PARK CITY, Ut. – Documentaries need not be lengthy to explore a fascinating subject, as I learned at the “Documentary Shorts Program 2” at Sundance. In “All That Perishes at the Edge of Land,” filmmaker Hira Nabi’s camera magnificently captures the “ship breaking” industry of Pakistan, which employs the poorest of the poor to disassemble obsolete carrier vessels for scrap. The ships grounded ashore in the region of Gadani are titanic, dwarfing the men who work their decks many stories above the sea.
“Scale was a huge part of this. The ships are enormous and the humans working on them are tiny,” Nabi said at the end of her screening Monday. “I don’t want to [put] a bandaid over the heartbreak, but I didn’t want this film to be didactic … The workers are incredibly vulnerable [and I didn’t want] to make them martyrs. They are living their lives.”
Ship-breaking is slow, thankless work, and Nabi’s subjects discuss in voiceover the horrid working conditions and union-busting efforts of their employers. If they complain, they are dismissed. The country is overwhelmingly poor, and little other work exists. Thus these men spend weeks or even months away from their families in this dangerous line of work (an early scene shows the men “boarding” the vessel by clamoring across an anchor chain, a sight that would surely give OSHA a heart attack).
“I met with the union, and they became my production partners. It wouldn’t have been possible without the union,” Nabi said.
And yet the ship-breaking is eerily beautiful, with these mammoth hunks of metal being reduced ever so slowly into component parts. Nabi’s cinematography is incredible, and turns this reductionist activity into art. It somehow, almost paradoxically, makes the suffering of the workers a meaningful, beautiful effort.
Things could be changing for the workers, the film argues, as various reporting spotlights the grim conditions. But when the stories have run and the cameras have gone, it’s back to the grueling reality.
“Ships are bought in foreign currencies and then brought over to Pakistan,” Nabi said, adding that the rupee currency’s devaluation hasn’t helped the workers any. “Right now the industry is almost at a complete standstill.”
This is one of the best-shot docs in quite a while, and the images of gigantic pieces of the ships cascading into the sea put to shame anything super-heroic ever shown on an IMAX screen.
“Church and the fourth estate’
Nabi’s doc was paired on the program with one no less amazing, but painful in a whole different way. “Church and the Fourth Estate” from filmmaker Brian Knappenberger (“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”) stands by the axiom that sunlight is the best disinfectant—even if it is a long time in coming.
Knappenberger’s main subject is a Mormon man named Adam Sneed, who as a young teen in Idaho was sent off to a Boy Scout camp, where he was molested by his scoutmaster. Sneed brought forward his accusations, but the power structure shuffled it all under the carpet. (We later learn the molester was “forgiven” by the church and thus nothing further be done.) Unsurprisingly, Sneed’s abuser molested many other boys before law enforcement finally led him away in handcuffs.
Sneed’s story is told in conjunction with that of an enterprising journalist, whose reporting of years of hush-hush by the Boy Scouts and the church—a series called, with no small bit of dark irony, “Scouts Honor”—led to a retributive attack on the reporter from billionaire Frank VanderSloot, who took out full-page ads in the same paper to both deny the charges and to out the reporter as gay. This led to legal action and depositions—with the fate of the young boys all but lost in the fog. “I’m still shaking right now. I watched [the film] the other day and have felt completely overwhelmed since,” Sneed said in a Q&A with Knappenberger.
Knappenberger, who is attending his fourth Sundance, said he has spoken civilly with a great many Mormons regarding his film.
“I feel there is room for this kind of discussion,” he said, adding there is now a bill before the Utah Legislature in Salt Lake City—home to the Temple itself—to take away from Mormon bishops the authority to “absolve” admitted pedophiles without reporting it to the authorities.
Asked if he is still a member of the church, Sneed said that, although he was horribly mistreated, many of the lessons about daily life and family identity still inform him today.
“I have nothing against Mormonism or Christianity, but I do have a problem with people who use power in an [immoral] way,” he said. “There’s a lot of good that came from my Mormon upbringing.”
When I asked Knappenberger if he has any worries about the church attacking himself or his film, he said it is a concern, but then smiled and said, “We have this wonderful thing called the First Amendment.”
Sneed added that the film itself is a part of his own ongoing healing process.
“I can remodel the way I remember my life through your eyes instead of mine,” he said.
“Church” will be screening at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City on Saturday at 9 p.m.
Featured image: “Church and the fourth estate”