Hot Docs 2020 Dispatch: ‘Softie’ and ‘Dope is Death’
Editor’s Note: Hot Docs was among the film festivals postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Goomba Stomp is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.
Director Sam Soko charts the political radicalization of a Kenyan photojournalist-turned-activist-turned-politician in his urgent new documentary Softie. The film is unsparing in its portrayal of the African nation’s rampant corruption, which has enveloped by the ruling party and its opposition, but it’s the unvarnished portrait of Boniface “Softie” Mwangi and his wife Njeri that elevates the film from a simple inspiring tale.
Mwangi is a gifted photographer who documented brutal mob violence following a botched election in 2007, which earned him the CNN Africa Photojournalist of the Year Award in 2008 and 2010. But the nation’s widespread corruption and jarring violence inspired him to become an activist first, and when that proved not to be enough, a Member of Parliament.
Soko has found an engaging subject in Mwangi, who’s a man–child requiring his advisors to constantly keeping him on task and away from his phone, despite his obvious passions. Mwangi’s wife Njeri, an activist herself, is inspired enough to join her husband’s campaign. The film provides a revelatory behind-the-scenes portrait of their relations, and we see just how exasperated Njeri becomes as her husband forsakes his parenting duties for campaigning. When he receives death threats, she moves their three children to America for eight months, and the sorrow Mwangi feels is inescapable. He’s willing to sacrifice everything, maybe even his own life, but his family proves to be the only thing he won’t sacrifice to save Kenya. (Brian Marks)
Dope is Death
Beginning as a history lesson on the Black Panther movement and heroin addiction in the South Bronx during the 1970s, Dope is Death finds a thread to connect the two and weaves an entirely new narrative. Mia Donovan’s latest documentary is a look at the ways in which revolutions ignite and the subsequent roadblocks put in the way to stop them from gaining momentum. Engaging and informative, Dope is Death is a comprehensive look at the role drugs play in preventing grassroots movements from surviving to completion.
Initially, the film seems to set its sights on an acupuncture clinic that has actually helped as a form of detox for drug users in the community. Taking a glance at the history of the clinic, Dope is Death winds up centering around different organizations within the South Bronx including the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. As the multiple organizations try to help the colored communities and the less-privileged, it reveals the use of drugs by governments to keep these communities oppressed. Following a fairly linear trajectory once it hops back to 1969, Donovan’s film presents a series of events that demonstrates the power of human will in the face of adversity.
Dope is Death is also a story told simply – utilizing talking heads and archive footage, almost exclusively – but to the point. That linearity is only broken every now and then once the story comes back around to the acupuncture clinic, and then the film makes its pivot into discussing Mutulu Shakur – an acupuncturist who helped with the Lincoln Detox Community Program and helped many communities affected by drug use. He plays a huge part in the two stories about community movements and drug use – eventually resulting in a tale of targeted harassment and the role it plays in taking down a revolution.
Unfortunately, the third act falters in securing both sides of the story regarding Shakur, whereas the rest of the film’s strength is it feels informed from various perspectives. A faulty final act doesn’t change how vital and important Dope is Death feels by the time it’s over though. It remains a brisk and informative overview of the weaponization of the drug war on the underprivileged and the risks necessary to take in order to make a difference. (Christopher Cross)