“Farmingville” explores the tensions surrounding the influx of Mexican immigrants, many illegal, into this suburban community on Long Island, N.Y. The impact has been “severe and intense,” says Margaret Bianculli-Dyber, who organized the opposition after some 1500 Mexicans arrived in this town of 15,000 in the late 1990s, most to work in landscaping and restaurants. The opposition turned ugly, culminating in the attempted murder of two workers (one of whom is interviewed), and caught in the middle are local officials, who are powerless to force the newcomers out even if they wanted to. Says Suffolk County (N.Y.) legislator Paul Tonna: “This is not an issue that is going to go away.” “Farmingville” won a Special Jury Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
In “Bill's Run,” filmmaker Richard Kassebaum chronicles his brother Bill's 2002 run for the Kansas House of Representatives. Kassebaum, a rancher and assistant county attorney, is the son of former senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum (and the grandson of 1936 GOP presidential candidate Alf Landon). He decides to run because he believes that school-funding shortfalls are hurting his rural district, and the incumbent, House majority leader Shari Weber (who's also interviewed), is a staunch antitax conservative.
“War Feels like War” follows journalists who weren't “embedded” (they're called “unilaterals”) as they covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and reflected on it and their jobs. What they saw ranged from what ABC Radio's PJ O'Rourke calls the “garden-variety chaos” attending the distribution of food aid in southern Iraq to a constant stream of skirmishes---and the consequences of it lying in streets and in hospital beds---as they headed north to Baghdad and Tikrit. Other journalists include Chicago Tribune photographer Stephanie Sinclair, as well as reporters from Poland, Norway, Denmark and Spain.
“Thirst,” an emotional exploration of the downside of water privatization in Bolivia and India, also chronicles efforts to stem a privatization drive in Stockton, Cal., and visits a 2003 international water conference in Kyoto, Japan. In India, the hour asserts, water can cost more than milk, and while that's not the case in Stockton, activists still fear losing control. “Water,” says one, “is the next OPEC.” Produced and directed by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow.
“Last Man Standing: Politics---Texas Style” chronicles an intense 2002 state legislative race in the solidly Republican district where Lyndon Johnson once lived. The combatants: GOP incumbent Rick Green, 31, and 24-year-old Democrat Patrick Rose. It should have been a walkover, given Green's charm and Texas-style conservatism, but Rose got lucky when ethics charges against Green surfaced. So did filmmaker Paul Stekler (“Vote for Me: Politics in America”), who captures the bad body language between the two exquisitely. And when the dust settled, they were 333 votes apart.
“A Family Undertaking” explores the home-funeral movement as it profiles advocates and families who are burying loved ones without the services of undertakers. The hour briefly visits a funeral-industry convention in Florida (where a speaker urges colleagues to provide a “meaningful death experience” for consumers), but mostly it focuses on families who provide what advocate Beth Knox calls their own “after-death care.” In South Dakota, the ranching Carr family builds patriarch Bernard's coffin, and Bernard is seen burning his brand into it. “You work together and play together,” says Bernard's son Keith. “Why would you want to ship a member of your family to the cold, old morgue?”
“Every Mother's Son” follows three mothers of young men---none of them criminals---killed by New York City police during the 1990s. The most notorious case is that of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old from Guinea who was shot 41 times in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building, but all three deaths galvanized the grief-stricken mothers to activism as the officers who killed their sons were acquitted, convicted of lesser charges or not even indicted. Says one: “There's got to be some justice and accountability.”
“Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story” profiles demolition-derby driver Ed “Speedo” Jager, who's as passionate about his two sons as he is about driving. In fact, he has remained in an empty marriage for years for their sake. During the film, a third love enters Speedo's life: Liz Mallows, a New Jersey track official who's drawn to his in-your-face (in-your-fender, actually) energy and his take-no-prisoners driving style. “It's like a disease,” Speedo says. “It starts to possess you when you're really into it.”
The 1973 film “Wattstax,” which captures the energy and excitement of a 1972 concert at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, is spotlighted. The event brought together 100,000 spectators to see turns by Isaac Hayes (“Theme from Shaft”), Rufus Thomas (“Breakdown”) and the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”). Also on hand are Kim Weston; Jimmy Jones; the Emotions; the Stax Golden 13; the Bar-Kays; Albert King; Little Milton; Carla Thomas; and Luther Ingram. The Rev. Jesse Jackson opens the event; and introduces Hayes. Intercut throughout are observations by Richard Pryor; and man-on-the-street interviews that offer a snapshot of what life was like for black Americans in the early '70s.
“Freedom Machines” follows disabled people as they use such assistive technologies as voice-input software and wheelchairs that climb stairs. These devices can help level the field for the disabled, and they're getting better all the time, but they're too expensive for many who could use them. This quietly forceful hour points up this inequality as it follows disabled achievers with the resources to have “freedom machines.” For those who don't, says narrator Peter Dinklage, it's a civil-rights issue: “Today, equality depends more and more on access to technology.”
“A Panther in Africa” profiles Pete O'Neal, a one-time Black Panther who has lived in exile in Tanzania for three decades after fleeing from a gun-charge conviction in the U.S. Now in his 60s, the reflective O'Neal is both defiant and philosphical about his fugitive status, but he's still very much an activist: he and his wife Charlotte operate a widely respected multiservice community center that also sponsors international exchange programs, and O'Neal is seen here showing local sights to two youths from his native Kansas City. The two, in turn, offer pointers on rap and basketball to Tanzanian youngsters. O'Neal is also concerned that he's losing his identity as an African-American. “I'm losing that connection to African America,” he says. “I'm kind of lost in a no-man's land.”
Two “Lost Boys of Sudan” struggle through their first year of life in the U.S. in this compelling fly-on-the-wall documentary. The young refugees from Sudan's decades-old civil war trade privation at a Kenyan camp for culture shock, loneliness and alienation in Houston and Kansas. But things aren't entirely bleak: One graduates from high school, and the other, after some drifting, begins training to be an electrician.