Michael Tucker and Petra Epperleine's documentary, Gunner Palace, is much like one of its central characters, the jittery, foully charismatic psycho-savant Specialist Stuart Wilf, a U.S. soldier from Colorado who finds himself in the hell of “minor combat” in Iraq. The crass 19-year-old wears obscene T-shirts, yuks it up in a Qatari thobe and head covering, and admits to firing his gun into a building, not sure if said building was inhabited. But he also has the burned-out eyes of someone who lives with omnipresent fear and uncertainty, and yet finds himself feted in Time magazine's “Person of the Year” tribute to the American soldier.
Flickering between shots of a red-light district in India and the wide-open eyes of young girl, Born Into Brothels poses a difficult question from its very beginning: Whose film is this, anyway? Who is shaping and interpreting the vibrantly horrifying images onscreen, the two Western filmmakers or their Indian protégés, eight children who have been given film cameras to document their lives in Calcutta's brothels? The answer lies somewhere in between, lending Brothels a sort of awkward brilliance; the film is an unforgettable and uncomfortable glimpse into despair and the (sometimes) transcendent power of art to forge connection -- and escape.
When I first came to the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh a year ago, it was finals week -- the whole campus was heaving with the sound of last-minute practicing. Scales rippled and crashed to a halt, a flute student huffed through a troublesome measure over and over, and a young man in the garb of a royal bodyguard was up a tree, hacking off branches for his stage set. Even though I've returned during normal school session, the practice rooms are still full -- a violinist working through a Beethoven romance, and students rehearsing for a performance to commemorate the twenty-sixth anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
I still remember the first words I heard in Cambodia.
“Man!” said my taxi driver, in a fluent display of Americanese. “It's hot!” He jumped in the car and cranked up some Western slow jams. The bass line thumped through the humidity, an incongruous soundtrack for the images unreeling outside the window: grannies wearing traditional checked scarves, skinny oxen, the swirl and crunch of Phnom Penh's battered motorcycles, the occasional ancient car.
“Who knows?” Ken Cordier asked, by way of an answer. It was a moment of uncharacteristic uncertainty for the Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth member and former Vietnam War prisoner of war, who had just been asked by an audience member whether there are any POWs remaining under Vietnamese control. Cordier and his former comrades -- be-suited, be-medaled, standing with that indelible military posture -- were fielding questions after a special screening of Stolen Honor, a documentary attacking John Kerry's “treasonous” anti-war activism.