So, I saw a couple great docs back-to-back at my first day of the festival yesterday. Was a little pressed for time getting from one to the other, especially with the subway being delayed (Who schedules track work during one of the city’s biggest events!? Seriously…) but between frantically hailing a cab and straight-up sprinting, I made it to the back of the line in time for my second screening. Ben Johnson would’ve been proud.
In fact, the reason I was almost late was because the man himself showed up for a Q&A session after the world premiere of 9.79*, the latest ESPN 30 at 30 feature documentary. That time, of course, was the world-record set by Johnson in ’88, which stood for, oh, about three days before he tested positive. The doc interviews all eight of the finalists in that race–six of whom would eventually test positive, or be otherwise involved in drug-related incidents–including Carl Lewis, who never actually testing positive for PEDs, but the movie kinda makes you wonder.
Though eight runners all receive a certain amount of screentime, the focus was on the duel between Lewis and Johnson in the years leading up to the Olympics. You can clearly see the contrast of personalities between the brash, overconfident American and the quiet, soft-spoken Canadian runner, even from interviews conducted all these years later–and from a Canadian viewpoint, it doesn’t paint Carl Lewis in a good light. As it turns out, Johnson hasn’t spoken to his former rival since 1988, but mentioned that he’s developing a film about how stronger nations, like, say, America, are able to shield their athletes from drug testing. I’m sure that’ll go over well in the States…
Almost 25 years later, Johnson seems like he isn’t as upset about cheating as he is about getting caught. One thing that really jumped out at me, however, is that a young member of Lewis’ track club was actually inside the doping control room at the ’88 Games, and Johnson’s claim that he slipped something into his beer was given credence by the fact that the man in question refused to be interviewed on camera, but apparently told director Daniel Gordon that he “may or may not have” drugged Ben Johnson after the race. Now that’s some crazy shit, right there!
Speaking of craziness, the excellent documentary West of Memphis certainly shines a light on the weird ways of the American justice system, particularly in the state of Arkansas, home of the notorious West Memphis 3 murder case. Though the nationwide Satanic ritual scare has sort of subsided by 1993, local police decided to spin some crazy tale of Satanic slaughter instead of doing their job. They forced a confession by putting words in the mouth of a mentally-handicapped boy, but didn’t even bother to interview the step-dad of one of the murder victims, who wasn’t brought in for informal questioning until several years later. Director Amy Berg started filming well into the ongoing saga, but was able to get most of the key players on film, either herself or through news footage, and was there when the judge delivered the verdict that set the three falsely-accused men free, albeit via an “Alford plea” where they pleaded guilty but proclaimed their innocence. (Yeah, I’m still scratching my head about that one, too…)
But the troubles don’t end there for the three men. Damien Echols, the perceived ring-leader, had to fight tooth-and-nail to cross the border and attend this screening, as he’s still considered a criminal in the eyes of the United States. Unable to hold down a “regular” job, he’s relying on the film, and an upcoming autobiography, to raise some money–but more importantly, to get the word out as he continues to fight for his full exoneration. They plan on holding free screenings across the state of Arkansas in the next couple months, where some of the people who put the WM3 in prison happen to be up for reelection. Otherwise, the movie hits theatres on Christmas Day, though you might not wanna take your kids to see it.
And yes, Johnny Depp was there, too. Judging by the camera-flashes and hysterical screams, I’d say that more people paid 40 bucks to get a glimpse of him than to see Damien Echols in the flesh. But hey, all those screaming fan-girls still had to sit through a nearly three-hour film about social injustice, so kudos to Depp for using his star power to help spread the word. Whether or not the celeb-chasers will do anything to support the cause or simply return to their vapid lives is another story, mind you.
One person whose life was anything but dull was Graham Chapman, the British comedian and Monty Python cast-member who played a starring role in the Jesus-spoof Life of Brian, among many other colourful characters (he was also Biggus Dickus in the same film, for instance). His 1980 mock-memoir “A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI” has been turned into a 3D film featuring contributions from the rest of the Python gang–though I’m told it’s not exactly, well, historically accurate. In any case, I can’t wait to see it tomorrow night.