Film Reviews

Nukes in the Florida Room

The presidential election is near, and the Florida Room folks have a lot on their minds. Nuclear proliferation, for starters, as well as the Iraq War. Also the memory of butterfly ballots and hanging chads, electronic voting machines, Al Jazeera and Fox News, political cartoons and cartoonish politicians, Will Ferrell on TV as George W. Bush and Dubya himself as the first White House resident who actually lost the popular election by more than a half million votes. Then there's Florida's dubious role as the nation's most important swing state, and the sensitive issues of ethics and the media, the frustrations of the disenfranchised, and everyone's right to vote. All this, and movies too.

Juan Carlos Zaldívar and Rhonda Mitrani, founders and co-directors of the Florida Room Documentary Film Festival, are on a mission to raise social consciousness through entertainment. That means that this year's festival is going to be a tad intense. "What better place than right here in South Beach to have a series of films focusing on vital platform issues?" asks Zaldívar. "What better time than now, as we head towards the election?"

In the heart of South Beach, the big outdoor movie screen in the Plaza de España at the end of Española Way will be saturated with unsettling, unforgettable images of ourselves during these exhilarating, often trying times. On October 14, 15, and 16, the festival hosts screenings of Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, The Original Child Bomb, and Control Room. "The films are all so different," says Mitrani, "but all pertain to the upcoming election. They are really about our past, our present, and our future."

"Our mission is to entertain, of course," she adds. "But it is also to mobilize people to vote."

Zaldívar and Mitrani are off to a good start. Already the festival's funky Website,, must count as one of the most attractive and effective tools around to get out the vote: beyond a listing of this year's pictures and related events, there are downloads of everything from Norman Lear interviews and Comedy Central political shorts to links to "Declare Yourself!" as well as to actual voter registration. The link to the disturbing Original Child Bomb alone would be reason enough both to check out this Website and certainly not to miss this politically charged film event in Miami Beach.

So what are we in for? The three feature-length documentaries, alongside a selection of strikingly original political shorts including the little gems Straight Talk! From the White House West and Bush for Peace. Interactivity is the name of the game here, with panels and civic discussions after each screening that promise to turn the Plaza de España into a rowdy town hall meeting. It should be an interesting weekend at the movies.

The pointedly topical Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election is, in Mitrani's scheme, a film about our past. "History tends to repeat itself," she says, "but this is one event we have to make sure does not." The film, by Richard Jay Perez and Joan Sekler starring Al Gore, the Bush Brothers, and the lovely and talented Katherine Harris, documents the now infamous 36-day battle for the presidency as it got darker and darker in the Sunshine State. It is a cautionary tale, outrageously partisan, liberal, and proud of it. Unprecedented sets out to prove that it is possible to be paranoid and right. Rage and sadness drench this picture.

An official selection of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Jehane Noujaim's acclaimed Control Room is about our present, with a controversial touch of humanism thrown into an often polarized discourse. An award-winning Arab-American filmmaker who has lived and worked in both the United States and the Middle East sweetly embraces both worlds in her work. The news here is the shock of seeing how Al Jazeera's 40 million viewers receive the news of the Arab world, how different the images presented to the controversial network's worldwide audience are from the selected images and positions the American public gets from its news media. Noujaim dares to ask whether in some ways Al Jazeera's coverage might be more in touch with democratic ideals than that of some of the American news networks. At what point is gathering the news really creating the news? By focusing on the Al Jazeera network's coverage of the Iraq War, Noujaum's timely, timeless film investigates the inner workings of news gathering and reporting, in the process also asking this vital question: Is the United States radicalizing or stabilizing the Arab world?

Be afraid, be very afraid if Original Child Bomb stands for our future, as Mitrani and Zaldívar believe. Carey Schonegevel's elegant, frightening meditation on the Nuclear Age takes its title from a Thomas Merton poem and enters a crowded field that ranges from the immortal Hiroshima Mon Amour to the hysterical Dr. Strangelove, a rich mosaic of artistic responses to the horror of our recent past, to the uncertainty and hope of our future. With music by Moby, Ryuchi Sakamoto, and Mos Def, with familiar and horrifying images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with animation and stock footage as well as with the sights and sounds of American schoolchildren just being children, with almost cruel clarity but also with a lot of heart, Original Child Bomb may prove to be the festival's main event.

"John Kerry in the debate right here in Miami pointed out that nuclear proliferation is the most pressing issue facing us," says Mitrani. "And Bush agreed." Zaldívar feels Original Child Bomb "addreses precisely that issue: how the nuclear threat has changed since the time of the Cold War, what the price of nuclear war would be for a future generation." The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked the world in 1945, but the atomic age is now. The situation is volatile. The ultimate weapons of mass destruction, nowhere to be found in Iraq, are still with us, elsewhere, unchecked. That may be the most disturbing message of all.

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