Reviews From The 25th United Nations Association Film Festival

Reviews From The 25th United Nations Association Film Festival

Updated: 3 months, 13 days, 5 hours, 25 minutes, 43 seconds ago

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Certain non-white viewers of a certain age will understandably feel triggered after learning why Native American activists protest against American sports teams using derogatory Native American mascots.  Far from a trivial pursuit, Aviva Kempner and Ben West’s film “Imagining The Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting” (hereafter “Imagining The Indian”) shows why these protests matter and how they’ve been going on far longer than the average non-Native American may think.

The intersection of pop culture and politics has been a theme Kempner has handled before in such prior films as “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” and “The Spy At First Base.”  But this film is different in two respects.  First, “Imagining The Indian” marks the first time she’s worked with a co-director.  Second, the politics discussed in this film take center stage instead of staying in the background.  For racial politics is the basis for the long political fight that’s “Imagining The Indian”’s central subject.

Contrary to naysayers’ claims, Kempner and West show the fight against the often insulting use of Native American culture and imagery in sports (aka mascoting) has been going on since the 1960s.  That such protests have occurred for so long doesn’t mean the cause is a very fringe concern.  As clips from everything from an old Betty Boop cartoon to a “Seinfeld” episode demonstrate, mascoting is just one of the latest iterations of an unfortunately long and shameful history of American pop culture insults to Native Americans (and other non-white races).

It’s simultaneously disturbing and eye-opening to learn from “Imagining The Indian” that practically all the popular imagery Americans have of Native Americans were the products of non-Native imaginings.  For Native Americans had practically nothing in what whites would term self-representation.  There were no writings or imagery of Native American life before their encounters with whites.  So non-Native Americans made up their own always inaccurate images and depictions of Native Americans, from the Wild West shows to the stereotypes peddled on Saturday morning cartoons.  The popular stereotyping was so bad that when Westerns dominated American popular entertainment, the question one interviewee regularly had when watching a Western was just how insultingly would the Native Americans be portrayed.  (This writer often asks the same question when watching Hollywood depictions of Asian-Americans.)

In a way, the prevalence of such racist imagery shouldn’t be too surprising.  Throughout American history, the Native Americans have often been treated as the “people in the way” of settlement and further national growth.   The commonality of the philosophy of “All men are created equal” didn’t apply to Native Americans, but a common “Trail Of Tears”-like experience did.

But what are the consequences of accepting that Native Americans are not worthy of respect?  If there is no need to respect a person, there is no need to think that person is entitled to rights or even acceptance of their humanity.  More than a few Native Americans responded to that brutal attitude by getting lost in drug and/or alcohol abuse.  Which brings us back to the mascoting problem.

The fight to remove sports team mascots is ultimately a fight to get people to see Native Americans for who they really and currently are.  Mascot imagery locks Native Americans in the popular imagination into an imaginary period which has nothing to do with the Native American doctors, museum curators, or radio broadcasters seen today.

One of the prime movers of this fight against Native American sports mascoting is Suzan Shawn Harjo.  Starting with her groundbreaking Indigenous news radio show “Seeing Red” on the Pacifica Foundation’s WBAI-FM station, Harjo became an activist fighting for protecting Native American rights in such areas as religious freedom, hunting and fishing rights, and government reparations.  Her long history of activism would eventually result in her receiving a Presidential Medal Of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama.

Needless to say, the fight against sports mascoting has not been an easy one.  Some of the team owners, such as George Preston Marshall, were out-and-out racists.  Marshall had the Confederate anthem “Dixie” played at his team’s games.  Hard-fought court victories have been undermined by “creative” use of such legal principles as latches.  The cost of changing logos seems more important than doing right by Native Americans.

But fan resistance to dropping the Tomahawk Chop (performed by no Native American ever) or even an offensive team name also plays a role.  Fans may claim naming a sports team the Braves or the Indians somehow honors Native Americans.  While Native Americans are quite happy to be praised, they draw a very wide line against racist disrespect masquerading as praise.  In the encounters between white fans and Native American protesters shown in “Imagining The Indian,” the white fans never apologize for unintentional offense nor make moves to find a mutually agreeable solution.  Instead, such fans double down on their offensiveness by aggressively claiming the sports team as their “tribe.”

