A Festival Sampling: Tales of Anarchy, Tales of Hope

A random sampling of documentary films from this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival
“Disturbing the Peace” is about former Israeli and Palestinian fighters who end up working as peace activists.

From anarchy to bombings, illness, and death, a random sampling of documentary films from this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival seems, on the surface at least, to be a grim affair. Yet, there are tales of hope and triumph as well. Following are some glimpses of what will be screened and what cannot be missed.


“American Anarchist”
CharlieSiskel
East Hampton, Saturday, 6:15 p.m., and Sunday, 11:45 a.m.

“The Anarchist Cookbook,” written by William Powell in 1969, when he was 19, and published by Lyle Stuart a year later, is a how-to book that includes instructions on making explosives, counterfeiting money, picking locks, credit card fraud, and many other forms of violence and lawbreaking. Since its publication, it has been found in the possession of the Columbine killers, Timothy McVeigh, Croatian hijackers, the abortion clinic bomber Thomas Spinks, and many other criminals.

The filmmaker Charlie Siskel tracked down Mr. Powell in the remote French village where he lived until his death earlier this year at the age of 65. The result is “American Anarchist,” an extended interview with Mr. Powell, a thoughtful, articulate man who lived outside the United States for his final 36 years and devoted most of his life to teaching emotionally disturbed children and young adults.

The film includes conversations with his wife, Ochan, archival film footage from his teaching work abroad, and home movies from his childhood, but its primary thrust, which intensifies as the film progresses, is to get Mr. Powell to take responsibility for the ways his book has been used by a long list of terrorists and killers.

At one point, confronted with the example of the Columbine killers, Mr. Powell admits he felt responsible. “But I didn’t do it,” he says. “Somebody else with a disturbed sense of reality did it.” However, as he later points out while discussing the ongoing impact of the book on his life, “My skeleton is not in the closet. It’s in print.”

There is a great deal of fascinating material in the film, including Mr. Powell’s motivation, as a young radical, for writing the book, the refusal of its publisher to take it out of print, as Mr. Powell later requested, and his reflections, as a teacher of disturbed children, on why school shootings have become all too common. 

At one point in the film, Ms. Powell accuses Mr. Siskel of asking leading questions, and Mr. Powell also confronts the filmmaker for being provocative. 

While the film is a fascinating portrait of a complicated man, it suffers from almost browbeating its subject into conflating a 19-year-old kid with the reflective man he became over the subsequent 45 years during which he tried but failed to put behind him an act he genuinely regrets.                         

Mark Segal

 

“Disturbing the Peace”
Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young
East Hampton, tomorrow, 1 p.m.; Southampton, Sunday, 12:30 p.m. Panel discussion to follow tomorrow’s screening.

If it were a pitch to a Hollywood studio — a group of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters make the transition from enemies to peace activists — it would be rejected as far-fetched. Yet “Disturbing the Peace,” a documentary by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young, chronicles that very transition, focusing on four Israelis and four Palestinians who formed Combatants for Peace, a bipartisan organization dedicated to a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Interviews with the eight principals are threaded throughout the film. They are riveting, as the four Palestinians and four Israelis give vent to their harsh assessments of the other side. Jamel Qassas states, “Israel’s creation was our catastrophe,” while Avner Wishnitzer, a former Israeli soldier, speaks of growing up with “war stories, war memories, all around.”

What emerges from the early interviews is not only an inability on each side to understand the other, but deep anger and paranoia and a sense that the views are irreconcilable. However, after the first 30 minutes, fissures appear in each of the principals’ rigidity.

A key event occurs when several Israeli soldiers decide not to operate in the Occupied Territories. The Palestinians contact those soldiers and ask for a meeting, which eventually leads to the founding of Combatants for Peace in 2006. 

The film then cuts to 2015, when the group has grown dramatically, and several mass gatherings are documented. As encouraging as these scenes are, the opposition of masses of Israelis to reconciliation, expressed at the demonstrations, makes clear what Sulaiman Khatib, who was imprisoned for 10 years at the age of 13 for attacking two Israelis, says about the cooperative effort: “We see it as a long-distance run, and we will continue to go on with it.” 

As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the interviews were filmed in the present, after the formation of Combatants for Peace. The principals re-enacted the views they held before the filmmakers began their work. Similarly, some of the events that informed their earlier views are also re-enacted. None of this detracts from the power of the film; indeed, re-enactment, along with archival news footage, enables the filmmakers to cover with a sense of immediacy events that took place over many years. 

Mark Segal

 

“God Knows Where I Am”
Todd Wider and Jed Wider
East Hampton, tomorrow, 5:45 p.m.; Bay Street Theater, Sunday, 3 p.m.

“God Knows Where I Am,” a documentary produced and directed by the veteran documentarians and brothers Todd and Jedd Wider, follows a vibrant woman named Linda Bishop who becomes increasingly delusional but refuses to admit she is ill. 

Through videos, we meet her as a smart child in a happy family, then watch her later in life as she is arrested, treated for mental illness, goes on and off medication, and disappears, leaving a 13-year-old daughter at home. 

Eventually confined to a New Hampshire mental institution by the court, she nevertheless retains legal charge of her life, orders that no one speak to her family, and refuses to take medications. The institution, deciding it cannot help her, discharges her unconditionally. 

It is October, and she wanders, homeless and apparently penniless, until she finds an abandoned farmhouse, where she remains hidden through an unusually cold New Hampshire winter without electricity and nothing but apples to eat until her death. 

The filmmakers use this grim story to arouse concern about the failure of society to treat and care adequately for the mentally ill and homeless. Bravely speaking for the camera are Ms. Bishop’s sister and daughter. A local policeman who was among those who found the body, a deputy medical examiner, and a few others provide context. Ms. Bishop died in January; her body was found in May.

