SAG HARBOR, NEW YORK—Have documentaries become just another organ in the echo chamber of popular opinion, there to confirm our pre-existing bias? Or do my own doc selections just seem that way after the tenth anniversary of the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival?
At the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, I self-selected myself into the liberal-progressive-radical echo chamber where I go for my personal care and feeding. I saw “Acorn and the Firestorm,” produced and directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard; “The Bullish Farmer” produced and directed by Nancy Vick and Ken Masolais, who also directed; “Shouting Fire: Stories From The Edge of Free Speech,” produced by Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy, and Jed Rothstein and directed by Garbus, a film about the First Amendment and her father, a free-speech lawyer; and “Risk,” the story of Julian Assange of Wikileaks, directed by Laura Poitras and produced by Poitras, Brenda Coughlin, and Yoni Goijov.
Every one of these documentaries was compelling and worthy of the tenth anniversary Hamptons Take 2 showcase, even as they confirmed most (though not all) of my personal political agenda. Also found on the documentary docket were the influence of Native Americans on the contemporary music world (“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World”); African-Americans (“I Know A Man… Ashley Bryan”; “Marvin Booker Was Murdered”; and “The Rape of Recy Taylor”); homosexual so-called “security risks” in the Cold War (“The Lavender Scare”); autism (“Do You Like Peacocks” and “Crazy”); and LGBT twentysomethings (“Bean”).
Is that an echo I hear?
To be fair, there were also documentaries that did nothing to wake up the echoes, including the stellar one about Gertrude Bell, a key figure in the formation of the Middle East (“Letters From Baghdad: The True Story of Gertrude Bell and Iraq”); about dancers (“The Last Dance” and “Anatomy of a Male Dancer”) and artists (“The Way It goes—Nathan Slate Joseph”); the Metropolitan Opera (“The Opera House”); an examination of the dying (“Into The Night: Portraits of Life and Death”); and even the one about “Spielberg,” the HBO documentary about the director Stephen Spielberg.
The Take 2 programming mix had undeniable variety—and high quality across the board—but for my money the liberal-progressive-radical polemical documentaries left me wondering if my blind spots were simply growing bigger.
I was grateful for the Acorn documentary, for example, and came away feeling the community organization was stiffed by the vast right wing conspiracy. I watched “The Bullish Farmer,” the fetching tale of a Wall Streeter who became an organic farmer after 9/11, and left the Bay Street Theatre all but swallowing the idea that modified organisms (GMOs) were foodstuffs from hell.
But I don’t always want to be told and/or shown what I already believe. (Acorn good; Breitbart bad.) What I really want is ambiguity—the idea of equal forces vying for the same ground; oftentimes, I want to be challenged, the way I was with “Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech” and “Risk” about Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
Free speech is gnarliness in a bottle, and nobody knows that better than Martin Garbus, the First Amendment lawyer who defended the right of the Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, to remonstrate and demonstrate, despite their odious cause. Liz Garbus took home the 2017 Lumiere Career Achievement Award at Hamptons Take 2 for her work as a documentarian; in a session after the film, her father the lawyer was only too happy (or unhappy) to admit a lifetime of free speech defense means fake news is protected by the First Amendment. If you watched “Shouting Fire,” you learned the only thing black and white about free speech are words on paper.
“Risk” was all about ambiguity in a different and more personal way. Producer and director Laura Poitras managed the magic of access to Julian Assange, both before and after he found asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy to beat extradition to Sweden on sex harassment charges.
You watch “Risk” with Poitras never questioning whether Assange’s heart is in the right place—or whether Wikileaks does anything but good—until Wikileaks releases the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that may well have come from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, no doubt helping the election of President Donald Trump and calling into question Assange’s entire value system. Poitras confess to “falling out” with Assange without providing a real explanation.
In a strange sub-plot, another Wikileaks operative, Jacob Applebaum, is shown training hackers in Syria, but ends up accused of sexual harassment; he also falls out of a relationship with Poitras that hangs in the air like smoke in a smoke-filled room. The net result of “Risk” is ambiguity: Assange seems to be doing the right thing until he does the wrong thing. (Or does he?) That makes for the unsettling feeling that so many great documentaries deliver.
Echo chambers, in contrast, can produce terminal political deafness. The takeaway from Hamptons Take 2 is the best documentaries educate, persuade, and inform—or all three—whether we like what we see or not.