Film Threat (November 2019): Code & Response, The Corporate Coup D’État, When Lambs Become Lions, and Ximei

(NOTE: These reviews were all initially written for another site. Here are links to the original reviews.)

Image courtesy of IBM Originals.

Code & Response

** ½ (out of 4)

In recent years, technology has come under a lot of fire. Newspapers like The New York Times regularly publish articles about the negative effects that excessive screen time can have on children’s intellectual and emotional development. Thanks to scandals around companies like Facebook, moreover, optimistic predictions about technology’s benefits have given way to warnings about its Orwellian ubiquity.

An antidote to this pessimism, Austin Peck’s Code & Response shows that technology can be very useful in at least one area: disaster response. Simply put, the film profiles four programmers who work in various parts of the globe – specifically, California, Mexico, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Each of these programmers has designed – or is designing – some kind of technology that can improve our response to natural disasters. Among other things, these technologies include a portable shower that’s programmed to reuse drained water, a device that creates a Wi-Fi network that people can access even in a natural disaster’s aftermath, and an app that provides information about the location of wildfires.

I admit that I initially approached Code & Response with some trepidation. As anyone who is or knows a programmer will readily admit, the act of coding isn’t exactly what you would call “cinematic.” The film could easily have been a dud, seeing as there’s only so much drama you can get out of a person sitting in front of a computer and typing for hours at a time.

Smartly, however, Code & Response doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on the act of programming itself. Rather, Peck dedicates much of the film to profiling places (e.g. South Carolina, Indonesia) that have recently been devastated by natural disasters (e.g. Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Florence). It’s an indirect and ultimately effective way of conveying the real-world significance of these programmers’ work: we realize that their apps, drones, and machines will all help mitigate the suffering and destruction we see on screen.

Code & Response, in short, does a good job of communicating the value of programming without being monotonous. That said, a couple of things got in the way of my appreciation for this film. Like a fair number of documentary filmmakers, on the one hand, Peck feels the need to try and end the film on a wholly positive note. His desire to uplift the viewer is understandable, but the conclusion’s almost forced positivity simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, which largely plays as a sobering examination of our helplessness in the face of nature.

The other problem with Code & Response stems from how it portrays several of its programmers. For instance, Peck’s depiction of the Japanese programmer carries traces of exoticism. Additionally, the film’s portrayal of the one female programmer in the group feels ever so slightly sexist, focusing on personal, “relatable” details (e.g. her morning yoga routine) that you don’t really find in the more professional profiles of the other programmers.

Still, flaws and all, Code & Response is a worthwhile film. Like every good documentary, it exposes you to interesting people and stories that you very likely wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. And since we live in a society that’s rife with scientific illiteracy, the film also deserves praise for its efforts to bridge the gap between scientists and the general public. I’m glad I watched it.

Image courtesy of First Run Features.

The Corporate Coup D’État

* (out of 4)

If like a fair number of people, you were surprised by the results of the 2016 presidential election, it’s tempting to view Donald Trump’s presidency as an anomaly. According to this way of thinking, Trump came out of nowhere and hijacked an otherwise reasonable and dignified political process. Next year’s election, in this sense, is a chance to return to a pre-Trump state of normalcy, as though Trump’s removal would be enough to fix the many problems in American politics.

In The Corporate Coup D’État, Fred Peabody tries to argue that this view of American politics is short-sighted. As Peabody sees it, Trump isn’t an exception to the rule: rather, he’s a “symptom” of larger failings in the American system that date back to the 20th century. Far from breaking with his predecessors, Trump is really just imitating them, adopting the same kinds of pro-big business policies that characterized Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s ostensibly more “liberal” presidencies.

Before I describe the issues with Peabody’s film, I should mention that the film can generally be divided into two sections. Parts of the film, on the one hand, consist of interviews of various public intellectuals (notably Cornel West), most of whom use their screen time to inveigh against what they view as the rise of fascism and “corporatism.” Conversely, other parts of the film seek to directly portray the consequences of Trump, Obama, and Clinton’s pro-corporation policies, featuring depictions of struggling ordinary Americans who reside in economically moribund cities (e.g., Camden, New Jersey; Youngstown, Ohio) across the country.

Ultimately, both sections of the film turn out to be deeply flawed. For starters, the public intellectuals in question are always quite passionate. But they rarely move beyond vague generalizations about “the elites,” leaving it to you to speculate about the specific logic and statistics that they used to arrive at their sweeping claims. The result is that these intellectuals won’t persuade you unless you happened to agree with them anyway – a fact that makes you wonder why Peabody bothered to make this documentary in the first place.

The film’s portrayal of “ordinary” Americans, meanwhile, doesn’t have much going for it, either. In contrast to someone like Matthew Desmond – the sociologist who spent over a year living in low-income housing before writing an award-winning book on the subject – Peabody always seems to have a rather superficial understanding of his subjects and urban poverty. Whenever the film visits a city to profile “ordinary people,” it does so from the perspective of an out-of-towner who’s just “stopping by” to find a couple of specimens that can confirm premade theories about economic inequality.

As if all of that weren’t enough, Peabody’s portrayal of “ordinary” Americans also reinforces dangerous myths and prejudices. For instance, his main argument – that Trump’s election owed itself to understandable economic angst over globalization and free trade – ignores the essential role that racial identity questions played in Trump’s victory. Frequently, moreover, the film’s interviewees complain about the outsourcing of American jobs to places like Mexico and China – and in such moments, the film flirts with the kind of xenophobia that Trump indulges in on a near-daily basis.

