Making documentaries about yourself and your family is obviously a gamble. If your relatives are not above averagely charming and/or fucked up (and how can you even tell?) you’re basically hoping that the audience agrees that your granny’s stories are hilarious. Or alternatively you can do what two of the best documentaries in this year’s Panorama did – make your families become part of what your film is about. And it must have paid off, because The Yes Men Are Revolting and Iraqi Odyssey won the 2nd and 3rd documentary prizes in this year’s Panorama.
The Yes Men are a pair of American pranksters who play tricks on corporations – the most effective involve setting up fake press conferences and receptions on behalf of the US Chamber of Commerce or the Canadian government or Shell Oil, and then sitting back as CNN and NBC gullibly repeat to the world that, in a surprising u-turn, big oil has decided to lobby to be more heavily taxed. These are all entertaining shenanigans, but the film wouldn’t be half the film it is if this was all it was about. The Yes Men are long into their careers (this is the third documentary they have made) and they are growing jaded – we see them bickering among themselves, depressed about their love lives, worried about their children, fearfully keeping secrets from each other, and above all becoming more and more aware that all their activism is not slowing down the human race’s determination to destroy itself. This is a film about self-doubt, and its heart comes in a post-Hurricane Sandy blackout in New York, when the two men sit alone in the dark in a 19th-storey apartment, get drunk, and ask each other the activist’s perennial question: What’s the point? Their answer becomes the film’s hilarious and triumphant denouement.
Iraqi Odyssey, meanwhile, is a conventional family saga, told unnecessarily in 3D, but in a very necessary three hours. Director Samir takes his time narrating his family’s tale, starting with his grandfather’s religious disillusionment in colonial Iraq in the 1920s, and using his scattered uncles and cousins as a microcosm of the four million-strong Iraqi diaspora. It is a spectacularly indulgent film, complete with over-the-top globe-trotting graphics, but given that it contains a political history of 20th century Iraq, also incredibly succinct. It frankly shows the nightmare of Saddam Hussein’s fascist Iraq (and Samir doesn’t spare the audience brutal images), and how both the Soviet Union and the US betrayed their allies in the country to keep Hussein in power. But the film is kept together by Samir’s faith in his family, and the wit of Samir’s anti-religious, irreverent uncles – one of whom cheerfully and harrowingly describes how he was tortured by the Kuwaiti security forces. Samir rides the odyssey metaphor to the point of sentimentality at the end, but the concluding family reunion, like the film, is very moving.