It wasn’t my intention, but at AFI Fest: with films examining Black love, injustice, and outer space—I discovered three documentaries about grief, each occurring in the space of three separate decades. These films demonstrate AFI Fest’s recommitment to critical documentary filmmaking, and they show us at our best, even when we’re usually at our worst.
Nosocomephobia: the fear of hospitals, isn’t uncommon. A dread seeps into the psyche: What could go wrong? But I doubt if many have visited the doctor’s office with fear of a bomb dropping over their heads—knowing they’d have to seek shelter in a series of claustrophobically constructed caves. Not to belittle such anxiety, but they do in Syria. The Last Men in Aleppo filmmaker Feras Fayyad returns with a harrowing story of a team of doctors who represent Syria’s last line of medical defense in The Cave.
While much of Eastern Ghouta has evacuated, amongst the destruction Dr. Amani Ballour and her colleagues hold firm. Because of such, they’re constantly inundated with shredded bodies—victims of the bombing campaign in the country. With limited supplies, they’re often left without answers. Instead, they must adapt and perform at their best. When they lack anesthesia, they use classical music to calm patients during invasive operations. When they dine, the doctors eat popcorn and try to imagine it’s cake instead.
As a woman, Dr. Ballour is constantly questioned by her male patients and even her father through his voicemails: pleading with her to return home and to her garden. She courageously leads this team, holding them together amongst a torn apart terrain of medical emergencies. In the face of war, the religious power structure has been upended: women aren’t stuck to tend the house. The team must also contend with their own PTSD and frayed nerves. Whenever a war plane buzzes overhead, they naturally duck. Sometimes they have a gallow’s humor about the perilous affair, but they’re scared. And yet everyday they return to work, even when they’re unsure if they’re making a difference.
Their powerlessness stems from taking shelter in the subterranean web of caves whenever a war plane flies dangerously close. It’s their only defense. And when Russians turn to chemical warfare, the doctors have even less answers. In a tidy 95 minutes, Fayyad demonstrates why he’s one of the most important documentarians of his generation, recording a tragedy that the world would rather look away from. The Cave like the region, shouldn’t be ignored.
Grief never truly stops, not for those left behind. Harrison Ford can barely form words, squinting away tears when speaking about his friend Alan Pakula. The famed producer and director who shaped works like To Kill a Mockingbird, Sophie’s Choice, Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men—died suddenly in 1998 when a metal pipe on the Long Island Expressway broke loose and pierced through his windshield. The freakish accident left a cavernous creative hole for loved ones and admirers like Matthew Miele. As a tribute, Miele creates a loving eulogy for the famed director in his poignant documentary Alan Pakula: Going for Truth.
Initially, Going for Truth diagrams the life and personality of Pakula. In a scene like the 1970’s, made up of celebrity auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Brian DePalma—whose names mean as much on the marquee as their actors—the Sophie’s Choice filmmaker didn’t seek the limelight. Many wouldn’t recognize Pakula if they were sitting beside him. And yet, he directed and produced immaculately fashioned pictures. He also crafted incredible barrier-breaking roles for women, taking a keen interest in developing fully realized female characters. Scores of former friends and associates share memories pertaining to the director, like Jane Fonda, Alec Baldwin, Jane Alexander, Jeff Bridges, Dustin Hoffman, and the aforementioned Ford. Fonda in particular credited Pakula with her incredible performance in Klute.
Each eclectic figure demonstrates the enormous impact the beloved director had on them personally and creatively. Furthermore, interviews with his relatives also shape the emotional tenor: describing how Pakula diverted from sports and more “manly” pursuits condoned by his father, to a life in art. His widow Hannah Boorstin and stepchildren also recount personal remembrances of him too.
And while Going for the Truth certainly serves as a tribute to the legendary director, when employing archival interviews, the documentary becomes a masterclass. With the central takeaway being: filmmakers don’t make movies as Pakula did anymore. They often over-cut when editing, lacking the patience for the inherent drama and emotion of the scene to evolve. The internal psychology of characters rarely flourish in today’s pictures, but they did in his. Part of such is due to Pakula’s unique style, his personal passion for psychology: his hunt for the cinematic. In a discourse taking apart what constitutes cinema, Alan Pakula: Going for Truth is a necessary balm, a touching memorialization of a visionary talent.
On Nov 4, 1979, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line stormed the US Embassy in Tehran taking fifty-two hostages. Throughout America’s history, there exists arcs of unbridled confidence and a crisis of conscious: the difference between the idealized visions of World War II and the tragedy of Vietnam. The Iran-hostage crisis marks the latter, and led to one of the most audacious rescue attempts in United States history. The legendary director of Harlan County, USA and Miss Sharon Jones!, Barbara Kopple returns with the incredible and emotionally devastating Desert One—a portrait of heroism even when there’s no clear victory.
Kopple’s newest film sees her return to the politically charged narratives of her past. Moreover, one shouldn’t confuse Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012)—detailing the successful rescue of the Canadian embassy employees—Kopple follows the American ordeal. Desert One features interviews with both the retired Delta Force tasked with saving the hostages, and the former student revolutionaries who stormed the embassy protesting against the brutal dictatorship of the Shah of Iran. She charts the 444 days of the crisis, which witnessed the collapse of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the creation of a team of special forces soldiers formed for the aforementioned incredible plan.
Anyone with a basic grasp of history knows that the code named Desert One mission ended disastrously. Soldiers flew into Iran during the dead of night, armed with eight helicopters and two refueling planes. They were land on a remote dirt road, board trucks, drive to where they believed the hostage were being held, and then fly out using the helicopters. The plan held multiple moving part, with very little hard intel to back up some of the assertions. At one point, the soldiers are reduced to watching Dateline for solid intelligence. Many believe the mission was a stunt, an politically ailing Carter taking a major risk with American lives in a feigned attempt of being re-elected. Kopple doesn’t parse through that theory with the depth required for the subject. Though, who could blame her? She only had twenty minutes to interview Carter.
Nevertheless, her documentary is actually eulogy to the soldiers. On the fatal night of 24 April 1980, the assembled Delta Force team were given a “Go.” Though they had doubts of the mission success, they still wanted to try. Within a span of few deadly hours, they lost three of their eight helicopters. Needing to abort, in their confusion, a helicopter crashed with a pane, resulting in the deaths of several soldiers. Worst yet, to evade capture they had to leave the bodies of their fellow American soldiers behind. In one poignant clip, days later, children are playing on the blades of one of the fallen choppers. The scene recalls Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, a film about another debacle.
Even so, Kopple’s Desert One isn’t about failure. It demonstrates the valor in trying. Because unlike America, the soldiers that night didn’t experience a metaphorical defeat. They witnessed real grief; the event still drawing tears and anguish from them to this day. And Kopple, in the midst of their mourning, finds the greatest of intimacy in those who’ve lost the most. Desert One is a fitting memorial of courage, even in the face of insurmountable odds.