This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Documentaries take us to other worlds

Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faith

Every year, filmmakers from around the world produce documentaries that introduce us to worlds we may not encounter otherwise. These films serve not only to inform or teach us but to move us and even lead us to action.

Houser GordonI want to look at three recent documentary films now available on DVD (or through streaming). Each of these films is shot with skill and care, often on a meager budget.

Searching for Sugar Man (PG-13), which won this year’s Oscar for best documentary, tells the bizarre story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit folksinger who had a short-lived recording career in the early 1970s with two well-reviewed albums that didn’t sell. Unknown to him, he became a pop music icon and inspiration for generations in South Africa.

The film interviews a music journalist who used hints from song lyrics to track down where Rodriguez had lived. He was able to dispell rumors that Rodriguez had committed suicide.

Eventually fans locate Rodriguez, who goes to South Africa and plays to sellout crowds of thousands. But the film testifies to this musician’s humility and concern for justice. He remains a simple laborer who lives in the same house in Detroit for 40 years.

Detropia (NR, a combination of “Detroit” and “utopia”) looks at the economic decline in Detroit due mostly to the long-term changes in the automobile industry.

Rather than offer narration, it primarily follows three Detroit residents: a video blogger, a nightclub owner and a United Auto Workers local president. All three are African Americans who articulate well both the difficulties they face and the hope they carry that things will improve.

The film recounts the huge changes over the decades. For example, in 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the country; in 2010, it was the fastest-declining city. We learn of 100,000 houses being torn down.

We see up close the effects of this decline on these and many other residents. The film shows their anger and their determination to remain in their city and help it survive.

An artist couple represents the growing number of younger people moving into the city’s center, buying up houses at vastly reduced prices. And the Detroit Opera is part of the revitalization going on there.

5 Broken Cameras (NR), co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi, is the remarkable first-hand account of protests in Bil’in, a West Bank village affected by the Israeli West Bank barrier.

Burnat shot most of the footage on five different cameras, and the film is divided into the periods of those cameras and recounts how each was broken, either smashed or shot.

Burnat gets his first camera in 2005 to record the birth of his youngest son, Gibreel.

At the same time, a barrier is being built on village land that will isolate the village from much of its farmland, which the Israelis will then confiscate to build a settlement. The villagers begin to resist this decision through nonviolent protests.

These protests continue through the next five years, and Burnat records them, obtaining damning evidence of the shameful actions of Israeli soldiers, including shooting to death several people, including an 11-year-old boy.

Burnat calls healing a challenge and says “it is a victim’s obligation to heal. By healing you resist oppression,” he says. “Forgotten wounds can’t be healed, so I film to heal.”

These Palestinians’ courage and ability to remain nonviolent stands out in this powerful film.

Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite.

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