Celluloid for Thought

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Eamonn Kelly looks at some of the radical documentaries touring Britain.

The last few years have seen a rise in the popularity of the political documentary film. An impressive selection go on tour this month as part of the showcase from last year's Sheffield International Documentary Festival. Different selections will be playing at a variety of venues around the country. Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi's Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes gets a wide airing. Mograbi shows Jewish schoolchildren learning the tales of Samson, and the moral that death is preferable to surrender. Tour guides at Masada, the site of King Herod's citadel, relate the story of the Jewish zealots, cut off and besieged by Romans, committing suicide rather than submitting. Meanwhile he counterposes the daily humiliation of Palestinians, fenced in behind wire and walls, bullied and forced to wait for hours at checkpoints, and details their growing despair and rage.

In a jaw-dropping scene, he includes a music gig organised by the racist anti-Arab Kach party, which has to be seen to be believed.

A second film, Trelew, is set in the town of the same name, 1,000 miles from the capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires. The Argentinian dictator General Lanusse imprisoned the dissidents who challenged his rule in this small, remote town. On 15 August 1972 over 100 political prisoners staged a daring escape from its high security prison. Marianne Arruti's film is a detailed and moving account of that event. Relying on the testimony of surviving inmates, prison staff and local people, she tells the story of those involved in the breakout and the deadly repercussions that were to follow.

Of those who succeeded in escaping the prison, six managed to successfully hijack a local commercial airliner and flew to Chile, where they gained asylum from socialist president Salvador Allende. Another 19 were delayed en route and, having missed the flight, occupied the airport. Receiving guarantees of safety they eventually returned to the prison. One week later they were machine-gunned to death in their cells. Arruti pays tribute to the bravery of those involved, and singles out the local townspeople who formed committees, 'solidarity commissions', to support the prisoners and their families.

From Nicaragua comes Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez's The Immortal. This is a study of two brothers, one of whom was press-ganged by the right wing Contra death squads, the other who fought for the left wing Sandinistas, in the US-sponsored civil war in the 1980s.

Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room is a sharp and entertaining retelling of the collapse of the Enron corporation. Gibney shows that it was not just their Republican friends in the White House who supported Enron by granting them deregulated markets in the power supply industry. The major banks and accountants talked up the company's share value. One analyst who questioned the figures was swiftly sacked, and his employer awarded a deal worth millions of dollars. The Enron secret was a simple smoke and mirrors accounting trick: 'Let's pretend we are making super-profits.' Whistleblowers, audiotapes and company videos are exceptionally revealing of the ethos at work in the company. Boss Jeff Skilling, whose favourite book is Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, introduced a novel human resources policy - staff voted annually to sack 15 percent of their 'underperforming' colleagues. Chief executive officers are shown cashing in their millions of dollars of shares ahead of the collapse, while electricity engineers working for Enron subsidiaries lost all of their pensions in the crash.

Finally, another film which reveals the collision of spin and reality is Oona And Me. Demanding buckets of popcorn and audience participation, this one follows former Tower Hamlets MP Oona King as she struggles to keep her seat in the face of Respect's challenger, George Galloway. Filmed during the 'battle of Bethnal Green', King's childhood friend director Nora Meyer charts how it all went so terribly right. It also includes King offering one of the most stupid justifications for the Iraq invasion that you are ever likely to hear: 'Now Bush owes Blair a favour, and will have to support the Palestinians.' A well made and extremely perceptive film, this is not to be missed.


For details of the dates and venues go to www.sidf.co.uk