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IFFBoston 2011: The Doc Block

Page One: Inside the New York Times looks at the inner workings of one of the world’s most influential news organizations in an age of technological transition.  The one-time “New York Times Effect”, where second-tier media outlets follow the NYT by a day, is dependent on a daily print distribution cycle.  Today, as noted by NYT’s Bill Keller, “WikiLeaks doesn’t need us.  Daniel Ellsberg did.”  Page One investigates how “The Grey Lady” adapts to the landscape of 24/7 information access and manages to stay relevant as a primary news source. 

For those who’ve only known the world that the New York Times is adapting to, the era of Bobby Fisher Against the World might be hard to fathom.  Anyone under 40 could be forgiven for not understanding how the best board game player in history was the defender of the Free World.  In a time of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, a US Presidential election, unemployment woes, and even Ali-Frazier, the game of chess was front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news.

The structural anchor of the film is the 1972 match between then-American Fischer and Russia’s Boris Spassky.  Seen as a Cold War proxy, the weeks-long contest, primarily characterized by two men staring at inanimate objects, was international news followed on a daily basis.  On either side of that event, we see Fisher’s life from his boyhood mastery of the game’s complexities, to his latter decades as an enigmatic recluse.  After a lifetime of keeping humanity at arm’s length, Fisher’s “Rosebud” moment is echoed in his final words: “Nothing is so healing as the human touch.”

Directed by IFFB returnee Liz Garbus (Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech), Bobby Fisher is also the final editing credit for the late Karen Schmeer, in honor of whom IFFB created the Karen Schmeer Award for Excellence in Documentary Editing.  2011’s winner of the Schmeer award is How to Die in Oregon, which, coincidentally, also thanked her in its credits.

For my coverage of How to Die in Oregon, and fellow IFFB ’11 selection, If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front, please see my posts about the 2011 Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Another film at IFFB ’11 has connections to Ashland, Oregon.  Ashland attorney Susan Saladoff demonstrates how American citizens are incrementally losing the right to access their own court system.

Her film, Hot Coffee, derives its title from the highly-publicized case that arose after a woman spilled coffee received from a McDonald’s. For something that “everybody knows about”, public opinion is rife with misconceptions about the facts of the case.  These errors range from basic beliefs about where the plaintiff was sitting and what she was doing, to the severity of her injuries, which actually nearly killed her.

Using this and three other cases, Saladoff cuts through the clamor for tort reform coming from certain corners, and exposes the dangers beneath.  Among the issues uncovered, we see how: caps on damages shift the burden of medical costs from the offender to the public; campaign contributions in judicial elections skew court decisions away from public safety; and employment contracts are coercing employees to abdicate rights and creating a parallel business-appointed judicial system.

Beyond the legal and fiscal nuances, Saladoff puts human faces to the discussion, including people who have supported tort reform and then get hurt realizing in horror that they have worked to strip away their own rights, and a rape victim denied her day in court because, effectively, the crime happened at work.

Perhaps most importantly, this film shows how a concerted propaganda effort has been waged to sway public opinion without sharing the facts.  Hot Coffee is the antidote that every informed citizen should drink in.

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