S.F. INDIE FEST 15—“THE REVISIONARIES,” “BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO,” & “GHOSTS WITH SH*T JOBS”
by Peter Wong, 2013-02-07
Scott Thurman’s Tribeca Film Festival award-winning documentary “The Revisionaries” turns a technical bureaucratic struggle into a real-life horror story. Young lives are at stake despite the lack of physical violence. The Texas State Board of Education regularly reviews the standards it uses for vetting public school textbooks for possible purchase. Whatever textbooks meet these standards will get bought, and the information contained within them will be taught to Texas’ public schoolchildren. Among the Texas State Board of Education members are Chairman Don Mc Elroy and Cynthia Dunbar. They’re leading a strong bloc of conservative members determined to enact standards aimed at discrediting the theory of evolution and promoting an ultra-conservative spin on American history. The film follows the public struggles between the conservative extremists and the liberal Texas Freedom Network to determine what the future of American education will look like.
The prior sentence is not an exaggeration. For publishers, Texas is one of the 800-pound gorillas in the textbook-buying marketplace. Failing to sell textbooks to the Texas market translates into a spectacular financial hit to the book’s publisher. Such a prospect is anathema to the bottom line of companies whose primary business is selling organized information. What happens to Texas’ textbook standards will strongly dictate what textbooks are available to state markets outside the Lone Star State’s borders.
Mc Elroy and Dunbar unfortunately have the political clout to mold Texas’ textbook standards into shapes acceptable to the state’s far-right factions. Chairman Mc Elroy is a Governor Rick Perry appointee, an unabashed Christian fundamentalist who serves as a sop to Perry’s Religious Right base. As a law professor from Jerry Falwell’s influential ultra-conservative Liberty University, Dunbar can apply her knowledge to expertly navigate procedural mires. Finally, the right-wing bloc holds a majority of Education Board seats.
“The Revisionaries” artfully avoids painting Mc Elroy and Dunbar as humorless fanatics out to promote extremist right-wing propaganda. Footage of Mc Elroy at his dentist day job shows a man who delivers affable homespun charm to his patients. Dunbar treats her Board of Education work as a public service which ultimately contributes to America’s greatness. Both subjects are upfront about their religious fundamentalism.
Yet McElroy’s and Dunbar’s claims that their challenging evolutionary theory promotes academic inquiry stand revealed as deceptive rationalization. A theory is the best possible current explanation of observed physical phenomena. Acceptance of a theory doesn’t mean treating it as utterly immutable, which is how Mc Elroy and Dunbar clearly treat the Bible’s words. It means always remaining open to the possibility of discovering a better and fuller scientific explanation. Doubt is an instrument for finding that possible better explanation. When Mc Elroy and Dunbar “doubt” evolutionary theory, the only better explanation they want unsuspecting students to consider is the one that amounts to “God Did It.”
That agenda becomes obvious in the social studies standards discussions. Dunbar’s attempt to insert the idea that the Founding Fathers were influenced by the teachings of religious reformer Martin Luther involves the type of stretching that would impress a taffy maker. Mc Elroy’s try at eliminating a reference to hip hop music seems rooted in the belief that not mentioning a phenomenon will make it disappear.
One may be tempted to mock the conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education. But “The Revisionaries” reminds the viewer that this unintentional buffoonery has unfortunate real-life consequences.
Music suggesting a spider delicately stepping on piano keys launches the viewer into the off-kilter world of Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio.” It’s a darkly funny and imaginative behind the curtain story of a British sound engineer who reluctantly works on a low-budget giallo. Seeing mundanely created sound effects will surprise viewers with the unearthly or horrifying images they evoke. One particular sequence will probably cause people to swear off watermelon. Ironically, the film’s resolution ultimately doesn’t rely on sound.
The low-budget dark comedy “Ghosts with Shit Jobs” reminds viewers that cinematic science fiction can be more than adventure stories set in the future.
By 2040, financial collapses (among other disasters) have turned the countries of North America and Western Europe into economic basket cases. To the Asian economic powerhouses, that situation makes those formerly powerful countries the hot marketplace for obtaining cheap labor. A Chinese documentary program, “Window on the World,” looks at the crappy jobs Toronto’s white people (the titular ghosts) do to barely make ends meet. Viewers are introduced to the people employed to perform such lousy jobs of the future as robot baby manufacturing and human spamming.
“Ghosts with Shit Jobs” cleverly descends from science fiction’s tradition of satirizing the consequences of present day trends. The faux documentary’s supposedly sympathetic portrait of industrious ghosts echoes similarly patronizing statements made in the present day by Westerners about Third World workers. More importantly, praising the so-called industriousness of these cheap laborers overlooks the fact that these workers’ implicitly low pay (e.g. a couple of liters of fresh water) makes working oneself to exhaustion or being engaged in a constant hustle the only barrier between survival and death.
Directors Jim Munroe, Chris McCawley, Jim Morrison, and Tate Young make their futuristic bad jobs frighteningly plausible by inventively twisting such present-day phenomena as life-threatening salvage and covert product placement. If people work these jobs, they don’t do so out of some moral shortcoming but because playing by the rules of the capitalist system means being economically trapped with no options for escape. Finding the escape hatch from this rigged system is the tricky part.
(“The Revisionaries” screens February 10, 2013 at 7:15 PM and February 12, 2013 at 7:15 PM. “Berberian Sound Studio” screens February 8, 2013 at 9:30 PM and February 13, 2013 at 7:15 PM. “Ghosts with Shit Jobs” screens February 15, 2013 at 7:15 PM and February 18, 2013 at 7:15 PM. All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street (near Valencia)). For advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com