Milwaukee Film Festival 2017 – Day 6: Girl Unbound, I Am Evidence, The Blood Is at the Doorstep

If justice wasn’t the right theme for day five of the Milwaukee Film Festival, it definitely fits for day six. All the films today are about justice being denied, and how that affects a life, especially when the reason is due to a factor that can’t really be helped, such as race or gender. When such circumstances exist, watching a movie about it is akin to stepping into another world that exists right alongside our own. Perhaps lurking is the right word, because sometimes these places and everything they represent seem to be just waiting for us to make one wrong turn so they can swallow us whole.


Girl Unbound

To say that the documentary Girl Unbound is uplifting is an understatement. It follows Maria Toorpakay Wazir, a Pakistani who is one of the top squash players in the world. That alone would be an interesting story, but Maria is also from a conservative tribal area in Pakistan ruled by the Taliban, who forbid women from participating in sports. In order to compete, Maria disguised herself as a boy in her earlier years. But as she grew older and became more renowned, her true identity was eventually revealed, and soon she and her family were receiving death threats on a regular basis.

Even after Maria moves to Canada to train with a coach and improve her skills, she and her family are continually at risk. Going home and traveling around Pakistan is practically a game of cat and mouse, as the family has to constantly stay ahead of the Taliban. The remarkable thing is not only that Maria stays committed, but that her family does too. Maria’s father is a nonconformist himself who came of age in the 60s. He refuses to treat his daughters differently than his sons, educated his wife, and was even sent to a mental institution for his views. Because of his and wife’s commitment to education for all, the family constantly had to move around long before Maria made a name for herself. Maria’s sister is also an impressive figure in her own right, having chosen to become a politician and empower female refugees, which has also made her a target.

As if that weren’t enough, Girl Unbound also chronicles Maria’s struggle to come to terms with her own gender identity. She often speaks of not knowing exactly where she fits in, and of not feeling completely comfortable as a male or female. It’s inspirational, to say the least. The fact that Maria keeps playing squash feels remarkable enough, but she also continually wins, and seldom has a sports montage felt so triumphantly earned. However, the doc makes it clear that her inspiration doesn’t come from herself alone. Her family’s support is as courageous as it is steadfast, and Girl Unbound would not be nearly as positive without them. It needs more time with Maria’s mother, who is ironically silent throughout, but mostly Girl Unbound is required viewing for anyone who wants to understand how to make a better world in the midst of terror.

Rating: 9/10


I Am Evidence

When the story broke that there were thousands of rape kits languishing untested in storage facilities, the outrage was immediate, especially when it was revealed that this problem was not limited to one city, state, or even one region. It quickly became clear that was a nationwide phenomenon, the direct result of a system that was more concerned with judging victims rather than getting justice for them. As a result, the men who committed these crimes often became serial rapists who went on to victimize others.

The documentary I Am Evidence offers a devastating portrait of just how this happened, combining statistics with technology that coldly, yet chillingly showcases just how often the same DNA pops up in crime databases. But even more powerful are the stories behind the statistics. Many women recount their stories on-screen, describing their horrific experiences and the aftermath, which they often found to be almost as humiliating and invasive as the rape itself. Some were given the runaround, while others were told outright that nothing would be done for them.

Various people and documents recount just how victims were judged, and which cases were focused on. Too often, those involving black women were deemed unworthy of the system’s time, unless their families happened to be politically connected. Women who were attacked by strangers were more likely to be seen as “real” victims, while others were deemed not believable enough, or to have been acting like they were, to use that old infuriating phrase, “asking for it.” One victim, whose rape kit was untested for so long the statute of limitations had run out, was only able to bring charges because the man who raped her also stole $20 from her.

Despite every effort to silence these women, some have nevertheless made themselves heard as crusaders for change, such as Kym Worthy, a Detroit prosectuor committed to testing every rape kit, the victims themselves, and actress Mariska Hargitay, whose role on the series Law & Order: Special Victimes Unit led her to become an activist. Their strength is the reason I Am Evidence is a heartbreaking experience rather than a completely devastating one. It may wreak emotional havoc on its viewers, but it is also one of the most essential experiences they’ll ever have. And when every day seems to bring a new scandal involving another high profile man whose status allowed him to get away with years of predatory behavior (with Harvey Weinstein being one of the latest), it’s clear that stories like this will be essential for some time.

Rating: 10/10


The Blood Is At The Doorstep

One day, a young black man named Dontre Hamilton decided to lie down on a bench in Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee. A manager at the nearby Starbucks decided his presence warranted them to call the police not just once, but three times. The first two times, the officers left without incident. The third time, a different officer, Christopher Manney, was sent to Red Arrow, and Dontre Hamilton died after being shot 14 times.

It’s all the more infuriating because this is something that has not only happened again and again, it’s being documented to a greater and greater extent. In many ways, Erik Ljung’s doc The Blood Is at The Doorstep hits many familiar beats. A young black man dies, and the police and media almost immediately begin painting him in a negative light. In Hamilton’s case, there were reports that he was homeless and mentally ill. The best lies are those that have a grain of truth, which are harder to rebut. The lies about Dontre lasted because while he was not homeless, he did suffer from a mental illness, which allowed him to be seen as a threat to the community when information about the incident started to circulate. In another frustratingly familiar turn of events, not only was Manney never even charged, but he kept receiving benefits even after he lost his job.

But what keeps us angry rather than numb is not only that Ljung follows the story, but that he follows Dontre’s family, specifically his mother and brothers, who became seemingly tireless activists after Dontre’s death. They call again and again for action, and it is they are the ones who tell Dontre’s story and ensure that he remains human, rather than villainized or turned into an angelic martyr. Matriarch Maria Hamilton is especially inspiring, founding the organization Mothers For Justice, where mothers who’ve lost children to police and vigilantes demand justice and provide support to each other.

With all this focus on the Hamiltons, it is remarkable that many of those in power, such as police chief Edward Flynn, are also given respect even as their feet are held to the fire too. Mayor Tom Barrett is one politician who at least tries to help set the record straight, but authorities mostly come off as maddeningly unresponsive.

However, The Blood Is at the Doorstep is not a completely joyless viewing experience. When Milwaukeeans riot after yet another police shooting, residents gather together to clean up the next day, and the credits also leave us with the Hamilton family’s more lighthearted moments. Ljung devoted three years to following them, and it’s always a pleasure to see such passionate, dedicated work pay off.

Rating: 10/10

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