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On Violence, in Chicago and in Afghanistan

The Interrupters
Cinema Guild

Hell and Back Again
Docurama Film

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow
Alive Mind Cinema

Steve James, writer-director of Hoop Dreams, and Alex Kotlowitz, recognized author on racial problems, have co-produced a documentary about race and violence called The Interrupters. It runs two hours and five minutes. James says that every viewer will have to decide for himself whether the film is too long. This, I’d say, will depend on whether the viewer insists on new information or whether he is impressed by the commitment of the people involved. For me, it was the latter that made the film hold.

The subject, ragingly familiar from documentaries on television and elsewhere, is the shooting of young black men, usually by other young blacks, in large American cities. A group called Violence Interrupters was formed a few years ago; wearing windbreakers thus inscribed, its members have been at work trying to still violence. But it continues.

In the course of this film we visit funeral parlors, prayer meetings, and stricken families held to face the situation. Through the seasons of a year in several neighborhoods of Chicago, we meet former convicts who are now enlisted in this new organization. We meet the lorn relatives of the murdered. We meet those tempted by facile sorts of revenge, all of them making us again clench our fists.

The facts are staggering. But what roils through us is that, though every word against violence in this film is true, the difficulty begins before a gun appears in a youngster’s life. It begins with the degree of hope in his life. James and Kotlowitz know this and a good deal more.

Their film, adequately made, is all the more impressive when we remember this social aspect: the Violence Interrupters are working in discouraging conditions but are committed nevertheless. Even when a sequence comes along that essentially we are familiar with, we can’t help being moved. It is still at least as urgent to deal with a specific case as to change the world.

IN 2009
Danfung Dennis, then a photographer with The New York Times, was embedded with a platoon of U.S. Marines and was dropped with them behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. Soon after they landed, the leader of the platoon was killed, and a man named Sergeant Nathan Harris took over. For various reasons the tour was extended to six months, during which Dennis and Harris became close friends. Then Harris was severely wounded in the hip.

During those six months, along with what he saw of combat, Dennis had been aware of his own shortcomings in the practice of still photography. He had been increasingly hampered, he felt, by shot after shot instead of flow. When his friend Harris was wounded and sent home, Dennis had a double idea: to accompany him and to make a film of the counterpoint between a wounded veteran’s life and the action that had put him there. The result is Hell and Back Again.

Dennis, aided by an acute editor, Fiona Otway, interweaves. One strand is combat in Afghanistan, along with some meetings with Afghan village leaders; the other is Harris’s revised life back in a North Carolina town. The combat is as horrific as ever, and the meetings between marines and Afghan villagers are frustrating. (All that the Afghans ask in return for cooperation is that the U.S. forces cease everything for which they have come. The helicopters frighten their kids.)

The other strand is Harris’s current life. He, a slender and amiable young man, is neither stoic nor histrionic. If, in his wheelchair, he meets someone in the street who asks what happened to him, he answers. Otherwise he is mum. He carries on his family life, with wife and children, as competently as he now can. He pays his scheduled visits to the pain management center, which are now as much a part of his changed life as getting his hair cut.

Otway, the editor, matches and contrasts between what is generally known and what we almost placidly take as given—the Afghan sequences and the injured soldier’s second life. The walker and the wheelchair are now integral in Harris’s existence. Pain is recurrent. And we are constantly reminded visually of how this new Harris came about.

Dennis’s film also reminds us of a truism. If you put a film camera amid ordinary folk, in relatively short order they absorb its presence, they ignore or forget it. We never see the Harris household being introduced to the camera or see the camera itself. We just see his difficult physical adjustments, his meals, him and his wife going to sleep. By now this acceptance and oblivion of the camera in a documentary is so common that even the experienced viewer hardly notes it.

About his camera, which he prepared specially, Dennis is ecstatic in his notes for the film. Little would be served here by repeating the way he prepared a particular kind of his camera for his work. The result is not markedly different from previous comparable films, but it is—especially in daylight scenes—somewhat more full-textured. Many cinematographers these days employ shadow for a sense of sculpture. Dennis, who also directed, is not much concerned with this effect.

Nowhere in his film is a lesson drawn, an editorial pronounced. The film merely says, “Here, just for one instance, is Sergeant Nathan Harris.”

THE WORK OF THE German artist Anselm Kiefer, insofar as I know it, has strong characteristics, two of which are its relationship to history and its use of materials other than paint—straw, brick, and so forth. In recent years Kiefer has found an extraordinary way of combining these two interests: by taking his historical concerns into the earth itself. The English documentary maker Sophie Fiennes has made a film about this project that leaves us full of agreements and considerations.

The film’s title is Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, which may seem a trifle over-biblical until we see the picture. In 1993 Kiefer acquired a large tract of land in southern France, moved there, and proceeded to build installations underground and on the surface. The underground work consists of a series of rooms, units, chambers, most of which suggest one historical resonance or another. But this is no educational exhibit; it is a series of thoughts and fantasies and memories by an artist.

One room contains earthen pillars that connote, almost slyly, Athenian statuary. One room contains inscriptions on the wall about women of the Revolution (Charlotte Corday and others). The floor of one room is covered with broken glass, probably to suggest waste and violence and shame. One vista—the only word for it-is of young birches, presumably to invoke Russia. Another room has little in it other than a rack on which dozens of toothbrushes hang; in another room is a rack of shirts; and with these rooms remembrance of concentration camps stings us. (Kiefer was born in 1945 and was a very visible figure in the post-Hitler German generation.)

Fiennes gives us plenty of Kiefer working with his staff, arranging, discarding, blowtorching their way along. The general tone seems casual, but Kiefer is firm about what he likes and dislikes. In one amusing sequence Kiefer and an assistant cover a frame with a large piece of canvas. When they finish and lift the frame, it obscures an old-time pretty landscape behind it.

Fiennes includes much of an interview that Kiefer held with a German journalist in which he talks about the origins of this place and his lifelong wrestling match with history, his attempts to understand and to hope. One of the seeds of his work is simple boredom, which he says can be creative. (Beckett would agree.) Posit that boredom is the acute awareness of both existence and the lack of a point for it, and we can see that boredom can impel the quest for some kind of point, or at least for solace.

It is not necessary to hail all Kiefer’s installations or to agree with all his sorties into history in order to be impressed by his vision and the size of his ambition. To close her film, Fiennes shows us the towers that Kiefer has erected on the surface, each of which is made of large boxes crazily stacked. The English critic Lisa Mullen says that Fiennes concludes her film “with a lingering shot of Kiefer’s strange, tottering towers framed against a yellow sky--a surrealist film set, waiting expectantly for the actors to walk into shot.” After visiting Kiefer’s mind and work, we can wish that Mullen’s imaginary film really existed. 

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 20, 2011, issue of the magazine.