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Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Doc Talk: Behind bars, out of the past, in the wrong, a fad from China

While HBO was producing its drama “O.G.” at Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana, Madeleine Sackler was shooting her documentary “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It” with 13 inmates of the facility, some of whom appear as first-time actors in the fictional program and all of whom are serving long sentences for grave felonies, including murder.

In her film, Sackler conducts a class, teaching inmates how to make a documentary of their own lives, illustrating her lessons with clips from “Murderball” (2005) and “Grizzly Man” (2005). They apply these insights to their own film, which includes these scenes of them planning and shooting it. As they discuss approaches to telling their stories, including the use of subtly effective animation, the inmates become co-directors as well as subjects of the documentary we are watching.

The artistic detachment they gain as filmmakers allows them to confront traumatic childhood memories, struggles with addiction, criminality, and, ultimately, the crimes for which they are incarcerated. They can see how their lives unfolded and the points where they could have chosen differently and avoided their fate — and spared those whose lives were ruined because of their actions. The title of the film comes from a comment made as one of them reaches a moment of such realization.

But the reflexive film-within-a-film structure doesn’t distance the viewer from its subjects’ disturbing stories; rather, it intensifies their power. As such the resulting documentary combines the raw impact of Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary’s intense immersion in a Folsom Prison group therapy session in “The Work” (2017) with the formal ingenuity of Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” (2018).


“It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It” is now streaming on HBO GO and HBO NOW and will debut on HBO on Feb. 25 at 10 p.m.

Bearing witness

In the 1990s the town of Brookline recorded 80 hours of video testimony from residents who had survived the Holocaust. The footage lay in storage until R. Harvey Bravman recovered it and edited it down into his quietly devastating oral history, “Soul Witness, the Brookline Holocaust Witness Project.”

In it survivors relate the horrors they experienced under Nazi tyranny — the slow encroachment on their rights, dignity, and freedom leading to an unimaginable genocide. They relate the loss of entire families, the random quirks of fate that spared them, the living hell of the camps, the constant terror of eluding capture, and rare instances of compassion. The details of the stories will haunt you, such as one survivor’s recollection of how the ground covering a mass grave of Jews buried alive surged up and down for a long time until it was still.


The film is a tribute to their courage, resilience, and suffering and an all-too-timely reminder that it can always happen again. As one survivor says, “These were not monsters from outer space. Ordinary people were the perpetrators. Ordinary people were the victims and the bystanders. Everybody had a choice except the victims.”

“Soul Witness, the Brookline Holocaust Witness Project” screens on Feb. 28 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre at 7 p.m. The director will take part in a post-screening Q&A.

Fail unsafe

In theory it seems a good idea: Take mental patients out of the warehouse-like adult homes where they suffer neglect and mistreatment and place them in apartments where they can learn to be independent. But due to incompetence, indifference, and bureaucratic intransigence, many of these patients seeking a new life find themselves in far worse circumstances.

Thomas Jennings’s “Right to Fail” looks into the status of some of the 764 patients in this kind of program in New York City and finds that 32 have died and 39 have returned to the facilities they were taken from. Others have seemingly disappeared and those in charge of the patients give the film’s investigators the runaround while trying to locate them. The filmmakers interview neighbors and social workers and search through reams of paperwork — in one instance rescued from a dumpster — to track down the patients. After much detective work, they learn the whereabouts of a 69-year-old schizophrenic lost in the system. He is living in a Brooklyn apartment infested with vermin and littered with rotting food and feces. EMTs take him to a hospital for emergency treatment. 

Another patient, a middle-aged man suffering from delusions and hallucinations, no longer lives at the apartment where he is registered. Nor can the filmmakers find the schizophrenic’s roommate, who was considered competent enough to care for him. It is later discovered that he had been found naked and frozen to death in the hallway; and when that patient’s brother, a former policeman, demands access to the report on his case, officials refuse, claiming they don’t want to violate the dead man’s privacy.


The film does not offer solutions, but it does call for accountability. Worse than the poorly thought-out program itself is the failure to fulfill its responsibilities to some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

“Right to Fail” can be seen on PBS’s “Frontline” on Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. and Feb. 27 at 1 a.m. It is also available on DVD for $24.99 at

Sic transit gloria

Communist ideology has taken some odd capitalist turns in China but none weirder than the online phenomenon of live-streaming “showrooms,” the subject of Hao Wu’s archly titled “People’s Republic of Desire.” A combination of “America’s Got Talent,” “Shark Tank,” and an Atari video game, this hugely popular fad (over 400 million people tune in regularly) involves minimally talented singers and personalities who compete for followers and backing by investors.

Most of these online stars come from the working class, and the audience is predominantly the younger generation of socially marginalized “Diaosi” (Chinese for “losers”). In a sense the showrooms allow some have-nots an opportunity to achieve fortune and fame (often short-lived) and presents other lumpen-proles with celebrities they can relate to and aspire to become. But as the film makes clear, the real winners are the moneyed classes who profit on the illusory dreams and social isolation of the masses.

“People’s Republic of Desire” can be seen on PBS’s “Independent Lens  on Feb. 25 at 10 p.m.

Peter Keough can be reached at