Written by: Jay Berg
Five years and, hopefully, counting. The noteworthy Double Exposure/Investigative Film Festival is thriving as co-directors Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney and the nonprofit investigation news organization 100Reporters continue their excellent film festival that premiered in the fall of 2015 in the nation’s capital.
Despite losing a day (I was told a religious holiday fell on what normally would have been a Wednesday Opening Night), the festival jam packed those four days with nine mostly memorable documentaries, two Shorts programs, ten symposiums held over two days and nine separate workshops on the third day. The organizers even added two new programs entitled “Crossing Borders” and “The Art of Exposure With Halcyon House Fellows”. Finally, A DX Access and DX Pitch (where “registered participants in Double Exposure have found funding for projects, distribution deals, new homes for their work and jobs”) and Docs In Progress Pitch (“where six pitching filmmakers present their projects to a panel that includes representatives from across the documentary industry”) were held over two days. (A complete topic list can be found on the Double Exposure website.)
A user friendly festival footprint continued with Opening Night being held at The National Portrait Gallery, the closing night film screened at The National Geographic Museum and all remaining seven films and Shorts Programs at The Naval Heritage Center. For the first time, the Eaton Hotel was the site for the remainder of the programs stated above.
This year’s impressive film lineup included the U.S. premiere by Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple, “Desert One”. A fascinating post-film panel discussion with film subjects involved with the failed 1979 effort to rescue the American hostages during the Iranian revolution kicked off the festival in grand style (refer to my honorable mention below). Also notable was my personal favorite the festival’s Centerpiece presentation of the brilliant “Citizen K” by the talented and prolific Alex Gibney (reviewed below); and the Closing Night Film “The Cave” by Academy Award nominee Feras Fayyad (“Last Man In Aleppo”) about an underground hospital in war-torn Syria.
The relevance of Double Exposure cannot be overstated as investigative reporting in today’s volatile political and social consciousness seems to be at the forefront of today’s explosive headlines. As aptly stated by Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney in their opening letter to attendees, “Public awareness of investigative reporting’s importance for a vibrant democracy has never been more urgent – particularly in Washington, epicenter of the assault on verifiable truth. . . Investigative journalism cannot survive as a spectator sport. It requires public awareness and active support. That has proved more critical than ever, particularly here and now.” To this end, the co-directors successfully continue to offer journalists and the public at large a unique wide selection of offerings and activities that help filter out the noise and focus on the truth.
MY TOP 3 AT THIS YEAR’S DOUBLE EXPOSURE/INVESTIGATIVE FILM FESTIVAL:
(1) Citizen K (**** out of 4 – 128 minutes)
Writer/director Alex Gibney has numerous nominations and awards on his resumé,
including two Best Documentary Feature Academy Awards for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2006) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2008). The D.C. premiere of his latest, a brilliant captivating profile of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil oligarch (and perhaps the richest man in Russia) who created Russia’s first commercial bank and who became a political protester in today’s post-Soviet Russia, is this reviewer’s early pick on making the Academy’s short list. Pointing out the corruption in the Putin regime, Khodorkovsky became the biggest thorn in Putin’s side. As a result, he lost his assets and his liberty when thrown in a Siberian jail for ten years. Upon release, he did a political about-face by founding Open Russia, a pro-democracy initiative advocating democracy and human rights. He later exiled to London in 2015 after being charged with the murder of a small-town Siberian mayor in 1998 who had charged him with tax invasion. With that as a background, this space is not nearly large enough to depict the numerous directions Gibney takes to cover the historical timeline and personalities involved. The viewer will be left with countless ideas, pro and con, making it difficult to ascertain motives that would ultimately provide answers on Khodorkovsky’s villainy or innocence. This is a decision the filmmaker correctly leaves to the audience as there are many shades of gray here in this convoluted story of power and greed. Documentaries that ventured past the 90 or so minute mark, more so than not, tend to lose focus as well as the average viewer’s attention. However, Gibney here is masterful in generating so much interest and entertainment that the 128 minutes literally flew by. Editor Michael Palmer is instrumental in keeping the narrative streamlined that is terrifically complemented by a appropriately thrilling soundtrack provided by Robert Logan and Ivan Guest. (Of special note is the opening of drone images over the Yukos oilfields accompanied by Zbigniew Preisner’s dramatic “Song for the Unification of Europe” musically pounding the visuals.) Gibney’s most satisfying work to date, the Amazon-produced Citizen K started a limited U.S. roll out beginning November 22 and will eventually be streamed over Prime Video.
(2) Bedlam (**** out of 4 – 128 minutes)
As the poster exclaims, a film that is “an intimate journey into America’s mental health crisis” doesn’t exactly scream riveting entertainment. However, to this reviewer’s pleasant surprise, director/co-writer Psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg’s engrossing, compelling and relevant doc ended up as my second favorite at the festival. The timing could not be more appropriate as currently there exists an increasing homelessness problem plaguing several of our largest cities. According to a Harvard study, 45 per cent of these folks suffer from mental illness, and some would argue the problem is mainly or partly due to local government’s inability to adequately deal with the mentally ill. Dr. Rosenberg spent five years documenting the issue and neatly intertwines his film into two parts. There is a more general look at the treatment of those inflicted with the insidious disease. As one expert points out, treating mental illness is, “a 150-year-old disaster”. The most severely inflicted went from being warehoused in frightful institutions to now where their final destinations are either the ER, prison, or the city streets. After presenting a brief history of the treatment of the mentally ill, Dr. Rosenberg directs his focus mainly to LAC USC (Los Angeles County University of Southern California Medical Center). Here we are introduced to a Psychiatric resident and an ER Psychiatrist as well as three individual case studies. Their individual medical treatments as well as their ups and downs over the course of several years hammers home the frustrations faced by the medical community in trying to deal with what is really an incurable disease. In the second part, as if these case studies aren’t heart rendering enough, the director introduces us to his own personal connection, and the reason he entered the field of psychiatry. His older sister Merle, developed Schizophrenia at the age of 20 and later committed suicide. Her story lands a strong emotional punch that clearly illustrates his anguish and overall punctuates the sorry state of the afflicted and the incredible challenges health professionals are faced to help them. Bedlam features strong editing by Jim Cricci, wonderful camerawork by Director of Photography Joan Churchill and an effective score by Dannt Bensi & Saunder Juriaans. The film had its D.C. premiere at the festival and is currently scheduled to be televised next April 13 on the PBS Independent Lens series.
(3) Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World (**** out of 4 – 88 minutes)
In today’s era of “fake news” comes the D.C. premiere of this eye-opening film from Dutch director Hans Pool which practically plays like a spy thriller. With misinformation and questionable sources from the media and governments plaguing our everyday news, there is some comfort knowing there are people out there who are constantly in search of the truth in our “breaking news” universe. Bellingcat, an online investigative journalism website was founded in 2014 by British journalist and former blogger Eliot Higgins when he began investigating the use of weapons in the Syrian war. Specializing in fact-checking and open-source intelligence (OSINT), the group has investigated such worldly events as the 2014 shooting down of the Malaysian MH17 plane over Ukraine, the Russian spy poisoning in the UK and identifying assailants during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. One of the group was even able to pinpoint the location where free lance report James Foley was beheaded utilizing the video of the event. What sets this group apart is their use of unorthodox methods of investigative journalism which includes satellite photos, Google Earth, social media, public databases and obscure digital downloads off The Internet. The name “Bellingcat” is derived from a children’s tale (“Belling the Cat”) in which a mouse plans to tie a bell to the neck of a cat but is unable to enlist the aid of someone brave enough to do it. However, unlike the mouse in the story, Eliot’s group is scattered around the world and dedicated to unmasking falsehoods and deceptions without fear of being “eaten” by powers much greater than themselves. The forensic methods these citizen journalists use is nothing short of engrossing and will hold ones interest throughout the 88 minute running-time and will have you marveling at their dedication in establishing true facts behind today’s explosive headlines. The film is currently seeking distribution in the U.S.
Desert One (*** 1/2 out of – 108 minutes)
The opening night film and U.S. premiere of the latest from Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (1976’s Harlan County, USA and 1991’s American Dream) superbly chronicles the failed 1980 Delta Force mission to rescue the 52 American hostages taken in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution and who were held for 444 days. The botched mission resulted in the deaths of eight soldiers and likely cost President Jimmy Carter the election in the fall of 1980. Her nuts and bolts approach details like never before the incredible behind-the-scenes 40-year-old event. Kopple obtains interviews with many of the principals (including hostages) and uses archival footage, military documents and effective animation (to illustrate the unfilmed nighttime fiasco), in order to thoroughly investigate the operation as well as commenting on its significant historical and political impact. The director even gained a major coup by obtaining a fascinating present-day interview with the 94-year-old ex-president. The U.S. theatrical release date has yet to be announced; however, since Desert One was produced for the History Channel, it will eventually appear on that cable station.