This sad story was hard to capture visually. The filmmakers relied largely on views of green fields, woodlands, a brook, falling snow, and the farmhouse’s empty rooms. Slow-moving camerawork and original orchestral music express the mood.

A surprise for East Hamptoners who follow the annual Artists and Writers Softball Game is Lori Singer, a game participant and well-known actress who has the film’s principal role even though she is not seen. Ms. Bishop wrote in a notebook daily, and the actress reads from them emotionally throughout the film. Toward the end, as Ms. Bishop is dying of starvation, she writes, “Don’t worry, Linda, God sees everything . . . God knows where I am.” 

Helen S. Rattray

 

“Marathon: 
The Patriots Day Bombing”
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg
East Hampton, tomorrow, 5:30 p.m., and Saturday, 11:15 a.m.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I’m a fan of the documentary form, but why go see an hour-and-46-minute film about an event I watched unfold in real time on television and feel I’m plenty familiar with, like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing?

Understandable, but that would be a mistake, as in this case the filmmakers focus on what the survivors have to say, in direct and rawly emotional terms, about their recoveries from lost limbs and rattled psyches, the rigors of rehab, the way their expectations for their futures were upended, and the difficult new realities of their home lives. All without a single sonorous intonation from a narrator.

The directors weave together the disparate stories of mother and daughter, two brothers, one a roofer and the other a sheet metal worker, and, at the film’s core, two newlyweds whose recoveries head in opposite directions. (As one Walter Reed doctor puts it, with a bomb blast injury, people think you simply put on a prosthetic and get on with your life, when in reality all manner of complications are the norm.) 

This is all skillfully done and edited. Superficial to say, given the context, but as this is a visual medium, attractive aerial shots denote shifts in location. And those never get old.

The production is a collaboration with The Boston Globe, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the bombing, and one nice touch has reporters being interviewed in a tight little canyon of stacked newsprint. Journalists, like lawyers, these days are bottom dwellers when it comes to the public’s esteem, but here a photographer seeks out a young woman he captured supine on the sidewalk, pale and near death, pressure being applied to a spurting artery. He shakily asks for forgiveness for invading her privacy, for showing her so vulnerable. One of many moments of grace brought on by this senseless act of terrorism.            

Baylis Greene

 

“Santoalla”
Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer
East Hampton, tomorrow, 2:45 p.m., and Sunday, 5 p.m.

When Martin and Margo, a Dutch couple in the flush of young love, on a road trip through Europe in search of a place to put down roots on the land, take the turnoff to a virtually abandoned village in the Galician countryside, they see only a picturesque place full of potential. 

Life alongside the single family that remains in Santoalla is at first copasetic, if not friendly, but the fault lines in that benign coexistence slowly become clear in this documentary that looks back at the years leading to Martin’s disappearance, and its aftermath.

An aging Margo, still painstakingly raising her animals and working the land, speaks calmly and directly, but with great emotion, about how the village, one of a number across Spain left behind when residents migrated elsewhere, was slowly transformed from an idyll to a place where the only people within miles ignored one another — at best — as tensions between the two families festered and grew. 

Martin’s dreams of creating an ecological center and developing rural tourism, and his ongoing projects to make a life in sync with nature a little easier, are met with increasing opposition, and the film, in clips taken over time in Santoalla, takes viewers through the disintegrating relationship as well as Martin’s increasing obsession with the other family’s disapproval. 

A struggle over land rights and money ratchets things up, and one day Martin never comes home. A grieving Margo picks along stony paths in the village, past the house of the neighbors she suspects of doing him harm, and we go into the rustic church with the neighbor woman as she tut-tuts about the other family. When the crime and its perpetrator are revealed, it is no surprise.

By then, we have seen youthful idealism, enthusiasm, and hard work turn into stoicism, righteousness, anger, conflict, violence, and tragedy in the little dot-on-the-map isolated village, a microcosmic portrayal, in the two families’ stories, of so many other stories writ large.         

 Joanne Pilgrim

 

“Supergirl”
Jessie Auritt
East Hampton, Sunday, 2 p.m., and Monday, 2:30 p.m.

If ever the comic book heroine Supergirl were real, her alter ego would probably be Naomi Kutin, a teenage Orthodox Jewish girl from New Jersey who loves wearing mismatched socks.

Hence the title of the documentary “Supergirl,” an unusual coming-of-age story that follows Naomi in the years after she set a world weight lifting record at the age of 9. The Kickstarter-funded film, directed by Jessie Auritt, will make its world premiere on Sunday at the East Hampton Cinema. 

“Supergirl” also features the rest of the Kutin family, a down-to-earth bunch who are easy to root for as Naomi’s story unfolds. There is Ed, her father, himself a power lifting enthusiast who oversees his daughter’s physical strength training. There is Neshama, her mother, a survivor of childhood abuse who instills emotional strength in her daughter. And there is Ari, her younger brother, who is on the autism spectrum and copes with bullying, yet takes up competitive power lifting himself.

Given the emphasis on body-positive messages for youth in the media today, the narrative holds particular relevance for an adolescent audience. In the film, Naomi, who lifted 215 pounds at the age of 10 while weighing just 93 pounds herself, still says she looks fat, gets self-conscious over her haircut, and feels uncool. She figures out how to gracefully deal with hurtful online comments posted by strangers on her YouTube videos; there are some adults who could stand to take a few lessons from this tough kid.

Supported by storytelling that feels natural, there is inspiration to be found in watching this “Supergirl” move past disappointment, illness, and injury toward an ultimate path of growth, faith, and empowerment.      

Christine Sampson

“God Knows Where I Am” explores the travails of one woman’s battle with mental illness.
“Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” looks at psychological and physical recovery after the blasts.