My trip to the Santa Barbara Film Festival a few weeks ago wasn’t the nirvana I’d expected. Interviewing two enlightened, preternaturally talented, hotter than habaneros actors is hard work! But due to my selfless commitment to serve the interests of you, our MovieMaker readership, I sacrificed two days of my life and cruised up the Pacific Coast Highway to one of the most hospitable cities in California.
My first assignment: Interview Brazilian actor, Rodrigo Santoro. He meditates, does yoga and generally follows a Zen approach to life and art. He is the epitome of peace. My kinda guy! I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know who the hell he was before I got the assignment. As a moviemaker/film commentator, I really should pay attention.
In my research, I discovered that Mr. Santoro starred in the Brazilian film Behind the Sun, a poetic parable about violence, love, vengeance and the dangerous ties that bind us to family and land. I adored that film. Rent it.
He is mega-star in Brazil and a blazing comet in the U.S. I don’t watch much TV (I’m beginning to sound like a recluse), so I was clueless about his role in “Lost.” In the brutal film 300, which I actually did see, Mr. Santoro plays the 9-foot-tall Persian God-King Xerxes. Next we’ll see him as Jim Carrey’s ex-lover in I Love you Phillip Morris. Much more in the pipeline.
My interview with James Cromwell couldn’t have been better. The most humble, kind and authentic Mr. Cromwell spun fascinating tales of acting, politics, animal rights and social justice.
Concerned by the volume of words flowing from him, I stealthily checked to see if I had any tape left. If you’re not sure who James Cromwell is, think: George Bush Sr. in W. or the kindly farmer in Babe. His IMDb page is a mile long.
You can read all about Mr. Santoro and Mr. Cromwell in the next issue of MovieMaker magazine, due out in April.
After these two heavenly interviews, I unexpectedly made a pit stop in hell.
My East Coast bud, Kathy Ruopp, was in town with a documentary she production managed—War Against the Weak—a brilliant, artistic and thoroughly researched tale about Eugenics, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Edwin Black. It tells the story of a movement intended to create a master race and eliminate 90 percent of the world’s people.
And it began right here in the Land of the Free, the Land of Liberty for all.
I was too blissed out in balmy Santa Barbara to spend an hour and a half immersed in the dark world of Eugenics and I knew I’d eventually get the DVD from Kathy, so I dodged the screening and scheduled my interview with Mr. Cromwell in a conflicting time slot.
If you don’t know what Eugenics is, you’re in good company. Most Americans have no clue. It was a movement in the early 1920s developed by Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin to create a stronger, smarter, prettier, more homogeneous society.
It purported to improve the general make-up of humanity by filtering out “negative characteristics” and thus improve the condition of humanity. Their MO: Sterilize the people—forcibly, if necessary—considered unfit to bear children.
On a lighter note, I joined Kathy and all three of the War Against the Weak (WATW) moviemakers at a cozy bar on State Street. Their relentless, razor-sharp humor had me laughing and sparring.
Hours later, I found myself hog-tied to a computer in a hotel room, watching a “small segment” of the film.
After about 30 minutes of WATW, I looked over at producer Peter Demas and said, “I guess I’m watching the whole thing.” He nodded. I resigned myself to 90 minutes of “How the hell did they get away with it for so long?” “Didn’t anybody stop them?” “That could never happen today… could it?”
I literally felt nauseous when, midway into the film, a quote from Teddy Roosevelt appears on the screen. He writes in a 1913 letter to Charles Davenport:
“I agree with you… that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind.”
Gasp! Shock! Disbelief! Horror!
Eugenics captured the noble mind of Roosevelt and grabbed hold of the passionate megalomaniacal heart of Hitler. Reading the text that he called his “bible” as he sat in a jail cell, Hitler conjured up a master plan—inspired by the research of the American Eugenicists and fired by his own obsessed imagination—that would purify the genetic pool of Germany and ultimately, the entire world.
How is it possible that an American movement inspired the Nazi annihilation of six million-plus souls? It’s possible. And it’s documented. Not only that, it continued here long after Hitler’s Germany had collapsed.
We teach the Holocaust in schools. Does anyone mention our very own homegrown master plan?
With a quick Google search, I came up with a May 2, 2004 article and televised CBS news story about the Eugenics campaign. I’ll quote directly from the article by Bob Simon:
“Starting in the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of American children were warehoused in institutions by state governments. And the federal government did nothing to stop it. The justification? The kids had been labeled feeble-minded, and were put away in conditions that can only be described as unspeakable.”
Mr. Simon interviewed one of the boys, Fred Boyce, now an adult, who had been “incarcerated” in the Fernald School (for 11 years) and labeled an imbecile, a moron:
“We thought for a long time that we belonged there, that we were
not part of the species. We thought we were some kind of, you know,
people that wasn’t supposed to be born.”
Will someone out there, please make a movie out of this? I sure as hell won’t. I couldn’t bear to spend that much time immersed in evil (even if it was perpetrated in the name of good.) Director Justin Strawhand told me he had nightmares throughout the process. Justin spent one and a half years researching in the States and in Germany.
WATW was nominated for the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Social Justice Award—I’m not surprised. Justin created a compelling, important and entirely unique piece of art. I rarely plant that label on a documentary (or fiction film, for that matter). Art has, historically, depicted violence, war, atrocities and a potpourri of evil—man’s inhumanity to man—and many of these relics sit in museums around the world. Consider “Guernica” by Picasso (a depiction of the brutalities of the Spanish civil war) ,”The Rape of the Sabine Women,” “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” by Caravaggio, to name a few.
The visual style of WATW is seductive and pulled me in. The music captures the jagged, driving rhythms of the story. Ultimately, the aesthetics make the subject matter more “watchable.”
I hope you have a chance to see this retroactive muckraking documentary.
This is why I adore film festivals. They represent the yin and yang of humanity, crammed with passionate moviemakers, wild to share their particular vision with the world—some bold enough to believe their work can actually instigate change. Yeah. Change.
Anne Norda is an award-winning artist, writer, director and producer with one feature, Red Is the Color Of (Best Feature Film, 2007 LA Femme Film Festival), under her belt. She was born in North Hollywood, schooled at the Parsons School of Design and was a Fulbright Scholar in photography. She’s a Finnish and U.S. citizen and has lived in Paris, Helsinki, LA, NY and Bangkok. Her dream is to run a major movie studio. Or be a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and dedicate her life to art and the transformation of humanity. Whichever may come first.