Heroics just work better in fiction films. From John Wayne to Superman, we seem to prefer our gun-toting champions and caped crusaders shot from the most flattering angle, with the power of an entire orchestra at their backs. Even the flaws and weaknesses of our fictional heroes often become little more than cosmetic dents in the armor, character development that keeps our interest until the final victory over outlaws and super villains. Documentaries, on the other hand, give us something else entirely. As it turns out, heroism is a lot more compelling when we see the failures, the unflattering details and the real-life adversities that make Lex Luthor look like a downright novice opponent.
Our first stop is Detroit, a city with a bit of a fire problem. Filmmakers Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez took to the Motor City to spend a year with Engine Company No. 50, on the East side of the city. The result is BURN¸ a documentary that minces no wording in presenting the full dimensions of the city’s infrastructure disaster. Detroit’s population has shrunk from 1,800,000 in 1950 to just over 700,000, leaving 80,000 empty or abandoned structures. They are all fire hazards. Meanwhile, the city’s financial crisis (with 39% unemployment and 33% poverty to boot) means huge cutbacks in public spending and no new money to fix fire engines and buy equipment. Firefighters in general are heroes. Firefighters in Detroit need to be superheroes.
Putnam and Sanchez take to the challenge with a combination of candor and quiet compassion. Dave Parnell is on the verge of retirement after over 30 years of service, a man whose words of wisdom are lovingly repeated by his comrades. “I wish my mind could forget what my eyes have seen,” he says, letting us imagine the horrors of the job without needing any of the gory details. His colleague, Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, is living proof of the occupational hazards. Only 32, he has been forced into early retirement by lower body paralysis that came after a brick wall collapsed above him.
Yet sometimes it seems as if the firemen of Engine Company No. 50 don’t really notice either their own heroism or the adversity banging at the door. When not out at a fire these guys hang out around the fire house, making jokes and acting as if they don’t have one of the hardest jobs on earth. That mood, captured so well by the filmmakers, is the crux of real-life heroism. Parnell, Milewski and their colleagues aren’t necessarily out on a fire looking for admiration, and they certainly aren’t waiting for the fans to show up when they’re having dinner with their buddies. Documentaries show us the life in between exciting moments of glory. These firemen are real, normal people. And that makes their accomplishments seem even more extraordinary.
In the 21st century, moreover, anybody can become a hero. High Tech, Low Life takes us into the world of two citizen journalists in mainland China, a dangerous occupation to say the least. The admirable accomplishments of bloggers aren’t quite as cinematic as running into a flaming apartment building, but they require a similar bravery in a nation with overwhelming political censorship and harsh consequences for breaking the rules. Zola and Tiger Temple are two such reporters, men at very different stages of their lives that have taken it upon themselves to travel around the country alone, documenting what otherwise would be covered up or ignored by the national media.
Like BURN¸ this film draws its strength from contrasting its subjects. Zola is young, somewhat impetuous and jumps quickly from story to story. Tiger Temple, on the other hand, is older and more dedicated to each individual social problem he covers. Yet instead of offering any sort of value judgment, director Stephen Maing uses the differences between these two writers to further extend an exploration of China’s battle with its bloggers. Constantly staying ahead of the censors necessitates trying out new things, learning quickly and applying a slightly different approach to every problem. These two tech-savvy journalists represent the ingenuity and flexibility that turn blogging into a form of heroism.
When we watch a too-soon retired fireman in physical therapy for his paralysis, we don’t feel pity. We admire his strength, with the knowledge that this man was already a hero when he was injured. Seung-Jun Yi, director of Planet of Snail, seems to be searching for that very same nuance in his film. His subject is a young Korean couple living with disability, taking on daily adversity as if it were nothing at all. Young-Chan is blind and deaf, while his wife Soon-Ho has a severe spinal condition.
Yet the beauty here is not the director’s compassion for them, but their love for each other. They don’t really seem to need anyone else’s concern; if anything, we emerge from a screening hoping they will find the time to feel a bit of empathy for us. Even though something as small as changing a light bulb becomes a grand challenge, they approach it with a degree of patience that seems almost impossible. Like China’s dissident journalists, this doesn’t seem like heroism to Young-Chan and Soon-Ho. It’s simply what they do. That particular humility is something perhaps only documentary films can really express.
Of course, even the meekest of champions can let out a victory whoop now and again. Town of Runners follows the struggle of two teenage girls in a small village in Ethiopia who just want to compete. Hawii and Alemi, both about fifteen, are both incredibly talented athletes. Yet that alone is not enough to get ahead in a country with infrastructure problems that seem to dwarf everything else. Imagine Detroit with no paved roads. They work so hard, we find ourselves wondering exactly what is wrong with our own under-achieving teen population here in the US.
Yet it’s never that simple. Hawii and Alemi devote their lives to athletics because they want to be Olympic heroes, certainly, but also because they cannot live without the very act of running. That’s what keeps them going from failure to failure, no matter the disappointment. The running clubs of the Oromia Region are occasionally so underfunded that even attending competitions can become a stretch. That makes it harder for the girls to train, and causes them to underperform in the races they do get to run. Yet they can still pull it off, perhaps on sheer willpower alone. And when you see them do well, you will cheer.