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In Focus: In Newburyport, films that take the path of most resistance

Father Pedro Opeka, in "Opeka."Newburyport Documentary Film Festival

Resistance can take many forms as these three documentaries from the virtual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival (Sept. 18-24) demonstrate. Whether it’s building a community out of a landfill, treating drug addiction with acupuncture, or struggling for years against a despotic regime, these stories inspire hope for those times when resistance seems futile.

The City of Flies is an immense garbage dump in Madagascar that is vermin infested and seething with smoke. Hundreds of families live there in shanties and caves dug from the debris. They forage for food and scrap metal. The dump spreads out like an apocalyptic landscape at the beginning of Cam Cowan’s uplifting and visually stunning “Opeka,” a profile of Pedro Opeka, an Argentine priest who has dedicated his life to raising these people out of poverty.


Opeka’s first posting in Madagascar was to an impoverished village where he was overwhelmed by the misery of his flock and stricken with diseases (“seven years of diarrhea,” he says). He begged to be sent to another country and never have to return.

Instead he was assigned to teach in a seminary in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. By chance he came across the landfill on the outskirts of the city and was shocked by the hellish scene of countless children foraging in misery. He prayed to God to give him the strength to help.

Three decades later Opeka has built Akamasoa (“good friends” in Madagascar’s Malagasy language) on the margins of the landfill, a community consisting of several villages with schools, clinics, and homes where thousands of those rescued from the City of Flies have found a new life. A charismatic figure with a white beard and an athlete’s commanding physique, Opeka takes the filmmakers on a tour of the rows of snug houses while dozens of adoring children follow him. Later a group of them sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; it is a uniquely affecting rendition of that much covered song.


A virtual Q&A takes place with the director Sept. 19 at 8:30 p.m.

A scene from "Dope Is Death."Newburyport Documentary Film Festival

Demonized by the authorities, the militant Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords provided Black and Latino communities with services such as day care, lunch programs for children, and, in the South Bronx, acupuncture to treat drug addiction.

As seen in Mia Donovan’s provocative and illuminating “Dope Is Death," Black activist Dr. Mutulu Shakur (stepfather of the late rapper Tupac Shakur) believed that the methadone programs sponsored by the government were just exchanging one addiction for another, creating a population unable to fight the system that was destroying it. He learned that acupuncture had proven effective in detoxification therapy and with several fellow activists he studied the technique. They opened a clinic in the neighborhood and claimed to be treating 350 people a day. The program thrived for several years, despite opposition from a government that saw the drug problem as a war to be fought and not a disease to be treated.

Donovan is sympathetic to her subjects’ grievances and open to their Marxist interpretation of racism and oppression. She interviews some of those who were involved with the project from the beginning and includes seldom seen archival footage to present fresh insights into the Panthers, a revolutionary movement whose positive contributions have been overshadowed by its tragic history and reputation for violence.


But some of that reputation is deserved. In 1981 Shakur was involved in an armored car robbery that resulted in the deaths of a guard and two police officers. Put on the FBI Most Wanted List, he was a fugitive, living underground until he was apprehended, in 1986. He was tried and found guilty of several felonies, including robbery and murder. The film falters as it confronts this dark episode, and it is unclear whether the documentary is trying to exonerate Shakur and the others who were convicted with him or acknowledging their guilt but justifying it. Though the program he founded continues in diminished form, Shakur remains in prison, serving a 60-year sentence.

A virtual Q&A takes place with the director Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m.

A scene from "The Art of Dissent."Newburyport Documentary Film Festival

Though it may take more than 20 years of peaceful activism, as well as imprisonment, torture, and the destruction of lives and careers, determined people can topple a tyrannical regime.

It looked like Czechoslovakia had achieved that in January 1968, when Alexander Dubček, first secretary of the Czech Communist Party, introduced “socialism with a human face.” He ended censorship and other restrictions in what became known as the “Prague Spring,” a brief renaissance of arts, culture, and free expression.

It ended in August when the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent in 650,000 troops and replaced Dubček with party hack Gustáv Husák, who introduced a ruthless policy of “normalization,” repealing the reforms put in place by Dubček and instituting repressive measures. Many dissidents continued their nonviolent resistance for months until the police brutally crushed a demonstration in Prague in 1969 on the first anniversary of the invasion. It was to be the last such action for 20 years.


As James Dean Le Sueur shows in “The Art of Dissent,” his brisk account of 50 years of Czech history, the resistance was down but not out. An underground army of writers, academics, musicians, and other intellectuals sustained it, chief among them the internationally renowned playwright Václav Havel. He used his celebrity status to support and protect those who were persecuted and jailed.

But it was not enough clout to spare himself; he, too, was harassed by police and imprisoned. Nonetheless, Havel and his movement endured until they were able to launch the Velvet Revolution, in 1989. In 1990 as the Soviet empire crumbled and the Czech communist party was dissolved, Havel was elected president of a free, democratic Czechoslovakia.

Le Sueur relates with clarity and concision this chaotic era with interviews and rare archival footage, including clips from covert documentaries and film coverage of the invasion. Still, some notable figures are omitted, including the author Milan Kundera and such Czech New Wave filmmakers as Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, and Jiří Menzel (who died earlier this month, at 82).

Le Sueur wisely continues the story beyond the jubilation of initial victory to the troubles that lay ahead — the partition into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in 1993; the chaotic and often criminal privatization of state property; and the familiar rise of right-wing, populist leaders. Havel and his fellow artists had the passion to help win the country’s freedom, Le Sueur suggests, but they did not have the political skills to preserve it.


A virtual Q&A takes place with the director Sept. 24 at 9 p.m.

Go to nbptdocufest.eventive.org/films.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.