There’s definitely compelling material in The Corporate Coup D’État. If nothing else, it’s a timely reminder that the 2020 Democratic candidates ought to be paying more attention to economic inequality, and it ably exposes the emptiness of Trump’s boasts about “draining the swamp.” But just about everything else in the film is a mess. This is a film that aspires to be provocative and subversive – but in spite of its good intentions, it proves consistently incapable of turning its indignation into a coherent, persuasive argument.

Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Films.

When Lambs Become Lions

**** (out of 4)

Documentaries are normally defined as films that concern “real” people and “real” stories. Yet the irony is that documentaries often can’t help but seem a bit inauthentic. Whereas fictional narrative films use actors who are used to being on camera, documentaries feature real people who may or may not be self-conscious about being filmed. The result is that many documentaries leave you with one persistent question: would the people on screen be behaving differently if they weren’t being filmed?

Jon Kasbe’s When Lambs Become Lions is that rare documentary that enables you to answer that question in the negative. Set in northern Kenya, the film portrays the daily lives of two men who are on opposite sides of what one could call the “war on poaching.” Asan is a ranger whose main responsibilities are to monitor the Kenyan wilderness, protect animals, and punish poachers he encounters on his patrols. Conversely, “X” is a poacher who has perfected the art of killing animals with poison-tipped arrows.

As mentioned, what stands out about When Lambs Become Lions is its remarkable intimacy. Frequently, Kasbe’s framing, camera movements, and editing assume such a familiarity with his subjects that, if you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think you were watching a fictional narrative film with actors trained to be un-self-conscious. Put another way, the film miraculously manages to shed the feeling of inauthenticity that dogs quite a few documentaries, and that lends a powerful sense of immersion to its depiction of its subjects’ world.

That world, as you quickly come to see, is much more complex and fascinating than you might initially think. On the one hand, if Kasbe had been tasked with making a Hollywood blockbuster, he probably would have portrayed Asan as a heroic, morally unimpeachable savior of the environment. Far from satisfying our desire to have a “hero we can root for,” however, Asan turns out to be an underpaid government employee who, for the sake of money, has no choice but to make a business deal with X.

A similar kind of nuance characterizes Kasbe’s portrayal of X. Since they kill elephants for money, it’s tempting to think of poachers as callous sadists. Yet X turns out to be remarkably relatable. Instead of slaughtering elephants with his own hands, he delegates that responsibility to an associate because he finds killing “difficult.” Moreover, as X notes early in the film, the main reason he poaches is that he needs money to raise his son – and in the town where the two of them live, poaching is the easiest way to make money fast.

Ultimately, watching this film leaves you feeling a mixture of helplessness and despair. Asan and X live in a system that forces them to prioritize survival over morality – and at the end of the day, it’s the elephants who end up paying the price for that sacrifice. When Lambs Become Lions isn’t primarily interested in advancing sociopolitical commentary. But the film leaves you with the distinct impression that, for all the good intentions involved, calls to eradicate poaching will go nowhere if people stick to simplistic moralizing and never actually try to understand why poachers do what they do.

Image courtesy of AC Films.


*** ½ (out of 4)

As any close observer of modern China knows all too well, the Chinese government has never placed much of a premium on people’s health. Back in 2003, for instance, it was notoriously reluctant to publish data about the SARS outbreak – conceivably because doing so would have exposed weaknesses in its health care system. Two years ago, moreover, a doctor who questioned the efficacy of a popular Chinese medicine was jailed for 100 days – a minor incident that nevertheless illustrates where the Chinese government’s priorities lie.

Andy Cohen and Gaylen Ross’ Ximei explores another public health issue that the Chinese government has often tried to play down: the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in rural China. Back in the 1990s, peasants across China donated blood plasma to earn extra income, acting on the assurance that they’d eventually get their blood back. To facilitate the extraction of plasma from the blood, however, many blood dealers pooled their donors’ blood samples  – an unsafe practice that ensured the rapid spread of viruses and diseases like HIV, malaria, and hepatitis-B.

As a way of depicting the consequences of these blood dealers’ actions, Ximei portrays the daily life of the titular Chinese woman, who is one of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants with HIV or AIDS. When she was 10 years old, Ximei was involved in a serious accident that put her in a three-day coma. While in a comatose state, she was given a transfusion of blood from an infected blood supply – and although she eventually recovered from the accident, she was subsequently diagnosed with HIV.

As Cohen and Ross ably show us, Ximei’s condition puts her at a significant disadvantage in daily life. Out of a mixture of ignorance and prejudice, most members of society shun her. Economically impoverished, she can’t afford medicines that would ameliorate her condition. And whenever she goes to the hospital for treatment, she has to put up with long wait times, poor service, and unsanitary facilities.

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Ximei is watching how she’s treated by the Chinese government. Far from taking an interest in her well-being, government officials view Ximei as a threat who needs to be constantly monitored. To that end, they assign her a guard whose job is to follow her around and make sure she doesn’t stir up “social unrest.” At one point, moreover, her town’s mayor shows up at her house and bullies her into canceling a vacation that she had planned to take in a nearby province.

Given the obstacles that Ximei regularly faces, Ross and Cohen could very well have chosen to maintain a pessimistic tone for the entirety of the film. But in spite of its grim subject matter, Ximei turns out to be just as uplifting as it is sobering. Far from remaining passive in the face of adversity, for instance, Ximei decides to set up a “halfway house” that provides food, shelter, and company for fellow AIDS patients. Midway through the film, moreover, Ximei also gets married to a man named Yang Yong.

I wouldn’t say that Ximei is perfect. In particular, the ending features a sentimentalism that sits poorly with the film’s otherwise nuanced tone. But this flaw notwithstanding, the film offers a thorough and compassionate study of an individual whose story too often gets ignored. Set alongside the protests in Hong Kong and the recent revelations about mass detentions in Xinjiang, the film reveals China to be a country whose prosperous façade masks deep discontent and ruthless oppression.