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In the second week of May, I took in three shows in the DOXA Film Festival in Vancouver. On Sunday: The Babushkas of Chernobyl (produced and directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart), a babushka being a grandmother and also a scarf—triangular, or folded into a triangle—worn by Russian grandmothers, including those who live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, official name Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, evacuated after the meltdown of Reactor No. 4 on April 26, 1986. This area, 1,000 square miles, will be radioactive almost forever. But it was home, and some residents went back. About 150 people live there now, 120 of whom are women over seventy years old. Most of the zone is woodland and marsh; aerial footage shot in summer shows vast areas bursting with profuse foliage and flowers. The babushkas tend a few cows and pigs, catch fish, grow potatoes and green vegetables, gather succulent apples and berries. Sitting on a bench in the sunshine, surrounded by lush greenery, Valentyna Ivanivna comments that Kiev is probably more polluted than Chernobyl. Only occasionally are viewers reminded that this is one of the most toxic areas on earth, in cameos by scientists, soldiers, officials measuring radioactivity, young men in masks enacting dystopian video-game scenarios in the bush. The heart of the zone, and the film, is the babushkas in their babushkas—which are gorgeous, with pleasing designs and brilliant colours, always looking fresh and new. How have these women survived all these years, many of them in good health? In fact, statistically it is the forcibly evacuated people who have suffered trauma, depression and other ailments. The babushkas of Chernobyl knew the risks and went home anyway. Many of them remember the Stalin years, and the German occupation in the decade after that. “Radiation doesn’t scare me,” says Hanna Zavorotnya. “Starvation does.”
On Friday: Inaate/se (“in ah ta say”), meaning “it shines a certain way. to a certain place./ it flies. falls./” and “it’s a certain kind of movie,” among other things. Adam and Zack Khalil, the filmmakers, are Ojibwe brothers whose ancestral home is today called Sault Ste. Marie. The ancient Ojibwe name meant “place of the rapids,” thunderous waters teeming with fish, a meeting place for many groups during fishing season for millennia. In the film the hypnotic sounds of water rushing, trickling, gurgling, accompany the central thread: the ancient Seven Fires Prophecy of the Ojibweg and other Anishinaabe people, which foretold the terrible history we know now. The first three fires described the coming of the light-skins, the others predicted poisons running in the river, the false promise of salvation, the suppression of language and lifeways in children, the emergence of a new nation. The very look, sound and feel of this film releases even non-Aboriginal viewers from the urge to label and sequence the fires and the water. Here are maps, charts and photos from other cultures and times, some overlaid with graphics and animation; videos of performances; talking heads, weeping heads, shouting heads; water water water; then jump to a sunny day outside the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, where visitors skim around on their Segways. The camera enters the museum and then a vault, where it scans shelf after white-wire shelf, room after climate-controlled room of Aboriginal “artifacts” arranged neatly with identifying cards. Jump to a funny-scary trickster figure, wearing an I Bingo hat, a grimacing mask and black priest’s robes… What’s not in this film is any hint of grand conclusions about all indigenous people. It is a radical film about home, which says it all.
On Saturday: A Good American (produced and directed by Friedrich Moser), about a patriotic whistle-blowing geek named William Binney who worked for the US National Security Agency as an analyst and crypto-mathematician. The straight-ahead documentary style of this film takes viewers right to the chilling content at its heart. Binney worked on encrypted data in the late Cold War years, getting results by seeking mathematical patterns—i.e., human behaviour patterns—that related to world events; among other things he predicted the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. His expertise in metadata was even more useful in the 1980s, as the digital explosion took hold and it was becoming impossible to read every email, text, blog post and social media message ever sent, and Binney was keen to serve his country—his home. “The universe is dots and their connections,” Binney says. “You just have to find the structure.” On one of the first PCs, he and two colleagues wrote an algorithm, and then built ThinThread, a simple, effective system to track pertinent metadata, yielding useful intelligence with no infringement on anyone’s privacy. Reader, you know what’s coming. The NSA rejected ThinThread and poured money into Trailblazer, a program made by a flashier, better-connected private company. Binney’s funding was cut off, FBI investigations ensued, and so on. Why did ThinThread get dumped in favour of the inferior Trailblazer (which was scrapped not long after)? To avoid embarrassing a senior military official who had supported Trailblazer. No, really—in the film this horror is stated by government poobahs, not by Binney. And later, to add insult to injury, the US government removed privacy protection features from ThinThread and put it to use in domestic surveillance.