Hold onto your socks. This is gonna be a long non-book related post!
I’ve been down with a nasty virus for the past few days. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact of my life that when I’m that sick I really can’t focus on reading so it’s all tv, all the time. So as not to entirely rot my brain, I watched a butt load of documentaries. It was really interesting to watch them all so close together and see how different people approach this medium and how effective and ineffective each approach is.
Here’s what I watched along with my thoughts….
Jesus Camp – This was probably my favorite and, for me, the most impactful – which is funny, because I’d really been avoiding it. Did I really need another thing to confirm my feelings about evangelicals? Not really, but that’s not really what this film is about. It’s a remarkably hands-off type of documentary. It just lets the subjects speak for themselves and, boy, do they speak….in tongues sometimes.
More than anything this documentary shows how easy it is to indoctrinate young people. I feel deeply sad for the children featured and not because they are being raised as evangelical Christians, but because they aren’t being taught any kind of critical thinking. It was really sad to just hear them clearly parroting what their parents and church elders say. And it isn’t just evangelicals who do this to their kids. We all have HUGE influence over our children and how they view the world. This film really strengthened my resolve to raise a free thinker.
The Imposter – This was a fascinating documentary because we are told the ‘twist’ up front – that a brown-eyed European man of Arabic descent in his 20s successfully impersonated a blonde, blue-eyed missing teen from San Antonio, Texas. This is a case where the truth really is stranger than fiction! And so the documentary is less about the what? and more about the whys? and hows? It is also fascinating because by the end of the movie you really have no idea what or whom to believe. The sociopathic impersonator who is by turns somewhat sympathetic and completely repellant? Or the duped family members with murky motives?
Half the Sky – I really thought I’d like this a lot more, but I found some parts of it problematic. The whole documentary is about the quest to empower women in deeply oppressive situations. I can get on board with that. The set-up is that a New York Times journalist, activist and author, Nicholas Kristof, travels to six different countries with six different female celebrities in order to highlight six different issues facing women around the globe.
First things first, I think the inclusion of the celebrities was a pretty big misfire. They mainly just looked like painfully awkward props - with the exception of America Ferrera who came off as naturally quite sincere. In fact, her segment in India which dealt with the concept of multigenerational prostitution and prostitution castes was probably the most compelling to me. I felt like it was handled sensitively and that the activists involved were really making a difference in halting the cultural cycle, but they were also realistic about the profound uphill battle they were facing.
I also really liked the fact that most of the documentary focused on the efforts of local activists working within the community vs. outsiders swooping in and ‘fixing’ third world problems. Another one that really touched my heart was the issue of high maternal mortality rates in places like Somaliland – mostly due to lack of prenatal care as well as the centuries old practice of genital mutilation. I was really moved by this segment and so deeply inspired by the hardworking midwives who devote their time to this cause.
The BIG problem with this documentary is the segment in Cambodia dealing with Somaly Mam and her efforts to stop sex trafficking. I’d never heard her story and had no idea what a truly massive celebrity she is in the activist sphere, but something just felt ‘off’ about this piece. A quick google search reveals that she is currently facing a shit storm of controversy for allegedly fabricating not only her own trafficking story, but also those of the girls under her care. I’m annoyed that neither Kristof nor the Half the Sky Movement have addressed this issue on either of their websites. I find it so deeply regrettable that not only would someone discredit an important cause in this way, but that the powerful people who were deceived by her are so invested in their own piece of the narrative that they won’t even comment on it.
Girl Model – Surprisingly, I found this to be the most unsettling of all the documentaries I watched. The two main ‘ characters’ are Ashley – a former model and current modeling scout and Nadya – a wide-eyed, fresh faced thirteen year old from Siberia. Nadya is selected out of hundreds of girls to model in Japan where they have a distinct preference for prepubescent looking blonde girls.
Nadya’s contract promises at least two gigs and minimum earnings of $8,000 USD. It seems like a win-win. What you don’t realize is that Nadya (and all the other young models) are nickel and dimed to such a degree that almost all of them return home with no earnings and, more often than not, in debt to the agency. And such is the case with Nadya. She arrives in Japan in the middle of the night with no one to meet her at the airport and has to make her own way to a tiny apartment she will share with another young girl model. They have absolutely zero supervision and are expected to pay for everything themselves – housing, food, transportation – hence the debt.
Nadya’s more worldly roommate quickly tires of the situation and purposely gains weight so her contract will be terminated. Nadya, on the other hand, tries to stick it out, but is depressed, lonely and confused during her entire stay. She attends castings and even photo shoots, but is kept in the dark about their results. A rare happy moment in the movie is when Nadya finally comes across one of her photographs in a Japanese magazine – sadly she is virtually unrecognizable due to a bizarre black wig that covers half her face. After two months Nadya is eventually sent back home in debt to the agency.
As if all that isn’t bad enough, the agent Ashley is one of the most disturbingly damaged creatures you’d ever want to meet. She initially expresses some ambivalence about her role in victimizing these girls, but she is clearly reaping huge profits (based on her beautiful home and jet setting lifestyle) and she does literally nothing to intervene on behalf of the girls and, in fact, perpetuates the system by plainly lying to future prospective models. And still, this isn’t all! There are some genuinely chilling moments in which Ashley reveals some pretty deep-seated psychosis. Just one of many examples - she keeps a collection of photographs that she surreptitiously takes of the potential models’ body parts – arms, legs, abdomen, feet, hands (no faces) – and talks about a little game she plays whereby she tries to accurately match up the disembodied parts. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to spoil the whole thing. Let's just say she makes the sociopathic compulsive liar from The Imposter look like someone I could hang out with.
I think the thing that disturbed me most was my belief that had the documentary crew not been present, Nadya would likely have been exploited in far more sinister ways.
Miss Representation – I really expected to love this one. I am a passionate feminist and firmly believe in the message here – namely, that female representation in the media matters deeply or, as the film’s motto puts it, ‘You can't be what you can’t see’.
The presentation just felt rather dull and repetitive. Perhaps because I’m not the ideal viewer – being a jaded old hag and all. I can see how this could have value and impact for younger viewers so I’m not totally hating on it. However, I thought that the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated presented some of the same information (sexism in the film industry and culture at large) in a more compelling way. I will absolutely watch both documentaries with my own daughter when she is a bit older.