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SBIFF Teaches Forgotten History 101

Learning from Balibo and Dawson Isla 10; Plus Shadow Billionaire’s Real Reel Mystery


Saturday, February 13, 2010

There’s nothing like a powerful drama to teach us about forgotten slices of world history. That’s always been one of the best parts of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, a place where you can be simultaneously entertained and informed about events that, in many cases, the powers-that-be would rather have us all forget. While documentaries are designed to do as much — and there’s no shortage of heavy hitting docs on this year’s slate — I’ve often found that the dramatized feature films based on historical events burn a hotter lesson into your brain, the emotions and experiences presented in a much more charged way than most documentaries can handle.

Plenty of SBIFF offerings do just that, including the stark-and-dark Polytechnique, about a 1989 bullet-riddled massacre in a Montreal college. But for fans of even deeper, more geopolitcal history, there are two films you must see: Dawson Isla 10, about the comrades of deposed and dead Chilean president Salvador Allende who were shipped off to work camps on a freezing cold island; and Balibo, about Australian and New Zealand journalists who were killed covering the Indonesia takeover of East Timor following the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Both of the tragedies were, incidentally, supported and facilitated by the United States government during the meddling Kissinger era, but both are about as familiar to the average American citizen as the capital cities of countries in Central Asia.

Featuring a full, evolving spectrum of good and bad guys, Dawson Isla 10 recounts life as a prisoner in an unsure conflict, as each believed they’d come to a death camp but come to find that the people in charge eventually do respect them as Chilean brothers, despite their differing politics. Curious alliances are formed, and a poetic sense of justice seeps into the celluloid, evidenced often in acts of kindness between purported enemies.

Whereas Dawson proceeds at a slow, methodical, ponderous pace, Balibo is an action-packed explosion, albeit one with considerably more villager-slaughtering tragedy. It traces the attempts of an older journalist named Roger East to determine what happened to the five young television journalists assigned to cover the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Using American helicopters and armed with an acute sense of how wrong this attack is, the Indonesians eliminate all press coverage of their invasion by any means necessary. To get to the bottom of the mystery, East takes us through jungle and warzone, led by the man who is today the president of East Timor. It’s heavy fare, but a very digestible history lesson about a proud people who lost their homeland.

While Dawson Isla 10’s run at the fest seems to be over — barring any added screenings on Sunday — Balibo screens again tonight, February 13, at 9:45 p.m. in the Metro 4.

REAL REEL MYSTERY: Getting tired of crazy foreign-language mystery stories with obscure beginnings, confusing middles, and barely discernible ends? Then head thee down to today’s 3:30 p.m. showing at Victoria Hall of Shadow Billionaire, a true-life mystery involving mountains of money, plenty of prostitutes, an army of attorneys, and one missing man.

The documentary concerns the life and death of DHL founder Larry Hillblom, who presumably died a bachelor in a small plane crash during the mid-1990s but left an open-ended will despite his years of top legal training. Soon after his disappearance, however, women from around Southeast Asia — Hillblom lived on the island of Saipan for tax purposes — came to the forefront to claim that their children were his kids and demanded their share of his vast fortune. Standing in their way was a conflict-of-interest-plagued bank and legal team, which planned to hold onto as much money as possible and deny that Hillblom ever had children. The doc follows one attorney’s plight to recover money for these forgotten children, and uncovers a whole mess of scandal along the way.

Shadow Billionaire takes another bow today, at 3:30 p.m., in Victoria Hall.

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