BELOW ARE CAPSULE SUMMARIES, IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, OF THE REMAINING FIVE FEATURES PRESENTED AT THE 4-DAY FESTIVAL:
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (*** out of 4 – 86 minutes)
Cult leaders have taken many forms over the years. From extreme examples such as Jim Jones and David Koresh to much subtler forms where a charismatic leader grabs hold of folks who are willing to follow doctrines and activities that others would label abuse. Bikram Choudary clearly falls into the latter category. Director Eva Orner recounts his rise and “fall” by detailing a journey that began in the early 1970s when he left Calcutta for Beverly Hills, California where he established a global hot yoga fitness empire. Great wealth and celebrity status followed until 2005 when deeply nefarious sexual abuse and unconventional methods allegations began to surface – along with lawsuits being filed which became national headlines. Orner includes victim interviews as well as those from devout followers who still believe in this heinous excuse of a human being. However, in the end, I was ultimately left unsatisfied and frustrated and only felt the need to head to the nearest shower. The film, which had its D.C. premiere at Double Exposure, is currently available on Netflix.
Bully, Coward, Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn (*** out of 4 – 98 minutes)
Yet another doc (Where’s My Roy Cohn was released last September) on the legendary and controversial lawyer, directed by Ivy Merropol, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn came to prominence when he prosecuted the Rosenbergs who eventually were executed in 1953 for stealing atomic secrets and passing them on to the Soviets. Cohn then added to his notoriety as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare in the 1950s. From there, he became a New York-based power broker and eventually a personal lawyer and mentor to Donald Trump. There is much much more to this enigmatic figure (his cousin David Lloyd Marcus stated, “He was the personification of evil”) that Merropol carefully explores, including his closeted homosexuality (Cohn succumbed to aids in 1986), that makes this an overall compelling film. The HBO-produced film, which had its D.C. premiere at this festival, is still making the festival circuit and will eventually be shown on the network in 2020.
Dark Suns (** out of 4 -154 minutes)
One of the more depressing over 2 1/2 hours that I’ve ever spent in a theater seat is the D.C. premiere of this documentary by Julien Elie chronicling the murderous crimes, corruption and overall lawlessness in Mexico since the 1990s. Too numerous talking heads will relentlessly pound this theme into your brain. And by the time the last reel where cameras follow distraught mothers searching in desolate mountain locales for any remains of their missing loved ones, I’m certain few patrons will still be there for the closing credits. Excruciatingly slow, Dark Suns will have you wondering why anyone would ever want to venture to the country south of the U.S. border. There has been no distribution date established as of this writing.
The Cave (** 1/2 out of 4 – 90 minutes)
The U.S. premiere and closing night film is the latest from Oscar nominee Feras Fayyad (2017’s Last Men in Aleppo) in which he focuses on the Syrian War between 2016 and 2018 taking his cameras into a subterranean hospital and observing the workings of the courageous men and women tending to victims below a war ravaged country. Using cinema vérité, the director concentrates mainly on pediatrician and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour and a couple of her female colleagues as they work under the most horrific cultural and social circumstances. One can truly admire the danger Fayyad and his crew faced during the chaotic filming. However, the constant repetition of bombing, followed by White Helmet led search-and-rescue mission, followed by the barrage of image images of children suffering every wound imaginable had such an overwhelming monotonous and ultimately numbing effect that those 90 minutes of running time seemed much longer. The documentary had a limited U.S. theatrical release beginning October 18.
The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park (*** out of 4 – Parts I & II: 86 minutes)
The world premiere of the first two installments of the AMC 5-part docuseries directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sunberg (Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work & The Devil Came on Horseback) investigates the notorious 1986 murder of Jennifer Levin by her handsome prep school friend Robert Chambers. Chambers quickly admitted to the crime, saying she died as a result of rough sex. The salacious story grabbed national headlines – occurring well before the existence of the current-day social media explosion where such cases now seem almost common place. Based only on the first two episodes I screened, the doc is generically told with the usual interviews and reenactments but is still certain to hold ones interest considering the subject matter. However, it is hard to discern how much padding may have ultimately been used to fill five segments. The series began on AMC on November 13 and is currently available for streaming and on-demand.