Let me share a secret

documentary screenings at the Vancouver Internationlal Film Festival


cene from Lie of the Land

Among the 100 or so documentaries at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (September 25-October 10) is the first-rate Secrecy. The film looks at how, under the auspices of national security, US state secrecy has expanded to the point where it has undermined the democratic process and is hollowing out constitutional freedoms.

Marshalling a high-calibre line-up of interviewees from myriad backgrounds, including government, military, CIA and academia, Peter Galison and Rob Moss tackle this multi-headed and opaque subject with equanimity and balance. Poignant interviews with relatives from a landmark case that occurred over a half-century ago place state secrecy within its historical context, with commentators explaining why the “need-to-know” system of the Cold War is less secure today than an open system where information is more freely distributed. The intelligence failure of 9/11, where compartmentalized intelligence services couldn’t see the full picture, is contrasted with the breakthrough that followed the Unabomber’s screeds being published in the media. Information is power, but which information should be shared and with whom? And who should decide what should be kept secret?

Former CIA chief in Jerusalem, Melissa Boyle Mahle, icily suggests that secrecy is needed to shield people from things they wouldn’t normally condone. In contrast, we have Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift’s account of how his defence of Osama Bin Ladin’s driver led him to challenge the legitimacy of Bush’s military tribunals. Swift’s chronicle offers some much needed hope for the necessary checks and balances of the executive’s excessive use of the State’s secret card.

Apology of an Economic Hitman is thematically similar, although less effective. At the centre of the film is the self-titled “economic hitman” John Perkins, who claims his job was to advance US economic interests in Ecuador through bribery and extortion. The thrust of Stelios Kouloglou’s documentary rings true: the US got what it wanted by yoking South American countries with insurmountable debt burdens, and when economics failed, covert CIA operations came into play. Unfortunately, the film is undermined by over-sensationalized film noir recreations and thinly substantiated accusations.

In The Lie of the Land, British director Molly Dineen paints a raw, warts’n’all view of conditions for small and struggling English livestock farmers. It’s not pretty. Farming in Britain has been left reeling after a succession of crises – diseases like “mad cow” and “foot and mouth” and “bird flu” – and for those farmers who have not cashed in their land for property, financial pressures have created a tough, new reality. Two of Dineen’s subjects are shown routinely shooting new calves because there is no market for them. “We were not brought up to shoot healthy animals,” one farmer says unhappily. The farmers blame government and poorly regulated factory farms. The ban imposed on fox hunting with hounds is seen as another attack on “traditional,” rural life. True perhaps, but there’s no comment in the film from anyone who might challenge this one-sided picture.

In Addicted to Plastic: The Rise and Demise of a Modern Miracle, Ian Connacher goes in search of plastic and finds it everywhere: sucked into an oceanic vortex, in a seagull’s gullet, festering in Indian landfills and strewn across Hawaiian beaches. In spite of dire conclusions about how we are poisoning ourselves and our planet, this first-person, fun videolog offers encouraging examples of how entrepreneurs are recycling the plastic mountain. The doc flits quickly through its subject matter, so if you’re wondering, for example, how safe compost made purely from garbage waste is you’ll have to do your own research.

Finally, among the fiction films on my must-see list is Mike Leigh’s latestHappy-Go-Lucky, which was praised on its UK release as a wonderfully optimistic character study of a young, London teacher. More next month.



Robert Alstead made the Vancouver-set bicycle documentary You Never Bike Alone, available on DVD at www.youneverbikealone.com

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