For the simple reason that Joshua Marston displayed more than a modicum of global sociopolitical awareness, Maria Full of Grace was the most important debut by an American director in years. In other countries, however, it's not as rare for first-time filmmakers to take on major issues. In Monday Morning Glory, Malay director Woo Ming Jin examines the mentality and motives of a band of scruffy terrorists with remarkable dispassion and maturity, and an unexpected sprinkling of wit. Crosscutting between the events leading up to a nightclub bombing and the all-day re-enactment -- complete with the surviving perps -- that the police cynically stage for the media, Woo finds precious few true believers and a lot of people who need a job.
In his riveting and unvarnished debut, Días de Santiago, Peruvian director Josué Méndez considers the limited employment prospects of a young, discharged soldier. Skilled at the ruthless elimination of Ecuadorians and terrorists but ill equipped for civilian life, Santiago is essentially a government discard -- and an uncounted casualty of war. The indifference of the Brazilian authorities to the struggles of the lower classes is likewise a central focus of Lúcia Murat's ambitious and stylish Almost Brothers. Set mostly in a prison and centered on a black thief and a white political prisoner (even the guards use the term, remarkably), this bravura movie doesn't fail to critique the government's persecution of the country's intelligentsia and minorities in the '70s. Ultimately, though, Murat's far-ranging tale is less interested in settling scores than in spotlighting the cycle of gang violence that plagues Rio de Janeiro's poor teenagers.
When it comes to dictatorships that wage war on their own people, it's tough to top Josef Stalin's. It wasn't enough that he ordered the executions of millions of Soviets, but he also had their names and pictures expunged from the public record. The British photographer David King began collecting banned, hidden, defaced, and retouched pictures 35 years ago, and he drew on his stunning and invaluable collection for his book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. Gabrielle Pfeiffer burnishes her documentary about King's photos, Facing the Dead, with a forced title, superfluous music, and unnecessary flourishes of style, but nothing can dilute the haunting power of the images.
Whether you call it an appropriate response to the terrorism of the Shining Path or an indefensible attack on democracy, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's dissolution of his country's Congress -- among other, only slightly less brazen measures -- was extreme. Local filmmaker Ellen Perry's fast-paced portrait of '90s Peru, The Fall of Fujimori, asks us to consider what values and freedoms are sacrificed on the altar of national defense.
That uncomfortable question is asked, albeit in a more self-serving way, by a few of the Arkansas National Guardsmen unhappily yanked from their families and deployed to Iraq in the revealing documentary Off to War (which plays on a double bill with Facing the Dead). Filmmakers Brent and Craig Renaud provide an admirably nonjudgmental portrait of small-town patriotism and genuine sacrifice. And yet for all the commitment to their country that the reluctant soldiers express, they also raise more criticism of the "government" (never the "administration," mind you) in 80 minutes than ordinary Americans have been allowed to voice on mainstream television in two years. Politics aside, Off to War totes up the cost of war that is never quantified and rarely acknowledged.
Monday Morning Glory: Sunday, April 24, 2 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, May 1, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 5, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Días de Santiago: Friday, April 22, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 24, 1:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 29, 9:05 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Almost Brothers: Monday, April 25, 9:10 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Thursday, April 28, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, May 1, 8:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Off to War/Facing the Dead: Tuesday, April 26, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 3, 5:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
The Fall of Fujimori: Friday, April 22, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 25, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki