By Oshoveli Munashimue
This summer we are presenting a guest blog series in which past winners of the WITNESS Award (which we present at Silverdocs) discuss their top 3 picks from among social justice/human rights documentaries or films for the year. Landon van Soest is the director/producer of Good Fortune, the Award winner in 2009. Below he shares with us his picks.
I have always been drawn to art as a catalyst for social commentary and social change, so documentary seems like a natural home for me. I am constantly inspired and humbled by the work of fellow filmmakers who are pushing the boundaries of the social documentary; telling rich cinematic stories that help define the state of the global society. I have had the incredible opportunity to attend a number of documentary and human rights film festivals with my film Good Fortuneover the past year, and truly immerse myself in social documentaries. There are dozens of affecting films that have really stayed with me, but there are three that I find myself coming back to time and time again.
One of these has to be Lixian Fan’s Last Train Home, about a family of migrant factory workers in China. As a filmmaker, I’m in awe of the film’s epic scope, the intimacy Fan achieved with his subjects, and the film’s ability to use the emotionally wrenching story of one family to paint a picture of modernity in China. While the film presents a timely portrait of the Chinese migrant, the Lan’s masterful storytelling presents universal themes of sacrifice, family dynamics, and generational gaps that really draw the viewer into an immersive cinematic experience.
I am equally in awe of Mads Brügger’s The Red Chapel, about a two-man, comedic theater troupe visiting North Korea. Brügger tours the two Korean-born Danish comedians under the pre-text of “cultural exchange” as an absurd challenge to what he terms “the most evil dictatorship ever known to mankind.” I have a tremendous amount of respect for non-fiction filmmakers who can create situations and build stories as a subjective social commentary. Brügger did this masterfully in the provocative, revelatory, and often hilarious juxtaposition of these two comedians performing within North Korea’s totalitarian regime.
Continuing with the globalization theme is Zippi Brand Frank’s Google Baby. Frank tells an incredible story that spans three continents, as an Israeli entrepreneur takes fertilized eggs from America and ships them in liquid nitrogen to be implanted in surrogate mothers in India. The film presents a fascinating snapshot of what it means to live in a global economy and opens a whole range of moral quandaries that Frank leaves the viewer to contemplate.
Regardless of where you stand on the idea of outsourcing, it is difficult not to feel uneasy about an activity as intensely personal, physical, and emotional as childbirth—especially when citizens of wealthy countries seem to be benefiting so directly from a lack of regulation in another country. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the practice creates an opportunity for women in India to tremendously improve their lives, and creates an opportunity for numerous couples in Western countries to build a family. In my mind, it is the primary role of a social documentary to stimulate public discourse, and I am always drawn to films like Google Baby that create moral ambiguity for the viewers to debate.