“Girl with Black Balloons” – (Corinne van der Borch; U.S.A. and The Netherlands)
(screened with the short film ‘The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen’)
“Girl with Black Balloons” bears some similarity to a documentary that showed at DOC NYC last year called “Lost Bohemia,” about the renovations to Carnegie Hall that involved kicking out residents in apartments and studios, mainly of whom were artists in their sixties and above. The artists were elderly, had dedicated their lives to the arts, and had great stories to tell, yet were absolutely destitute without anywhere else to go. “Girl with Black Balloons” tells the story of an artist named Bettina, a resident of the Chelsea Hotel since the 1960s. She has spent her life dedicated to her artwork, anonymous save for one public showing in 1980, and knows that the drive to create is unstoppable. Unfortunately, the Chelsea Hotel is being closed for renovation, and evicting many residents, much like Carnegie Hall did. Filmmaker Corinne van der Borch brings Bettina’s story to the screen, painting her with a warm and touching sensitivity to an unknown and semi-reclusive artist.
Van der Borch met Bettina by chance in the hotel, being invited into her apartment, which was barely livable. Bettina’s myriad of artwork was packed into boxes, but crowded all over the apartment, leaving only narrow walkways and spare room for guests. Bettina, from the outside would appear as an eccentric bag lady, an elderly woman with overdone makeup, a cobalt-blue wig, and getting around Manhattan on a scooter with a few black balloons tied to it. But behind her unusual appearance is a very intelligent, funny, and astute woman, devoid of any pretension. Bettina had been a very mysterious beauty in her youth, valuing her independence in traveling the world and being an artist, either by photographing people, painting Rorschach-like figures, or creating posters listing words that sound similar, like “constitution, retribution, institution, convolution,” etc. Bettina had given up a lot for her solitary life as an artist, with very little contact with friends and family, but still maintained that her work is her life.
Slowly gaining trust with van der Borch, Bettina lets her guard down, showing more of her art and smiling at ease, letting the outside world into her home. She expresses some regret over losing relationships over favoring her work, but knew that she was never cut out for a domestic way of life. She states that she never wanted children, and never married because the men would then expect a child. There is curiosity about her family, who Bettina is estranged from, and who obviously did not participate in the documentary.
While people may romanticize about brilliant artists who had mental illnesses or debilitating social phobia, Bettina does not strike as being neither mentally ill nor socially incapable of making friends. She had invited van der Borch into her life with a camera, and is not only friends with her, but is friends with a filmmaker/artist named Sam, who is her neighbor in the hotel. He is currently making his own film about her, and is inspired by her as a muse.
While watching the film, there was some concern that Sam and van der Borch were using Bettina for their own creative gain. An eccentric elderly woman who lived as a recluse with no close family or friends, who looked odd on the outside, and spoke with frankness and honesty. It seemed as if she was ripe for a filmmaker’s documentary, as if she was something of fascination for artists to make money off of. But as the film progressed, those notions went away, as both Sam and van der Borch were truly involved in Bettina’s life and well-being. In a scene where Sam and his friends are cleaning up Bettina’s apartment to make it more livable, Sam is clearly annoyed at van der Borch’s filming of the clean-up, essentially telling her that this was not a show, and if she wasn’t going to help clean up, she had to leave. Van der Borch gets the message, and leaves her camera rolling in a stationery spot as she pitches in. It quickly showed how special Bettina was, and how filming her was not for exploitation or amusement.
Van der Borch spent two years with Bettina, filming her life, and Bettina is a dazzling star of the film, with her high cheekbones, deep eyes, and knowing looks. The final scenes of the film, showing Bettina using a handheld camera to film passing ships at a harbor, reveals a once isolated woman opening herself up to the world beyond the four walls of her studio, accepting relationships without a fear that her independence will be taken away.
“The Island President” – (Jon Shenk; U.S.A.)
