Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Films Show Two Sides of Social Conscience

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday December 01, 2006

Two new documentaries opening today at Shattuck Cinemas depict complementary aspects of America’s social conscience. The first, Wrestling With Angels, examines the artistic side of social and political engagement in the person of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. The second, Beyond the Call, tracks a more grounded, more blue-collar form of humanitarianism by tracking the exploits of a man named Ed Artis who, along with two comrades, stages his own missions to war-torn nations, providing food and supplies to the needy.  

Wrestling with Angels director Freida Lee Mock won an Academy Award for Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision, a portrait of the designer of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement memorials. Her new film follows Tony Kushner around the country during three busy years in his career, from New York to Chicago to Louisiana and even to Berkeley, where Homebody/Kabul played at the Berkeley Rep. It’s an engaging film because Kushner is an engaging man, but viewers hoping to glean deeper insight into his work or into the circumstances of its creation may leave disappointed, for the film provides plenty of details about the man but surprisingly little insight into the artist.  

We hear much about what is great in his work by way of testimonials from friends and actors and from footage of performances, but we hear little criticism. We do hear that there is criticism—in fact, we hear that from Kushner himself—but we hear virtually nothing of its contents.  

What we do learn is that Tony Kushner is an all-around good guy. We know his work gives him great anxiety, and has at times driven him to the consolation of overeating, but the Kushner we see on screen is always smiling, rarely showing signs of inner turmoil or artistic struggle. What elements of his work does he struggle with? What does he see as his weaknesses? What do his critics see as his weaknesses? These questions go unanswered. We hear much of his strengths, much of his successes, but only passing mention of mixed reviews, leaving us apparently to assume that his critics are simply wrong-headed, that they have failed to understand his work. We do not hear the views of detractors, nor of fellow playwrights. What we’re left with is something just slightly more enlightening than a reality show, a glimpse into the lauded life of a man at the peak of his fame. It’s good, but it’s slight. 


Beyond the Call takes a different approach. Adrian Belic, director of the acclaimed Genghis Blues, brings us the tale of less likely heroes, of men whose names you’ve never heard and which you likely won’t remember. This film shows the more practical, pro-active side of social conscience. There is no art or artifice here, no curtain calls, no Pulitzer Prizes or commencement addresses. It is the story of a 50-something man named Ed Artis who decided to apply his talent and determination to the procurement of food and supplies for those who suffered under the Taliban in Afghanistan. This was before 9/11. Yet it was just after the attacks, when most westerners were getting out, that Ed and cohorts Jim Laws and Walt Ratterman went in.  

And they didn’t stop there. This was just the first of many missions that continue today. Knightbridge, as they call themselves, seeks out the most troubled spots on the planet, bringing money, food, tents, medical supplies and even solar equipment to those whose needs have gone unmet by the traditional providers of aid. The trio works by their motto: “High Adventure and Service to Humanity.” They do not engage in proselytizing; there is no agenda. As Artis himself puts it, “We’re not here to change anybody’s politics, we’re not in the God business, and we pay our own way.” 

These are not perfect men by any means. They’re salt-of-the-earth types with the vernacular to back it up. These are simple, behind-the-scenes kinda guys, can-do men of great competence and courage, men with no hesitation or fear. Their achievements and dedication are enough to make you want to put in your notice, sell off all your possessions and join the good fight, the one that doesn’t involve guns or politics or ideology, but merely struggles to ensure the simple dignity of humanity.  

Sure, these are proud men. Sure, they enjoy the attention of the camera. And sure, they get caught now and then in minor acts of grandstanding or patriarchal posing. But they’re easily forgiven. If each one of us had just a fraction of the dedication and follow-through of Ed, Jim and Walt there wouldn’t be half as many problems in this world in need of solutions. And if that knowledge results in a few demonstrations of pride, so be it. They’ve more than earned it. 


Photograph: Ed Artis and Jim Laws travel the world providing humanitarian aid in Beyond the Call.