Beyond the Multiplex

Get out your hankies: Here are three don't-miss documentaries that will break your heart -- and renew your hope in humanity.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published December 1, 2005 12:15PM (EST)

It's Kleenex week here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ. As far as I know, this is an accident. We've hit a late-fall lull in the indie release calendar as far as dramatic films go -- mostly because Hollywood rolls out its so-called serious movies right around now, with its greedy Gollum eyes focused on those golden statuettes -- but I got home from a Thanksgiving vacation to find my mailbox stuffed with earnest invitations to see heart-rending, sob-inducing social documentaries.

I realize that makes me sound like a cynical bastard, but the truth is I'm too soft-hearted for some of these movies. Nicole Conn's "Little Man," for instance -- a chronicle of the first two years of her son's life, after his drastically premature birth -- is either going to gross you out completely (if you're not a parent) or prove almost impossible to sit through (if you are). It's a brave and beautifully made film, but Jesus is it tough to watch. At the other end of the disease-movie spectrum is Dani Menkin's "39 Pounds of Love," a genial chronicle of a man who has defied enormous odds and severe disability with prodigious lust for life and no apparent self-pity.

Both of those may leave you snuffling and grasping other people's hands in the dark (whether you know them or not), but let's start with the film that really knocked me flat this week. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "The Boys of Baraka" is an extraordinary story of hope, rage, redemption and despair involving no medical technology whatever, but reminding us that the so-called richest nation in the world remains plagued by the worst and most chronic disease known to humanity: poverty.

"The Boys of Baraka": Out of America's heart of darkness
As viewers of the TV series "Homicide" and "The Wire" are well aware, Baltimore is something like America's lost city. While most major metropolitan areas in the United States have seen a significant decline in crime over the last 20 years, Charm City has seen rates of murder and drug addiction spike to record highs. You could call Baltimore the other New Orleans, without the levees: Affluent middle-class areas of the city are thriving, but they're surrounded by vast, impoverished African-American ghettoes, whose residents are physically and psychologically cut off from the mainstream American economy.

As Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's film explains, more than three-quarters of the African-American boys in the Baltimore public school system fail to graduate from high school. One parent in the movie protests, with a tone of deadly certainty: "Sending them to Baltimore public schools is like sending them to jail." As one school counselor talks about an eighth-grader on the verge of flunking out, she muses that there literally is no place for him except the brand new city penitentiary, or the morgue.

I'm aware that the Bill O'Reillys of the world would urge tough love and self-reliance upon America's inner-city teenagers, and if Bill were out there on the streets of Baltimore giving these kids lectures face to face, I'd respect his view a lot more. Ewing and Grady capture the desperate poverty and dead-end mentality of those endless terraces of brick rowhouses with a terrible immediacy. In exploring the lives of one group of boys given a chance to escape, they make clear that many, many more will be left behind, educated for nothing more than criminality and/or bare survival.

In an experimental program launched in the late '90s that later became a casualty of the "war on terror" (I hope my sarcasm comes through in those quotation marks), groups of 20 promising 12-year-old boys from poor Baltimore families were chosen to attend two-year intensive programs at the Baraka School, a specialized academy in a remote rural region of Kenya. Ewing and Grady wound up following the last group to go through Baraka, and it's an extraordinary up-and-down journey that will leave you emotionally wrung out.

As the school's headmaster puts it, Baraka offers these boys a chance actually to be boys: They play outside, swim in rivers, wrestle and catch lizards and hedgehogs. There is no TV and no junk food, limited electricity and only occasional phone calls home. There's intense loneliness and insistent rebellion, along with fights and other disciplinary problems imported from Baltimore -- but what's most startling is how rapidly these kids respond to a demanding education, a nurturing environment and the consistent attention of capable, functional adults. Essentially, these guys go halfway around the world, to a country much poorer than their own, to find out what a decent school might be like. If that's not a reason for national shame, I've never heard one.

As in the even more devastating documentary "Born Into Brothels," about the children of Calcutta's red-light district, "The Boys of Baraka" focuses on a few protagonists, who go in wildly different directions. Richard and Romesh, two genial brothers who seem certain to thrive after Baraka, slip right back into Baltimore's culture of hopelessness on their return. But Montrey, the kid with the worst attitude problem and disciplinary record, suddenly blossoms, becoming an honor student and gaining admission to an exclusive college-prep school. Young Devon, a budding Pentecostal preacher even before his trip overseas, emerges supremely confident but basically unchanged.

Ewing and Grady could have done a better job filling in each boy's back story, as well as explaining exactly how Baraka started and what its agenda is. But the film is clearly a labor of love, portraying the lives of its subjects with tremendous intimacy and passion. When Baraka is closed down after these boys' first year (thanks to an unspecified terrorist threat and the beginning of the Iraq war), I felt -- along with the boys and their parents -- that this was prodigiously unfair, an act of gratuitous cosmic cruelty. In the larger picture, I guess they were lucky to get what they got. For a few of them, that year in Africa may literally have meant the difference between life and death. And as for injustice and cosmic cruelty, that is virtually all they have ever known.

"The Boys of Baraka" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, and also opens Dec. 2 in Boston, Jan. 20 in Los Angeles, Feb. 17 in San Francisco, and Feb. 24 in San Diego. PBS will broadcast the film later in 2006.

