IS THERE A DOC IN THE HOUSE REDUX: Review of 8: The Mormon Proposition, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss and Restrepo


8: The Mormon Proposition is one of those documentaries that should be seen mainly because of the subject matter: the influence of the Mormon Church on the political outcome of Proposition 8, an amendment to the California state constitution that would ban gay marriage. Unfortunately, that is not quite the same thing as saying that it is successful as a movie in and of itself. I went to see 8:… with my friend Beriau and we both left thinking much the same thing: there was a lot of important information here, but the movie itself seemed unfocused and a bit all over the place; well intentioned, but at the same time somewhat of a mess—like the Democratic Party. The film is divided into three parts. The first revolves around Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, two Mormons who got married and as a result were shunned (excommunicated squared) by the Church. It’s easy to see why Reed Cowan, who wrote and co-directed the film, and Steven Greenstreet, Cowan’s co-director, focused so much time on these two: they are direct descendants of important people in Mormon history and Barrick still has an incredible resemblance to his ancestor Frederick G. Williams. At the same time, these two are just sooooooooooooo adorable, just sooooooooooooooooo cute, you feel demonically compelled to drown them like the bunny rabbits they are. I know, I know. I’m being cruel and mean, but Barrick and Jones are just a tad too over the top here such that it somewhat undercuts what they are trying to say. Contrast that to scenes later on in the film in which some young people, all of whom tried to commit suicide at one time because they are gay and Mormon, talk about what they went through. They are much more quiet in the way they tell their stories, which makes what happened to them all the more horrific. They don’t tell us how to feel, don’t ask us to feel sorry for them; they simply tell their story and let us feel on our own the pain and despair they went through. These characters make up some of the second part of the story, a study of how the Mormon church treats gays, some of the leaders considering them the biggest threat to the U.S. today (take that Al Queda; you thought 9/11 was a big deal, but it’s nothing in comparison to butt sex). The final part of the film revolves around the actual strategy the church used to defeat Prop. 8, a section almost as horrifying as anything else in the movie. It also reveals something I always suspected, but was never quite certain of: that church members were ordered to pay a certain amount to the Prop. 8 campaign or risk being shunned. But this section seems under reported. There is a character here, a journalist, who uncovered documents detailing all the tactics the church used, including the extortive way they raised money from their members. It was this section that most fascinated me and Beriau. But the reporter appears for only a fleeting amount of time and disappears, leaving a ton of questions behind him, almost a blink and you’ll miss him appearance. There is also something a bit unsatisfactory in the way the movie wants to put the blame on the passing of Prop. 8 squarely on the shoulders of the Mormon Church, making them the bogey man in the equation. But as one who lived through the aftermath, it’s really a lot more complicated than that and some of the blame has to fall on how the campaign to stop 8 was handled; so it also feels that a part of the story has yet to be told. Still, no matter the aesthetic quality of the film, or how unsatisfactory it might have been overall, it’s still something that should be seen.

In many ways, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess, directed and written by Felix Moeller, has the same strengths and weaknesses of 8: the Mormon Proposition. The subject matter, Veit Harlan, the director of the film Jew Seuss, an incredibly vicious anti-semitic film made as propaganda by the Germans in 1940, is important, but the actual execution of the documentary came somewhat short. Perhaps one of the most revealing aspects as to why the film may not work as well as one would like has to do with the revelation that Harlan’s first wife was Jewish and that they divorced (apparently at the wife’s insistence) and then the film fails to mention, for some odd reason, that this first wife died in a concentration camp. Which suggests to me that, like 8:…, the film hadn’t fully made up its mind exactly what it wanted to be about. While 8:… is divided into three parts, Harlan… is basically divided into two: a history of Harlan and the making of Jew Seuss, and then the effect Harlan’s choices had on his children and grandchildren (including a niece who married Stanley Kubrick). I went with my friend Beriau to this one as well and we both had the same reaction: we really wanted to know more about Harlan and the infamous movie he made. In fact, that’s what we expected the movie to be about (so I may have to admit I may be partly to blame by having the wrong expectations). But what we finally realized was that the film was never really supposed to be about Harlan and Jew Seuss, it was supposed to be about the effect it had on Harlan’s children (hence, the “In the Shadow of” part of the title) and that the part of the documentary focusing on Harlan in the 1930’s was just backstory, just filler. Because of this, not enough time was spent on the early years to make this part of the documentary interesting (in fact, it was a bit of a drudge at times to get through, though there are some magnificent shots from some epic films Harlan made using soldiers from the German army as extras, soldiers that were taken from the warfront and who knows what effect that had on the German war effort; probably not much in the long run), yet so much time was spent on this part, it threw the balance of the movie off. When the documentary did actually get to the children, when the true focus of the film became front and center, the whole story became much more interesting. What must it have been like to be related to a director who made one of the most notoriously evil films in world history? One son became somewhat of a radical, both in politics and in film, never really forgiving his father for what he did (though he actually worked on some films with Harlan pers); another son always saw his father as a victim. Many of the grandchildren don’t seem to know what to make of it. Again, though it may have fallen short as a movie, it’s still worth seeing.

Restrepo is the most successful documentary of the three here. I went with a group of people and the one thing everyone noticed was how quiet everybody was when they left the theater. And Restropo is that deeply moving. The title refers to an American military outpost in the Afghanistan mountains. It’s named after a soldier that the others all had a great fondness for, a soldier who died in an earlier battle. The story covers eighteenth months, a full tour of duty for these soldiers; after this they go home, or at least on leave. At first, the movie is a bit slow moving and hard to get into. It doesn’t really grab you. But as time goes on and as you get to know the characters, it gains a quiet intensity. How do these soldiers do their job, maintain peace while trying to win the hearts and minds of the villagers around them? It seems impossible, an existential Catch 22, but as is usual in most wars, it doesn’t matter. Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die, and a few do die, and it’s not pleasant to watch. The story is interrupted by the soldiers speaking directly to the camera about their experiences. There is something haunting about their faces, young with their whole world ahead of them. The people I went with had the impression that in many ways they were damaged for life and you could tell that by listening to them and just looking at them. I’m not sure that is totally fair. The directors, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, place these larger than life size heads, often completed shaven (which, to be honest, is a tad spooky), against blank backdrops giving their interview subjects a haunting look they may not have in real life. And we’re not really told how or what the soldiers are doing now, how well they are getting along in civilian life (we’re told only the bad things, like not sleeping well). At the same time, that may not be fair of me. What these people went through, I never did. I can also tell that what they went through, I would not wish on my worst enemy.

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