Arts

Doc talk

Racism, oppression, eugenics, and art that runs the gamut

A scene from “Where the Pavement Ends.”
©Kinloch Fire Department, Kinloch, Mo.
A scene from “Where the Pavement Ends.”

Local filmmaker Jane Gillooly, a native of Ferguson, Mo., returned to her hometown in the wake of the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown. There she filmed the documentary “Where the Pavement Ends,” a powerful, impressionistic meditation on the persistence of racial injustice. 

Not far from where Brown was killed is the site of a wall built by the then all-white town as a barrier to the neighboring all-black town of Kinloch. Gillooly listens to the recollections of inhabitants of both towns about the impact of the wall and a movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, to tear it down. Intercutting this testimony with archival photos and film, and eerily beautiful images of the present-day, desolate, and abandoned Kinloch, Gillooly shows how past injustices prefigure those of today.   

“Where the Pavement Ends” screens Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The filmmaker, Tufts professor and filmmaker Khary Saeed Jones, and interdisciplinary artist Aparna Agrawal will participate in a discussion.

Go to www.icaboston.org/events/where-pavement-ends.

Memory loss

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In 1976, the Argentine filmmaker Albertina Carri was 3 when soldiers came and took her parents away. She never saw them again.

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In her questing, self-reflexive 2003 documentary, “Los Rubios” (“The Blonds”), Carri employs various methods to approach and recover her memory of her parents and their kidnapping. 

Like Claude Lanzmann in “Shoah” (1985), she interviews people and asks what they witnessed; all are friendly, none are very informative. She creates a film within the film by casting an actress in the role of herself making the documentary. The stop-motion animation of toy figures whimsically and chillingly re-creates events. She describes a photo of a slaughterhouse in a frame shop that moved her, and her sister tells her that she met the photographer, who had been held in the same detention center as her parents. Unwilling to relive her experiences of torture and imprisonment, the photographer refuses to appear in the film.   

The hybrid approach and the distancing devices re-create the experience of recalling trauma. They also evoke the evasions taken by society to avoid acknowledging its responsibility for evil. Challenging and moving, this is a tour-de-force by one of the leading lights of the New Argentine Cinema.

“Los Rubios” screens on Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive as part of the program “Personal Truths: The Cinema of Albertina Carri” (Oct. 14-21). The filmmaker will participate in a Q&A.

Go to library.harvard.edu/film/films/2018sepnov/
carri.html#blonds
.

Ill bred

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The recent release of two films on eugenics makes you wonder if this supposedly debunked discipline is due for a comeback. Unlike “A Dangerous Idea,” which examined recent permutations of the concept, Michelle Ferrari’s “The Eugenics Crusade” emphasizes the history of the movement. 

In 1883, Sir Francis Galton, a British polymath, coined the term “eugenics” to describe his ambition to apply his cousin Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to shaping human nature and society. Harvard-educated biologist Charles Davenport took those ideas and developed them by applying the genetic principles discovered by Gregor Mendel in his experiments with pea plants. Though it soon became obvious that people were more complicated than peas, the rich, privileged, and powerful were attracted to the possibility of shaping an ideal population that resembled themselves — white, upper class, and of “Nordic” stock. Especially at a time when the influx of millions of immigrants threatened to outnumber and outbreed them.

Inspired by this junk science, Congress in the 1920s passed laws drastically reducing immigration. At the same time many states legalized the forced sterilization of those deemed mentally, physically, morally, and racially inferior. In 1927 the Supreme Court ruled that these laws were constitutional — a precedent cited by the lawyers defending Nazi eugenicists during the Nuremberg trials. The practice continued until the 1960s, by which time more than 60,000 people had been sterilized.

Ferrari relates this history dispassionately, relying on archival footage and interviews with historians and scientists. The film draws no explicit parallels with the anti-immigration and nationalist movements of today, but the implied warning is unmistakable and disturbing.    

“The Eugenics Crusade” can be seen on PBS’s “American Experience” on Oct. 16 at 9 p.m. and will be available on DVD at ShopPBS.org. Online viewing begins on Oct. 17.

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Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/
eugenics-crusade/
.

Pointy Shoe Productions
New York artist Judith Braun creates her ArtPrize entry on the walls of the Grand Rapids Art Museum in “More Art Upstairs.”

Eye of the beholder

The annual ArtPrize contest in Grand Rapids, Mich., offers an entertaining look at the dichotomy between critical and popular taste. Attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, and some of the world’s most acclaimed — and some of its kitschiest — artists, it offers the largest award of any art contest in the world, more than $500,000, including two $200,000 grand prizes, one chosen by a jury of critics and the other by popular ballot.

Jody Hassett Sanchez’s documentary about the contest, “More Art Upstairs,” follows some of the competitors, including a New York artist who explains to a fascinated audience her technique of making wall-size charcoal abstracts with her fingertips and an Afghan War veteran who elucidates the meaning of his religiously allegorical battlefield triptych. A member of the critics’ jury remarks that she’s “seen a lot of eagles” and a bewildered noncritic wonders why some of the art has to be ugly, since there is enough ugliness in the world as it is. Both sides of the art-appreciation spectrum are represented; though they don’t agree, they get a glimpse into the other’s point of view. 

As the voting narrows down to the finalists, you’ll be rooting for your favorites and perhaps examining your own preconceptions of what art is, what it does, and whom it’s meant for. 

“More Art Upstairs” is available on iTunes and Amazon.

Go to vimeo.com.

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