Sometimes a number is shocking enough to stop you cold.
In filmmaker Dawn Porter's documentary "Gideon's Army," which takes an in-depth look at the professional grind experienced by public defenders (playing at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Siskel Film Center), an attorney casually informs her interviewer that she juggles 180 cases a year. What she doesn't mention is her pay. You see her shuffling through a stack of bills and student loans that she cannot pay. Later, another public defender explains her financial compensation in these terms: After she's paid her bills each month, she has $20 left to her name. That's it.
The burnout rate is high. Probably would be even if the money was better. The emotional stakes are just too intense. Visibly shaken, an attorney reveals that she has just learned a client was making plans for her murder if the case didn't go his way. "It's part of the job, that's what I'm told," she says. "I don't think it is."
Porter's film profiles three public defenders, all of whom swing between moments of doubt, battered morale and a dogged belief in what they're doing. "Gideon's Army" premiered at Sundance this year and takes its title from the 1963 Supreme Court decision (Gideon vs. Wainwright) that ruled all criminal defendants have a right to counsel, regardless of their ability to pay.
The doc is the first in a monthlong series from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Don't let the earnestness of the HRW brand dissuade you. Other well-meaning film programs (including last month's Peace on Earth Film Festival) fall into the same marketing trap: entertainment as homework. To the HRW's immense credit, the films selected here really do work as films as well as conversation-starters.
"Gideon's Army" is the kind of strong, well-made doc that typically finds a home on PBS or HBO — and not surprisingly, HBO has picked it up to air this summer. There are a lot of straightforward documentaries like this made every year. Fewer filmmakers have the creative wherewithal to break from tradition in meaningful ways. Later this month, the fest screens a film that does just that, with riveting, truly unsettling results.
Several years ago, director Joshua Oppenheimer befriended a handful of former small-time gangsters in Indonesia who became fearsome death squad leaders in the mid-1960s, in the wake of the military overthrow of the government. "They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in less than a year," Oppenheimer says on the film's web site.
Officially, these events remain one of the nation's triumphs, a gruesome footnote used to bolster to the current power base. Survivors of victims dare not challenge the status quo. Together they all live in what Oppenheimer calls a "frighteningly banal culture of impunity." In "The Act of Killing" (which screens April 22) the men he talks with — rabid movie fans, all — agree to re-enact their atrocities for the camera in the style of Hollywood films.
Tall and elegant, Anwar Congo is one of the most respected executioners from the old days. In a scene staged as a noir, Congo plays one of his victims, beaten and intimidated. Midway through the shoot he asks the crew to stop. He appears unable to talk for a long time. "I can't do that again," he says finally.
A later scene is staged as a movie musical, a cast of swaying, bedazzled extras singing "Born Free" in front of a gorgeous waterfall as Congo is given a medal by a man he has strangled to death: "Thank you for executing me and sending me to heaven," the man says, shaking his killer's hand.
What a bizarre experiment Oppenheimer has instigated. That these genuinely scary men agreed to participate is staggering. That they would eagerly watch the footage afterward is even curiouser, but there is a narcissism at work here, and they are enamored with the romance of moviemaking.
Your knee-jerk reaction is to judge them. The movie reveals something so much more complex, though. The mental gymnastics are hard to comprehend. There is a genuine willingness to engage in the moral debates these memories dredge up, and every so often Oppenheimer, off-camera, will calmly confront the men; the tension that arises on film is unlike anything I have seen in recent memory.
The last five minutes are the documentary's strongest. Congo revisits the rooftop patio where he did most of his nasty work. Finally — finally — he seems remorseful. He looks around listlessly and says, "I know it was wrong. But I had to do it."
Suddenly he begins to heave, becoming physically ill. It is noisy and embarrassing and real. The moment seems to go on forever. Then stops. Then starts again. A killer unable to outrun the ghosts of his past.
"Gideon's Army" screens 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Siskel Film Center. "The Act of Killing" screens April 22. For more info go to siskelfilmcenter.org or ff.hrw.org/chicago.
"Of Two Minds," an intimate documentary about living with a bipolar diagnosis, screens Monday at the new Evanston venue 27 Live, followed by a conversation with filmmaker Doug Blush and Carlton Davis, who is one of the individuals featured in the film. The doc also screens Tuesday at the Skokie Public Library, with Blush in attendance. (Presented by Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center.) Go to tpoint.org.
'60 Minutes' on acid
That's how Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has described his 1986 film "True Stories," a satire set in a small Texas town where tabloid stories become real life. The cast includes John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray, as well 50 sets of twins. Sunday at Cole's, as part of the bar's Cinema Minima series. Go to cinema-minima.com.
Friends, there is no better way to honor the passing of Roger Ebert than to mark your calendar for his 15th annual EbertFest in Champaign coming up this month April 17-21. Each year the fest spotlights overlooked movies that Ebert championed with a passion. For a full lineup go to ebertfest.com.
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