What You Missed At The Chagrin Documentary Film Fest 2016
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What You Missed At The Chagrin Documentary Film Fest 2016

A pair of excellent films with similar themes but wildly different tones, two of many screened this year in Chagrin Falls.

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What You Missed At The Chagrin Documentary Film Fest 2016
PRWeb.com

The 7th annual Chagrin Documentary Film Fest 2016 took place this year from Oct. 5-9. For anyone unable to attend this year or unfamiliar with the event, for five days the works of documentary filmmakers from the United States and abroad are screened in a variety of venues in and around Chagrin Falls, Ohio. This year, 76 films were screened for the more than 10,000 people in attendance.

After screenings, it's not uncommon for the filmmakers in attendance to take questions from the audience. I saw two films on the very first day of this year’s festival alone which share an interesting thematic connection, but approach their subject matter from almost entirely opposite directions. Each is concerned with how human beings address tragedy and hardship: "Kandahar Journals" is an unflinching look at the psychological toll inflicted on soldiers fighting a protracted war against an enemy insurgency utilizing guerrilla tactics, while "A Good Ship and Crew Well Seasoned: The Edmund Fitzgerald" is a somber, but uplifting, eulogy for the 29 men who lost their lives aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald when she sank on Lake Superior in 1975.

The first thing I feel obliged to say about "Kandahar Journals" is that it is not an easy film to watch. War is never pretty, as anyone who has seen pictures from Auschwitz or footage from Vietnam can tell you. Louie Palu, the photojournalist working in Afghanistan who narrates as well as directed the film photographed the aftermath of a suicide bombing during his very first stint in the region, and elsewhere in the film is footage of a Canadian army field hospital treating the victims of another bombing. Although I am going to recommend you seek out the film, doing so on an empty stomach is inadvisable, as the reality of what he photographed can be grisly.

"Kandahar Journals" presents the audience with a cross-section of time Louie Palu spent in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2010, alternately following Afghani, American and Canadian troops. They were tasked with rooting Taliban insurgents out of the many small villages west of Kandahar City, the largest and most strategically significant settlement in the region of the same name. Hemmed in by desert to the south and an expansive mountain range to the north, the region is a bottleneck through which any army must pass in order to move through the country. The only highway to the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, runs through Kandahar City; an Afghan proverb intones that to hold Kandahar is to hold all of Afghanistan. At the time of the film the region was rife with Taliban activity; the terror attacks of 9/11 were planned only a few miles outside the city. Palu narrates excerpts from a journal he kept at the time, from which the film takes its name, over his photographs and footage.

The soldiers Palu accompanied were tasked with disrupting the Taliban in this key region, a mandate including but not limited rooting out weapons caches, arresting sympathizers who aided and abetted enemy insurgents, and interviewing the residents of each village to gauge the level of Taliban activity nearby. The vast majority of patrols might pass without incident, but these men and women were forced to keep themselves in a state of constant readiness, anticipating an attack at all times no matter how unlikely that eventually is. Unfortunately Taliban membership was so common in the region at the time that, if the squad talks to a few dozen people in one day, it’s practically a guarantee they spoke unknowingly to an insurgent, or to the relative of someone who is They were reticent to speak honestly, if at all, and there was no easy way to tell who was being honest, and who was not. The film makes clear the enormous stress the soldiers feel as each day they must prepare for the worst eventuality, even if exchanging gunfire with Taliban fighters is a rare occurrence, the exception rather than the rule. The roads trafficked by friendly forces had to be swept constantly for improvised explosive devices and mines. Allowing the tedium to lower your guard could have deadly consequences, but as the days and weeks pass largely without incident it’s obvious to the audience that being forced to remain perpetually on edge takes an enormous toll on the psyche of these men and women. One soldier had been deployed for months and never seen a single enemy, but each day he still had to prepare himself, physically and internally, as if that day would be the day he would. When Palu finally leaves the country in October of 2010 his relief is made explicitly clear to the audience by an excerpt from the titular journal, narrated to us over footage of a helicopter’s shadow flitting over the desolate, war-torn countryside.

"Journals" is an enormously tense film considering how little “happens” by the standard conventions of war films, but that’s an intrinsic part of Palu’s thesis about the cost of fighting a war on a soldier, even when the actual fighting happens sporadically. We’ve all used the idiom “bored to death,” but only in "Kandahar Journals" does it become clear how literal the phrase can be in a war zone where violence erupts with frustrating irregularly. The film was released in 2015 and has been broadcast once on the Canadian Broadcasting Channel; if you wish to seek it out I recommend it to anyone with an interest in psychology or the recent conflicts in the Middle East.

It may sound strange, but of the two documentary films I watched on the first day of the festival, a film memorializing the 29 men lost aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald was the more uplifting. I should repeat that this is not meant as a criticism of "Kandahar Journals," merely that each film approaches the chronicling and analysis of a tragedy very differently. While "Journals" was focused on the deleterious effect fighting a protracted guerrilla campaign with no clear end goal can have on the moral of a soldier or an army, "A Good Ship and Crew Well Seasoned" is more concerned with keeping the memory of the Edmund Fitzgerald alive.

For the unfamiliar, the Edmund Fitzgerald was an ore freighter of immense size which plied the waters of the Great Lakes from the late fifties to mid-seventies, moving primarily iron ore and taconite between Minnesota and ports along the southern coasts of the Great Lakes. When she was launched in the summer of 1958, she was the largest ship on the Great Lakes, and in nineteen years of operation the distance she traveled was equivalent to circling the globe forty-four times. Tragically, during a harsh November storm in 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, for reasons which are still debated today; none of the 29 souls on board survived. The wreck was immortalized by musician Gordon Lightfoot, who penned the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” the following year. The song was a tremendous hit, reaching as high as number two on charts in the United States, and number one in Australia.

Other documentary films and television series have gone into enormous detail outlining the myriad theories as to why “the Fitz” sank that night, but "A Good Ship" addresses the actual incident with barely two lines of voice over, and isn’t concerned at all with the “why” of the tragedy. Instead, the filmmakers chose to focus squarely on the “survivors” of the Fitz, crewmen who served aboard her at other times during her service who weren’t on board on the tenth of November, as well as a handful of passengers who recall voyages across the Great Lakes with universal fondness. Morale on the ship was always high; the company which owned the Edmund Fitzgerald recognized the necessity of keeping men expected to work nine to ten month seasons with little time ashore happy. The entire film is strung together with personal anecdotes about how the crew interacted with each other as well as any passengers, usually the family of a crew member or a company executive. Each man interviewed had a friend or family member aboard the Fitzgerald who lost their life when she sank, though rather than dwell on their deaths the filmmakers choose to revel in the lives they led. This means that the tone of the film is markedly less morose than "Kandahar Journals," not that either film is more “right” about how to represent a tragedy. Anyone with even a passing interest of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s story should check out this film, but you’ll have to look up the song yourself afterward, since the filmmakers were unable to include it. Fair warning: it will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

I do encourage anyone who has yet to do so, attend the Chagrin Documentary Film Fest next year at this time. If this had been my first time attending the Documentary film fest, these two films alone would have been reason enough to plan a repeat visit. These are only two of the myriad films on offer this year alone, and the festival only grows in size and prestige with each subsequent year. As someone who lives here and loves film, that's definitely a reason to applaud.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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