Monday, 30 April 2012

MY NAME IS FAITH - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2012 MUST-SEE #12

My Name is Faith (2012) ***
dir. Tiffany Sudela-Junker, Jason Banker, Jorge Torres-Torres

Review by
Greg Klymkiw

During the past week I have seen documentaries about hunger, unemployment, urban blight, consumerist greed, judicial corruption and systemic racism (and torture) within prisons. Now, let us add childhood neglect to this cheery list.

We sigh and shake our heads and bemoan such horrendous conditions in Third World Countries - rife with human rights abuses, oligarchies, dictatorships, persecution and the sort of corruption that breeds, rat-like, within Totalitarian regimes.

So what Third World country is the target of these above named horrors?

Why none other than that nation which was founded in principles to "establish Justice and insure domestic Tranquility" - the very same nation, which steadfastly believe(d) that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed . . . with certain unalienable Rights . . . Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". The same land of the supposed Free which snubbed its nose at "a long train of abuses and usurpations" that were designed to reduce a nation "under absolute Despotism." A country secure in its belief that it has the right - nay, duty - "to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the United States of America. And in these fine United States, I have learned - jaw agape - while watching the gut-wrenching, harrowing documentary My Name is Faith that in this great land, about five innocent children every single day DIE from neglect. Those who survive, however, enter a living death - one that decimates their innocence, their trust, their power to love - stealing at the most tender, precious age "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and inflicts upon them "a long train of abuses."

My Name is Faith focuses most of its attention upon a deeply intelligent and beautiful 12-year-old girl, so neglected and abused by her birth mother, so continually put in harm's way and left to her own devices while the one person, who should have protected and nurtured her, lolled about in a drug-and-booze-infused stupor of ignorance and denial. Though it took them long enough, Child Protection Services pulled Faith from the dubious arms of motherhood, whilst Mommy Dearest was booted into prison. Eventually CPS made the little girl available to a warm, caring family that was willing to adopt her and raise her as their own.

The problem is this: Children who survive this sort of torture enter an even darker place when confronted by the unfamiliar emotions of love and caring. They lash out, often violently, at those who want only to love and care for them. These children become dangerous to themselves and others.

The kids from these backgrounds are afflicted with Attachment Disorder. Its clutches are so insidious that parents are ill-equipped to deal with their new family members. The film itself, charts Faith's journey with her new parents to heal. They, in turn, can be provided with practical tools to parent these damaged children in emotional healing camps where the whole family attends to engage in a series of workshops, practical exercises, games and other activities aimed at establishing bonds of love.

There's considerable heroism on display here from both the parents and children who attend these camps. Faith herself is such a compelling figure, that it's impossible to take one's eyes off her and root for every challenge she overcomes.

Still, some documentaries - like this one - are more worthy as subject matter than they are as filmmaking. My Name is Faith, while clearly not without power, falls slightly short (at least in its present form) of its huge potential, not just as an important personal document, but as cinema of a much higher order. The movie moves in fits and starts - too full of TV-styled cliches, the most troubling of which are the seemingly endless slow-motion montages accompanied by soulful vocals in the background.

While the intent of this approach, in retrospect, was clear, the fact remains that it clashes with everything else in the picture that works so well without it. Yes, employing techniques that are juxtapositional can create a dramatic conflict, but given that the movie has plenty of narrative and emotional force, a part of me wishes I DIDN'T feel a directorial/editorial hand in these transitional interludes.

Faith and many of the parents, counsellors, therapists and other children are such forceful, unique and inspiring individuals, that it's a bit disconcerting to see much of this play out with hackneyed cinematic techniques (the aforementioned montage sequences being the biggest offenders in this regard). Our hearts and minds would have been as touched by the subjects if the film had opted for a more spare direct cinema approach instead of the endless attempts to wring tears of both sadness and joy from a mise-en-scene more suited to by-the-numbers television docs.

When the film focuses upon the events and interviews, we're totally with it. However, when choices are made by the filmmakers to "gussy" this up with the aforementioned techniques, we're forced out of the drama and the forward movement the movie needs. In fact, I think the montages (sans slow motion) might have winded us emotionally with a mixture of location sound and a judicious use of foley.

Soundscape, given the subject matter and the naturalistic way in which so much of the action in the camp is rendered would have been preferable to score. Ambient sound, perhaps even with a sparing voiceover culled from footage not used, but judiciously applied over these scenes would have been a definitive forcing of the filmmakers' hands, but not as a cliche, but rather as an integral part of the film's "life" as a living, breathing entity unto itself - pulsating with the poetry inherent in cinema rather than the attempts to mine emotion from tried, true, but finally easy techniques.

The movie and more importantly, Faith's incredible journey, deserves to be elevated to the sublime. There's a spiritual quality to this film that's just below the surface. It needs to explode "naturally". Yes, we need the filmmakers' to take us there, but the manner chosen to do so suppresses this rather than letting it breathe. The songs and score tell us what we already know. The slow-motion draws us to cinematic technique rather than what's happening for real. Drama, even - and perhaps especially in documentary - is so much more powerful when we discover emotion and information on our own (or, at least, feel like we're doing it on our own).

A disturbing aspect of this film was the use of a song invoking the healing powers of God and the damage inflicted by the Devil. This coupled with a morning speech where the participants were asked to "thank God" for their breakfast were only two small nods to religion. They stuck out like sore thumbs, though. Many of the problems in America, and, for that matter, the world, are directly attributable to governments and oligarchies using faith to place their subjects in a state of compliance and subservience. These two moments were enough to take me out of the film when they occurred and made me wonder, how many such instances were left on the cutting room floor?

Maybe none.

Maybe more.

Either way, a disturbing enough thought to detract from the matter at hand.

There is so much faith (pun intended) in this film, that stripping away nods to the tenets of organized religion would have been a much better approach. Faith and spirituality CAN exist in a secular world - including belief in some elements of Old Testament Scripture or the Koran, or what have you. That said, making sure the material of the film is secular is precisely the thing that allows us to focus on the faith and spirit of the children, parents and team leaders within the camp. It doesn't clutter the proceedings and does, I daresay, allow even "believers" to draw their own conclusions of a Divine Entity's hand in the lives and actions of the characters.

On one hand, these all might seem like minor quibbles, but it's the minor that often becomes major in films like this one where delicacy must rule the day.

These flaws, however, can be forgiven in light of the importance of making people aware of yet another horrendous suffering inflicted upon the American people by a system so rotten and corrupt to the core that a once-great nation is on the verge of total collapse.

My Name is Faith reminds us that it's the children, the future of the country, who are most at risk in these dangerous days.

"My Name is Faith" is playing Wed, May 2 7:15 PM at the The Royal Cinema and Thu, May 3 1:30 PM at the Cumberland 3 and Sat, May 5 6:30 PM at The ROM Theatre during Toronto's 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. For tickets visit the Hot Docs website HERE.