Kempner and West’s film offers some areas of hope.  Black Lives Matter activists have worked with Native American activists on the sports mascot issue with some degree of success.  Although 1,897 teams across America still use offensive mascots, they’re no longer a majority of the team population.  Most importantly, the more accepting and tolerant youth of today’s America have stepped up to push for the abandonment of offensive sports imagery.

For this writer, the triggering mentioned at the beginning of this review of “Imagining The Indian” came from reminders of continual social messaging that people such as himself were expected to be invisible and suffer this country’s racism in silence.  Wanting to give prominent racist Rick Santorum a well-deserved punch in the face for a racist jibe could only be a pipe dream in such circumstances.  But the political activism captured by Kempner and West says that times are changing enough that the bigots will no longer have the last word.     .

***

Watching Michael Wech’s “Silent Pandemic – The Global Fight Against Antimicrobial Resistance” (hereafter “Silent Pandemic”) will cause the viewer to alternate between alarm and frustration.  Its mix of data and personal anecdote shows the urgency of an existing problem whose unchecked consequences will affect the foundations of the modern world.  Yet the responses offered feel more like holding actions rather than long-term solutions to the systemic roots of the problem depicted.

Ella Balasa, a young woman introduced in the opening minutes of “Silent Pandemic,” embodies the crisis explained in the film.  From the outside, this 29-year-old woman appears to be leading a healthy active lifestyle.  But in actuality, Balasa has lived with cystic fibrosis since she was 18 months old.  Regular use of antibiotics has successfully fought off her infections…until now.  Her infections keep returning stronger than ever, and there are no replacement antibiotics available.  Now her major hope in life is not contracting an infection that could be potentially fatal.

The viewer soon learns that Balasa’s situation is unfortunately not an outlier.  The growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics for Balasa and other people dependent on these drugs results from a phenomenon known as antimicrobial resistance (hereafter “AMR”).  When the bacteria a particular antibiotic is designed to kill has evolved biological resistance to that drug, that’s AMR in action.  It’s a natural process.  But as Dame Sally Davies, the U.K.’s Special Government Envoy On AMR notes, this bacterial process currently results in 5 ¼ million human deaths annually.  And there’s no current sign that enough people are alarmed enough about the situation to do something about it.

How humanity got into this situation and what measures are currently being undertaken now against AMR forms the basic structure of Wech’s film.  It’s a globetrotting journey that takes viewers to London, Uganda, Germany, the United States, and Kenya among other locations.  In these locales, the viewer learns about the various remedial measures being undertaken to control AMR.  In Uganda, for example, a motorcycle courier transport system delivering samples of suspected AMR bacteria to Jinja Regional Hospital helps beat the 48-hour window for identifying such bacteria in a country lacking sufficient medical research facilities.  In France, a hospital does regular air quality monitoring in its corridors.  This practice, begun in 2004, came in handy when 90 different AMR fungi were discovered in the tulip beds outside the hospital.

Yet these remedial measures essentially amount to holding actions.  Staying ahead of AMR bacteria ultimately means developing newer antimicrobials.  The trouble is that the most recent antimicrobials available on the market date from the 1980s…and there’s nothing new in the development pipeline.  To be more accurate, small companies such as Boston’s Octagon Therapeutics have very promising ideas for new antibiotics.  However, the big pharmaceutical companies which have the resources to turn such ideas into marketable drugs won’t do so.

The reason for the big pharmaceutical companies’ inaction and indeed the problem of growing AMR incidents can be summarized by one word: capitalism.  The financial returns offered by developing life-saving medications such as newer antibiotics pale in comparison to the benefits of producing far more profitable drugs.  Human antibiotics are misused to make factory animal husbandry possible and to help the Dutch flower industry maintain a 4.8 billion Euro annual income.  And a patient’s poverty can turn an effective antibiotic treatment regimen into something that can weaken a particular bacteria but not necessarily kill it…which could help that bacteria develop AMR.

