It's a noble enough idea: get five directors to each direct a short film highlighting a problem in an underdeveloped area of the world, then put them together into one feature-length film. Kind of like Paris, je t'aime, only darker and considerably more depressing (but hey, what would a film festival be without a slew of depressing documentaries to remind us of how mundane the problems of our modern lives are when compared to war, rape, child abductions, and obscure-but -deadly diseases that no one at the big pharmaceutical companies seems to care about?)
It is a decent idea, to be sure, and producer Javier Bardem's heart was in the right place in conceiving of the film Invisibles, but somehow the end result is five films that feel disconnected from each other in spite of their common theme of addressing the "invisible" people of society -- the disenfranchised, the victims of long wars, the poverty-stricken residents of slums and remote villages.
Part of the problem with the film is that several of the segments feel like they were shot for the kind of late-night infomercials that appeal to well-to-do insomniacs to donate money to their various causes. I kept expecting Sally Struthers to show up on screen, guiding us from short film to short film while holding a malnourished Third World child in her arms. Documentaries, even ones that highlight relevant social causes, still need to tell a coherent story that draws us in, makes us care about the people or causes we're learning about. Even with short docs, we still need a compelling story to engage the audience, and most of the films in Invisibles just don't accomplish that.
The first film in the set, Letters to Nora, directed by Isabel Coixet (who also directed a segment in Paris, je t'aime), tells the story of a poor woman in Bolivia through letters she writes to her sister, Nora, who lives in Spain and works to send money to her poor relations back home. The woman's husband has been diagnosed with an incurable disease caused by a bug that lives in the adobe dwellings common to poor regions of Latin America. Nora's young daughter also died of the disease, presumably before she left to go work in Spain. I didn't find this segment particularly compelling, in spite of its subject matter (which I would usually be quite interested in) because the entire film relies on voiceover readings of the letters sent by the sister to Nora to tell the tale of her husband's diagnosis and death. There's no dialogue in the film itself at all, it's basically a silent film set to the voiceover, which makes it less compelling than showing us a real people whose families have been affected by the disease, and just letting them tell their tale. Very jerky hand-held camera movements throughout and shots of the woman's feet as she rides the subway give the film an amateurish feel.
The second short, Invisible Crimes, directed by Wim Wenders, does a better job of telling stories of real people, in this case women and girls in the Congo region of Africa, a part of the world where sexual violence against women by rebels, the military, and even the police has become increasingly commonplace. As Wenders noted at the end of his film, he could have chose any number of places to shoot this film, as violence against women as a part of warfare is becoming more and more prevalent. Wenders makes effective use of the film's theme of "invisible" people by fading the women in his piece in and out as a visual cue, but it's really the stories of the women in his film that compel the audience to pay attention. These are real women telling real stories, and through their voices and expressions they convey the pain of all women who have become victims of war violence.
My favorite of the films was the third, Night Commuters, directed by Fernando León de Aranoa (Princesas). Night Commuters (Buenos Noches, Ouma) takes us into Northern Uganda, the same region explored by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix-Fine in their excellent documentary War/Dance. Night Commuters shows us a different story about the children of the Acholi tribe, which has been for decades under attack by the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group fighting the Ugandan government. The Acholi tribe has been caught in the crossfire of this war for over 20 years, and their children are a primary target; the LRA routinely abducts Acholi children into the bush, forcing them to become child soldiers. Night Commuters takes us inside regional sleep centers where young children from surrounding villages commute in packs each night to have a safe place to sleep. Some of the children are former child soldiers who escaped from their abductors; the tales they have to tell are truly heartbreaking.
Bianca's Dream, directed by Mariano Barroso, was about Sleeping Sickness, a disease transmitted by the tsetse fly, that still kills 50,000 people a year in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, Barroso chooses to tell this story by flashing back and forth between two people from a humanitarian group grilling an executive from the pharmaceutical company that makes the only known drug to combat the disease about how his company should spend millions more dollars on research to cure the disease, and a woman who, presumably, has the sickness. We see her grow weaker, we see her collapse, we see someone find her and get her to the state hospital, where she is treated and becomes well again -- none of which really serves well to bolster the argument that the pharmaceutical company should do more than the governments of that region to solve the problem of this disease.
The final segment, La voz de piedras, directed by Javier Corcuera, takes us to Columbia, where we meet a group of peasant farmers displaced from their lands by fighting, who are struggling to return to their farms. There is a young woman with the group who works with an organization that works to return displaced civilians from their homes; her father, we learn, was killed doing this work, and she is following in his footsteps in spite of having young children of her own (we never see her children, so we can only assume that they are being cared for elsewhere while she does this work). This short was fairly compelling, though a bit overlong with a lot of lengthy folk songs about the plight of the peasant farmers.
The overall impact of the film is still pretty strong in spite of the flaws of some of the individual pieces. With the exception of the second and third films, which seem quite professionally shot in spite of the limitations of shooting in Third World countries, much of the film is hobbled by having a home-video feel to it, as if the director just brought along a little personal videocam and shot away. Even when you have a subject matter like death, war or disease to compel the audience to care, if you're making a documentary you still need to tell your story in an interesting way.
There have been a lot of docs the past couple years that do this very well: The Boys of Baraka and Jesus Camp, both by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Deliver us from Evil, Amy Berg's thoughtful, heartbreaking doc about a child-molesting priest, Favela Rising, by Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist, and the aforementioned War/Dance, are all examples of films that took relevant, little-explored social justice topics and made fascinating, well-shot films about them. As I was watching Invisibles, my mind kept wandering to what this film might have been in the hands of some of the more experienced doc filmmakers who have a track record of bringing the benefits of narrative filmmaking to the documentary genre. Invisibles is still a film worth seeing; you'll come out at the end having learned something you didn't know. But in today's documentary market, you need more than just sad stories to make your film stand out, you have to tell those stories well, and much of the time, Invisibles simply falls short of the watermark in that regard.