Every year I serve as a juror for the Salem Film Fest (March 19-28) I have the same difficulty picking the best films. They are all first rate, and here are two among the many contenders.
Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss’s “Missing in Brooks County“ begins with what seems a murder scene. A man in a pick-up spots vultures circling overhead and drives into the brush where he discovers the body of a young man.
For the driver, Eddie Canales, this is a common occurrence. Director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, he is one of the people in Brooks County, Texas, who cares about the immigrants crossing the arid, sweltering wasteland on their way to find friends, family, or employment farther north. He puts out water stations for the desperate refugees and searches for the many reported missing by their loved ones.
Another Good Samaritan is Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist who brings a team of her Texas State University students into the county’s badlands to recover some of the hundreds of undiscovered bodies. They take the bodies to the lab where they try to identify them in order to notify the deceased’s families.
On the other side of the issue, rancher and veterinarian Michael Vickers has seen the flow of migrants increase from a few polite peasants a week to a flood of desperate people. Many of them, he claims, are criminals and possibly terrorists. To counter this invasion he has formed a paramilitary group to hunt down the migrants and report them to US Border Patrol agents. He also refuses to allow Canales to put his water stations on his property, claiming that only encourages human traffickers and drug smugglers. If the migrants are desperate for water, he says, there’s plenty available, indicating a cistern for livestock with its surface covered with scum.
As for Canales, he doesn’t trust Vickers. “I think he’s connected [with the smugglers and traffickers],” he muses. “We’re just waiting to catch him. . . .”
This is not the first documentary about the immigration crisis, but it’s one of the most nuanced and disturbing. The filmmakers tell the stories with restraint, emphasizing the injustices, cruelty, and suffering without needless, manipulative exaggeration. They shift deftly among their subjects and present them with empathy and understated irony, building a suspenseful multi-narrative that is part detective story, part family tragedy, part critique of a dysfunctional immigrant policy.
“Missing in Brooks County” can be streamed from March 19 at midnight to March 28 at 11:45 p.m.
Had you been watching the network news instead of a football game on Thanksgiving Day in 1970 you might have caught the story of Simas Kudirka, a Lithuanian sailor who jumped from his Soviet fishing boat onto a US Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Kudirka begged to be granted asylum, but under pressure from officials in Washington the commander of the cutter tearfully handed him back to the Soviets. The US crew looked on helplessly as his captors brutalized Kudirka before dragging him away. There seemed little doubt that a long stay in Siberia awaited him, if not execution.
Those who watched the news reports were outraged, and the story spread internationally, an embarrassment for this country and the Nixon administration. Diplomatic overtures and worldwide demonstrations failed to move the adamant Soviet authorities.
But the story didn’t end there. Giedrė Žickytė's darkly ebullient “The Jump” follows with panache the unexpected twists in Kudirka’s tale. The film deftly combines archival material with present-day interviews, but it draws much of its style and energy from Kudirka, who is a charismatic character and a bit of a ham. As he narrates his story he reenacts it with verve at the places where it occurred — from the apparently still operational cutter to his cell in a now-closed KGB prison. He’s like a more garrulous and jovial version of the title subject of Werner Herzog’s “Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997) — though when the story turns dark his spirits dim and he grows silent.
Could Herzog have done a better job? Possibly, but he probably would have fudged some of the facts to achieve his elusive “ecstatic truth.”
“The Jump” can be streamed March 19 from midnight to March 28 at 11:45 p.m.
Go to www.salemfilmfest.com.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.