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Violence, Blues, Reconciliation in Final DocuWeeks Program

Harrowing civil rights doc ”Freedom Riders“ begins Oscar-qualifying run


Hard times and bloody conflicts in the Deep South take centerstage during the final week of the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks series, which showcases 17 new documentaries and five short films in Oscar-qualifying runs.

The programs vary between Los Angeles and New York, where DocuWeeks is entering its third week at the Arclight Cinemas and the IFC Center, respectively. But for the final stretch of the three-week series, both locations will screen the remarkable “Freedom Riders,” a documentary made for PBS’s “American Experience” program that delves into some of the most shameful, violent and in the end triumphant moments of the Civil Rights movement.

Freedom Riders“Freedom Riders” is a straightforward doc, a mixture of contemporary interviews with archival footage; there’s nothing groundbreaking or startling in the way it tackles a subject that has been well-documented in non-fiction films, including a number of Oscar nominees and winners.

But the “freedom rides” that began in the spring of 1961, busloads of blacks and whites journeying into the South to deliberately break unconstitutional Jim Crow laws, have never before been the subject of a feature-length film. And director/writer/producer Stanley Nelson does an exemplary job of telling an astonishing, infuriating and deeply moving story.

You might find more adventurous, experimental films at DocuWeeks, but you won’t find another that tells an essential American story with such grace and power.

To my mind, “Freedom Riders” would make an ideal double bill (you’ll have to study the schedule, which changes day-to-day, but it’s doable) with “Music from the Big House,” director Bruce McDonald’s trip inside Angola Prison for a blues concert in the penitentiary that was a key crucible for many early blues songs.

I haven’t yet seen “Music from the Big House,” which follows recording artist Rita Chiarelli as she collaborates with Angola inmates on the music that, together with gospel, served as the soundtrack for much of the Civil Rights movement. But it’s at the top of my list, and the music around which it is based is compelling in any context.

Other films at the Arclight for the final week of DocuWeeks include “Most Valuable Players,” Matthew D. Kallis’ look at three Pennsylvania high school theater departments as they vie for the top awards in Lehigh Valley’s equivalent of the Tony Awards; it’s got dueling productions of “Les Miserables,” more energetic stage kids than you can shake a stick at, and an arrogant big-money school to root against.

The Arclight will also showcase “Pushing the Elephant,” a look at violence, conflict and reconciliation in the Congo; and “Quest for Honor,” which follows an Iraq-based organization as it attempts to stop the “honor killing” of women in the Middle East; and a program of three short films dealing with AIDS, the Holocaust and the legendary dancers Marge Champion and Donald Saddler.

In New York, the program will include Lucy Walker’s vibrant, lovely “Waste Land,” about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz working with the catadores who scavenge for recyclable materials inside an enormous garbage dump in Rio.

Each film on the DocuWeeks program screens twice a day, with the schedule changing daily. More information is available at the IDA website.