On June 4, 2004, in scenic Granby, Colo., Marvin Heemeyer, proprietor of a muffler-repair shop, burst out of a shed on his property in a 63-ton bulldozer wrapped in steel plates and layers of concrete and equipped with three high-powered rifles poking out of portals. For more than two hours he leveled 13 buildings, including the town hall, as police officers fired ineffectually at the armored juggernaut. By the end of his methodical rampage Heemeyer had done $7 million in damage. No one died – except Heemeyer.
Cambridge native Paul Solet’s documentary “Tread” investigates this bizarre episode about a small-town property dispute that turns into an epic vigilante vendetta. A taut psychodrama that slyly manipulates point of view and narrative suspense, the film opens with a close-up of one of the cassette tapes Heemeyer left behind to justify his actions. The recording serves as a kind of unreliable voice-over narrator and at first the plain-spoken tale of victimization by petty politics and the greed of entitled property owners rings true.
Solet’s reenactments and interviews with Heemeyer’s perceived persecutors tend to support his version of events. But then the reenactments take a Rashomon-like turn and illustrate the equally plausible recollections of his alleged antagonists and the victims of his demolition spree. And when Heemeyer starts talking about being on a mission from God, his credibility begins to crumble.
From the cassette-tape close-up of the opening to the alternate version-of-events reenactments (produced on a far bigger budget and on a feature film scale) Solet owes a lot to Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” (1988). Like Morris, Solet transforms a seemingly isolated incident into a provocative, and philosophical, exploration of US society in general. What had then been a sensational blip in the news cycle (it disappeared in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s death the following day) has proven to be a foreshadowing of a dominant trend of our times. Heemeyer’s solitary, paranoid, delusional sense of grievance, his irrational destructiveness and claims of divine justification, have been embraced as virtues by millions today.
“Tread” screens Feb. 21-23 at the Brattle Theatre. The director will be present for Q & As following the 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. screenings on Feb. 21.
Speaking of Errol Morris, local photographer/filmmaker Henry Horenstein shows hints of his influence in his whimsical but wise “Partners” (2018). In it 13 assorted sets of romantic partners (not all of them corporeal) face the camera like subjects of Morris’s Interrotron technique (another influence might be the giant Polaroid portraits of Elsa Dorfman, subject of a 2016 Morris documentary, “The B-Side”) to talk about how they met, what the attraction was, and what keeps them together.
There are two women who met decades ago and have remained intimate with each other in every way since — except sexually (though they gave it a try). Two other women draw laughs from the off-screen filmmakers as they describe how they manage being lovers while living in the same house with their husbands. A threesome of two men and one woman discuss their extended polyamorous network lightheartedly until one of the men confesses that he sometimes felt jealous until they rallied to support the woman after she had a stroke. A man with agile, foreshortened arms and his wife, a statuesque acrobat, describe their wedding, which included bridesmaids dressed as zombies and guests chanting the chorus from Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932).
Perhaps the most poignant subject is a woman with a portrait of the man she loved who died more than 20 years ago. When she moved into her deceased partner’s home poltergeist-like events kept happening. He is still with her, she insists. “Can you hear that?” she asks suddenly. If you listen closely, maybe you can.
“Partners” is available on Amazon Prime.
News you can use
Before we had the Internet as an infinite and frequently fraudulent resource Marion Stokes, an eccentric Philadelphia TV producer, librarian, recluse, and activist, had begun her three-decade-long project of recording on VHS tape up to four network news feeds, seven days a week and 24 hours a day, from the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 to the Sandy Hook school massacre, in 2012.
At her death she left behind 70,000 tapes, presenting her son with the challenge of what to do with this invaluable secret history of the world. Matt Wolf’s “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” tells her story and shows how her son dealt with this priceless, burdensome inheritance. The film pays tribute to a pioneer for truth and her magnificent obsession and explores the nature of truth, history, and memory.
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” can be seen Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive. The filmmaker will be present for a Q & A following the screening.
At the beginning of Brent Gudgel and Chris Sinclair’s “Free Burma Rangers,” Dave Eubank, former US Special Forces soldier and now a missionary, is taking fire from Islamic State fighters in the contested ruins of Mosul, Iraq. Across the street several dead civilians lay in front of a wall, but a few are still alive, including a little girl clinging to her mother’s corpse. To cross the street and save them seems certain death. What should he do? He prays for an answer.
Before we find out what happened next, the film flashes back to the beginnings of Eubank’s organization. Two decades ago, after learning about the ongoing civil war in Burma, Eubank headed into the thick of it with a knapsack filled with medical supplies and $100 in cash to see what he could do. He started a movement dedicated to providing medical assistance and spiritual comfort to victims of the conflict. They also recorded the atrocities that they witnessed, sending their reports to international news outlets.
More recently, when ISIS spread terror through Iraq, he and other volunteers — including his wife, Karen, and their three young children — decided to help there.
What they encountered surpassed in evil and horror their experiences in Burma. It tested their faith, but they prayed for strength. Whatever your religious beliefs, you will find their courage and idealism inspiring.
“Free Burma Rangers” screens Feb. 24 and 25 at 7 p.m. at the Fenway and South Bay Center cinemas.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.