There are far less documentaries showing at the Inverness Film Festival this year, which on one hand is disappointing – because I love documentaries – but on the other hand is a bit of a relief – I can actually see them all this year! All of this year’s documentaries are political, if only with a small p, because they all feature people trying, in very different ways to build a better, kinder world for the future.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is the only documentary I knew anything about before going in. It’s a documentary about Fred Rogers, or as he was known simply to a couple of generations of children in the US, Mr Rogers. I know enough Americans who grew up watching his programmes to have an awareness of him as a cultural landmark, though unlike that other PBS stalwart of US children’s programming Sesame Street I’d never actually seen an episode myself.
It’s utterly fascinating watching him interact with children and the surprising amount of sincerity that seems to have permeated everything he did. (And interestingly, how that sincerity allowed him to communicate really effectively with children, yet that didn’t really work with adults.) That sense that the whole team working on the show appreciated the responsibility that they had to their young viewers. Also in the face of the criticism that I’ve been hearing all my life about children’s television, they seem to have had this radical notion that you needed to teach children the difference between fantasy and reality, rather than expecting them to understand it unaided.
It’s a warm and affectionate portrait of a man and his work.
Speaking of warm and affectionate portraits, RBG is an informative and enlightening documentary about both US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and about the legal history of woman’s rights in the United States. It’s partly an explanation of how Ginsberg has become an unlikely hero/idol for young Americans, but it’s as much a history of how and why she – and the wider political landscape – got to where she is now. (One of the interesting contrasts with the above documentary is that the Saturday Night Live sketches of Ginsberg are notably funnier and more affectionate than those about Rogers.) It certainly helps that Ginsberg is a living presence in the film, more compelling than charismatic, but always with the sense of great passions carefully constrained.
More than all of that, this felt like a quietly important, timely and necessary documentary. In these troubled and divided times in the states, it feels important to remember how recent and hard won so many things we take for granted in society actually are. How much has changed in the lifetime of one woman and how fragile that progress is in truth. Perhaps there is no metaphor more apt for the position of civil rights in today’s America than the image of one tiny, elderly Jewish woman, still standing firm against those who would turn back the clock on progress.
Sidney and Friends
At the opposite end of the scale, this is a documentary about an all but invisible community; that of transgender and intersex people in Kenya. Shot in beautiful black and white that gives the images a clarity and a starkness that fits the subject matter perfectly. Sidney in particular is a luminous presence, despite the grief and horror of their life-story, their resilience and strength of character, along with their continuing determination to build a life of their own and help others like themselves makes them a particularly compelling presence.
One of the issues raised within the film that I would have liked to have seen more about, was the issue of language. One of the interviewees made reference to the difficulty in helping people in their community arriving in Nairobi who don’t speak either English or Swahili. The extra layer of difficulty faced by those people trying to figure out who they are when they literally don’t have words for those things. Nonetheless it’s a beautiful and thought-provoking film, ultimately hopeful about this group of people as they build their lives and community together.