. The Devil, the Devil himself, is right in the house. And the Devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. [crosses himself] And it smells of sulphur still today. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the Devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. Truly. As the owner of the world”

On Condoleeza Rice in 2005:

“She is sexually frustrated. I could invite her on a date to see what happens between us”

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978)

24 Feb
Koko and Penny back in the day

Koko and Penny back in the day

Yes, this might stray from my typical taste in controversial and artistic documentaries, but I came across this documentary after stumbling through a maze of YouTube videos on Koko the gorilla spurned by this video that wimp.com posted earlier this month. I started to watch the documentary, which is posted in its entirety on YouTube, thinking that I would grow tired of it before long, but I didn’t.

What really kept me engaged throughout a documentary on a gorilla that knows sign language was not the title character at all. It was actually Penny Patterson, Koko’s researcher and caretaker, who caught my interest. Penny plays a major role in this documentary without being the focus. She is treated as

A more recent photo of Koko and Penny

A more recent photo of Koko and Penny

an auxiliary character, someone the documentary may have left out had Koko truly been able to speak to the cameras for herself. But quick snippets about Penny made me interested in her life -or lack thereof. It seemed to me that she has made many personal sacrifices in order to dedicate her life to Koko. It seemed sad to me because I live a life that thrives on human relationships; interestingly enough, Penny does not seem to feel that she is missing out on anything.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla is not a mind-blowing documentary that exposes dark truths, but there are still some underlying messages and unanswered questions that arise after watching it. While these cater more to an animal rights message, there is still a secret human interest piece present. It makes me want to watch more documentaries from the 60’s and 70’s to see if they are all so much different from modern-day docs. It definitely seems more polished and candy-coated than the ones I am privy to. If you have any suggestions of older documentaries that you have enjoyed, I would love to have your input. The only one that comes to mind is Grey Gardens, which I should be writing a review about sometime soon.