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doc talk | peter keough

Doc Talk: The Warsaw Ghetto, World War I, Native American rock stars, coal’s hidden cost

Andrew Bering in “Who Will Write Our History.”Anna Wloch

When all other options are denied, bearing witness to evil can be the last recourse of resistance. Director Roberta Grossman’s documentary “Who Will Write Our History” dramatically tells the story of an underground group of Jewish journalists, scholars, and community leaders trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation who resolved to record everything that happened there. Even if they should perish, they hoped the truth might survive so that their tragedy would be remembered and those responsible identified.  

In addition to chilling and heart-wrenching archival footage, the film features interviews with historians, vivid reenactments of events, and participants’ accounts read by the actors Adrian Brody and Joan Allen. As anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia spread and contempt for the truth becomes a political strategy, this film could not be timelier.

“Who Will Write Our History” screens on Jan. 27 (coinciding with International Holocaust Remembrance Day) at the Regent Theatre, Arlington, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; at Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, at 1 p.m.; at Northeastern University’s Jewish Studies Program, at 5:30 p.m.; at the Natick Center for the Arts, at 12:30 p.m.; at the Fine Arts Theatre, Maynard, at 3 p.m.; at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, at 4:45 p.m.; and at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, at 2 p.m.


Over the top

Even without colorization and 3-D, Peter Jackson’s documentary about World War I, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” powerfully recalls the catastrophe that ended a century ago and which irrevocably shaped the course of history to the present day. A distillation of hundreds of hours of meticulously restored film from the archives of the Imperial War Museum and with voice-over commentary taken from interviews with veterans, it honors the sacrifice of those who served while immersing the viewer in the miseries they endured.

There are no maps, dates, names of battles, or commentary on the criminal incompetence of leaders — this film does not offer much insight into the causes, course, or consequences of the war. Instead, it unfolds from the point of view of the millions who fought as their experiences and voices are merged into that of the universal soldier.

Beginning with black and white, scratchy ancient footage of eager, innocent recruits looking forward to a brief adventure, it switches to color to depict the realities of trench life, its tedium, squalor, and sudden death. Images of carnage, destruction, and the rotting aftermath of battle are rendered more vivid by a soundtrack uncannily recreating the sounds of combat. Adding pathos and irony are the resigned, matter-of-fact, sardonically comic recollections of those who survived. Nor were these veterans always rewarded for their sacrifice — returning home, many shattered physically and mentally, they were often met with indifference or disdain.

In his acclaimed, epic adaptation of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy Jackson transforms the fantasy clashes of CGI armies into stunning spectacles. Here he brings warfare down to earth — or more precisely, into the mud, seas of which covered the battlefields and flooded the trenches, burying the living and the dead.


“They Shall Not Grow Old” can be seen at several screenings on Jan. 21 at the Regal Fenway Stadium, AMC Boston Common, and Showcase SuperLux in Chestnut Hill. The film will also have a limited theatrical run starting Feb. 1.

Rock roots

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994) in which John Travolta and Uma Thurman share a milkshake while a jukebox plays a classic guitar riff that is the epitome of all that’s hip, sassy, and sexy. It’s the 1958 single “Rumble,” by rocker Link Wray and has the added distinction of being the only instrumental banned from radio.

Wray is one of the many musicians of Native American descent featured in Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana’s documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.” They make up a secret history not just of rock, but also of jazz and folk music, and include such greats as bluesman Charley Patton, guitar genius Jimi Hendrix, protest icon Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the leader of the Band, Robbie Robertson. 

In tracing this lineage the film features rare archival performances (a nostalgic highlight is Pat Vegas, of Redbone fame, performing on the hoary ’60s TV show “Shindig!”) and interviews with Iggy Pop, Slash from Guns N’ Roses, Steven Van Zandt from the E Street Band, and many others who acknowledge their debt to these unsung musical giants. Not just a primer in pop music history, “Rumble” also provides further proof of the multicultural roots of American culture.

“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” can be seen on Jan. 21  on PBS Independent Lens at 10 p.m. and will be available simultaneously for online streaming at pbs.org.

Respiratory failure

Whether or not the coal industry is coming back, the deadly consequences of working in the mines certainly are. Thousands of Appalachian miners suffer from progressive massive fibrosis, commonly known as black lung disease. It is incurable and terminal and, as seen in Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” it is afflicting victims more quickly and at a younger age than ever before. The physical culprit is not coal dust but silica dust, which is 20 times more lethal. But the social culprit is deregulation, causing a laxness of the sort of oversight that could prevent this avoidable tragedy. 

“Coal’s Deadly Dust” can be seen on Jan. 22 at 10 p.m. on PBS’s “Frontline.”

Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/coals-deadly-dust.

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