Photo of November Requiem courtesy of Bon Ami Filmworks
Photo of Budrus courtesy of Just Vision
Review by Ryan Wilson

In three weeks the 5th Annual Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival will again take over the State Theater, the Old Masonic Temple, and Delta College’s Planetarium in Bay City. That said, for the next three weeks, I’ll be previewing many of the best films.

This week: the documentaries, which include plenty of engaging subject matter from the abused corners of America to an abused corner of the world. The theme for the documentary series in the festival could be called "a world of trouble."

I’ll begin, fittingly enough, with a shipwreck. November Requiem chronicles the sinking of the Carl D. Bradley in November of 1958. If the name rings a grim bell in your memory that’s probably because this was one of those Great Lake tragedies, in the same spirit of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The film has a special resonance for Michiganders because the small town of Rogers City was hardest hit in terms of lives lost. The town lost twenty-five local men on that fateful day.

Yet these facts by themselves only scratch the surface. What the film does so well is focus on how life continued for the families of the dead. The surviving community becomes the center of the story. Known as the "Queen of the Great Lakes," the boat and its crew are recalled by family members and the only living survivor of the incident. We get honest accounts of the news being delivered to children, who are now grown adults still processing how the sinking tore at the fabric of their lives. We also see divers attempting to retrieve the bell from the Carl D. Bradley, which we see has been perfectly preserved underwater.

November Requiem is an elegant look at life and death. Its style is in the tradition of Ken Burns’ storytelling. Remarkable scenery and old photography are used well, along with rare footage of the wreckage, and an emotional musical score.

Just down the road from those waters is another tragedy, according to the film Deforce, which examines just what’s gone wrong with the city of Detroit. This documentary focuses on the How and the Why of Detroit’s current predicament, looking beyond the auto industry to focus on gentrification, political corruption, and educational neglect. Race and racism are central components.

Artfully combining a massive amount of text, a massive amount of old city footage, and a massive amount of sources, the film feels like a hyperactive college sociology class. But Deforce is anything but rushed or dry. Instead it’s a perspective meant to provoke thought and debate. Even if you think you already know everything you want about Detroit’s past and present, the film offers up the city as a dark symbol, pondering whether its neglect could be the fate of other American cities.

If like most of Detroit’s population, you want to venture away from the city’s problems, you could hit the road with Roll Out Cowboy, the saga of Chris “Sandman” Sand, better known as "The Rappin’ Cowboy." One part Roy Rodgers another part Dr. Dre, Sand "rolls out" across the country during the 2008 presidential election, giving us a portrait of those lost parts of the country immune to marketing and corporate entertainment. The most notable stop is Sand’s hometown of Dunn Center, North Dakota with a population of 120 people. Sands is intent to bring enlightenment to this place, but he refuses to condescend or to judge the townsfolk even if they fail to understand his artistic spirit.

In this way he’s a perfect reincarnation of Woody Guthrie, as he’s playful, pugilistic, and part of the deep tradition of troubadours keeping culture alive while pushing the cultural envelope. Roll Out Cowboy delightfully intertwines the spirit of small town America with the ever-changing currents of popular and political culture.

Of course, if you’re looking for a more subversive culture to explore, you might check out the documentary Covered, which poses two provocative questions: How many tattoos are enough? And what if you’re a woman? This documentary explores the world of heavily tattooed women and female tattoo artists in the United States. College professor Beverly Yuen Thompson travels the country talking to women about the stigmas associated with being female and in love with tattoo culture. Thompson, who has herself succumbed to such self-expression, interviews both the artists and the clients. But maybe her best material deals with generational preconceptions, as teenaged girls explain their new skin to their mothers.

But if you truly want to go inside the issues of skin and identity, go see Budrus, an award-winning feature documentary about a Palestinian community organizer who unites local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in an unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. Success eludes them until his 15-year-old daughter launches a women’s contingent that quickly moves to the front lines. Struggling side by side, father and daughter unleash an inspiring, yet little-known, movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories that is still gaining ground today. In an action-filled documentary chronicling this movement from its infancy, Budrus shines a light on people who choose nonviolence to confront a threat.

Trouble abounds in nearly every documentary this year, but that’s all the more reason to go out and see on these appealing films. For information on all show times and venues, go to hhmfest.com.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio. Join me next week for a preview of the Hell’s Half Mile’s feature films, including the opening night film, Cherry.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010