NEW YORK (Reuters) - Iraqis living in danger after working with U.S. troops and diplomats and an examination of women in modern India are two subjects grabbing the attention of critics and audiences among documentaries showing at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.
Both films are part of a lineup of 32 documentaries at the New York festival, which runs through Sunday, that tell true tales from inside and outside the United States. Documentaries, which have become more stylized in recent years with inexpensive hi-tech cameras, have traditionally been a strength at Tribeca. This year is no exception, and many of these non-fiction movies will be seen in theaters and on TV throughout 2012.
“The List” tells of American Kirk Johnson’s fight to save U.S.-allied Iraqis who are at risk of being kidnapped and killed by militants that have marked them as traitors. The film argues that the Iraqis are trapped in bureaucratic red tape while waiting years for U.S. visas.
“He is an American hero, he represents what America thinks it is and wants to be overseas but is really not who we have been,” director Beth Murphy told Reuters about Johnson. Murphy spent four years making the film and shooting footage in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the United States.
Johnson helped reconstruction efforts in Iraq, but returned to the United States and unexpectedly suffered post traumatic stress disorder, leading to a fall from a second floor window.
Since then, he has been lobbying politicians and compiling a thick dossier, known as “The List,” of thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis still waiting for visas, many of whom were forced to flee to surrounding countries.
Top U.S. diplomats are shown in the film delaying aid and testifying in Washington that they don’t know how many Iraqis who worked for them are under constant threat.
For his work, Johnson, 31, has been labeled a modern-day Oskar Schindler — a German who helped save Jews during World War Two by keeping them working in his factories. His story was the focus of Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”
Showbiz publication Variety said in its glowing review of “The List” that it effectively traces Johnson’s “heroic actions by a lone American in a fight for justice,” as well as the emotional stories of several U.S.-allied Iraqis proud of their work for American troops and now desperate for help.
“The film is a combination of Kirk’s story to try and save them, combined with the stories of several Iraqis on his list,” Murphy said. “We can’t ignore the reason they are in this horrible predicament. The reason is us.”
After partnering with pro bono lawyers, Johnson has helped about 1500 Iraqis obtain visas, but there are thousands waiting. Similarly, thousands of Afghans who have worked in translator and other jobs with troops and diplomats still await visas and fear they will be further targeted when soldiers leave.
Not far from those war-torn regions springs another film that has encouraged conversations at Tribeca, but this one centers on culture wars in modern India and the plight of women.
“The World Before Her,” which was chosen as the opening night documentary film, parallels the lives of women in the Miss India beauty pageant and a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls.
The documentary, which also took four years to make, is yet to be screened in India and may prove controversial for its rare peek and footage of a Hindu fundamentalist camp. Canadian director Nisha Pahuja worked two years to gain access to it.
“The Miss India pageant was a way to look at India as country in transition and also show how this new, modern-day India was being written on the bodies of women,” said Pahuja who moved to Canada from India at an early age.
The two seemingly opposite Indian worlds showing capitalism versus fundamentalism capture “a country that is divided and trying to figure out what it is,” said Pahuja.
At the same time, she added that by addressing the complexities of modern Indian women, the film asks how different they really are. Ultimately, audiences are left to conclude women in India “want the ability to choose the course of their life,” whether fundamentalist or modern, rich or poor.
Elsewhere, several Tribeca documentaries have offered compelling portraits of people marginalized inside the United States, including “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” that tells of Booker Wright, a black waiter in a white-owned restaurant who was the subject of an NBC News piece in 1965.
Shot in black and white with a sometimes grainy, poetic style, director Raymond De Felitta recounts Wright’s story and his own father’s quandary in producing the NBC story that placed Wright’s life in danger and symbolized the racial discrimination in the U.S. south.
“The Revisionaries” spotlights a current battle in that same region over politicizing educational textbooks by focusing on the Texas State Board of Education’s review of standards and conservatives’ efforts to weaken the theory of evolution.
Finally, changes in U.S. TV and politically conservative personalities are examined in “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr.”
Downey Jr. hosted a provocative, popular 1980s talk show that, the film argues, paved the way for the sort of aggressive behavior shown on today’s TV programs like “The Jerry Springer Show” that win ratings but lower entertainment standards.
(The story was corrected to fix Johnson’s age to 31 from 32 in paragraph 8)
Reporting by Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte