Dispatch from Venice – Inconvenient Truths
In a year we witnessed the coining of “alternative facts,” it is refreshing to attend a film festival showcasing features that prompt us instead to scrutinize the narratives we live in. Premiered at the 74th edition of the Venice Film Festival, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor and Frederick Wiseman’s majestic ode to the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, share an ear for the need to defend reason and critical thinking, at a time when both seem to have lost their value.
Think of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, swap Claude Laydu with Ethan Hawke and you’d come close to Schrader’s latest feature, premiered in Venice’s main competition. Having lost his son to the Iraq war, reverend Ernst Toller looks after an old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York, celebrating mass by day and drinking heavily while writing a diary by night – a collection of bleak, Thomas Merton-infused memoirs Ernst swears he’ll destroy when finished. Life changes when young Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks for his help: she is twenty weeks pregnant, but her hard-core Green Movement husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) wants her to abort. What’s the point in giving birth to another human being, the man asks the reverend over coffee, as the world heads for an environmental catastrophe?
Climate change acts as a wake-up call for Ernst. Despite his efforts, the priest cannot help Michael overcome his depression, and himself plunges into a deep crisis that opens his eyes toward the horrific truth Michael was heralding: the world is coming to an end, and it is too late for us to do anything about it. Perceptively, Schrader turns Ernst’s environmental awakening into a spiritual crisis. “Will God ever forgive us for what we did to His creation?” the priest asks Edward Balq, a local conservative zealot and parishioner running a corrupt oil company, who will oversee the church’s 250th reconsecration. “It’s a complicated subject,” Balq quickly dismisses him.
Schrader’s feature could be read as an attempt to debunk that snappy reply. Ernst’s dilemma may well be an impossible one to answer, but the environmental disaster it alludes to is presented as an undisputable fact. Schrader takes us beyond Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, where we were told the world was heading to a near certain environmental collapse, but we could still somehow save things if we acted quickly.
If Schrader’s sombre tale of a country priest turns into a staunch attack against climate change deniers, Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor also acts as a powerful wake-up call to another discomforting truth: the narratives which enabled racism to flourish in the 1940s US South still haunt the country today. Screened in Venice’s Orizzonti sidebar, The Rape of Recy Taylor is a harrowing documentary on the atrocious crime perpetrated by six white teenage boys in 1944 in Abbeville, Alabama, against then-24-year-old Recy Taylor, an African-American married sharecropper and mother whom the teens abducted and raped at gunpoint. Broadening the interviews to make room for Recy’s family as well as academics, Buirski turns her documentary into a timely reflection on US civil rights, told from a woman’s point of view, using the crime as a starting point to assess how much, if at all, the society which permitted and condoned that violence has changed.
In an interview toward the end of the documentary, Yale Professor Crystal Feimster addresses the reasons behind the white boys’ belief in immunity: “I guess they didn’t see [Recy] the way she needed to be seen.” Buirski excels at showing how the violence against African-American women in 1940s America was legitimised by narratives that depicted them as toys, silent subalterns in a society that stripped them of their right to speak up.
The Rape of Recy Taylor feels all the more unsettling because Buirski treats Recy’s horrific fate in the present tense. Archival videos of the civil rights protests that spread across the States after Recy’s rape are scattered with clips of Michelle Obama’s public speeches, and footage of the 1950s bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, is juxtaposed with photos from the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, including the iconic picture of the young African-American woman calmly standing before officers in full riot gear during a 2016 street march. The present-day mementos are a reminder that The Rape of Recy Taylor has seen no resolution. Though the state of Alabama issued a public apology for failing to prosecute Recy’s rapists in 2011, the discourse embraced by the white supremacists of the time, which helped the crime go unpunished, is still prominent in today’s public debates. At a time when even the US President has failed to condone racism, works such as Buirski’s help debunk the moral ambivalence behind the resurrection of white suprematism.
Buirski’s at times combative tone bears a resemblance to the interview that opens veteran Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris, a documentary on the wonders of New York’s Public Library. In the interview, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins remarks on his book, A Brief Candle in the Dark: “anybody who claims to be a young earth creationist is either stupid, ignorant or insane, and that’s a simple statement of fact – it is not a polemical statement.”
It’s the kind of combative quote you’d expect from Dawkins, and it sets the tone for the whole of Ex Libris: a powerful hymn to the sanctity of reason and to the immune system a library can offer to resist populism and uncritical thinking. Wiseman explores the NYPL’s New York branches, from mid-town Manhattan to the Bronx, follows the Borges-like librarians who keep them running and have to answer all sorts of queries (a delightful early scene shows a library staff informing a customer that, regretfully, unicorns do not really exist), and pays special attention to the events and programs offered by the library to the NY denizens, from talks with the likes of Elvis Costello and Patty Smith to afterschool teaching classes for kids and dance lessons for the elderlies.
Wiseman captures an institution trying to transform itself from a passive repository space to a vast, city-wide education centre – a place about people as much as it is about books. There are scenes where blind librarians teach blind New Yorkers to read and write Braille, others when library staff teach immigrants English, and countless more where the youth show the elderlies how to surf the web. Thus the Library is not simply a storage room for books – it makes sure everyone has equal access to knowledge, and nobody lags behind.
Toward the end of Ex Libris, NYPL Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad addresses some of the Library’s sponsors: “here at the NYPL we do mind building, soul affirming, life saving work.” At a time when the normalization of alternative facts suggests that knowledge is a matter of opinion, First Reformed, The Rape of Recy Taylor and Ex Libris left me with the same feeling.