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DOC TALK

Doc Talk: A pop star and politics; a grandfather’s journey; a buried past

José Balvin in "The Boy from Medellín."
José Balvin in "The Boy from Medellín."© 2020 SCV JB CONCERT DOC PROJECT, LLC

A perennial dilemma for artists — to speak out against political injustice or claim the neutrality of art — confronted Colombian pop star J Balvin, “Reggaeton’s Global Ambassador,” when he decided to end his 2019 concert tour by performing for the first time in his hometown of Medellín. As the date for the sold-out stadium concert approached, thousands of young, disgruntled Colombians demonstrated against the corrupt and oppressive government of President Iván Duque Márquez.

In his engrossing and suspenseful “The Boy from Medellín,” Matthew Heineman spends the week before the concert with Balvin as he debates whether to remain silent or to support the demonstrators. The pressure grows when fans and other musicians call him out on social media for his silence, berating him for enjoying the benefits of success while ignoring the plight of those who helped him achieve it.

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Even before he learned about the demonstrations, the Latin Grammy-winning performer was racked with anxiety and doubt. A long-term victim of depression, Balvin made no secret of his malady and discussed it publicly to offer support to other sufferers. But as the concert approaches, Balvin’s symptoms worsen. Will he keep it together long enough to put on the show? And when and if he does perform will he make a statement about the ongoing political turmoil?

Though not as urgent or intense as Heineman’s previous documentaries “Cartel Land” (2015), which is about vigilantes battling drug dealers in Mexico and the United States, or “City of Ghosts” (2017), about citizen-journalists taking on ISIS in Syria, he brings to this story the same dynamic editing, shrewd eye for details, and ironic detachment. Provocative and incisive, it is especially relevant now as the divisive politics in our country leave little room to remain neutral.

“The Boy from Medellín” can be streamed via Amazon Prime Video beginning May 7. Go to studios.amazon.com.

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Baldwin Chiu in "Far East Deep South."
Baldwin Chiu in "Far East Deep South."Giant Flashlight Media

Southern discomfort

Larissa Lam’s “Far East Deep South” starts out with Baldwin and Edwin Chiu discovering that the grave of their grandfather K.C. Lou, whom they had never met, lies in a Cleveland, Miss., cemetery. What was he doing in Mississippi? Who knew there even were Chinese people in Mississippi?

Their father, Charles Chiu, doesn’t like to talk about it. The last time he had seen his father was as an infant in China ,just before his father left for America in search of work. Charles himself would later immigrate to California as a teenager, where he had to fend for himself in an unfriendly, foreign land. So when the subject of his father comes up, Charles is silent. But his family knows that he still feels grief, anger, and loss.

The sons nonetheless manage to talk their father into joining them on a family trip to Mississippi to solve the mystery of their grandfather’s grave. Their visit results in many serendipitous surprises. They not only find the grave, but also the location of K.C.’s store and some neighbors who remember him. There is also a Chinese museum nearby, where they look up records and learn that the separation of their father and grandfather was part of a dark chapter in America’s past.

At first the film seems like a non-celebrity version of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” But its intimate, as-it-happened cinéma-vérité style draws you in, and soon this family trip takes the twists and turns of a compelling detective story. A surprising, sobering history lesson, it is painfully relevant at a time when anti-Asian hate is on the rise.

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“Far East Deep South” premieres on the WORLD Channel series “America ReFramed” May 4 at 8 p.m. It will also be available for streaming on WORLDchannel.org, PBS.org, and the PBS Video app throughout May in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Go to worldchannel.org/episode/america-reframed-far-east-deep-south.

Laurel Grove, an antebellum segregated cemetery with unmarked graves of slaves.
Laurel Grove, an antebellum segregated cemetery with unmarked graves of slaves.First Run Features

Grave error

Like “Far East Deep South,” “Unmarked” shows how the discovery of old gravesites can uncover stories about a family’s past and about shameful episodes in American history. Chris Haley (nephew of Alex Haley, author of the “Roots”) and Brad J. Bennett co-directed.

In Virginia, Maryland, and other states, the monuments to those who fought to preserve slavery are carefully tended while the plots where enslaved people are buried are unmarked and forgotten. Their graves have been lost, neglected, or have been swallowed up by nature. But a small army of archivists, archeologists, volunteers, and family members are looking to change that.

In Richmond, Va., they search for headstones and clear away debris at the long-neglected East End Cemetery, a historic burial site for Black people. They look for the unmarked graves of slaves and freemen on the grounds of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, which had been the site of a plantation. And in Maryland at the former Belvoir plantation (once home of the grandmother of slave owner Francis Scott Key, who wrote the “Star Spangled Banner”) they find the resting places of those forgotten Black souls who labored there.

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One of the Belvoir stories the researchers had recovered was that of Cinderella, an enslaved woman married to a free Black man named Abraham Brogden. Their fairy tale romance was always shadowed by the fear that Cinderella’s owner would sell her. Their fears were realized but before Cinderella could be sold Brogden fled with her north in hopes of reaching the free states.

But within days slave catchers had tracked them down. Brogden was sentenced to four years in the penitentiary but he was so respected by prominent members of the white community that they petitioned to have him released. They succeeded, but it was too late — Cinderella had been sold and died of grief.

“Unmarked” can be streamed on Apple TV, iTunes, and Vimeo and is also available as a DVD for $14.96. Go to firstrunfeatures.com/unmarkedvod.html.

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