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Oscar’s docs gloomy but sun shines at True/False

by AL TOPICH Special to the Democrat-Gazette | March 17, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
“Bad Press” is a hope-providing documentary about what happened when the Muscogee Nation suddenly began censoring its free press.

Now that the dust has settled from the Academy Awards, and "Navalny" has taken home the golden statuette for Best Documentary, we can admit something felt off or missing from this year's documentary nominees.

All the nominees seemed to be rather depressing, emotional, and oddly enough, they all ended on somewhat of a downer note. "Navalny" focuses on the political resistance to Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Alexei Navalny survives an assassination attempt and basically uncovers the Russian government's involvement in trying to poison him. But going into the movie -- if you're up to date on Russian politics -- you know that the outcome isn't going to be a happy, satisfying David vs Goliath story.

The other nominees were equally demoralizing. My favorite of the bunch, "Fire of Love," follows a husband and wife team of volcano explorers. The movie uses stock footage to explore their relationship, their sense of wonder with the earth, and each other. But in the first five minutes of the film you're told that they both end up victims of a natural disaster when the volcano they were investigating unexpectedly erupts. "A House Made of Splinters" focuses on orphaned Ukrainian children -- pre-Russian war -- and how there's a perpetual circle of poverty and violence. It's just heartbreaking to see children waiting for parents who don't want them. "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed" delves into the nearly 50-year career of profound photographer Nan Goldin. We get not only an in-depth look at her but her friends and family throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s as they experience the shifting cultural landscape of the decades, touching on subjects like sexuality, suicide, AIDS, and drug addiction. The movie is bookended with her activism against the opioid epidemic and the pharmaceutical companies that are blamed. And lastly, "All That Breathes" is an environmental documentary that follows two brothers trying to save the avian population of New Delhi, one bird at a time.

And all these documentaries are great and fascinating in one way or another, but it's a real tragedy to not have a more traditional "underdog story" nominated -- one where we can see the little guy overcome the evils and injustices of this world and leave us with a bit of hope for humanity. Navalny is currently in a Siberian prison, love couldn't conquer the devastating nature of a volcano, Ukraine is in shambles, the opioid crisis is only getting worse, and climate change is slowly killing off every species on Earth. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? Where are the "glass half full" movies?

Last week at the True/False Documentary Film Festival, there were quite a few movies that got audiences up on their feet to cheer with optimistic delight. One movie in particular stood out above the rest. In the film "Bad Press," filmmakers Joe Peeler and Rebecca Landsberry-Baker take their camera to the often overlooked Indigenous communities, specifically the Muscogee Nation. The film follows a local reporter for Mvskoke Media, Angel Ellis, as she uncovers dubious political practices and institutional corruption in the tribe's government.

The movie opens up with a static shot on the tribe's reservation as a man drives a riding lawnmower with a flatbed carrying a goat hitched to the back. From this opening shot alone, we know that we aren't in Kansas anymore -- technically we're in Oklahoma. Peeler sets up this tribal community as a quirky environment, giving the film the sensibilities of an Errol Morris documentary, something along the lines of "Vernon, Florida." We get to meet all sorts of kooky, eccentric residents. Ellis is a tough-as-nails investigative reporter who is like an '80s punk rock version of a Philip Marlowe. She's a foul-mouthed, opinionated chain smoker willing to lose her job in the name of journalism.

The mark of a really good documentary is that I come out of it learning something that I would have otherwise never discovered on my own. "Bad Press" taught me that Indigenous tribes here in the United States are in charge of making their own constitutions. And a lot of these tribes don't have one of the tenets that most Americans take for granted: freedom of the press. In the Muscogee Nation, the executive branch of the tribal council is actually in charge of the media and which stories get published ... all in the name of "accurate" reporting. But controversy hits the fan once Ellis uncovers a sexual harassment scandal involving one of the tribal leaders. This sets off a chain of events that leads Ellis to a fight for her tribe's freedom of information, and trying to get a seemingly impossible constitutional amendment passed.

Ellis is a true underdog. We instantly take to her and her anxieties, her passions, her moments of self doubt. But she's always headstrong in her goal of creating a better society. She leads the fight through three different elections. During the tribe's primary for head chief, we meet some of the cartoonish candidates: the current scandalous chief who tries some serious intimidation tactics to shut down the press; a wealthy candidate with his own insidious allegations; and a down to earth "people's candidate" who is all in on adding Freedom of the Press to their constitution, even though we watch him struggle with the smallest of tasks like putting up political signs.

We see parallels in the tribe's election cycle to that of the United States' 2020 general election. There's political grifters touting "fake news," recounts, allegations of voter fraud, candidates refusing to step down. It's a tense and nail biting third act as we see the votes being counted and we use all our political knowledge that we learned from watching SchoolHouse Rock as children, all to see if democracy can have a big victory in these dark, forgotten corners of our country.

It is a true underdog story and a movie that will light a fire under you and make you cheer at the screen. It is one of the best feel-good documentaries I've seen in a long while. And it's nice to know that in a world full of dictators, drug addiction, pollution, war, and death that there are glimmers of hope for humanity.

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