"Little Man": From nightmare to miracle, and back again
When Nicole Conn, director of the groundbreaking lesbian-themed feature "Claire of the Moon," and her longtime partner Gwendolyn Baba, a high-powered gay-rights activist, decided to use a surrogate mother to give birth to their second child (Baba had borne the first), Conn saw an opportunity for a film. She had no idea. Their surrogate, a woman named Mary who is scarcely present in this film, had misled Conn and Baba about her medical history; as one doctor observes, she was about the last person you'd want to carry your child. The result was a teeny and very sick baby boy named Nicholas, born 100 days premature and weighing less than one pound, who had about a 99 percent chance of dying before his first birthday.

"Little Man" is Nicholas' story, at least on its most obvious level. But it's also much more than a made-for-TLC tale of medical marvels, motherly love and the power of prayer (although all of those play a role). It's also a ruthlessly honest self-examination, as well as a cross-section of a relationship nearly torn apart and a world of overwhelming technology where it becomes possible to save the lives of tiny newborns who wouldn't last 10 minutes on their own, but the underlying moral questions are never answered.

This tiny, wrinkled creature, who more closely resembles a newly hatched baby bird than a human being, does indeed cling to life ferociously despite any number of close calls with death. Any parent who sees this film (any parent who can bear to), will readily forgive both Conn, who spends every waking instant in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and is willing to try anything to keep her baby boy alive, and Baba, who stays home with their daughter and braces herself for what she expects will be the inevitable outcome.

On one hand, this is a profoundly moving and inspirational story: Nicholas spends more than five months in the NICU and comes out alive, finally able to eat and breathe on his own and approaching an acceptable newborn weight. On the other hand, "Little Man" makes clear that this comes with tremendous costs, psychological, social and indeed financial. Nicholas is faced with significant lifelong disabilities and chronic illnesses, and his round-the-clock care almost destroys Conn and Baba's relationship. When you see this spunky little character smile, or try on his first pair of glasses, you have no doubt that saving his life was worthwhile. But as Conn is brave enough to ask, how do we know where to draw the line between medicine and mercy, between playing God and accepting fate?

From a filmmaking point of view, "Little Man" is also a striking accomplishment. In addition to compiling and editing some 200 hours of footage of Nicholas' early life, Conn went back and interviewed the doctors and nurses involved in his care (who unanimously admit they were trying to prepare her for his death), and then sat down with Baba on camera to discuss their memories of the drawn-out trauma. If the film occasionally feels too full of Californian self-regard -- and not quite aware that Nicholas got a chance sick preemies wouldn't get in most places in the world -- it's nonetheless a marvelously compressed and immaculately constructed work. Or so I soberly concluded after I was finished sobbing.

"Little Man" opens Dec. 2 at the Cinema Village in New York, with more cities to follow.

"39 Pounds of Love": But riding 600 pounds of Harley!
Maybe Nicole Conn's preemie son, when he gets a little older, needs to check out the story of an indomitable Mexican-American-Israeli dude named Ami Ankilewitz, as we meet him in Dani Menkin's sloppy but cheerful documentary "39 Pounds of Love." Yes, that's how much Ankilewitz weighs, and as he observes, that's about the weight of a nice big turkey. Ankilewitz has a rare form of muscular dystrophy that has left him only a shriveled, skeletal body beneath a nearly normal-size head; his conscious muscular control is limited to the index finger of his left hand.

Not long after Ankilewitz was born in 1970 in Laredo, Texas, a doctor explained his illness to his mother, telling her he was unlikely to live past age 6. Now in his 30s and working in Tel Aviv as a computer animator, Ankilewitz gets the notion to track down this doctor and confront him. It's a harebrained scheme made exceptionally dangerous by the fact that Ankilewitz cannot fly comfortably or indeed travel easily in cars, and that he must be fed a special nutritional formula to keep weight on his minuscule frame. But as he repeatedly demonstrates, Ankilewitz is a happy-go-lucky cuss who likes to drink whiskey and at least pretend to smoke cigars (a lit cigar might well kill him), and furthermore there's a girl to impress.

Ankilewitz hopes to win back a lovely young woman from Romania who has been his caretaker and his kind-of, sort-of girlfriend, and to be honest that part of the movie goes nowhere. (Director Menkin does get to kill a lot of time with interpolated bits of Ankilewitz's sweet, lovelorn animated films.) His foolhardy quest to drive across America in an R.V. -- and to ride on a Harley! -- while searching for the pessimistic Dr. Cordova is far more impressive, as is the unlikely story of his continent-leaping, culture-straddling family. (His father is Israeli, his mother Mexican.)

A curmudgeon (like me, for instance) might point out that the message conveyed in "39 Pounds of Love" is a highly conventional one, but as delivered through the unsinkable personage of Ami Ankilewitz it's also a highly enjoyable one, with undertones of accidental profundity. It's not just that life is unbelievably precious and that Ankilewitz has led a rich one despite limitations most of us can't even imagine. It's that he's not a saint or a victim but someone fully human, capable of wearing silly hats, nourishing a completely hackneyed dream (i.e., the Harley thing), making mediocre art and having his heart broken by a girl who probably wasn't worth it. Now that's what I call a road trip worth taking.

"39 Pounds of Love" is now playing in New York. It opens Dec. 2 in Los Angeles and Dec. 9 in Boston, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco, with more cities to follow in 2006.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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