Given the stakes of allowing AMR to continue unchecked, “Silent Pandemic”’s vague recommendations of stronger curbs on antibiotic use feel like weak beer.  Yes, not prescribing antibiotics as a catchall solution for illnesses not necessarily treatable by antibiotics is useful.  But the scope of the problem pictured in Wech’s film surely calls for more radial solutions than hoping people don’t get infected by bacteria with AMR.  For example, how much further can the wealthier governments go in helping develop promising ideas for new antibiotics?  Should governments provide research facilities or even streamline the regulatory process for getting new antibiotics to market?

Another weakness of “Silent Pandemic” is its lack of clarity into the scope of the AMR problem.  Is it just a matter of broader spectrum antibiotics being less effective while a slowly diminishing stock of antibiotics targeted towards more specific bacteria are still effective?  How has the unfortunate rise of anti-vaccination sentiment contributed to the increase in AMR occurrences?   “Silent Pandemic” offers no answer to these questions.

Wech’s film does at least offer suspenseful music throughout its running time to convey a sense of the urgency posed by AMR.  Whether that urgency will overcome human shortsightedness or the doubtful future for the Ella Balasas of the world dependent on effective antibiotics currently remains an open question.

***

Is Ukraine merely a region of the former U.S.S.R. that’s long harbored delusions of autonomy?  Or is it a country that has been perpetually frustrated by outside forces such as Russia in its efforts to exercise self-rule?  Providing a human perspective on these abstract issues is journalist Katya Soldak’s personal documentary “The Long Breakup.”

Soldak may currently live in New York City and have a day job working for Forbes magazine as a journalist.  But she was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union.  Her job at Forbes includes keeping track of current events in Ukraine and the events’ impact.

The distance between New York City and Ukraine hasn’t meant that Soldak’s forgotten or abandoned her roots.  Early in the film, the viewer sees Soldak and her daughter Deana take a 2012 trip to Koktebel, a beach town in pre-Russian annexation Crimea.  It’s one of the many ways the director passes on her historical heritage to her daughter.

“The Long Breakup” could be called a way for Soldak to give viewers with only headline-level acquaintance with Ukraine a deeper dive into the country’s history.  Filtering the geopolitical changes that affected Ukraine through the personal experiences of family and friends (particularly Soldak’s mother Nina), the director captures the tangled skeins of the tortured relationship between Ukraine and Russia.

90% of Ukraine’s citizenry may have voted for the country to leave the Soviet Union and declare independence in 1991.  But Soldak shows that what happened to Ukraine in the years after that vote didn’t resemble an amicable breakup with Russia as much as temporary escapes from an abusive and determined partner.

Understanding why events turned out that way requires knowing a bit about the history of Ukraine.  Back in the 18th century, what’s currently Ukraine was split into two pieces, with the Western half of Ukraine under the thumb of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Eastern half of Ukraine under the control of the Russian Empire.  Attempts to preserve a separate Ukrainian national culture were continually suppressed by the authorities of both empires.  With the political upheavals wrought by World War One on both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, the people of Ukraine seized the opportunity in 1917 to declare itself an independent country.

However, the Bolsheviks now in control of Russia declared Ukraine to be part of the Soviet Union.  Stalin cemented Soviet control of Ukraine in the 1930s.  The Holodomor aka the Great Famine, which took the lives of 3-6 million Ukrainians, proved one of Stalin’s most devastating weapons of social control.  His other act was to decimate the ranks of the Ukrainian elite by sending the country’s more educated citizens to the labor camps (on a presumably one way trip).

By the time Soldak grew up in 1970s and 1980s Kharkiv, Soviet control of Ukraine was such that Soldak could believe she lived in the best country in the world even if she and her fellow Ukrainians had to constantly worry about the possibility of mass aerial bombardments from the U.S.  Then again, Soldak had no cultural yardsticks for judging life in Soviet-controlled Ukraine.  Her foreign travel was restricted to Soviet Union member countries.  The State did provide the necessities of life, but they were the bare minimum and of generally poor quality.