Whenever the world has heard about the threats of climate change, and seen the effects of it with this year’s cataclysmic earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods, it is often written off as just nature, to assuage people’s fears of rising sea levels that would swallow up land. But climate change is not happening in the future, it is happening right now, as evidence of the Maldives islands in danger of becoming a real-life Atlantis. In “The Island President,” documentary filmmaker Jon Shenk (“Lost Boys of Sudan”) profiles the charismatic and courageous president of the lowest-lying country in the world, President Mohamed Nasheed. In a lifetime spent fighting the oppression of the dictatorial president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom through protests and imprisonment, he faces a greater challenge than ever before – the sea levels of the Indian Ocean rising and submerging all 1200 islands of the Maldives.
The Maldives, to the world’s view, is seen as a tropical paradise, where British rock stars go to hang back on beaches shaded by palm trees, where divers go deep amongst brightly colored fish traveling in schools, and where life is at a peaceful standstill. The overhead shots captured by Shenk show the country as a gorgeous series of islands, surrounded by rich blue/green coral reefs, a stunningly beautiful arrangement of an island dream.
But that tourist fantasy masks the reality of the turmoil and hell that the country went through for thirty years. The country had liberated themselves from British rule in 1965. Their first president, Ibrahim Nasir, served from 1968-1978, and is credited with making the country viable for tourism, improving the economy, and modernizing the fishing industry, which provides a major source of income for the Maldives today. President Gayoom instilled a regime that eliminated all history of previous rule, insisting that schools only teach about him and nobody else. His administration imposed terror against anyone who disagreed with his rule, throwing people in prison or having them die of “natural causes” while their bodies show severe beatings. Nasheed was one of these prisoners, held in solitary confinement once for 18 months, surviving through his sheer willpower.
After thirty years of this hell, and the public made aware of the fatal beatings, a democracy movement was formed, with Nasheed at the head of it. Nasheed, despite all of the torture and pain he has gone through and witnessed, appears as a very likable and optimistic man, somebody who truly believes in his people and will not stop to bring them justice. Successfully, Nasheed won the people’s vote and became president in 2008. But while that ended Gayoom’s reign of terror, the difficulties in Nasheed’s term had only just begun.
The symptoms of climate change plays out like an omen of things to come. Fishing has been extremely low, fishermen only bringing in less than a quarter of their usual catch. Deep erosion has wiped away shorelines, revealing rocks that would normally lie beneath the surface. In one scene, Nasheed’s deputy undersecretary, Aminath Shauna, is telling her family about work, and they are light with her, asking her to “save them” so they don’t get “swallowed up.” They are both joking and serious, and it is a strange feeling to have, watching people who know that they may lose their lives to the ocean, but are trying to maintain a sense of humor about it to deal with the inevitability.
“The Island President” follows Nasheed through his first year in office, trying desperately to grab the world’s attention about the threat to his country while knowing that he is up against superpowers like India, China, and the U.S., who have their own interests at hand. Shenk’s crew have unfiltered access, sitting in on private meetings that would normally be classified, showing that behind his genial charm, Nasheed is very shrewd and dead-set on getting media attention, by any means necessary. He even stages a media stunt of an underwater cabinet meeting to make his point. The film culminates with the Copenhagen Climate Summit, where Nasheed and his dedicated staff hope to gain support from major developed countries to reverse these changes to save the world. Nasheed speaks with the kind of honesty and candor that many politicians would shy away from, like “”It won’t be any good to have a democracy if we don’t have a country.”
What is sad is that climate change is very real, and that in time, rising sea levels will not only engulf The Maldives, but will submerge coastal cities and lead to catastrophic terror and untold deaths of millions. It is a slow-moving threat, and even if it has already been noted in extreme weather, if these forces of nature happen far away, people assume that it can’t happen to them, that they are safe or protected by a rich government. Nobody is immune from these global changes.
“The Children Were Watching” & “The Chair” – (Richard Leacock; U.S.A.)
