Doc Talk: Two New Documentaries about Political Terror Hit Close to Home
By Peter Keough
Two powerful films about fending off violent threats, xenophobic and fascist.
Bad Axe – Directed by David Siev. Available for streaming on demand.
The Territory – Directed by Alex Pritz. Available for streaming on Disney+.
Sometimes that horror movie cliché of the phone call coming from inside the house, or some variation thereof, happens for real. It represents the ultimate invasion of one’s privacy and violation of one’s sense of security.
Take the family in the title Michigan town of David Siev’s intimate, seemingly inchoate but subtly structured Bad Axe. At first glance the Sievs would seem to embody an exemplary American success story, a triumph of diversity in a backwater of ignorance, prejudice, and closed minds. The patriarch, Chun, fled to the US with his mother and siblings to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia in 1979. He settled in Michigan where he met and married Rachel, a Mexican American waitress. They started a family, opened a taekwondo school and a donut shop, and expanded the latter into a restaurant offering an eclectic home cooked menu ranging from designer sushi to tacos.
They raised their kids right and sent them to college, and despite racism and hard times persevered to become respected members of the community. Still suffering PTSD from his experience surviving the killing fields, Chun has chosen to keep a low profile even when provoked when it comes to political matters. But he’s no pushover – he’s a martial arts expert and like most residents in the area owns guns and knows how to use them.
But then came Trump, a pandemic, and worse. Siev opens his small town epic in medias res as his family is reeling from the COVID-19 restrictions and an anti-Asian backlash fomented by the administration and the right wing media. Outraged by the murder of George Floyd, Siev’s sister Jaclyn and other family members decide to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest. This despite Chun’s misgivings – he knows how genocides start, but he doesn’t know how to stop them. Emboldened at the demonstration, Jaclyn gets into an angry confrontation with a masked counter demonstrator wielding an assault rifle who responds to her taunts with a “Sieg heil!” and muttered expletives.
Siev films the incident and when they put the footage online in an attempt to identify the masked gunman they receive a phone call that underscores the fragility of their security and the ever-looming potential of violence. The gunman Jaclyn had accosted has tracked her down to the restaurant and is now threatening them. As Chun had warned her and other family members, we might not know who they are but they know who we are. Later, on the news, they learn that the man was arrested with other white supremacists for planning to attack another BLM supporting family.
They are relieved, but their peace of mind has been breached in other ways. Chun has been criticizing Jaclyn, seeing her as an instigator bringing them unneeded attention and strife with the community. His antipathy may be rooted in resentment about her taking a bigger part in running the restaurant. She had taken leave from a successful job to help the restaurant financially. Because of her management skills Chun may feel that she is usurping his patriarchal authority. But when the family is threatened in an emergency, he is there. In one of the film’s many suspenseful moments, youths in a Trump-bannered pick-up truck begin to follow a younger daughter coming home after the restaurant closes. Chun arms himself and, in Liam Neeson mode, stalks the stalkers.
The real lightning rod of controversy, though, as the family gradually realizes, is the camera and the filmmaker. A party of troublemakers enters the restaurant refusing to abide by its masking policy. Siev films it, and the anti-maskers play to the camera until the police arrive and escort them away. “David,” says Jaclyn, “you fucking idiot.” And, after Siev posts a trailer for his work in progress on GoFundMe, many of their neighbors are not happy with how they are depicted. They state their opinions on social media and the restaurant is boycotted. As various family members remind him, David, whose home base is in New York, doesn’t have to face the full consequences of the film he is making.
Bad Axe brings back, with the intensity of a bad dream, memories of the annus horribilis of 2020, from the COVID-19 outbreak, to the BLM demonstrations, to MAGA at its worst. But it ends on a high note – the November election. But it also ends before that ultimate House invasion – the storming of the Capitol by insurrectionists on January 6.
In Alex Pritz’s rousing and infuriating The Territory the “invaders” (as the subjects of the film refer to them) come wielding chainsaws and setting fires. The title refers to the portion of the Amazon rain forest set aside by Brazilian law for the indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people. Instigated by wealthy landowners and right wing politicians, poor farmers and others have been illegally trespassing on the land, setting up camps, felling trees, and torching acres of the lush, unspoiled habitat (the landscape is highlighted by the stunning cinematography). An organization has been established doling out parcels of the Territory to would-be settlers in an attempt to (somewhat) legitimize the thievery. A credit to the film’s even-handedness, Pritz does not demonize these people but presents them as mostly hardworking poor people manipulated into a sense of self-righteous grievance and phony entitlement.
Environmental and human rights activist Neidinha Bandeira, who has been working on behalf of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people for four decades, finds this new threat particularly challenging. The country has swung rightward and the Trump-like, newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro has noisily called for the exploitation and despoliation of the Amazon and the reclamation of land reserved for indigenous people.
Bandeira had always been getting death threats, but they have become more insidious. Her own version of the horror movie call-coming-from-inside occurs when someone rings her up claiming to be her daughter and tells her that she has been kidnapped. Bandeira rushes home to find that the call was a hoax and her daughter is safe. But the danger is real, as is proven later when a popular Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau leader, one of Bandeira’s friends and collaborators, is found murdered.
Fortunately, though, a new tribal leader has stepped up and motivated the resistance. Only 18 in 2018 when Pritz began shooting the film, Bitaté was elected president of Jupaú Association, the leadership body that engages with the government and other outside organizations. To counter the land-poaching, which the authorities have denied, he has organized patrols armed not just with bows and arrows but drones and cameras. They arrest trespassers and film their encroachment and destruction of property, footage they provide to the media.
Thus, as in Bad Axe, the camera, or cameras, play a key role in the film. In this case the impact is not as ambivalent – caught on film, the land grabbers lose their credibility, politicians distance themselves from the movement, and the association trying to legitimize the theft is dissolved. But the real victory happened after the events of the film. Bolsonaro, like Trump, was defeated for re-election. Like Trump he claimed the voting was rigged. He took his claim to the Supreme Electoral Court, which found his claim spurious. They fined him 22 million reais ($4.1 million) for “bad faith litigation.”
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).