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Two gripping documentaries at Tacoma Film Festival explore the human capacity for good and evil

Post by Rosemary Ponnekanti / The News Tribune on Oct. 8, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
October 8, 2011 11:05 pm
Joshua Milton Blahyi apologizing to one of his former child soldiers, whose legs he had shot off.

On the surface, a film about a preacher and a film about soccer would seem to have little in common. But they’re two documentaries in the Tacoma Film Festival that make the same salient point through gripping footage and interviews – the choice every person has between extreme good and extreme evil, and whether to forgive.

“The Redemption of General Butt Naked,” which screened last night and will screen again at 2:55 p.m. tomorrow at The Grand Cinema, is as startling as its title. First, a caveat – yes, you will see plenty of butt-naked men, but seeing as how they’re manic African civil war killers running amok with machetes, you probably won’t actually focus on the bits lower down. The 90-minute American documentary by Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss follows the astonishing, almost Biblical turnaround of one of Liberia’s most notorious war criminals, Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked, who repented his slaughter of some 20,000 innocent people during the country’s 14-year civil war and became a God-fearing preacher.

Hard to believe, and many credits to this film for letting the viewer make their own call on whether Blahyi’s for real. It won a jury award at this year’s Sundance and no wonder: The camera work is superbly uncertain, jostling around the enormous Blahyi as he delivers ferocious admonitions to follow Jesus yet keeping incredibly still as he visits the families of his former victims to apologize for his crimes. In between breathtakingly honest interviews with former “Butt Naked” fighters who now struggle with addiction and injury, the historic footage of the Liberian civil war chaos (and fanatic naked warriors) is jaw-droppingly violent.

To an ominous cello and melancholy piano score, the film winds its way through Blahyi’s conversion (inspired by a brave local bishop), his reappearance as a preacher and the consequences of justice and revenge. Some scenes look staged but most are poignant, and the directors do a fine job underscoring the moral questions of violence and peace, repentance and forgiveness.

Colombian soccer captain Andres Escobar.

Along the same lines but far less hopeful is “The Two Escobars,” shown today and also 2 p.m. Wednesday at The Grand. A film by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, this is another documentary that threads compelling historic footage with powerful contemporary interviews to tell the sad tale of Colombia’s national soccer team during the 1990s. Injected with laundered money from the country’s powerful drug barons, the sport took off to produce one of the world’s finest teams, only to see the internal violence and lawlessness take down an innocent hero and convince everyone else to give it up. Running parallel, and occasionally intersecting, are the stories of drug lord Pablo Escobar – his cocaine-driven wealth, his incredible generosity in building everything from soccer fields to entire villages, his devastating ruthlessness and his bond with the top soccer players – and soccer star Andres Escobar (no relation), famous both for his kindness and for kicking an own goal that pulled his team from the 1994 World Cup. The Zimbalists hook in an impressive line-up of interviews – both Escobars’ families, drug cartel convicts, soccer players and politicians – which dovetail so seamlessly with the fast cuts of fantastic soccer play and gruesome street killings that it plays like fiction, even though many of us know the tragic ending.

The Tacoma Film Festival continues through Thursday at various venues downtown. Schedules online and at The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma. Tickets $8.50/$6.50. 253-572-6062, www.tacomafilmfestival.com

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