S.F. DOCFEST—“HERMAN’S HOUSE,” “ANN RICHARDS’ TEXAS,” “BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*,” “THE HUMAN FACTOR”

by Peter Wong, 2012-11-08

What sort of house would a man stuck in solitary confinement for over thirty years dream of? That intriguing question forms the kernel of Angad Bhalla’s touching documentary “Herman’s House.”

Jackie is a rebellious political artist from Long Island. Herman has lived over three decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison. The artist decides to help the prisoner mentally liberate himself from his confinement by asking him to describe his dream house. Herman’s answer sparks an unusual friendship between these two people from disparate backgrounds.


“Herman’s House” offers more than yet another refrain about the emotionally liberating power of art. It asks how one’s human dignity survives an environment or a life seemingly designed to break one’s spirit.

Key to this film is the relationship between subject and artist. Herman understands Jackie’s someone who sees him as more than an accused murderer. Jackie in turn relies on Herman’s equanimity to inspire her completion of the project despite the passage of years and the threat of bankruptcy.

“Herman’s House” takes the typical cinematic treatment of “spiritual uplift” beyond personal strength of character into a political realm. Herman manages to avoid being brutalized by the combination of Angola’s punitive inertia and the long decades isolated from much human contact. He never recants his affiliation for the Panthers and in fact includes the Panther symbol in his dream house.

The dream house Herman builds in his mind unconsciously shows the scars of his long segregation from humanity. Yet Jackie’s encouragement of Herman’s capacity for dreaming ultimately gives him a freedom that Angola’s system can’t curtail.

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Despite some impressive interviewees, Keith Patterson and Jack Lofton’s biographical documentary “Ann Richards’ Texas” only partially succeeds in paying tribute to late Texas ex-governor Ann Richards’ life and legacy.

The film works best when it offers half-forgotten political anecdotes. The link between Richards and the day of President Kennedy’s assassination will startle viewers. But that’s topped by the implicit realization of Kennedy’s presidential-sized cojones in visiting a state that was openly hostile towards his administration. Also jaw-dropping will be the film’s look at a gubernatorial campaign marked by one candidate sitting on a stack of coffins and another candidate skydiving with chickens.

Patterson and Lofton present an admittedly amazing group of interviewees. Ex-president Bill Clinton and Richards’ daughter Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards certainly bring the star power. But only singer Dolly Parton, who also contributes the delightful theme “In The Meantime,” makes Richards come alive as a person.

What ultimately dooms “Ann Richards’ Texas”’ to entertaining hagiography is its unwillingness to offer a more critical analysis of Richards’ political legacy. It’s nice to claim Richards would have been a presidential contender if she hadn’t lost her re-election bid to George W. Bush. But the film hints at but never discusses how lack of Democratic Party support or Richards’ own political mistakes may have doomed her political fortunes. Patterson and Lofton also shortchange Richards’ tenure as governor by using Bush’s reversals of Richards’ reforms to hand-wave away any real discussion of the late ex-governor’s lost accomplishments.

Quips such as “A woman’s place is in the dome” do a far better job of evoking Richards’ legacy than what Patterson and Lofton’s film attempts.

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Anybody who feels helpless in the face of multinational oppression needs to catch Fredrik Gertten’s must-see documentary “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*”

Swedish filmmaker Gertten’s documentary “Bananas!” reported on a dozen Nicaraguan banana workers who sued Dole Foods. The company had allegedly exposed the workers to a pesticide which permanently sterilized them. When “Bananas!” got selected for the Los Angeles Film Festival, Dole launched a campaign to publicly discredit the film. “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” is the chronicle of Gertten’s struggle to fight Dole’s disinformation campaign and get his film screened.

This film deals with a far larger struggle than getting a controversial film seen. If globalization has engorged multinationals’ economic power, then the ability to freely speak truth about multinationals’ transgressions becomes even more crucial to prevent that power from becoming unaccountably absolute. But as a chilling “facts of life” interview with a public relations specialist makes clear, Dole considers journalistic muckraking an attack on its brand name.

The counterattack Dole mounts against Gertten proves particularly frightening. Noted First Amendment law firm Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher represents Dole. The company’s massaging of American media results in Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, among others, parroting Dole’s claims without investigation. In the face of this assault, it’s particularly humbling that Sweden demonstrates it’s a better guardian of free speech than the United States.

Watch Gertten’s film and be inspired.

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Further rabble-rousing will be sparked by the images and ideas of Thibault Le Texler’s stunning short film “The Human Factor.”

An efficiency expert and a housewife embrace real-life implementation of Frederick Taylor’s social efficiency theories. Yet the couple’s zeal to modernize others’ lives blinds them to the harmful consequences of Taylor’s ideas.

Le Texler’s found footage piece is the most antiseptic horror story one will see this year. Beneath its shiny surfaces, it accurately portrays Taylorism as fetishizing the machine-like operation of social institutions at the expense of squashing the imperfection known as human individuality. While Le Texler suggests rebellious awareness can resist Taylorism, one hopes this battle cry hasn’t come too late.

(“Herman’s House” screens at 7:15 PM on November 10, 2012 and at 12:30 PM on November 11, 2012. “Ann Richards’ Texas” screens at 5:00 PM on November 18, 2012 and 9:30 PM on November 21, 2012. “Big Boys Gone Bananas” screens at 9:30 PM on November 17, 2012 and 9:30 PM on November 20, 2012. “The Human Factor” screens as part of the “Modern Times” shorts program at 2:45 PM on November 11, 2012 and 7:15 PM on November 13, 2012. All screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street nr. Valencia, SF). For advance tickets and further information about the films, go to www.sfindie.com )