DOC NYC is celebrating the career of documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock (1921-2011), a filmmaker whose documentaries were a call for social activism in the name of human rights. His films, often so stark and revealing in people’s prejudices, ambiguities, and brutal honesty, would be prevented from being aired on television, too controversial at the time. Along with filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Robert Drew, they made films like”Primary,” about the 1960 Wisconsin Primary election between John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. Getting unprecedented access, using light cameras, and filming a la cinema verite, it was a breakthrough and innovation in the world of documentary filmmaking. Leacock’s career paved the way for many documentary filmmakers to film subjects with private access, capture candid moments, make social statements, and open audience’s eyes to worlds they never knew about before.
Two of his films that demonstrate that kind of candidness and brutal honesty were “The Chair” (1962), a feature about lawyer Louis Nizer’s fight to save his client Paul Crump from the electric chair, and “The Children Were Watching” (1960), a made-for-ABC-TV short about school integration in New Orleans. “The Chair” is gripping with courtroom drama and a sense of dread, while “The Children Were Watching” shakes audiences to the bones with the absolute hatred and steadfast prejudice spewed out of ordinary people due to social changes.
“The Children Were Watching” is right in the midst of the controversies that surrounded school integration at the time. In New Orleans, history is made when Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old girl, became the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Mobs of white people who were pro-segregation gathered on her daily walks to and from school, yelling hateful epithets and threatening violence against this child, escorted by U.S. Marshalls to ensure her safety. The vitriol that came out of people’s mouths regarding African-Americans was absolutely horrendous. Talk of “these people,” that “they are trying to be white, and they’re not white,” and that they “have it good” only kept their perspectives narrow and close-minded. The sound quality of the 1960s audio made it a little difficult to understand people’s deafening yells, but the message was clear.
In retaliation, white parents pulled their children out of schools that supported integration, sending them to all-white schools that they had to be bussed into practically the next district. The narration was clearly in favor of integration, pointing out the benefits of integration would have children learn together as equals, and that the attitudes of these parents seeped into the minds of their children, infecting them with racism that they would carry on into adulthood. One man even stated that he thought school integration was a Communist plot, like an infection of American values of capitalism and freedom.
The mobs’ racism was not reserved only for African-Americans, but for white parents who supported integration and sent their children to schools with black students. The film focused particularly on the Gabriel family, a middle-class white family with six kids. Mrs. Gabriel escorted her daughter to and from school, nearly losing in amidst the mob that practically wanted to swallow them both up. But even when they got home safely, it wasn’t over. The mob continued yelling outside of her house, their roars nearly shaking the glass. The children inside, both watching from the window and being distracted with toys by their mother, were trapped, as if there were riots or a war going on outside. The mob was unrelenting, and their influence was close to destroying the lives of the family through social pressure and the high status that race plays in society.
The Chair was unusual in that it was not the case of an innocent man being on death row, as one might surmise from the description of a lawyer saving his client from the death penalty. Paul Crump was on death row for killing a security guard during an armed robbery of a meatpacking plant in 1953. Over the past several years, his lawyer, the famed Louis Nizer (clients included celebrities and journalists) gathered evidence that, while Crump was guilty, he showed that he could be rehabilitated into a civil, individual who showed contrition for his crime, and that killing him would only stop progress of successfully rehabilitating other prisoners to become law-abiding citizens. The film is a stirring drama of the uphill battle to convince a court that an admitted murderer can be reformed, especially playing into any racial politics at hand (Crump was African-American).
The film was a collaboration between Leacock, Drew, Pennebaker, and filmmaker Gregory Shuker, and their work as a team showed magnificently. Leacock’s depth of perspective was evident as he followed the prison warden through the long, winding hallways to the death chamber, where the electric chair waited for its next victim. The chair had a medieval appearance to it, with straps for the ankles, chest, and lap, and a screwed-on headpiece, as a true torture device for those both guilty and possibly innocent.