One of “The Long Breakup”’s most eye-opening revelations concerns the differing reactions to the consequences of the Soviet Union’s break-up in 1991.  Nobody in Soldak’s film disagrees that there weren’t such day-to-day practical problems as poverty and frequent power outages.  Soldak was among those Ukrainians who treated the break-up as a baseline for building something newer and better for the country now that the opportunity was available.  In her case, it was getting into non-State-dictated television journalism to do everything from promoting alternative local musicians to spotlighting political corruption.

On the other hand, there were those Ukrainians who yearned for the return of Soviet control, including more than a few people who didn’t shed many tears at the U.S.S.R.’s 1991 collapse.  A decade of publicly brutal fights over control of former State resources and political parties easily eroded personal optimism.  Add to that democracy’s non-fulfillment of its promises and the result was political cynicism.  The housing block where Nina and Soldak’s stepfather Sasha live looks worse than it did a decade ago thanks to reconstruction work never resumed for lack of funds.

But the film’s most painful moment on the political optimism front comes from seeing what happened to Soldak’s friend Max.  During the Orange Revolution, he’s seen happily waving the Revolution flag and dreaming of traveling and seeing the world.  Four years later, he burns all his Orange Revolution paraphernalia in regret for supporting what turned out to be an empty dream.

The nadir of democracy in Ukraine would thus have to be the 2010 election of Viktor Yanukovych.  The viewer will share Soldak’s dismay at various Ukrainians (including her mother and stepfather) voting him into office despite his serving a prison sentence and his willingness to be politically closer to Vladimir Putin.  The “lesser of two evils” rationalization for electing Yanukovych, though, starts feeling hollow when he jails the leader of his political opposition and his version of a “positive” direction for Ukraine turns out to be using state resources to line the pockets of his family and cronies.

The Maidan Revolution which eventually drove Yanukovych from office shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a popular resurgence of Ukrainian faith in democracy.  The election of Volodomyr Zelenskyy as Ukraine’s new president seems another act of political cynicism given that Zelenskyy’s previous electoral experience had been limited to his literally playing a president on television.

Soldak ends her film around Zelenskyy’s taking the oath of office.  Yet the later events surrounding Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine show that, with apologies to Shakespeare, Ukraine’s current president is less someone who’s had greatness thrust upon him and more someone who genuinely achieves greatness.

But Zelenskyy’s leadership by itself doesn’t answer the question of whether Ukraine is actually a nation or a wannabe landmass boasting possession of a provincial lowbrow culture.  Yale Professor of History Timothy Snyder notes that a nation is one where its people have a sense of a political community with a future.  The Ukrainians Soldak interviews don’t display a sense of their nation as West Ukraine and East Ukraine forcibly joined together.  Rather, they see themselves as part of one country.  As Soldak’s best friends Natasha and Ina note, the push to split Ukraine in two is an aim imposed from above, not the Ukrainians themselves.  So viewers should come away from “The Long Breakup” turning a deaf ear to such advocates of splitting Ukraine as Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and S.F.’s own MAGA bankroller David Sacks.

(“Silent Pandemic – The Global Fight Against Antimicrobial Resistance” screens at 9:30 PM on October 25, 2022 at Stanford University’s Stanford Medical School LKC Room 120, Palo Alto.

“The Long Breakup” screens at 9:00 PM on October 28, 2022 at the Mitchell Park Community Center (3700 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto).

For further information about these films and advance ticket purchase information, go to www.unaff.org .)

ADDENDUM:  “Cat Daddies,” which was previously reviewed when it screened as part of this year’s S.F. Independent Film Festival, is receiving theatrical screenings at the Roxie Theatre starting October 28, 2022.  Screenings on October 28 & 29 will feature in person appearances by Zulu the exploring cat, Tora the Trucker Cat, and their daddies.

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