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LAist at the Santa Barbara Film Festival

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Photo courtesy of Trinitas via Flickr

After enduring the brutal weather, constant partying, general sleeplessness and large, unruly crowds of Sundance, it was a welcome change of pace to head up the 101-N and attend the considerably more peaceful Santa Barbara Film Festival. Rather than having to wait out in the cold for a shuttle bus to take me from Main Street to the Eccles Theater, I could just park my car on lovely State Street and walk to the venues (all of which are only a few blocks from each other). Why by the time I arrived, even the rain had stopped.

My first stop was the Santa Barbara Hotel to pick up my Press Pass. Unlike Sundance which confines its press screenings to the Yarrow Hotel and Holiday Village Cinemas, Santa Barbara allows press to attend any screening as long as you sign up in advance. Such an arrangement makes scheduling one's day so much easier. I was in a mood to spend the day watching documentaries so I quickly found three that piqued my interest: Yes Madam, Sir; War Against the Weak; and Everest: A Climb for Peace.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Hastings via Flickr

Yes Madam, Sir tells the story of one Kiran Bedi, the first woman to join the Indian Police Service. That may sound like no great feat, but in the strictly regimented and patriarchal culture of the sub-continent (particulary in 1972 when she first joined), such a thing was considered scandalous. Naturally, Bedi encountered numerous obstacles as she came through the ranks, but her diamond-like intensity and drive propelled her to numerous promotions. Her single-handed dispersal of a thousand-strong armed mob would make her a national celebrity.

Of course, her notoriety worked as much against her as it did for her. Her senior officers despised her and her promotions were often, in fact, demotions intended to expose her as a fraud. To her great credit, though, Bedi handled each assignment with great aplomb and daring. When she was posted to the infamous Tihar Jails, she immediately (and counter-intuitively) set up reforms to allow inmates to report on the corrupt behavior of prison officials. She even introduced yoga and vipassana meditation to the prisoners to dampen their aggression.

Her unorthodox methods at Tihar led to radical, positive change at the prison and in 1994, she was honored with the Magsaysay Award (the Nobel of Asia). Needless to say, her superiors were unimpressed. They removed her from Tihar and over the ensuing decade she was given several assignments--again, none of them true promotions--where her brusque style created many new enemies and led to more unexpected successes. Bedi was eventually hired by the United Nations as a civilian police advisor before retiring in 2007.

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Megan Doneman, the director of Yes Madam, Sir, is clearly a fan of Bedi's and the film--while not necessarily hagiography--certainly accepts Bedi's version of events. Despite that lack of true objectivity--and mostly due to Bedi's infectious and persuasive personality--the film is constantly engaging and feels true. Her story is actually almost a perfect model of that classic Hollywood archetype: an underdog fights a seemingly invincible enemy (in this case, the male-dominated bureaucracy of India) and, against all odds, triumphs.

Like most people, I had a very general sense of the Eugenics movement that cycled through American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. War Against the Weak explores that time with an exacting eye and reveals a horrifying era in our country's history. The purpose of eugenics was nominally about improving the condition of humanity by filtering out those negative characteristics which occasionally crop up in some people. In reality, it was about sterilizing citizens that were considered unfit to bear children.

That sounds like a preposterous statement, but the film meticulously details evidence from the public record that demonstrates how this is exactly what happened. Men like Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin accepted the Mendelian view that inherited characteristics pass directly from parents to child (we now obviously see human development in a far more expansive light). By accepting that view, though, eugenicists believed that the optimal method to elevate humanity was to prevent certain characteristics from propagating.

Perhaps the signature case of all this insanity is that of Carrie Buck, a young woman who was considered to be, in the parlance of the times, a "feeble-minded moron." Once she was raped and impregnated in 1924, it was decided by her doctor that she should be sterilized, something which the laws of Virginia allowed. Fortunately, Carrie had her defenders and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court of the United States. However, in 1927, by an 8-1 majority, it was decided that the state of Virginia could proceed.

Two things are truly amazing about this case. First, in authoring the majority opinion the venerated Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes would write: "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind...three generations of imbeciles are enough." Second, historians now believe that Carrie Buck had no mental deficiency at all. She and her infant daughter were both sterilized.

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As if its dissection of American Eugenics wasn't awful enough, War Against the Weak closes with a truly unsettling chapter. The eugenics institutes in America were almost entirely funded by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Trusts. Those trusts would also ultimately fund similar, more robust institutes in Germany. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was close communication between the American and German doctors, and great enthusiasm was shown by the Americans as the Germans began to implement mass sterilization programs.

Amazingly, an imprisoned Adolf Hitler himself would refer to the American book and eugenics classic , The Passing of the Great Race as "his bible." Once he seized control of Germany, the sterilization programs would transmogrify into actual elimination programs, first of the handicapped and "feeble-minded", ultimately of the Jews. Many of the German eugenecists would even join the Nazi party. War Against the Weak, based on the best-seller by Edwin Black, is an extraordinary documentary that everyone should make the effort to see.

Any film would seem a bit small after War Against the Weak. My last documentary of the day, Everest: A Climb for Peace, would seem small under any circumstances. Its premise is mildly intriguing: a group of climbers from different faiths are brought together to climb Everest as a team. Presumably, if a multi-cultural group can conquer Everest, surely they can conquer the divides that separate their respective cultures. While several climbers are part of the team, the film is really (obviously) about the Palestinian and Israeli climbers.

Unfortunately, Everest: A Climb for Peace succeeds neither as a climbing film nor as a work of social commentary. This can partially be attributed to its relatively short length. At only 60+ minutes, it's difficult to spend enough time with the climbers to know them well enough so that you're actually invested in their lives. Also, the climbing footage is lackluster. Shooting at severe altitudes is an unforgiving task and given the film's miniscule budget, it was probably impossible to render the Everest climb in its full glory.

A sudden near-tragedy on the mountain gives the film a brief burst of life at its conclusion, but it's resolved so quickly that the tension really never gets ratcheted too tightly. Steven Soderbergh once commented that the danger in making a personal film is that it can all too easily become a private film that will lose an audience. I think that's what happened in the case of this documentary. Clearly, the participants in the climb had a life-changing experience, but the power of that climb is never communicated to the audience. Pass.

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The Santa Barbara International Film Festival runs until February 1st. Do yourself a favor and head up there for a long day of interesting films and panels.