The hearing itself, while it mostly advocated for Crump to not receive the death penalty (with one or two prosecutors questioning if Crump was truly remorseful for his crime), brought the audience along with its suspense, dependent on the governor’s decision the day of Crump’s execution to save him or not. Even throughout the majority of the film, Crump is not seen, only spoken of by his defenders and reading a statement he made declaring that he has reformed for the greater good of humanity, while accepting whatever fate is bestowed upon him. Without knowing the ending, there is a fear that somebody would be executed, and Nizer would be shown sweating bullets in his office, staring at the telephone as if willing it for good news. The friendly and jovial relationship shown between him and his amiable secretary, who often eased his anxieties with good humor, were light and likable moments in the film.
Both films were landmark documentaries for their time, about the need for change in social issues regarding integration and the death penalty, and Leacock is to be remembered for his pioneer work not only as a documentary filmmaker, but as an advocate for social reform and positive change in the world.
“First Position” – (Bess Kargman; U.S.A.)
“First Position” takes the audience into the nerve-wracking world of ballet competitions, where a performance can make or break the path of a young dancer’s career. At the Youth America Grand Prix, ballet dancers aged 9-19, from all over the world, compete not only for medals, but for chances to be accepted at the world’s top ballet schools and companies. These dancers have been training their own lives, only focused on making a career as a successful dancer with an elite company. “First Position,” directed by Bess Kargman, centers on five young dancers, each with their own path and story of what dance means to them.
The children featured have very unique and interesting backgrounds. 11-yr old Aran, raised in a military family, continued his studies of ballet while living outside a U.S. military base in Naples. Michaela, 14, was an orphan from Sierra Leone who was adopted by an American couple, finding her talent in ballet. Rebecca, 17, is a bubbly teen girl who may come off as an average cheerleader type on the outside, but possesses unusual flexibility and a refreshing sense of humor about herself. Miko, 12, and Jules, 10, are brother and sister of mixed British/Japanese heritage, and Miko is even home-schooled so she can devote more time to her ballet training. And Joan Sebastian, 16, is a teenage boy from Colombia who is determined to make it big as a dancer so he can send money home to his family. All of these dancers possess both budding and extraordinary talent, with a preternatural maturity that is preparing them for careers as young adults in the unpredictable world of dance in a shaky economy.
One of the standouts was an 11-yr old Israeli girl named Gaya, who competes alongside Aran in the European finals of the Grand Prix. Her performance drew out a very dangerous and captivating energy, performed in a very mature and adult manner for a very young girl. This is not to say it was too mature for her; on the contrary, it showcased the intelligence and awareness that she possessed to be challenged by difficult material.
Of the dancers, Joan Sebastian was the most mature, simply because he was practically living on his own, far from his family. He left his small town in Colombia to pursue his ballet studies in NYC, living with his ballet instructor. At 16 years old, he is more of a man than a boy. He purchases calling cards to speak to his mother, who hopes that he isn’t eating too much fried food in America, and, while he is in a tough situation, doesn’t cry or get overwhelmed, composing himself with the kind of self-confidence that will serve him well in his career.
Ballet is a very expensive undertaking, and the families ranged from being well-off (enough to afford $80 pointe shoes or hand-made tutus) to very poor, relying on their child to find success in dance. For the mother of Miko and Jules, there was a sense that she had wanted to be a dancer herself or had been, and while Miko possessed the talent and drive, when Jules expresses doubts over dance, his mother is visibly upset, as if it was her dream to have successful ballet dancer children. The expenses are extremely great, and if the dancers don’t become successful, if it doesn’t “pay off,” then all the money would seem for nothing. Hence, the importance of gaining a scholarship to an elite school or a job with a respected ballet company.
Even when the stresses and difficulties of ballet are shown – Michaela’s tendonitis threatening her Grand Prix performance; the presence of injuries from overworking the body to do unnatural moves like overextending; and the sacrifices made to keep the ballet dream going– the subjects chosen are still healthy children graced with charm and poise who have important goals set ahead of them, while also still having fun with friends or other activities, not growing up too fast. The documentary leaves the audience wanting these children to succeed, and understanding the hard work and dedication that it takes to make these dreams come true.
This post originally appeared in Cinespect